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Social Class

Exploration of a Theme

The theme of social class is at the heart of the play. The plot of the play revolves around how Eva Smith/Daisy Renton, a working class girl, is exploited and abused by members of the wealthy upper classes.

‘good solid furniture’ ‘living in lodgings’

The opening stage directions establish the wealth of the Birling family.

There is a sense of stability and prosperity in the staging and this is enhanced by the props such as ‘champagne glasses’.

Later, the Inspector describes how Eva is alone and poor: ‘living in lodgings’.

The word ‘lodgings’ suggests temporary, bleak accommodation which contrasts with the ‘good solid furniture’ and reminds the audience about the difference in the lifestyles between the upper classes and the lower classes.

‘Well, it’s my duty to keep labour costs down’

Arthur Birling is forced into answering the Inspector’s question about why he refused Eva’s request for a wage increase.

Birling states that he needs to keep ‘labour costs down’. This phrase uses the language of economics which disguises the reality of the situation; by keeping wages down, the wealthy Mr Birling is condemning his workers to lives of poverty and hardship.

Context: Priestley held socialist beliefs and wanted to see society change so that there was a fairer distribution of profit and that workers were treated more fairly. Through Birling’s defensive, arrogant words, we see Priestley criticise the capitalist system which helped prop up the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes.

‘girls of that class’

Mrs Birling dismisses Eva Smith as ‘girls of that class’. She sees Eva as just one of many working girls. By grouping the girls together, she shows a lack of humanity; she sees them as a type, not as individuals. There is a sense of snobbery in the determiner ‘that’ which distances herself from them.

Context: Society in 1912 was strictly controlled with a rigid hierarchy of social class. Mrs Birling firmly believes in this social system and this belief is evident in her choice of language.

‘As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!’

Mrs Birling laughs at the idea of Eva turning down the stolen money from Eric, yet this is exactly what Eva did.

Eva is shown as a girl of strong morals, refusing to accept the money which came from crime. Despite being poor and desperate, she is seen as morally superior to the Birlings and Crofts, with an integrity (honesty) that they lack.

Context: Priestley challenges the rigid class system which assumed that those born into a high class were ‘better’ than the working class.

‘They just won’t try to understand our position or to see the difference between a lot of stuff like this coming out in private and a downright public scandal’

At the end, when it is realised that the Inspector was a ‘fake’, Birling sneers at his children for still being troubled by the evening’s events.

He is a character who has learned nothing from the events; he dismisses a girl’s suicide and his part in it as ‘a lot of stuff’. This off-hand phrase diminishes the tragedy of Eva’s death and shows that he is as arrogant as he was at the beginning of the play. He is still more interested in public facades than in doing the right thing; his hypocrisy is unchanged.

Birling shows his pretensions to achieve a higher social standing in his desire to avoid a ‘public scandal’ that could damage his chances at moving up the social ladder by being given a knighthood. At the end of the play, he is unchanged- and as snobbish and unlikeable as at the start.

Context: Despite being rich, Mr Birling does not have the social status he craves and is desperate for the knighthood; Priestley condemns this social climbing.

‘fire and blood and anguish’

The Inspector’s final speech warns that, if society does not learn lessons of public and private responsibility for the poor and the weak, then it will be taught these lessons in ‘fire and blood and anguish’.

The syndetic list of violent destructive nouns signals a clear warning to the Birlings and to the audience that horror lies ahead of them unless they change their ways.

The ‘fire and blood and anguish’ could refer to battlefields of World War One. Alternatively, the Inspector could be referring to the fires and pain of hell where the Birlings will be punished in an after-life for their sins in this world.

Context: The Inspector here acts as Priestley’s mouthpiece. As a man with socialist leanings, Priestley firmly believed that society should be organised in a fair and equitable way. The Inspector’s warning is very relevant to the 1945/6 audience that, without a fairer society, the horrors of World War 1 and World War 2 will be repeated.

Grade 9 Analysis

Look at the theme in a different way.

Is ‘An Inspector Calls’ primarily a political play about class?

Yes: Priestley was a socialist and wrote the play at the end of the Second World War, when the Labour Party was coming to power with promises of free health service and a fairer, more equitable society. The play consistently reflects Priestley’s beliefs as he tries to show the audience that there are still ‘millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths’ to be considered and to take responsibility for.

No: The genre of the play is ambiguous. Priestley follows the formula for a classic whodunnit, a detective story where the audience has to guess who the criminal is. However, the whodunnit is not the definitive genre and ‘An Inspector Calls’ could fit into the category of a morality play. These were plays performed in the Middle Ages which taught audiences how to behave through repentance of the deadly sins and certainly the Birlings and Gerald between them represent all seven deadly sins. Yet perhaps the play is primarily a portrayal of family relationships; after all, the audience is fully engaged as we watch the relationships between the characters change throughout the story.

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