Christian Morality Play: An Inspector Calls

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An Inspector Calls is a Christian morality play in which Priestley heavily presents and reinforces the key themes of morality and social responsibility. He shows the evident divide between the older generation and younger generation's sense of social responsibility and morality. In the play he also pushes forward the idea that we're all equal and uses the Inspector's and Mr Birling's contradicting views to teach the impressionable audience real compassion. The Inspector symbolizes socialist views and moral judgements whereas Mr. Birling is the complete opposite and symbolizes capitalist views as well as immoral ideas and actions throughout the play.Priestley uses stage directions to present Mr Birling at the start of the play as a 'heavy-looking, rather portentous man'. The metaphor 'heavy looking' can be interpreted as him being weighed down by his guilt and bad deeds, which implies that he's not polished and rude. The adjective 'portentous' also implies that he's self-righteous and arrogant as well as prodigious. He represents the immoral and ignorant older generation.

Priestley uses dramatic irony to present Mr Birling as a foolish and knowledgeable character through the quote “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” when talking about the Titanic. The use of the intensifier “absolutely” shows his certainty and confidence. However, the Titanic sunk in 1912 and this play was being performed in 1945 so the audience would be well aware that the titanic sank after hitting an iceberg. Priestley could perhaps be trying to get the audience to lose trust in him as a character to disregard his immoral ideas and views later on in the play by portraying him as an unwise and stupid character with ridiculous, as well as ignorant, thoughts about the future. The Titanic could perhaps also be a metaphor for the Birling family as they maintain an invulnerable image until they meet The Inspector, representing the iceberg, and eventually sink. Mr Birling presents himself very self-centered and haughtily in the quote “A man has to mind his own business and look out for himself” as he shows that he only cares about himself. This represents him as an immoral character lacking social responsibility.

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He further enforces that everyone is only accountable for themselves and that otherwise it would be “awkward” and doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions as it doesn’t concern nor harm him. Mr Birling believes Sheila “used the power [she] had, as the daughter of a good customer and also of a man well known in the town, to punish the girl”. This shows no remorse or sympathy toward Eva and instead agrees that Sheila was correct for getting Eva fired despite how it was only due to jealousy and was an unfair act. He seems to view himself as superior compared to the people of lower classes and disregards them. Rather than feeling guilty and ashamed, he is instead more troubled about the “press pick[ing] up on it” and being 'justified'-he is unaffiliated as long as he's acquitted from blame.Mrs Birling, just as her husband, is immoral. She also seems to lack social responsibility and is very unfair to people of lower classes. This is shown in the quote “We’ve done a lot of work helping deserving cases”. We can infer from this that she believes she can treat people differently however she pleases because she’s supposedly helped people before. She appears to focus only how things would affect herself and not the other people in the community. Furthermore, she looks down on people of a lower class in the quote “girls of that class”. She distinctly shows her haughty and arrogant attitudes and believes she’s superior to those of lower social status. Moreover, she takes no responsibility for her actions and continues to unknowingly pin the blame on Eric by saying she has “done nothing wrong”. She has no bad conscience and justifies her actions, displaying her immoral and shameful character.

Throughout the play, as The Inspector expresses his notions, the “impressionable” younger generation- Sheila and Eric- begin to renounce their ideas and slowly become more like The Inspector. She’s the character that has evolved and changed the most throughout the play to develop socially responsible attitudes. This could possibly be to encourage the audience to also adopt these ideas considering Sheila changed her views very quickly. She takes responsibility for her actions and feels sincere remorse for what she’s done as '[she] know[s] [she’s] to blame and [she’s] desperately sorry.' The adverb “desperately” shows her deep regret and insinuates that she would not act like that again. Sheila continues to contradict her parents’ views and “suppose[s] [they]’re all nice people now.” She uses a sarcastic tone to imply that their actions are still unjustified despite not causing her actual death. Eric also begins to develop socially responsible attitudes and challenges his father by asking 'why shouldn't they try for higher wages?'. Eric shows a morally correct and empathetic viewpoint showing that if Mr. Birling wasn't selfish and greedy, he could have made an equitable decision and prevented Eva’s discharge from work as he understands that the wages were unbearably low. This would have ultimately obviated starting the 'chain of events' that lead to Eva’s death in the first place.

The inspector is constructed as a morally just character. In response to Mr. Birling saying that if he brings the labor costs up “they’ll soon be asking for the earth”, The Inspector says, “It’s better to ask for the earth than to take it”. This hyperbolic metaphor criticizes people with more power, like the Birlings, that give blatantly unfair pay without remorse. The Inspector reflects Priestley’s views and socialist ideas as he was from a working-class upbringing. He was very empathetic and cared for others; therefore, the Inspector acts as his mouthpiece to voice his opinions such as the idea that everyone should be treated equally. The Inspector once again promotes the idea of social responsibility and socialism by stating “we are members of one body'. The Inspector uses “we” in abundance and promotes unity and community; however, Mr Birling continuously uses 'I', highlighting the contrast in their views. The quote “a chain of events” reinforces the idea of collective responsibility- that we are responsible for each other as well as each other's actions, regardless if we were involved prior. It also presents the idea that all of them played a part in Eva’s death and are all equally to blame.

At the time there would be hundreds of women having similar experiences as Eva Smith. The play took place in 1912 when higher and lower classes were undoubtedly distinguished. Women were also seen as lesser than men, to just get married off and stay at home whereas men were seen as superior and more significant at the time. But when the play is being performed, class rulings had been severely diminished and women were beginning to be seen in a better light. This is perhaps because Priestley wants to promote how much change had occurred in such a short amount of time and to further reinforce the idea of societal amelioration and living in a finer community.

Considering the people of higher class that would be in the audience, Priestley could be trying to bring on his views on social responsibility and morality onto the audience as they would be able to relate a lot to the Birlings. We can infer from this that the lessons you’re able to take from the play address the audience to make them change their communist ways and be more socially aware just as Sheila and Eric did as the play progressed. Priestly imparts valuable lessons and a moral message to look after one another and to not be selfish through showing the divide between the older and younger generation in hopes that they embark on a more socially responsible life and carefully see out the impacts of their decisions and actions as well as painting the Inspector as a moral role  

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