An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley Play Review
An inspector calls is a play about an inquiry into the death of Eva Smith. Throughout the inspector’s investigation, Sheila Birling undergoes a shift in character. Priestley examines this transition in character and contrasts it with the older, capitalist generation, to re-enforce his didactic message of the younger generation holding the hope for a better future. I will explore how Priestley portrays Sheila’s change in character going from having a strong capitalist point of view to eventually gaining a socialist conscience as the play progresses.
Priestley begins by using Sheila to represent the capitalistic society in 1912. We can identify this through Priestley’s use of pronouns such as, “mummy” and “daddy” in Sheila’s language. This colloquial, childish language portrays Sheila and capitalists as people who fail to experience and see the harsh realities of life due to being protected by their parent’s wealth. This is further emphasised through the juxtaposition to Eva Smith who had lost both of her parents. Secondly, the stage direction, "very pleased with life." re-enforces Priestley’s message as it reflects her luxurious upbringing and her inability to see past inequality and mistreatment. The adverb "very" modifies pleased and hyperbolizes her nescience of the real world. During Sheila’s confession she is presented as a narcissist capitalist, “I told him if they didn’t get rid of that girl, I’d never go near the place again and I’d persuade mother to close our account with them.” Priestley draws the audience’s attention to the abuse of power Sheila is utilizing to get Eva Smith fired, this demonstrates the rich as arrogant and selfish people. Furthermore, later in her confession, she describes Eva Smith as a “creature”, “some miserable plain little creature” Priestley’s utilization of dehumanisation calling Eva Smith a creature further segregates the differences between classes at the beginning of the play, illustrating the wealthy class as hubristic people who see the working class as nuisances, to the point of not calling them human.
Moreover, Sheila’s guilt also displays her selfish capitalist side. The audience can observe this through the use of Priestley’s rhetorical question, “Why does this have to happen to me.” This rhetorical question emphasises the selfish nature within Sheila as she does not seem to care for the death of Eva Smith, but only herself trying to make herself the victim and be the centre of attention. This demonstrates Sheila to be very spiteful and unpleasant for the audience. Furthermore, this illustrates Sheila as seeing herself above the working class, as if they were of no concern to the world, re-enforcing Priestley’s message of the capitalists being obnoxious and disdainful. Secondly, Sheila’s efforts to justify her actions during her confession in the quotation, “I caught sight of the girl smiling at Miss Francis- as if to say: ‘doesn’t she look awful.” suggests to the audience that the upper class are egotistical and shift the blame on the unfortunate. All re-enforcing Priestley’s portrayal of the wealthy, capitalist society. Finally, Priestley’s use of repetition in the quote, “I know, I know” suggests to the audience that Sheila has been in Eva Smith’s position as though she has suffered as much as Eva Smith, however the audience know she is false and lying. This utilization of dramatic irony displays an image to the audience that the upper-class capitalists are obnoxious, strengthening Priestley’s message to the audience.
In contrast to this, later in the play Sheila gains a social conscience and becomes an empathetic character due to her change in views as he wanted to express his hope for the younger generation using Sheila. This is firstly demonstrated in the quotation, “That’s what I meant when I talked about building up a wall.” The metaphor denotes to the audience that Sheila has an insightful view of the arising situation, whereas her parents, representing the wealthy class, were oblivious of what was going on. Priestley is trying to imply to the audience that the younger generation are bright and have a more substantial view on a situation in contrast to the older, capitalists. Further on in the play, Sheila realises how obnoxious and self-centred her parents are, “It frightens me the way you talk.” Priestley’s use of anagnorisis informs the audience that this is a key moment in the play as Sheila realises how despicable the views of the capitalists are, as Sheila excepted her mistakes and learnt from them, however her parents had an indifferent attitude to the death of Eva Smith and would grasp at any opportunity to not be guilty. This disparity of socialist and capitalist reactions to the death of Eva Smith gives the audience a moment of epiphany that the wealthy capitalists are obnoxious and egocentric people. Priestley then presents Sheila as a sympathetic character, “I can’t stop thinking about this girl.” Priestley’s use of pathos through Sheila informs the audience that she is empathetic and cares for others, all supporting his hope for the younger generation. Moreover, Priestley further emphasises this when Sheila defends the working class, “they’re not cheap labour, they’re people.” This foreshadows her subconscious which clearly believes in socialism but is hidden under the guise of the pressure from Mr and Mrs Birling.