Feminism & Socialism in ‘An Inspector Calls’
John Boynton Priestley was born into a socialist family in 1894, and so lived through the end of the Victorian era and into the 20th century. In 1910 he worked in a textile factory as a clerk, and so was a bystander to the discriminations of the time rich and poor, men and women and, as a socialist, was affected by them. Living in Bradford also gave him a good foundation with which to build up the kind of setting a family like the Birlings would have lived in.
Unfortunately for him, when war broke out in 1914 he was of prime recruiting age, and so was forced into enduring, and ultimately surviving, the horrors of the front line in France. He was, like the other survivors, a changed man when he returned. He witnessed the impoverished and aristocracy fighting and dying together, as if there was no class difference what is the difference between two men in the same uniform?
Sadly however, this lapsed as Britain got back to its feet again, but Priestley realised the consequences of social inequality. Powerless and horrified, Priestley watched as the world lapsed into its second great conflict.
This second bout of suffering made Priestley realise that something had to be done. Within a week of the end of the war, An Inspector Calls was written, expressing the urgency with which change was needed through the Inspector and, more importantly, Sheila.
At the beginning of the play, Sheila represents a typical middle-class girl of the time. She has been brought up to simply be a perfect wife. She seems very young, excitable and not very aware of the world around her. For her intended role in life, she doesn’t need to be. However, under the surface lies a being that for twenty years has been indoctrinated with capitalism and brought up to be materialistic, just like her father who values his money and power above all else, hence the ring. She says, “I think it’s perfect. Now I really feel engaged,” which seems an innocent enough statement, but suggests underneath that she is quite shallow it takes a ring (a sign of wealth) for her to feel properly engaged.
All Sheila’s features at the beginning of the play are stereotypical of young ladies’ in 1912, and Priestley uses this, along with her slightly careless attitude to life to hold up a mirror to society at the time. As the play opens, he subtly introduces his agenda, but all but the most attentive of audiences would overlook this until later.
Dinner ends with Birling giving his laughably incorrect speech, a metaphor for the failure of capitalism, and a perfect example of dramatic irony, as everyone in the (1945 onwards) audience would of course know that he is totally wrong. This is another step towards socialism showing the progression of society from wrong to right 1912 to 1945 capitalist to at least the possibility of socialism. Just as he finishes digging his grave, socialism incarnate walks through his door to push him in, rubbing his satisfaction in his face. And the faces of the all the older generations that were responsible for all the wrongs of the world at that time; the wrongs the younger generation had to pay for in “fire and blood and anguish.”
The Inspector strolls into this world of capitalism, and by steadily proving the guilt of the family, smashes it. Sheila is one of the first to fall or to see the light, depending on your viewpoint.
She is a caring person, but has been brought up as a capitalist, and so a battle of wills begins; will she be nice, moral but go against her parents or be immoral, but correct in her parents eyes. Socialism (the nice side of life ahem, subtle message there…) wins, but only just. She confesses to her crimes, rather than denying them like the others, and the split in the family begins the split between capitalism and socialism.
Soon the others cave in too, and the Inspector is gone, his job done, and stamp set on the family. Or some of them
As the Inspector leaves, he passes on his role to Sheila, dragging her into womanhood at last. No longer is she a slightly shallow and silly Edwardian girl, she now seems independent and freethinking, a post-war woman. “I suppose we’re all nice people now.” She no longer expects to rely on other or be a typical good wife’. She is echoing the socialism of the Inspector, mocking the stupidity of her parents with her sarcastic attitude. They, however, think she is still just a silly girl (as they made her) and don’t listen or care. But she is now part of the modern world, a modern woman and, perhaps more importantly, a socialist.
Unfortunately, the older generation have failed to learn. They try to laugh off the responsibility pretend that there was nothing wrong that they were not afraid of retribution. This fear was the only thing that made them learn, albeit reluctantly, that socialism was the way forward. Because they are the older generation they hold the power, but it is they who are wrong.
They take the decisions that damn the younger generation just as the old caused the young to suffer with the two World Wars. The inspector’s visit therefore represents the “anguish” of the First World War people began to learn, but then stopped as it finished. The second inspector is the one that teaches the Birlings thus representing the Second World War, and the socialism that finally followed, brought about as the old young’ generation (Sheila and Eric) takes power.
An Inspector Calls therefore charts the progression of our nation from 1912 to 1939, and symbolically beyond into WWII. For Sheila this is less importantly capitalism to socialism, and more the progression of women from seen and not heard, to heard and seen as much or more than men. Sheila’s speech (on page 59 in my book…) highlights her newfound courage to speak up, just as women did after WWI. She will no longer be content to stay at home knitting and looking after the children, she will stand up and be counted and demand her job along with the others just as Eva Smith tried to do, and failed because she tried with the likes of Birling still around to step on her.
All in all, An Inspector Calls is a large, elaborate metaphor, showing the chaos of the past, moving to the possibility of order in the future. By the end of the play its message of morality that socialism is the way to go forward is clear. And why did Priestley give this message? To save the world, of course. To open the world’s eyes to the threat of World War Three and the destruction that would come with it. He knew that fear was the only message the world understands, and that words were the only way he had to drive this home.