“An Inspector Calls” was written by socialist playwright J.B. Priestley in 1945 – immediately after the second world war. It is clear from the play’s plot that Priestley believes that the working class should be treated better. The plot centres on an upper class family who are having a celebration dinner in 1912 to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of their daughter to an aristocratic gentleman. Over the course of the dinner, it emerges that they each had a hand in the suicide of a working class girl. Throughout the play, Priestley pushes the theme of social responsibility to the front, often showing it through the words and actions of Mrs Birling, Sheila Birling, Eric Birling and the Inspector.
Mrs Birling is a character who lacks social responsibility – she does not believe that she needs to behave well towards people of a lower class. In Act 3 she says to her husband, “Look at the way he talked to me”. She is referring to the inspector, who did not care that she was wealthy when he questioned her, and she was not used to this kind of treatment. It is her lack of social responsibility which produces this reaction – she does not believe people of different classes are entitled to the same decency. In the previous act, when discussing Eva Smith, she casually remarks about “girls of that class”. The tone on the word “that” is one of disgust – she believes that working class people are disgusting and not fit for her care. Both of these examples show that Mrs Birling has a snobbish attitude to her social duties.
The inspector takes a different attitude to Mrs Birling. In the third act, he reminds all of the other characters that “we are members of one body. We are all responsible for each other.” The metaphor here shows that the inspector believes everyone in society is connected, and we must look after each other. Before exiting, he makes his final point to the family, saying “each of you helped to kill her”. While none of the characters actually killed Eva Smith, each one of their actions pushed her closer to her death – they failed to act responsibly.
Sheila differs from her mother because she actually starts to understand that she has a responsibility to people of other classes, and that her actions contributed to Eva Smith’s death. While the family celebrate being “let off”, she bitterly replies, “I suppose we’re all nice people now.” Her tone is sarcastic and angry because she understands that none of the others have heard the inspector’s message. She understands her errors.
Mr Birling, like his wife, does not believe he has done anything wrong. When the inspector first shows him his involvement in the death, he replies, “Look inspector, I’d give thousands.” He believes that he can make up for a person’s death by throwing money at the problem. He does not really care that he sacked Eva Smith. He does not feel responsible for his actions. This also contrasts with his original attitude towards the working class which was that “if you don’t come down hard on these people they’ll soon be asking for the earth”. The hyperbole here shows that he does not understand that what his workers want is actually very reasonable. Again, he is selfish and does not understand his social responsibility.