How does Priestley explore responsibility in “An Inspector Calls”?
Disclaimer: This essay has been submitted to OxNotes by a student. Any opinions, findings or conclusions in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of OxNotes.
The central purpose of the morality play is to convey Priestley’s message of social responsibility and owning up to one’s actions. The actions made by each character in the play lead to the occurrence of a cataclysmic, disastrous event – the suicide of a young girl, in whose death they all had some sort of involvement. This correlates to Priestley’s ideas of the fates of everyone being intertwined based on the way they treat each other.
The first way Priestley explores the theme of social responsibility is by using the characters as vessels, and the Inspector as a ‘mouthpiece’ of his socialist views, to transport his moral message to the audience and readers. Priestley introduces the Inspector as someone who “creates an impression of solidarity, massiveness and purposefulness” in Act One of the play. This “purposefulness” implies that the Inspector knows his duty in terms of interrogating the Birlings, not to mention his strong sense of responsibility. The Inspector challenges the uncaring attitudes displayed by Mr and Mrs Birling and Gerald about the welfare of the working classes and informs them that everyone is a “member of one body”, meaning that people are dependent on one another. He also warns the Birlings and Croft that if they do not heed his lessons, they will be forced to “suffer, in fire and blood and anguish.” This strong and powerful language makes the Inspector seem as a godly or supernatural being who knows what is coming in the future, and suggests that Priestley thinks of the Inspector as the most morally enlightened character of the play. This is one way in which Priestley explores the theme of social responsibility.
The responsibility Priestley refers to isn’t just social responsibility – it is also the responsibility of owning up to one’s actions and doing something to make prevent a similar event from occurring. Mr and Mrs Birling and Gerald are defiant about taking responsibility for playing a role in the death of Eva Smith and remain in denial throughout the Inspector’s questioning and after he has left. Gerald is the first character to claim that the Inspector was a “hoax” and Mr Birling eagerly jumps to confirm these suspicions – “We’ve been had!” However, Priestley does shed some positivity on this dark situation – the younger generation are seen taking responsibility for their actions. Sheila and Eric are more reluctant in joining the celebrations, and Sheila challenges the way the rest of the family are behaving as if nothing happened, “You’re pretending everything’s just as it was before.” The younger generation have learnt their lesson, while the older generation are set in their ways and don’t want to change.
The play also illustrates the characterisation of the middle-class responsibility to the less fortunate working class and their perceived moral superiority. Their philanthropy is not genuine but based on who deserve it in their opinion. Mrs Birling, for example, does not grant Eva Smith any help because she is “indignant” about Eva using Birling as her last name. Gerald Croft initially shows Eva Smith kindness, but this was perhaps motivated by his lustful desire for her – and in the end, he discards her because he has grown bored of her. This demonstrates ideas about upper class consciousness – the upper classes are somewhat aware about the plight of the poor, but only helped them if it benefitted them.
In conclusion, Priestley explores the theme of responsibility in many ways. He uses characters such as Sheila and the Inspector to present responsibility in a positive way, and Mr Birling’s character in a negative way. He also emotive language and strong arguments by the Inspector to make the audience question and think about the plight of the working classes and looking after one another to become an integrated society.
You might like this
Thank you — for helping 50 more students succeed ✨
Share a link to this essay on Twitter, TikTok, YouTube or Facebook.