It is the almost universal choice for the Post-1914 option in English Literature, and students normally enjoy unravelling the mystery and getting to the heart of injustices that led to the suicide of Eva Smith. Students do well with the play, but sometimes they struggle to engage with some of its complexities, and this prevents them from achieving higher grades in their essays on this text. In this blog post, I share a few of the more subtle issues that students sometimes miss.
The play is not written when it is set (or vice versa!)
Hopefully, this is pointed at to students, but they do not always take in what this means. The play is set in 1912, in Edwardian society, when the Titanic is about to set sail and World War One is still two years away. However, the play was written by Priestley in 1945. This means that his audience would have experienced two World Wars, and been highly aware of the irony of Mr Birling’s claims that there is no chance of a War breaking out, or his extremely misplaced confidence in the unsinkable nature of the Titanic. The audience are led to see Mr Birling from the very beginning as a character whose views on politics and economics are wildly misguided, and whose arrogance will lead to suffering. When the Inspector warns that if we do not learn our lesson from the death of Eva Smith, we will be “taught it in fire and blood and anguish”, the audience are painfully aware that this is not an idle threat, but the Inspector foreshadowing the mass death and destruction of the two World Wars that are lingering on the horizon.
The Birlings are rich, but not as rich as they want to be
When we are introduced to the Birling family, we are told that they are clearly “prosperous”, and the props on the dining room table connote luxury. In 1912, the gap between the poor and the wealthy was far greater than it is today, and Priestley leaves us in no doubt which side the Birlings are on. Having said that, they are not at the very top of Edwardian society. Mr Birling has made his fortune on the basis of his factory, and not through inheriting land. In 1912 people still cared about details such as this. Mr Birling is very aware that Gerald’s family, the Crofts, come from the landed gentry, and are not thrilled about having a factory owner’s daughter for their daughter-in-law. Hence his desperation to secure a knighthood, which would have given him access to the circles that the upper classes moved in, and the chance to make better connections. The Birlings are still climbing their way up the social ladder, and people like Eva Smith are the victims of their determined climb.
Priestley does not necessarily think it is wrong to have money, but it is to be used responsibly
Students sometimes get muddled between the concepts of Socialism and Communism. Communism is a much more extreme political stance, which dictates that all wealth must be shared equally amongst citizens. Everyone contributes equally to the running of society, and receives a share in return. Socialism refers to the need for those with more money to look after those in society who have less.The Inspector does not dispute the fact that Mr Birling has earned his money through hard work, but it is his complete lack of compassion towards those workers upon whose backs his success has been built that is condemned. The Birlings have the potential to at the very least make the lives of those with less than them bearable, and yet they choose instead to use their power to make them miserable.
Women are restricted, whichever class they belong to.
As a poor woman, Eva’s options are extremely limited, but the women in the higher classes face their own kind of oppression. Mrs Birling mentions early on that women have to accept that men will spend their time and energy on their work, and not ask questions about where they actually are or who they are with. Sheila’s own life seems incredibly limited. She is constantly being sent out of the room and patronised, or told she is becoming “hysterical”. Whilst there does seem to be some genuine affection between Gerald and Sheila, it is also clear that the engagement has been engineered by their parents in order to secure the financial future of the businesses. Even on the day she has Eva fired, she seems to be under the control of her mother, who even selects her clothing. Sadly however, this frustration fuels her spiteful attack on Eva. Feeling her own lack of power, she uses “the power she had” in order to have Eva sacked.
Gerald is not the good guy!
On the surface, Gerald does appear to come out of the whole evening the best. Even the Inspector admits that he does show Eva some “affection” and “made her happy for a while”. However, ultimately their relationship is not a love affair between two equals. Gerald has money and status, and hence he always has the power over Eva from the beginning. He treats her kindly and gives her charity, but it is always on the understanding that he is the provider, and hence can take this kindness away as easily as he gives it. In that way, he is not as different from Eric, in a state “where a chap easily turns nasty”, as it might initially seem. Both men take advantage of Eva’s desperation and powerlessness. Gerald begins a love affair that is clearly never going to end in anything except heartbreak and disappointment for Eva. He can give her money and food, but he cannot give her the love that she wants in return. Arguably, he causes her more pain than anyone else, as he is the only one who touches her heart.
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