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Why “An Inspector Calls” is Still a Relevant Play

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“An Inspector Calls,” written by J.B. Priestley, is a profound play that tackles themes of social responsibility, class inequality, and moral introspection. Its relevance endures because it addresses issues that are still prevalent in contemporary society, making it a timeless piece that continues to provoke thought and discussion.

 

Context

Understanding the context in which “An Inspector Calls” was written and set is crucial to grasping its full impact and significance.

  1. Pre-World War I Society: The play is set in 1912, a period of significant social and economic disparity. The upper classes, represented by the Birling family, are depicted as comfortable and complacent, unaware of the impending social upheavals. This period was marked by a rigid class system and limited social mobility, where the working class, represented by Eva Smith, had few rights and little power.
  2. Post-World War II Reflections: Written in 1945, the play reflects the post-war desire for social change. After the horrors of two world wars, there was a strong push for a more equitable society. Priestley, a known socialist, used the play to critique the capitalist system and highlight the need for collective responsibility and social reform. This historical context emphasizes the contrast between the pre-war and post-war worldviews and underscores the urgency of Priestley’s message.

 

Themes

  1. Social Responsibility: The central theme of social responsibility is explored through Inspector Goole’s investigation. Each character’s involvement in Eva Smith’s life illustrates how their actions, whether deliberate or inadvertent, contribute to her downfall. For instance, Sheila’s dismissal of Eva from her job at Milward’s for a trivial reason and Mrs. Birling’s refusal to help her when she sought charity assistance demonstrate a lack of empathy and awareness of their social responsibilities.
  2. Class Inequality: The play highlights the stark contrasts between the lives of the wealthy and the working class. The Birlings’ comfortable existence is juxtaposed with Eva Smith’s struggles. This theme is evident in Mr. Birling’s dismissal of Eva from his factory for asking for a modest wage increase, reflecting the exploitation and powerlessness of the working class.
  3. Moral Hypocrisy: Priestley exposes the moral failings of the upper class through the Birlings’ actions. Mrs. Birling’s involvement in a charity should signify benevolence, yet her refusal to help Eva, coupled with her harsh judgment of the girl, reveals her hypocrisy. Similarly, Gerald’s affair with Eva, despite his engagement to Sheila, underscores the duplicity and moral contradictions prevalent among the privileged.
  4. Generational Conflict: The play illustrates a clear divide between the younger and older generations. The younger characters, Sheila and Eric, show a capacity for self-reflection and change. Sheila, for example, is deeply affected by the inspector’s revelations and expresses genuine remorse, signaling hope for a more compassionate future. In contrast, Mr. and Mrs. Birling remain steadfast in their beliefs and refuse to accept responsibility, embodying the resistance to change typical of the older generation.

 

Characters

  1. Inspector Goole: The inspector is a catalyst for the play’s moral and thematic explorations. His methodical questioning forces each character to confront their actions and their repercussions on Eva Smith. Goole’s final speech, emphasizing collective responsibility, serves as a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness of society and the moral duty individuals owe to one another.
  2. Arthur Birling: Mr. Birling is a self-made businessman who epitomizes capitalist values. His speeches about individual success and dismissal of social responsibility reveal his narrow worldview. Birling’s arrogance and confidence in the impossibility of war and the unsinkable Titanic serve to highlight his shortsightedness and hubris.
  3. Sybil Birling: Mrs. Birling represents the entrenched social snobbery and moral blindness of the upper class. Her role in the charity organization is ironic, as she uses her position to judge and condemn those she deems unworthy of help. Her refusal to accept any blame for Eva’s fate, even after learning of her own son’s involvement, underscores her detachment from reality and lack of empathy.
  4. Sheila Birling: Sheila’s character arc is one of the most significant in the play. Initially portrayed as shallow and self-centered, her encounter with the inspector leads to profound self-awareness and growth. Sheila’s remorse for her actions and her vocal criticism of her parents’ attitudes mark her as a symbol of hope and change.
  5. Eric Birling: Eric’s journey mirrors Sheila’s in some respects, though he grapples with his own demons, including alcoholism and guilt. His involvement with Eva and his subsequent remorse highlight his inner conflict and potential for redemption. Eric’s open confrontation with his parents about their roles in Eva’s death signifies a break from their oppressive values.
  6. Gerald Croft: Gerald’s character straddles the line between the younger and older generations. While he initially appears more progressive, his attempts to discredit the inspector and justify his actions reveal his reluctance to embrace true change. His affair with Eva Smith, though marked by moments of genuine care, ultimately underscores his complicity in the societal norms that oppress the vulnerable.

 

Conclusion

“An Inspector Calls” remains a powerful and relevant play due to its incisive critique of social inequality and moral complacency. Its themes and characters continue to resonate, prompting audiences to reflect on their own responsibilities within society. The play serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy, social justice, and the impact of our actions on others, making it an enduring work of literature. The continued relevance of Priestley’s play lies in its ability to challenge and inspire each generation to strive for a more just and compassionate society.

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