Social Divisions in an Inspector Calls

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An Inspector Calls John Priestly was born in Bradford in 1894. Priestly had grown up into his father’s circle of socialist friends; he saw women and men, rich and poor, all working together. After the First World War women returned to being housewives, the typical life that the perfect woman was expected to lead. This greatly influenced Priestly’s writing because he didn’t agree with that way of life. In 1940 Priestly presented a popular BBC radio programme ‘Postscripts’, but his show was cancelled after the government decided Priestly’s views were too ‘left-wing’ (i.e. socialist). This may have influenced the audience’s expectations of the play because they already know that Priestly wants to spread the idea of socialism, to convince people to live in equality. He found himself surrounded by “People who read a great deal, cared a lot for at least one of the arts, and preferred real talk and hot argument to social chit-chat.”

J.B. Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls in 1945 towards the end of the Second World War, but he set the play in 1912, this was just before the First World War began. An Inspector Calls expresses the wrongness within society and also the division or ‘barrier’ of the classes. In 1912 society wasn’t equal – people with more money and from a higher class had more power. Priestly used the inequality of 1912 as a setting to ‘hold a mirror’ to society, to show them how they once behaved. The actual story is about a police inspector who turns up at the Birling’s house in Brumley with news of a woman named Eva Smith who committed suicide. Throughout the evening the Inspector indicates that the family’s actions caused the death of Eva. Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft were celebrating their engagement; everyone was in a delightful mood. But as the Inspector slowly unravels the events of the suicide, the mood in the Birling’s household starts to get increasingly disturbed.

There were expectations of higher-class families in 1912. Family members were expected to know their role, and be content with their position – the parents were ‘in charge’ of the family, they were supposed to work and support it. The children were expected to be obedient and unquestioning. Their elders pushed them into marrying into money, having children and following in their footsteps to create the ‘ideal’ family. The Birling family represents the typical family you would see in that era; it includes a wide range of stereotypical characteristics, each representing a particular portion of society.

Sheila Birling is a “pretty girl in her early twenties” and she is “very pleased with life.” Even though she seems very ‘playful’ at the opening of the play, she has had suspicions about Gerald when she mentions “last summer, when you never came near me.” This might suggest that she is not as naive and as she first appears.

Arthur Birling is a “heavy looking, rather portentous man... With fairly easy manners but rather provincial in his speech.” He is the father of Eric and Sheila. Mr Birling was more overjoyed about Sheila’s engagement to Gerald because Gerald’s father had always been a rival in the business industry, rather than his daughter’s happiness; he says “Perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are working together.” He also strongly believes that “a man has to make his own way.” Implying that he is selfish and business-minded.

Sybil Birling is Arthur Birling’s wife. She is obsessed with etiquette and her status within society. When Mrs Birling is being interviewed by the Inspector, she shows no emotion and gives very cold, short answers to his questions. She also seems to be shocked with the way the Inspector speaks to her as she says “I beg your pardon!” This is because Mrs Birling is used to be treated as a person of authority, and she looks down on people as no one is ‘higher’ than her....
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