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How does Priestley present the theme of social responsibility?
Priestley wrote ‘An Inspector calls’ in order to voice his own opinions on British society. Consequently, the play focuses immensely on the concept of social responsibility, the idea that collectively people are responsible for not only themselves but everyone they cross paths with. As a socialist, Priestley strongly agreed with this concept. In 1946, the audience had the perspective of surviving the wars and therefore would appreciate the socialist view more as they had witnessed the damage of a capitalist one, leading them to agree with the idea of social responsibility.
The main way Priestley presents the theme of social responsibility is through the Inspector and his antithesis Mr Birling. The contrast between the characters leads the audience to trust Goole over Birling. When Birling says ‘Every man has to look after himself’, the concept of him being a socially irresponsible character is introduced. He summarises his economic and moral worldview with this statement and it is one of complete individualism where society is purely a collection of people attempting to maximise their own happiness. This idea is selfish and inconsiderate and therefore paints Birling in a negative light, leading the audience to later concur with the Inspector’s socialist views rather than Birling’s capitalist views, which was ultimately Priestley’s main aim. Priestley campaigned for the Labour party and ‘An Inspector calls’ is yet another campaign movement as he combined his writing with attempting to convince people that Socialist views are correct. The concept of selfishness is emphasised by ‘every’ and ‘himself’, and the verb ‘has’ demonstrates Birling’s high modality in his words as if it is a need to be inconsiderate. The cacophonous sounds make him seem worked up and angry, which again portrays him negatively. The audience therefore has a negative view of Mr Birling and his views, particularly on social responsibility.
Priestley’s contrast between Birling and Inspector Goole is a key part of the play. He portrays Birling as rude, short tempered and selfish whereas Goole is seen to be much calmer and more collected, which leads the audience to finding the Inspector’s views more agreeable. The two are shown as opposites when the Inspector says ‘[Massively] Public men have responsibilities as well as privileges’. Here the Inspector gains even more authority and control over the situation by silencing Birling with a putdown. The importance is that Priestley points an extra finger of blame at Birling not only for his actions, but also for his failure to see that his position entails upon him a duty of responsibility to uphold. This attitude introduces the concept of the upper class being somewhat responsible for the lower class, and also that ‘public men’ are not always higher in importance despite their status. Their position should come with even more responsibility. Priestley’s socialist views once again are present here as he believes that the upper class lacked in social responsibility. Since the play was written for the upper class as well, this message directly impacts the audience. The underlying tone Inspector Goole has here is cynical and rude in order to show the audience a correct attitude for that moment.
The theme of social responsibility links to the idea that decisions can impact many and also their future decisions. In ‘An Inspector calls’, each of the characters who wronged Eva Smith are responsible in part for her suicide, and together they are entirely responsible. ‘A chain of vents’ highlights this and helps to demonstrate Priestley’s idea of social responsibility. There is a repetition of ‘what happened to her’ in the preceding line, which reflects the chain the Inspector is talking about. The Inspector outlines the nature of the moral crimes the other characters have committed against Eva, and the construction is a metaphor for Priestley’s insistence that society is all bond up together and collectively responsible for everyone’s survival.
In his final speech, Inspector Goole uses powerful and persuasive language that is very successful in putting Priestley’s social message out to the audience. ‘Millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us’ uses repetition of ‘millions’ to emphasise that there are many other disadvantaged people like Eva Smith out there who should be treated with kindness and respect. ‘Their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering’ has a repetition of ‘their’ which demonstrates that everyone is equal, and forces the audience to sympathise with those less fortunate than themselves. The Inspector also uses the pronoun ‘we’ in ‘We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other’ in order to portray the message of collective sense in society to the audience by making it more personal and therefore more powerful. The language used here is very plain with short sentences that sum up the idea that we are all responsible for one another, a message that Priestley very clearly wished to convey in the play. The Inspector predicts a hellish future, filled with a nightmare vision of 'fire and blood and anguish’, which audiences in 1946 knew to be accurate as they had just survived the World Wars. Priestley draws on his own experiences of fighting in the First World War as the Inspector attempts to persuade the Birlings of passive resolutions they should make from now on. He tries to convince them fighting is not the way and claims as a society, ‘We are responsible for each another.’ Goole is used as a voice for reason and what Priestley wished had been said before the wars. There is polysyndeton with ‘and’, which draws attention to the prediction and allows for dramatic pauses in between the words. This creates dramatic tension. The hard consonant sounds show the anger Goole is feeling and leads the audience to become angry as well. The small-scale but still devastating violence of Eva Smith’s death described in the play points to the slaughter of many that occurred only a few years after its narrated action. Through the Inspector’s final speech, Priestley presents his concept of social responsibility through Inspector Goole and ultimately makes the audience remember and think about the speech during the rest of the play.
The theme of social responsibility is demonstrated to be very valuable during the play, as if the Birlings looked out for their fellow man, which would include Eva Smith, her death may have been avoided. Priestley’s socialist views are strongly communicated through ‘An Inspector calls’.