An Inspector Calls is a play deliberately designed to elicit a strong response from the audience. As a deeply political writer, Priestley wants his audience to eschew the callous, selfish principles of the Birling family and embrace social responsibility. Writing in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Priestley saw the potential for a new beginning for British society, embodied by the new Labour government. He set the play in 1912 to remind his audience not to go back to the unjust ways of the past, but instead to move forwards and strive for a fairer future. However, not all the characters belong in this future, and whilst some characters achieve a sense of redemption, others continue on the same path of selfishness and cruelty. Every member of the Birling family has contributed in some way or another to the death of Eva Smith, but some of the actions are clearly less defensible than others. Who bears the most responsibility for the death of Eva Smith? Let us weigh up the evidence!
Mr Birling’s wealth and privilege has been built on the backs of those less fortunate than himself. Rather than acknowledging this, he maintains he has a “duty” to preserve the status quo of low wages and high prices. In reality, he cannot he cannot entertain the notion of a wage increase, since it would mean sacrificing part of his own wealth. He turns Eva out of the factory, purely as she dared to challenge what he sees as his unquestionable right to money and power. Even when the full extent of the process he began by firing her is revealed, and he understands the “heavy price” he made her pay, his only concern is the potential loss of his knighthood. From the moment the play begins, till the moment it ends, he has no empathy and no ability to comprehend a world where those with more have a moral responsibility to help those with less.
Blame game score – 9/10
Sheila begins the play as an overprivileged and shallow young woman, who it would seem could not have less in common with a working class woman like Eva. However, it is also apparent early on that she does have the capacity to empathise, especially when she observes that those who work for Mr Birling, are “not cheap labour, they’re people”. Her actions towards Eva are spiteful and vindictive, but they can be understood when the context of the play is taken into account. As a middle/upper class girl, her education would have been confined to those accomplishments that were considered useful for attracting a husband. Her engagement to Gerald has very clearly been engineered by her father in order to secure a business relationship with the Crofts, who are not just business rivals but his social superiors. She spends much of the play being belittled and sent out of the room. Rather than being allowed to ask Gerald where he was the previous summer, she is told it is not a wife’s place to ask questions of her husband.
When this is taken into account, her actions make more sense. The day she went to Millwards, she was accompanied by her overbearing mother, a reminder of how little freedom she has. Whilst Gerald and Eric can frequent theatres and bars whenever they wish, Sheila cannot even go shopping on her own. She has lived a life that is extremely narrow, and as the Inspector points out, in that moment, she took this anger and frustration out on Eva. Whilst it is cruel, Sheila is the character who shows the most understanding and remorse for what she has done. She does not try to make excuses or justify her actions, and instead opens herself up to the teachings of the Inspector. The audience feel by the end of the play that Sheila is ready for the new world society was heading towards in 1945.
Blame score – 6/10
On one level, Gerald could be seen as the character whose intentions towards Eva were the least harmful. He took pity on her, recognising how desperate her situation was and how much she needed help. He gave her money, food and somewhere to live, and rescued her when it seemed prostitution was her only future. His initial grief on hearing of her death and realising Eva’s true identity seems genuine, and even the Inspector acknowledges he is the only character who brought Eva any sense of happiness.
However, when looked at in another light, his actions towards Eva can be seen in a more sinister manner. He insists he did not set Eva up in the apartment “to make love to her”, and yet he does not seem to have done much to resist the temptation of a sexual relationship, even referring to it as “inevitable”. As the person in the relationship with all the power (bestowed upon him by class and gender), it would seem indefensible to begin a relationship that clearly could never develop. In 1912, the idea of someone from Gerald’s background marrying someone of Eva’s class would be unthinkable, and it is clear Gerald has no serious intentions towards her. As Sheila observes, the relationship was founded upon the idea of Gerald as the “fairy prince”, with Eva always destined to be the weak and vulnerable person.
At the end of the play, Gerald seems to have forgotten his earlier grief at Eva’s death. He returns from his walk, having spent the time not holding himself to account for his actions, but thinking about the identity of the Inspector. Whilst Sheila and Eric understand that the debate about the Inspector is irrelevant, Gerald appears oblivious, even making the extremely ill-judged attempt to give Sheila back the engagement ring. By the end of the play, it would seem that Gerald has chosen to identify with the senior members of the Birling family, and is no more committed to social progress than Mr and Mrs Birling.
Blame score – 8/10
In the opening stage directions, Priestley establishes Mrs Birling as a “rather cold” character, who is also “her husband’s social superior”. As the play goes on, the audience can see that this social superiority has led her to view the working classes as almost an alien species. It is ironic that she has been allowed to preside over a charity, since she clearly has no understanding of what true charity is. She has absolutely no compassion for what has happened to Eva and barely tolerates the Inspector’s presence in her home. It is clear that she sees him as inferior, and does not believe the lower classes can ever have the right to question the behaviour of their social superiors.
When Mrs Birling recounts the events of Eva’s visit to the charity, it is clear she treated Eva as if she were on trial for a crime, talking about her “case”. She admits being “prejudiced” towards Eva, and is proud of the way in which she bullied others on the committee into refusing to help her. She interrogates Eva and humiliates her in front of the others, refusing to understand the reality of her situation. Whilst some of the other characters arguably did not realise the full extent of their actions, Mrs Birling knew that the charity represented Eva’s last hope, and that by turning her away, she was condemning both Eva and her child.
She loses her composure momentarily when Eric discovers the truth of her actions, but this is quickly replaced by further arrogance and complacency. She does not show any sense of grief for her lost grandchild, and instead takes pride in her actions, boasting that she was the only one “that didn’t give in to him”. From the beginning of the play to the end, she is self-centred, cruel and arrogant, representing the very worst of the 1912 British upper classes.
Blame score – 10/10
Our first impressions of Eric establish him as a character who appears to be unsure of his place in the world. In contrast to his father and Gerald’s self-assured manner, he is “half-shy, half-assertive”. However, like Sheila, he does seem to have some awareness of social responsibility, refusing to agree that Mr Birling had no choice but to fire Eva. The references to his drinking also convey to the reader that he is unhappy in his life.
That being said, his treatment of Eva is appalling. He is the only member of the family whose actions constitute a crime. His admission that he was “in that state when a chap turns nasty” reveals that he raped Eva that evening. As the Inspector states, he had no respect for her whatsoever, seeing her “an animal, a thing”. Although he tried to support her afterwards, he did so through crime, leaving her in a position where she could not accept the money anymore.
Like Sheila, Eric’s behaviour cannot be excused, but it can be understood better when his upbringing is considered. He remarks himself that he is used to seeing his father’s friends around town with prostitutes, and he has grown up in an environment where it is considered normal for young men to frequent bars and visit “women of the town”. It is apparent that he has had no guidance or support from his father, remarking he is “not the sort of father a chap could go to when he is in trouble.” Likewise he tells his mother that she “never even tried” to understand him. The audience also discovers that his drinking cannot even be attributed solely to guilt and worry about Eva, since it has been going on for two years, suggesting that he is a deeply troubled individual.
Once the truth about the family’s actions is revealed, along with Sheila, Eric can see the lessons that the family need to learn. He realises that it does not matter whether or not the Inspector was a genuine police officer, since “he was our Inspector all right”. He tells his parents he is “ashamed” of their behaviour, and he refuses to celebrate when the rest of the family believe they have uncovered the truth. Like his sister, he understands that he needs to change in order to move on, and that there is nothing to be gained by clinging on to the values of the past.
Blame score – 7/10
This activity is always controversial in class, and you may very well disagree with my scores and comments. Who do you think is most to blame? Or does it even matter in the end? As the Inspector says, “if we have to share anything, we have to share our guilt”. Every member of the family played a part in the death of Eva Smith, and Priestley wants the audience to understand that we are all “responsible for each other”, and need to face the consequences of our actions.
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