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In JB Priestley’s highly enigmatic play, the idea of proletarian oppression, along with Priestley’s yearning for an increased willingness to undertake social responsibility amongst the bourgeoisie prove paramount, and throughout we see Priestley draw upon this idea of inequality and the dangers of social stratification to disseminate his demand for change amongst the contemporary audience. At the time in which this play was crafted, class distinction was greatly diminishing as a result of the ‘fire, blood and anguish’ triggered by the World Wars sparking both a shift in the Overton Window, and Priestley makes sure to capitalise on this, highlighting the corruption and endemic inequality within a capitalist society through drawing upon how the ‘desperate’ Eva Smith was ‘neglected’ by the Birlings. During the la belle epoque in which this play was set, it was common for the bourgeoisie to manipulate their control and leverage over state apparatus in order to exploit the vulnerable, less fortunate echelons of society, and this comes through with Sybil Birling; although she ostensibly supports charity, her myopic view has her look down upon Eva with sneery indignance (‘that sort’) and we see her use her ‘influence’ to have Eva Smith’s ‘desperate’ case for help ‘refused’, for merely undertaking the nom de guerre of ‘Mrs Birling’. Although Sheila admittedly becomes a ‘changed person’, transforming from a narcissistic, socially impervious, epicurean brat to a sagacious, judicious, altruistic young woman, sympathetic to the rampant plight of the working classes, she similarly perpetuates the unequal exploitation of the every-woman Eva by abusing her ‘power’ and ‘turning (Eva Smith) out of a job’, choosing to ‘punish’ her for trivial ‘jealousy’. The rampant inequality she is subjected to at the hands of the Birlings prove significant as Priestley characterizes Eva Smith as an everywoman (‘there are millions of Eva Smiths left’) and the female Birlings using their power to strip Eva of all her sources of income is a harrowing microcosm for the perpetual corruption and deprivation within within capitalist society.
As this parabolic play progresses, the inequality that a capitalist culture thrives on is portrayed negatively through the rampant moral dichotomy between the ‘portentous’ Mr Birling and the ‘purposeful’ Inspector who rejects Birling’s inherently unequal capitalist notions. Although both characters are arguably static and presented in an overly lurid, objectionably didactic manner, almost merely used by Priestley as instruments to encapsulate specific ideologies, Birling and Inspector Goole are crafted with the intention of juxtaposing one another, establishing a binary conflict between the individualist ideals Birling unwisely promulgates and the collectivist stances of the Inspector, engendering the audience with solidarity with the Inspector’s equality-driven ideals. Birling serves as the play’s chief antagonist, the antithesis and arguably the foil character to the socialist Inspector; defined by the epithet of a ‘hard-headed man of business’, he is paradigmatic of the typical parsimonious Edwardian aristocrat and he ultimately serves as a microcosm for the flaws of a society chiefly dominated by its unequal id and that prioritises mercenary motivations over equality. This is far from contiguous with Priestley’s markedly more loving portrayal of the Inspector, who arguably serves as a prescient ubermensch, descending to castigate the Birlings for perpetuating social inequality with their selfish actions, whilst debunking the individualist, inherently unequal capitalist maxim that Birling unwisely espouses. Furthermore, Priestley presents Birling (an emblem of bourgeois ignorance to inequality and the sociopolitical problems within society) as inordinately injudicious and worryingly dogmatic as he injects dramatic irony to undermine him; he defiantly states that ‘no one wants war’ and that capitalist developments will ‘make war impossible’; this chilling trivialisation of ‘war scares’ proves wholly ironic to the post-war contemporary audience who were all too familiar with the devastating socioeconomic ramifications of the World Wars. Furthermore, the Inspector serves as a proponent of gender equality, subverting gender norms, empowering Sheila and standing up for the rights of the ‘penniless’ Eva Smith, Birling’s parochial, myopic view on life and entrenched resistance to change manifests itself in a chilling willingness to perpetuate gender inequalities. In addition to besmirching Eva Smith’s worth by dismissing her as part of an amorphous mass of ‘cheap labour’ (simply ‘one of several hundred young women’) and ultimately firing her for trying to lessen her pay disparities, he even belittles his own daughter Sheila, who he frequently defines by the epithet of ‘girl’ and patronises (‘settling everything sensibly for her’). During the milieu in which this play was set, the patriarchal Edwardian society were known to shelter young women, deeming them too fragile to learn of ‘unpleasant and disturbing’ aspects of life and discourage gender equality, and whilst Birling very much perpetuates gender inequality through his treatment of action, we see the Inspector notably juxtapose this, empowering the silenced feminine voices within this propulsive play.
Inequality proves incredibly important to the play as a whole, because the theme of inequality is used to convey the deplorable juxtapositions between the unreflective privilege of the bourgeoisie and the continual subjugation of the proletariat, it marries up with other key themes within the play and Stevenson arguably manipulates the theme of inequality and its grievous effects on the working class to expound his demand for change and increased sociocultural parity. It also elucidates the motives of the other key characters and spurs the action of this morality play.
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