How important do you think social class is in An Inspector Calls and how does Priestley present ideas about social class?
The main theme in An Inspector Calls is social class. Priestley has used many ways of showing this to the reader.
The importance given by Mr Birling to Sheila's and Gerald's marriage is immense. This is not because of the fact that his only daughter will be walking down the aisle soon but because he wants to work with Mr Croft, Gerald's father in a business partnership. He says, 'Your engagement to Sheila means a tremendous lot to me.' In this quote, the word 'lot' could be in a large amount, but it also could mean an object for sale at an auction. So in this context, it means that Sheila is the auction object, Mr Birling is the owner of that object and Gerald is the buyer. Normally in an auction, the object is sold to the person with the highest price. Mr Birling will only give his daughter to the richest man and that wealthy man is Gerald. This quote emphasizes the fact that this whole marriage arrangement is a business contract. Even though the Birlings' are upper class, they are not higher in the Hierarchy as the Crofts. The Crofts have the title Sir and Lady so the Mr Birling is trying to set up a relationship between the two families so that he can get wealthier. He is a social climber. He wants to limb up the Hierarchy as social status takes up a significant part of his life.
Mr Birling, in every way tries to make sure that the Crofts are aware of his improving social standing. At the beginning of the play, he tells Gerald 'Finchley told me it's exactly the same port your father gets'. This line clearly shows that Mr Birling is trying to impress Gerald so that he might go and tell Sir George Croft about the special 'port' Mr Birling had bought for him. Arthur Birling believes that this might increase his chances of combining Birlings Company and Crofts Limited and work together for 'lower costs and higher prices.' The word 'exactly' emphasizes that he has made sure the correct sort of port was given to Gerald to show that he too can live up to their high standards. The same quote shows the lack of respect Arthur has for anyone who isn't higher or equally wealthy as him. Priestley has given no title to 'Finchley.' he has made Arthur just all him 'Finchley' to make the audience aware that Arthur is patronizing the low class workers. Arthur Birling also mentions to Gerald about his upcoming chances of a Knighthood. The important part is that Birling doesn't even bother to tell his own son Eric but his future son in law Gerald because Gerald seems to have what Arthur craves more, money and social status. This again signifies the importance given to social class in this play.
Mrs Birling too seems to have prejudice among the working class. She says 'Girls of that class-' The way that Priestley has wrote this line makes us imagine a picture of Sybil saying this with total disgust, as if she cannot even bear to talk about working class girls. Her reference to the low class is 'that.' This further proves the insignificance she has for them and that she doesn't really see them as fellow human beings. She doesn't have a direct reference to the working class, instead she just says 'that.' It clearly shows the discrimination towards members of the community who are not higher up in the social ladder. Also, further into Act 2, she says that she was 'prejudiced against her case.' Mrs Birling has no hesitation when giving this point which suggests that she believes that is how it is supposed to be, that she was supposed to be prejudiced against Eva Smith's appeal for help even before she got to know her well. The way that Sybil was brought up and lived up ot his point in her life has influenced her decision making and as she was born into the upper class, she was taught that way to treat the poor. This even proves that the upper class saw the lower class as non existing creatures.
Mr Birling even discriminates the Inspector in Act 1 of the play. Just like he believes that social status can increase his chances of everything, he expects everyone else to do the same. When Arthur introduces Gerald, to the Inspector, he emphasizes the fact that he is Sir George Croft, of 'Croft;s Limited''s son. He is showing off his relationships with wealthier, socially standing people to make the Inspector feel little and poor. He also uses the name of 'Chief Constable Colonel Roberts' to interrogate Inspector Goole. He knows that the Chief Constable has more authority than this Inspector and therefore he uses his name as he hopes that it would scare the Inspector. Mr Birling then briefly explains his relationship with the Constable and how they play golf together. When the Inspector says that he doesn't play golf, Arthur says 'I didn't suppose you did.' He says this because at that time, golf was a sport only played by the upper class. So Arthur is discriminating the Inspector and it sound quite comical as he indirectly tells him that he just can't afford to play golf.
Most of the lines in An Inspector Calls, emphasizes valid importance given to social class and Priestley's way of writing teaches the audience not to behave in those ways due to the sinful consequences that it brings with it.
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