In the inspector’s final lecture, he has demonstrated how responsibility for one’s action’s actions and for others is a complex thing; “with their lives and tears, their suffering and chances of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and do”. This suggests that no single person is solely responsible for “One” Eva Smith’s death, but also, no one can be absolved or let off the hook. Just because you aren’t entirely responsible does not mean you can abdicate responsibility altogether as “We are all responsible for each other”.
Similarly other character also served a dramatic purpose beyond just representing people. Two of the most evident symbolic contrasts are those within the family: between Arthur and Sheila Birling. Mr Birling is obviously symbolic to the ‘older generation’ in the capitalist society of 1912. As past “Lord Mayor” and the father of the family, he enjoys an influential role in the family but also a rapidly climbing, prominent social status. Sheila on the other hand, was symbolic to the ‘younger generation’ of the Edwardian Era. Existing in an upper class family, she had been constantly educated with capitalist perspectives.
Also, being female then, she was expected far less authority then men (i. e. Arthur Birling) as all women were seen stereotypically by men of the same class as being: ‘delicate, fragile and obedient to their husbands and fathers’. The quote: “Is it the one you wanted me to have? ” when addressing Gerald (just before being presented her engagement ring, act one) suggests that men had the natural privilege of choice, and so power, over women. This is part of the convincing linguistic background presented by Priestly throughout the play.
Seen from the audience, Mr Birling would seem arrogant and eccentric with an ironic representation when he is boasting about all his experiences in the world; denying the facts ahead of him: “The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible”. This reference is instantly disapproved in the audience’s mind (with the coming of the Great War in 1914) appearing almost as a joke. He also makes another ironic comment -referring to the Titanic as his example: “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” but off course we all know she does so (on her maiden voyage to New York) despite this convincing reiteration of his theory.
I found this an impressive use of linguistic technique, by Priestley, as an effective device of mockery -giving the audience the desired sense of unease for the portentous character of Arthur Birling. Although both cases share similar initial reactions towards their connections with Eva’s death; Birling: “I don’t see where I come into this” and Sheila: “You talk as if we were responsible”(showing that she is spoilt -too pleased with life at first). The most important and critical factor between the two was the emphasis through their contrasting response after realising their involvement in Eva’s suicide.
Birling failed to make any progress in response to this, as if he wasn’t at all responsible: “Still I can’t accept any responsibility”. In direct contradiction, after acknowledging her mistakes, Sheila insisted feeling remorse for the poor girl, as she had developed a conscious empathising concern, full of guilt and regret for her irresponsible actions. We can see the mental progress Sheila makes through a range of chained actions from ‘nave innocents’ to a ‘mature understanding’.
The process includes, firstly, innocent shock: “runs out”, next, displaying remorse: “I felt rotten at the time but now I feel a lot worse”, later exclaiming: “It was my own fault” -showing brave honesty, then: “if I could help her now, I would” -showing deep regret. Finally, most vividly showing her first mature mentality of desiring change she explains: “I’ll never do it again”. Sheila’s emotionally dramatic series of responses, we discover, is again, the antithesis of Birling’s representation in the play. This contrast between the older and younger generation is the key focus Priestley wanted to generate for the audience.
It raises the concealed message that: although there may be no chance for the older, capitalist generation to accept change, hope still lies in those of the younger generation -who are far more susceptible to the brilliant new ideas of socialism. Again these ideas relate back to Priestley’s central message that “We are all members of one body”. As we have seen, Sheila’s response has proved of great significance to this message but I think she has also begun to create a few problems within her family, especially throughout act two, where her behaviour was considered to “hysterical”.
Not only being insupportable to Mrs Birling, she is also destroying the expected ‘complete obedience’ from her role female role. This is particularly evident after the first climax of the play (Gerald’s case) when Sheila tries in a desperate attempt to warn her mother: “but don’t you see? ” to stop building “walls” for the inspector to “break down”. Ironically, by now, similar to the Titanic: ‘some potentially disastrous cracks have appeared in the Birlings’ family ship’.
By the end of the second climax in the play (Eric’s case) the two remaining members of the family have also sided with one of the two contrasting representations. Mrs Birling is very similar to her husband; also being symbolic to the ‘older generation’ of 1912 and just like him, she is also ‘hung up’ on social status -showing the same negligible attitudes, looking down, at the lower classes’, as if they weren’t even human. She realises the obvious line between the classes: “I don’t suppose for a moment we can understand why the girl committed suicide.
Girls of that class”(p30) taking advantage of this in her argument. She is the type of person who only believes what she wanted to, i. e. when everybody knows about Eric’s major drinking problems, she is shocked: “No of course not. He’s only a boy” (p32). The inspector, with his omniscient powers, picks up on her tendency: “You mean you don’t chose to do”. In many ways, I think she is even worse than Arthur, by making derogatory remarks “Silly boy” -asserting authority over others putting them down to emphasis her own power and status.
She also does well in insisting to have absolutely no criticism in the case: “I accept no blame for it all”. Her prejudice against Eva (“claiming to be Mrs Birling”) is a good example of her cold character -doing things only for her own benefit and never at the slightest expense. Not surprisingly, Eric (as the ‘younger generation’) finds himself in a similar situation (in act three) to Sheila. With realisation of the situation, he responds just as dramatically -especially to what his mother, has done.
Just before the inspector’s final speech Eric, Arthur and Sybil confront in a violent family clash, resulting to the ultimate breakdown of the long enduring Mrs Birling. Under immense distress and pressure, she is forced into finally realising the death of also her grandchild through Eric’s threatening tone. As a result of this, Arthur takes almost physical authority -stopping Eric; the inspector now takes charge “masterfully” to control the interrogation. In this intense situation, we discover the peculiar assertive side of Eric that is contrasting to his natural shyness at the start.
Even more importantly, this gives us further evidence to the idea of the ‘cracking family ship’, now ‘disintegrating in mutual recrimination’. After the inspector’s exit Eric forms an alliance with Sheila to argue against their parents: this is symbolic to the ‘younger generation’ fighting the unchanged, unmoved perspectives of the ‘older generation’. These points link nicely onto another relative theme: ‘guilt versus denial’, how people deal with their actions -some admit their culpability (i. e. younger generation) while others move into denial (i.e. older generation).
Here is an example: – by act three, when the insperctor finally leaves, Birling is only concerned about a “public scandal”, but Eric and Sheila have learnt from the inspector, regardless of whether or not he was a real one. The ‘younger generation’ cannot see how their parents are still unmoved, and only concerned in disproving the authenticity of the inspector’s identity. Sheila appeals: “but don’t see if all that’s come out tonight is true, then it doesn’t much matter who it was that made us confess”.
A bit further on, her brother reiterates this message: “And I say the girl’s dead and we all helped to kill her -and that’s what matters”. The implication is that the characters who have allowed themselves to feel their guilt (and not just repress it) have become, in a sense, human and have developed morally. They have also become sensitised to the plight of others, less fortunate, and have taken more responsibility in the world in which they live. Another theme ‘bubbling’ below the plays surface is ‘Capital versus Labour’ -that of class conflict between the rich and the poor.
In the play, another insight is that Birling represents the forces of capital, while Eva represents the downtrodden working class -but because she is dead, the inspector stands in for her class. This conflict of interests is brought to the fore in some of the dialogue between these two: – Birling: “Rubbish! If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people they’d soon be asking for the earth. ” Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than take it. ” The inspector implies in his retort that the upper classes have stolen the earth.
This fits in with the socialist view that the rich capitalists have wrongful ownership of the ‘means of production’, and through some historical twist they have acquired the factories and manufacturing plants that should really be owned by the workers. The inspector also takes it ‘upon himself’ to continually remind the young, upper class generation (normally sheltered from the realistic outside world) about the exploitative working and living conditions of the working class: – Inspector: “There are a lot of young women living that sort of existence in every city and big town in the country, Miss Birling.
If there weren’t the factories and warehouses we wouldn’t know where to look for cheap labour. ” Sheila: “But these girls aren’t cheap labour -they’re people” Here we see how he has converted the conscience of Sheila into his way of thinking… His consistant ability to do this is of vital significance -not only for promoting the socialist philosophy in this major theme of conflicts, but it also effectively propagates the central message: “We are all members of one body” specifically, to the realistic future, being the younger generations within the audience.
In this play, J. B. Priestley has used an extensive range of methods from symbolism to social realism to effectively convey his focal message. One technique I found demonstrating the greatest effect was how Priestley had created his decisive mouthpiece, the inspector. He resembles a mysterious, yet omniscient figure using Priestley’s socialistic perspective effectively to directly contradict the naturalistic, capitalist style portrayed by the portentous, yet ironic speech of Mr Birling.
The way in which Priestley has constructed an incredible yet ‘all too real’ “chain of events” has presented the inspector with the perfect revelation of cases and climaxes (within just three progressive acts). Doing this, I agree that he has achieved the extraordinary effect of moving the play with its audience: ‘beyond the bounds of naturalism’. Every device within the play is designed to defeat the capitalist “every man for himself” perspectives -promoting the message that “We are all members of one body” -this is done successfully by imbuing the ‘supernatural’ effect of the inspector.
The entire message of the play is reinforced and transferred to the audience within the inspector’s final speech. His almost unreal final prophecy: “In fire and blood and anguish”, for me, is the most effective linguistic device used in the play. This is because it provides the most meaningful explanations for the inspector’s representation -the biggest mystery left at the end. His final words echo Priestley’s own writing, carrying certain religious connotations (from the Bible’s Old Testament) as well as the philosophy of other famous poets in his time.
The fact that inspector Goole’s representation is left unexplained also adds to the end impact of the play, leaving the audience with their own conscious interpretations -again enforcing extra meaning to Priestley’s central message. The play involves also a wide range of different themes that support the central theme of ‘social versus individual responsibility’. In my essay, I have already discussed, in great detail, referring to each of the following Edwardian themes: -‘1912 class divisions’, ‘family influence’, ‘guilt versus denial’, ‘sexual divisions’, and ‘capital versus labour’.
Together, the diversity of ideas has provided the audience with an interesting yet thorough insight into the play’s cultural issues. This enables them the ability to formulate their own subconscious opinions maximising the heat of a dispute. By increasing the viewers’ understanding, Priestley is able to convey the message “We are all members of one body” with greater effect. Although our modern society today is almost immeasurably different to what it was back in the 1940’s (when the play was considered of greatest relevance) I still regard it as being just as important now, as it ever was.
Even having experienced over half a century of rapid social and economic progression, I think as a “body” we still have much to learn and improve on for the future. Our society, is also one that is stable and controlled -bearing almost no problems in corruption or poverty compared to the 1940’s, but with all this in mind, it is anything but perfect. Therefore, Priestley’s influential play can be used, again, as a social tool with the relevant purpose of ‘today’ -to warn its citizens not to become (as Mr Birling was) too complacent about the achievements of society.
To simply look ahead with conscious minds for constant improvement, as the current power of a society cannot determine its fate, with the message that terrible things happen to those who are contented; regardless of their power or wealth. Our latest, most striking experience of this in reality, are in the events of September 11th 2001 -the attacks on the U. S. A; an immensely portentous and dominating society (symbolic to the Birlings’ class) is devastated by the poor, deprived nation of Afghanistan (symbolic to Eva’s class). Resulting in a catastrophic disaster for the U.
S. A, with a lesson along the lines of “fire and blood and anguish”. Another classic example was the ‘Kobe earthquake’ (1995) -affecting the Japanese who was also taught in the similar way. Strangely, the two most powerful nations in our ‘global body’ have already suffered from the punishment of their own self-satisfaction -now, it almost seems as if Priestley had intended his play, also, to work for future. But finally, the most significant concern for us now is; will we fall into the same conceited traps as Japan and America -heading in the direction of Mr Birling?
Or will we be able resist the temptation of joining the ‘war on terrorism’. For me, the answer is all explained within the basic message that: “We are all members of one body”. But I certainly hope that our leaders make the responsible choice, considering that, if not, then we are all too familiar with the horrific consequences… “In fire and blood and anguish”…