Compare and contrast the reactions of the older generation and the younger to interrogation by the Inspector. Evaluate the social and historical setting of the play and it’s cultural setting. In Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ one receives hints throughout the play that point towards a rigid class system, in that Sir and Lady Croft appear to be the highest ranking of the characters mentioned, followed by the middle class Birling’s, with Eva Smith at the very bottom of the spectrum. After studying the historical background of the time of J.B. Priestley, one is able to see why such references to, and familiarity with, this class system appear to be second nature to the characters.
The rigidity and order of the apparent class-system demonstrated by Priestley could be linked closely to the Feudal System, the last vestiges of which were far from gone in 1912 as it had been in force for hundreds of years before. Hence the great impact of the history of the time on Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, a knowledge of which is crucial for a full and complete appreciation of the play. I will concentrate mainly on the Birling family as Gerald faces no real interrogation due to his honesty and small involvement, also, he leaves very shortly after his brief questioning and we don’t see any effects that the questioning may or may not have had. Edna (maid) will not be analysed, as she faced no questioning whatsoever.
The older generation, therefore, is composed of Mr. and Mrs. Birling and the younger generation consists of Gerald and Sheila Birling. At first, Mr. Birling’s reaction to interrogation is that of indignance and he feels it necessary to inform the Inspector of his position in society, connections and possible retribution that the inspector may face. For example, in the face of tough questioning, Mr. Birling mentions the Chief constable and says to the Inspector “Perhaps I ought to warn you that he (the Chief Constable) is an old friend of mine, and that I see him quite frequently”, the implication being that because of his connections the Inspector should ease up a little.
But in Act Three, after Mr. Birling learns of Eric’s involvement with Eva Smith, he becomes quieter, more eager to help the Inspector and almost repentant, “I’d give thousands, yes thousands”. However, as soon as the Inspector leaves, Mr. Birling’s demeanour changes into one of feverish desperation, namely, to limit the ill repute that, in his opinion, will certainly be attached to the family name. Birling says “… you don’t realise yet all you’ve done … There’ll be a public scandal”.
Similarly, Mrs. Birling’s initial reaction to interrogation is of indignance, but in her own fashion, at the fact that she may be suspect when, quite clearly, she feels she can not possibly bear any responsibility, “… I did nothing I’m ashamed of, or that won’t bear investigation … I consider I did my duty”. But Mrs. Birling seems to be so horrified as to be at a loss when, after her harsh admonishments, the father of Eva Smith’s child is revealed to be Eric Birling. “No – Eric – please – I didn’t know – I didn’t understand -”
When the Inspector comes in, Eric seems to be quite happy to help him along and interject with his opinion of what is being said, ‘Why shouldn’t they try for higher wages? We try for the highest prices.’ However, when Eric realises that the Inspector plans to question each person present separately he takes the first opportunity to leave (when he takes the Inspector to the drawing room), and stays away until partway through the third act. When Eric gets back, he is resigned to the fact that the people present know of his association with Eva Smith and he also admits the fact that he has stolen from the Birling’s company office. The only time Eric really is affected is when Mr. Birling gets angry with him and when he learns of Mrs. Birling’s involvement in the affair.
Sheila is the person in the play who is affected the most by the inspector’s questioning, we could, in fact, argue that she is so affected as to have been ‘unhinged’, or made hysterical. However, when we examine the play more carefully, we see that Sheila’s apparent hysteria is due to the actions, namely the statements, of her family, in particular her parents. Sheila is the second person to be questioned, after Mr. Birling, and it is almost directly after this questioning that she starts to display signs of the aforementioned hysterical behaviour. It is my opinion that she only becomes hysterical when one of the other persons being questioned starts to, or intends to, lie to the Inspector.
This, I feel, is actually due to Sheila’s perceptive nature as, after she herself is questioned, she realises the Inspector knows a lot more than he is letting on. It is my view that Sheila is the voice of reason in the play, as she is the only person who, during the questioning, advocates truthfulness and caution, because she knows the Inspector has a plan to ensnare each person and then reveal his knowledge of what they have done after they have irrevocably put themselves in a position of denying the Inspector’s claims, and unknowingly condemning themselves (in Mrs. Birling’s case it appears that Eric is the one who comes out badly, but I think Mrs. Birling’s love for Eric condemns herself along with him). However, Priestley masks the reason in Sheila’s statements with a cloak of supposed hysteria and mental instability, perhaps to stop Sheila’s true persona being too readily identifiable to the audience so they have something to mull over long after the play is over.