The question asked throughout the play is: who is responsible for the suicide of Eva Smith? Who is to blame? The arc of the play follows the gradual spreading of responsibility, from Mr. Birling, to Mr. Birling and Sheila, to Mr. Birling and Sheila and Gerald, and so on and so forth. Each of the characters has different opinions about which of them is most responsible for the girl’s suicide. Mrs. Birling, most extremely, ends up blaming her own son, by suggesting that the person most responsible is the man that impregnated the girl, before realizing that the person in question is Eric.
In the end, the Inspector universalizes the shared responsibility that the Birlings feel for the girl’s death, into a plea for something like Socialism: “We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” The lesson of the Inspector, and of the play at large, is that our actions have an influence beyond themselves and therefore that we are already responsible for each other so long as we are responsible for ourselves and our own actions. The play contends that Socialism simply recognizes and builds upon this truth, in de-privatizing wealth and power and thus building an economy and politics on the foundation of shared responsibility.
In An Inspector Calls, the central theme is responsibility. Priestley is interested in our personal responsibility for our own actions and our collective responsibility to society. The play explores the effect of class, age and sex on people's attitudes to responsibility, and shows how prejudice can prevent people from acting responsibly.
So, how does Priestley weave the themes through the play?
The words responsible and responsibility are used by most characters [character: A person portrayed by an actor in a play; an individual in a narrative or non-fiction text; a real or imaginary individual's personality or reputation. ] in the play at some point.
Each member of the family has a different attitude to responsibility. Make sure that you know how each of them felt about their responsibility in the case of Eva Smith.
The Inspector wanted each member of the family to share the responsibility of Eva's death: he tells them, However, his final speech is aimed not only at the characters on stage, but at the audience too:
One Eva Smith has gone - but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do.
The Inspector is talking about a collective responsibility, everyone is society is linked, in the same way that the characters are linked to Eva Smith. Everyone is a part of , the Inspector sees society as more important than individual interests. The views he is propounding are like those of Priestley who was a socialist.
He adds a clear warning about what could happen if, like some members of the family, we ignore our responsibility:
And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, when they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.
What would Priestley have wanted his audience to think of when the Inspector warns the Birlings of the ?
Probably he is thinking partly about the world war they had just lived through - the result of governments blindly pursuing 'national interest' at all costs. No doubt he was thinking too about the Russian revolution in which poor workers and peasants took over the state and exacted a bloody revenge against the aristocrats who had treated them so badly.
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