An Inspector Calls - Selfishness essayWatch
How does Priestley present selfishness and its effects in “An Inspector Calls”?
Selfishness is a key theme that Priestley explores in ‘An Inspector Calls’, and he uses the characters to demonstrate the detrimental effect it can have on those around us. The play is a moralistic play, and Priestley uses the Inspector as a Greek Chorus style character – meaning he teaches the morals that Priestley aims to convey to his audience. Priestley uses the characters selfishness to show how it caused Eva’s demise.
Contextually, Priestley uses the time period to demonstrate the selfishness of society – moreover, those of the higher classes. By 1945, when the play was performed, there was still no benefit schemes and no NHS, and they were only introduced due to the devastation of two world wars. Priestley uses the lower, working class struggles of Eva Smith to confront his audience with the problems, and how there had been little change since 1912 when the play was set; this meant that there were still implications of a manipulative social strata over 30 years later. This shows how selfish British society was as all economic structures were still being heavily influenced by the hands of rich, capitalist businessmen who could get away with exploiting workers.
This band of society is represented by Mr Birling and his relationship with the Croft family. He demonstrates his selfishness in a multitude of ways, such as seeing his daughter’s marriage of a way of “no longer competing but … working together” with the Croft family – who were the Birling’s social superiors. Sheila’s engagement is a way to push for “lower costs and higher prices” and he pays no consideration to how these “higher costs” and “lower” wages may impact who he sees as “cheap labour”. Priestley uses this capitalist mindset to represent the greedy and selfishness of capitalism and the lack of compassion for the vulnerable who rely on them. Priestley uses a semantic field of entitlement and extensive use of personal pronouns to show this when Mr Birling discusses “his own business…look after himself…his own” “it’s MY duty” “I may…next honours list” “I was almost certain for a knighthood”; yet when his business/involvement ruins his reputation “I can’t accept any responsibility”. This shows his selfishness as he refuses to take responsibility or make change unless it makes him richer in return.
Priestley also uses aspects of anti-climactic features by building on the Birling’s guilt and blame till the audience expect a dramatic sense of remorse to strike Mr and Mrs Birling, but it never happened, and they brush off the evening like just another day. They convince themselves that the smallest shred of information from Gerald that “no girl has died there today” was substantial enough to continue denying their mistreatment of others.
Priestley goes on to show that selfishness is seen in all generations however the confrontation is met with different reactions. For Gerald, he preys on the vulnerability of Daisy Renton. He “wasn’t in love” with her, he just felt “sorry for her.” This shows selfishness as Gerald was in a relationship, yet he knew that pursuing Daisy, and providing for her, would make him effectively a knight in shining armour and he could gain from it in a more personal sense. Whilst he claims not to have asked for “anything” in return, there is a strong implication that he did pursue her in a sexual manner, as his mistress. When he is informed of what happened, he is “rather more – upset – by this business…”. The use of hyphens may indicate a sense of guilt for his adulterous summer, or maybe some sadness at the loss. Priestley ensures the audience believe he will feel remorseful, and then places an inversion, where they see and change in his acceptance and how quickly he gets over his upset when they are led to believe it was all a hoax. He believes that “everything is all right now” and that his and Sheila’s engagement can continue as precedented. Priestley may use this structure of regression to show that you can only grow when you take true accountability and not just comply to seem like a better person.
For Eric and Sheila, they were both born into wealth and only had the example of their parents and other middle- and high-class people. This would imply that Eric may have felt that he was entitled to be selfish. He believes he has a right to Eva’s body and that his use of force “in a state where a chap…turns nasty” was his right. He never had to earn his money so why would he need to earn her consent? Another aspect of his selfishness is that he just steals the money from his dad’s father’s company -his families wealth meant that his own wealth didn’t take any impact, despite it being his fault. For Sheila, her selfishness is represented by her jealousy. If Eva had “been some plain little creature” she wouldn’t have gotten her fired. Her jealousy made he act out and due to her being born into money – she wouldn’t have understood how forcing someone into unemployment could ruin someone. However, she and Eric both take responsibility and address that the family have “no excuse” and that they are “to blame” and that they need to acknowledge what they “all did to her”.
Priestley shows the effects of selfishness through the Inspector. Whilst “One Eva Smith” is gone because of the Birling’s selfishness, “millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths” a vulnerable to the hands of other selfish capitalists – Eva represented the masses. The Inspector is Priestley’s voice – Goole is addressing the family; Priestley is confronting the audience. The consequences are detrimentally damaging, and the audience are forced to consider their own actions. For those like the older Birling’s, the Inspectors message carries little weight, yet Priestley is trying to convey the importance and moralistic values the play carries.