In my essay it will be necessary to look at how each character can be held to blame, the kind of crime committed, the girl herself and, most importantly, why Priestley wants us to think about who is responsible. To answer the question now, I will say briefly, that you cannot exonerate any character, however contrite they may be. I also don’t think you can hold any character more responsible than another because I believe that it is the sum of each persons actions which presents the insurmountable obstacles from which there is no way out other that suicide.
I don’t think Priestley meant for us to hold individuals to different degrees of responsibility but rather hold society collectively responsible. To understand what is happening in the play we firstly have to understand what was happening in 1912. During the Industrial Revolution there were technical and industrial advances, which gave more power to the industrialists. This was taken from the landowners that had previously wielded power through agriculture. Society was much changed.
Because of the new power of industrialism, people flocked form the countryside to the cities, creating the new urban working class of which Eva Smith was a member. Their workplaces were notorious for poor safety, inhumane working conditions and low wages. Capitalism was prevalent among the middle and upper classes. Capitalism is the theory of private ownership. The government, allowing owners of businesses, such as Birling’s, to make huge profits, adopted a policy of Laissez-faire. Socialists like H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw and Priestley himself, believed in trade and industry being controlled by the state in the interests of public profit.
Britain still had its Empires back in 1912. It consisted of less industrially advanced countries that Britain exploited for cheap labour and raw materials, much in the same way that wealthy Britains exploited the lower class. It was through the under-privileged of Britain and abroad that the upper class in Britain was able to live in such luxury. Sheila could have her pretty dresses and Eric his port. The year 1912 was two years before the First World War in1914. Britain has many hopes and aspirations for the future.
They don’t take the problems in Germany seriously, “a few German officers talking nonsense and a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing”, and believe Britain superior. This is shown in Birling’s beginning speech. We have to appreciate that although this play was set in 1912 it was written after the Second World War. This play was written in hindsight, which makes Birling’s speech about the strength of Britain and capitalism pathetic, ridiculous and old-fashioned.
In particular he says “the Titanic… every luxury and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable. That’s what you’ve got to keep your eye on facts like that… ot a few German officers talking nonsense”. The audience knows that it not the German officers talking nonsense but Birling himself. They realise how ridiculous traditionalists like Birling actually are/were. The old regime obviously wasn’t working so maybe it’s time for a change. This is precisely Priestley’s point. An Inspector calls is a didactic piece of writing. Priestley is trying to teach the audience through entertainment. This play was written after the Second World War, in hindsight, because of Britain’s situation at the time. In some ways Priestley exploits the vulnerability of people after the war.
He knows people are destitute and are living in extreme poverty so are looking for a way out. It is during desperate times that extremist parties come to power and new ideas are more readily accepted. Notice how Hitler came to power during the Great Depression. But why was the play written and performed after World War 2 rather than after World War 1? It was during the Second World War that the first nuclear weapons were used. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that only left shadows in remembrance of the people who died. There was more at stake than ever before.
If it took another war for people to learn their lesson would the human race be left at the end of it? The inspector, who could be thought of as Priestley’s mouthpiece, reckons if we don’t learn “we are all members of one body. We are responsible for each other” then we “”will be taught in fire and blood and anguish”. Priestley needs people to realise it is time to work as a community before it is too late. There have already been two World Wars. The structure of An Inspector Calls is that of a murder mystery, the characters are interrogated one by one by the omniscient Inspector to find what part they played in the death of Eva Smith.
We know no character is responsible for the death of Eva Smith in a typical “whodunit” way as we are informed early on that she died by drinking disinfectant, no character literally stood over her shoulder and forced her to drink. The crime is not a criminal offence: it is moral one. Who or what drove Eva Smith to believe there was no way out other than suicide? The pattern of the plot becomes apparent early on, which make it more exciting as we realise each character is implicated. When it is Eric’s turn to be interrogated we realise the extent of his guilt that a long explanation from him is unnecessary.
His guilt is used instead to explore the hypocrisy of his parents. In this play the style of a detective thriller is mixed with the speculation of a morality play making it enjoyable to watch. The play is progression form ignorance to knowledge. In the lighting instruction the lighting at the beginning is distinctly pink. The Birling see the world through rose-tinted glasses, only seeing the luxury in which they themselves live and not the hardships of the less fortunate. The Inspector brings a brighter and harder light and opens their eyes to the world of Eva Smith, which they either didn’t know about or chose not to see before.
Birling is the first member of the group the Inspector turns his accusing eyes towards. He try’s to deny having any involvement with the late Eva Smith at all but it is soon revealed that the girl was employed at his works for a time. Birling try’s to intimidate the Inspector with his power and connections. He introduces Gerald, the son of a powerful man, with obvious expectance of respect. The Inspector is not fazed by these attempts and proceeds to make Birling confess that Eva Smith was fired on the grounds that she went on strike asking for more money.
Birling refuses to believe that his actions had anything to do with Eva’s suicide, “If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward”. His behaviour has been conditioned by the society he lives in. I would not hesitate to say that any other businessman would have fired Eva for asking for more wages and any other businessman would not have been repentant or considered themselves responsible for her death. This doesn’t excuse him from blame.
But do they ever really think about the unsympathetic world that they are forcing the girls into, or whether they really are just asking for a fair wage? Tim Bezant in the introduction of An Inspector calls has some ideas, a few of which I shall now use. In medieval times moral plays would centre on the seven deadly sins, pride, gluttony/greed, envy, lust, covetousness, anger and sloth. Birling’s sin is greed. He wants money and power and doesn’t seem to mind who he hurts to get it. In Priestley’s eyes there is something very wrong with this. It shows no willing to work as a community, which he believes in strongly.
Birling is a main victim of the Inspectors wrath. He talks to him “savagely” in his final speech and tells him “he started it”, meaning the path to doom. The Inspector holds Birling responsible and his anger with him is heightened by his lack of remorse. Eva Smith seems to recover from this setback when she secures herself a job at Milwards, an upper-class department store. It is not long before another member of the Birling family, Sheila, loses her the job there. Sheila is angry that Eva looked better in a dress than she did so tells her boss that unless Eva is sacked Milwards will lose her family’s business.
The shop can’t afford to lose their business so they sack Eva, admitting her only crime was being too pretty. Sheila displays the maturity of a five-year-old child in her unwarranted attack on Eva. Her sin is envy, and also anger. She acts in a fit of rage, not thinking about what she is doing, unlike Birling. However her reaction to being shown the picture of Eva is quite different from Birling’s evasive attitude. She runs out of the room with a scream. She realises that she is responsible in some respects for the death of an innocent girl and is sorry. She is dismayed at first and realises she must, in future, think about her actions.
It is Sheila who develops most as a character. She begins as a “rather excited girl” whom is “very pleased with life” and develops into a morally strong character who is willing to accept the burden of guilt Sheila is quick to realise the intent of the Inspector and almost becomes his accomplice in his interrogation of the others. Sheila also escapes the Inspectors wrath at the end because of the remorse she has shown and the lesson she has learnt. The next character up for inspection is Gerald Croft, Sheila’s fiance. When Eva meets Gerald she is on the road to despair.
She has lost two jobs and is seriously considering becoming a prostitute to help her keep her head above water. She survives for a time being put up in rooms of an absent friend of Gerald’s, whilst he fulfils his own sexual motives. As Gerald and Sheila move closer towards engagement, Gerald drops Eva leaving her to fend for herself. Eva is so moved by this that she has to escape to the seaside for a few weeks. Gerald comes in the middle of a sandwich of guilt and gets off lightly with the Inspector final comment “he at least had some affection for her and made her happy for a time”.
Of course it can be argued that because she trusted him, maybe loved him, it would hurt all the more to be rejected by him. It is also important to consider that Gerald, by giving her a better taste of life and providing her with some luxury, ensures her unhappiness and dissatisfaction after the affair has ended. Gerald is weak, as he has no strong views. He remains rather neutral about the whole community individual debate, which is perhaps why Priestley lets him off so lightly. Perhaps the affair and the affection with which it was conducted foreshadows the more liberal times to which we have since have become accustomed.
He is somewhere between the poles of the Birlings and their children. He will not forget but he will not be affected so greatly as Sheila and Eric. Although the next person to be ticked off the Inspectors list is Sybil Birling she actually comes last, chronologically. Eva Smith, pregnant and penniless, appeals to Mrs Birling’s charity for help. She dislikes this girl so much for using her name and generally not fitting her warped value system that she ignores Eva’s desperate situation and dismisses her as undeserving of help from the charity she strongly influences.
She excuses herself by saying she “did her duty” because she thought the girl was not a good case as Eva had previously lied to the committee in her original story. Mrs Birling says “I’ve done nothing wrong- and you know it” to the Inspector. She is the only character who doesn’t accept a tiny piece of guilt and is therefore punished in the Inspectors final speech- “Remember what you did, Mrs Birling. You turned her away when she most needed help. You refused her even the pitiable little bit of help you had in your power to grant her”. Sybil is morally reprehensible.
She acted in cold blood and had no justified reason for her actions. She simply didn’t like the girl because, in her opinion, she had the cheek to use her name and, because she had lived such a privileged life, she didn’t understand Eva’s predicament at all. She is also hypocritical. She makes it quite clear she thinks the father of Eva’s child is the one who should take responsibility for the child but when she discovers it is her own child, Eric, who is the father, she is astounded. She to wriggle him out of it, “there must be some mistake”.
Because of her naivety and ignorance she doesn’t appreciate Eric’s drink problem and is very shocked by his goings on. Eric is an alcoholic. He was heavily drunk the first time he met Eva Smith and understands he practically raped her. Eric treats her, “as if she were an animal, a thing, not a person”. Eva becomes pregnant and Eric supports her for a time by stealing money from his father. As soon as Eva discovers the money is stolen she will no longer accept it and it is now she appeals to the charity, of which Mrs Birling is a member, for help.
She has hit rock bottom, a place from which it would be impossible to recover. So she kills herself and the child inside of her. There is hope of reform in Eric. We come to believe he is a sensitive soul turned wrong. It is clear he has not had enough guidance from his parents in how to live a good life, which leads to him drinking too much. He is extremely sorry for what he has done. Sheila and he gang up against their parents to make them see their actions were wrong and it doesn’t matter whether a girl
Priestley is interested in the acknowledgement of guilt. If there is any hope for the future they must learn to take the burden of responsibility. He shows there is hope for the future in the acceptance of guilt in his younger characters, Eric and Sheila. They will, as the new generation, force the old generation to accept blame and start to work together for a better society. Priestley wants the audience to realise there is hope, but first they will have to agree to work as a whole and accept responsibility for the evils of the world.
The actions of the characters knit together with the issues Priestley wants us to address; community being more important than the individual, misuse of power and that the class system of 1912 was wrong. The pre-war characters examine their consciences with a warning of, “the time will soon come, when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”. This will be very relevant to the generation that has been through two world wars. Priestley never meant for us to examine the degrees of responsibility each character must bear but instead blame society as a whole.
It must be realised that we are responsible for each other and we are all to blame, equally, if another is to kill herself. He wants to demonstrate that everyone is responsible for everyone else in society, regardless of the factors that make us selfish as individuals. He sought to teach the audiences the same lesson the characters learn. They are lucky only to witness it rather that experience it. In this essay I have shown that it is impossible to quantify responsibility so it is therefore impossible for us to hold one character more responsible for the death of Eva smith than another.
I have also shown how Priestley never meant us to hold each individual responsible but rather society as a whole. This play is relevant to a modern audience because it makes us examine our consciences in the way the Birling are forced to do. Are we no better than the Birlings? It is still important for us to understand that our actions have consequences and we are all responsible for each other. As the poet John Donne once said, “No man is an island” (Meditation XVII).