This is an example of a high grade A* / L9 essay for ‘An Inspector Calls’.
It was completed by myself, not in timed conditions, to set an example for high achieving students, so it is beyond the requirement of a high grade for GCSE. However, students are encouraged to read it and deconstruct it to get ideas for their own essays and structuring – it is also useful in terms of learning how to develop a sophisticated approach to essay phrasing, techniques, and vocabulary. I hope you enjoy reading it and find it helpful!
If you find this page useful you can take a look at our full ‘An Inspector Calls’ course here.
How does Priestley explore the issue of class in An Inspector Calls?
Class is arguably one of the central issues presented in the play, as it is because of her lower-class that Eva Smith is able to be so badly exploited, which leads to her tragic suffering and eventual suicide despite her intelligence, beauty, and kindness. We are exposed to the privileges that upper and middle-class men and women have, as well as the fact that they don’t always realise that they have greater opportunities and stability. As a socialist, Priestley certainly viewed the division between classes as a serious issue in his postwar society; the play ultimately tries to convey his message of social responsibility in order to minimise these rifts between the different classes.
According to Priestley, the upper classes cause issues in society due to their blind privilege. Gerald Croft, for instance, is an aristocrat whom Priestley describes as an ‘easy well-bred young man-about-town’. Priestley depicts Gerald as having an ‘easy’ lifestyle and demeanor due to his privileged social position; as a prominent up and coming businessman whose family are successful business owners, it could be argued that he has been handed his freedom and success without much effort or difficulty. The compound adjective ‘well-bred’ in particular displays Priestley’s socialist beliefs, as it implies that he is aware of yet disagrees with the fact that breeding is highly valued by the postwar British society and perhaps that family connections are more important than a person’s own character or intelligence; Sheila is only engaged to Gerald, after all, because Mr. Birling wants to secure business connections. Gerald’s flagrant exploitation of Eva’s kindness and beauty whilst being engaged to Sheila creates a layer of dramatic irony which criticises the idea that marriage for business purposes or family reasons is ever a positive or viable option. Though it could be argued that Gerald is a more sympathetic character than Sybil, he still demonstrates how the upper classes are so privileged and used to manipulate those around them that they are not even fully conscious of their behaviour. His excuse of continuing the affair with Eva because he felt ‘sorry for her’ could be interpreted as sensitivity, but it is likely that Priestley wanted to show instead how it demonstrates false sympathy, as he was only prepared to help Eva so long as she provided him with the affection that he craved. Additionally, Sybil as another upper-class figure demonstrates a different kind of high-class privilege: under the pretense of being charitable as she works for the ‘Brumley Women’s Charity’, using her prominent position in society to help only those she feels are deserving because they align with her own beliefs and values. She refuses to help Eva because she did not agree with Eva’s ‘elaborate fine feelings … that were simply absurd for a girl in her position’. The alliteration of ‘fine feelings’ emphasises Sybil’s snide superiority in that she is prejudiced towards Eva’s sensitivity and considers herself able to feel and experience more complex emotions than a lower class ‘girl’, a further diminutive term that underscores Sybil’s authoritative position and Eva’s own powerlessness in the situation where she is forced to finally seek charitable help after being thrown into a series of increasingly unfortunate positions. Therefore, whether they are consciously or unconsciously aware of their actions, the upper-class characters in the play are shown to manipulate the lower classes by abusing their privileged position; this demonstrates an inherent hierarchical structure in mid 20th-century British society which Priestley challenges and rejects. As a social realist play, the narrative represents a real-life situation that is familiar and known to the audience, so Priestley’s audience would have been aware of people holding the same values as Sybil and Gerald, looking down on lower classes or feeling like they could just exploit them as they pleased. In this way, Priestley asks his audience to question the fundamental beliefs of his society, by showing that they are not based on kindness and empathy, but instead superiority and oppression.
Although Priestley exposes the problems with the upper classes in the play, he also draws equal attention to the plight of the lower classes. This is primarily shown through the character of Eva Smith, who is arguably less of an individual person and more of an everywoman or symbol for the exploited lower class workers: her name ‘Eva’ is a Biblical allusion to Eve, the first woman created by God in the book of Genesis, and her surname ‘Smith’ is the most common surname in Britain. The symbolism of Eva’s name also shifts as her situation deteriorates; being forced out of work several times, she changes her name to ‘Daisy Renton’, the surname perhaps suggesting the idea of a ‘rent girl’ or prostitute. Interestingly, the Inspector describes Eva as a ‘young woman’; the concrete noun ‘woman’ implies his respect for her regardless of her lower-class position. In contrast, the other characters refer to her using belittling or derogatory language, Sybil calls her a ‘wretched girl’, the adjective ‘wretched’ perhaps implying a double meaning of ‘doomed’ but also ‘repulsive’, once again highlighting Sybil’s upper-class snobbery. Arthur Birling also refers to her patronisingly as a ‘lively good-looking girl’ who ultimately ‘only had herself to blame’. Though the compound adjective ‘good-looking’ could be interpreted as a compliment, the audience feels that it is somewhat off-putting and patronising coming from a character such as Mr. Birling, who is in such a position of authority and privilege as a business owner relative to Eva being a mere worker who is replaceable and expendable in his eyes. The concept of ‘blame’ is pushed increasingly away from the lower classes as the play progresses when the Inspector, acting as a mouthpiece for Priestley’s own socialist views, exposes all of the Birling family and Gerald too to be partially culpable, doing so through the prop of the ‘photograph’ which he shows, in turn, to each family member before exposing their encounters with Eva. The fact that nobody sees the photograph at the same time heightens the dramatic tension of the play, and its importance as a plot device is underscored at the end when Gerald points out that ‘There were probably four or five different girls’, ironically failing to recognise that the statement is irrelevant because it still demonstrates that each family member acted exploitatively towards a lower-class person, even if they were different people in the end. Ultimately the Inspector’s fire-and-brimstone speech where he declares that there are ‘millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths’ reinforces to Priestley’s audience the irrelevance of whether Eva is an individual or a symbol, as the point remains that the continual exploitation of lower-class workers by upper and middle classes results in mass suffering and oppression.
However, Priestley does not only criticise the upper and middle classes, as his audience is educated and themselves part of those upper levels in society, he instead demonstrates their potential for change. Both Sheila and Eric certainly affect Eva’s life negatively, but crucially they demonstrate an acceptance of those and show remorse as well as a willingness to be more socially conscious in the future. Sheila outwardly admits her faults to the Inspector: ‘I know I’m to blame – and I’m desperately sorry’, causing the audience to sympathise with her and realise that as she was young, she was perhaps merely copying the behaviour of her mother when showing jealousy and cruelty towards Eva in the department store. Eric arguably is one of the worst characters in terms of his effect on Eva’s life; as an alcoholic who likes to get ‘squiffy’, he is shown to be irresponsible and selfish, to the point where he impregnates Eva and then abandons her. Yet he also shows maturity at the end, stating ‘The fact remains, I did what I did’ – the repetition of ‘did’ in the past tense perhaps emphasises that he is now going to change for the better and become a more considerate man rather than a selfish boy. Overall, the younger generation’s willingness to engage with the Inspector’s message is presented as positive, and they symbolically represent Priestley’s hope that future generations will be more kind and considerate towards one another.
Finally, Priestley uses the tensions between classes as a way of promoting his wider anti-capitalist and pro-socialist political stance. As a socialist, he believes that the typical views of a capitalist society where, as Arthur puts it, ‘a man must look after himself and his own’ are outdated and damaging to the population as a whole, because individuals feel no greater sense of responsibility to the wider community. The reflexive pronoun ‘himself’ and the possessive pronoun ‘his’ also underscore the selfishness that Priestley feels is inherent within capitalism, as in his view it encourages an individualist and anti-collectivist mentality that rewards people for selfish behaviour and discourages them from altruistic or compassionate behaviour. Arthur’s views are directly juxtaposed with the Inspector’s own, particularly towards the end of the play when he becomes more forceful with his opinions. He concludes that ‘we are all members of one body’, using the collective pronoun ‘we’ to reflect his universal perspective of being interconnected with all other individuals in society. The metaphor ‘members of one body’ further reinforces his socialist perspective, as it suggests that each individual is connected to a greater whole – perhaps also referencing Priestley’s own Christian beliefs about harmony within communities and taking care of others, particularly those less fortunate than ourselves. Though in modern British society it is common to be equally exposed to both capitalist and socialist perspectives, when the play was written in 1945 the Labour Party – of whom Priestley himself was a prominent member – had just won over the Conservative Party for the first time in history. Therefore, Priestley’s audience themselves were less accustomed to socialist opinions, and many of them continued to uphold the prewar Edwardian and even Victorian attitudes of class separation, rather than wanting to create a progressive society that encouraged equality between classes. By setting the play in 1912 but writing and performing it in 1945, Priestley also uses this time difference to demonstrate that views such as Mr and Mrs Birling’s are outdated in the modern world, encouraging his audience to distance themselves from a capitalistic mentality and instead embrace a more socialist and equalist approach to life. This double setting also allows Priestley to reinforce the absurdness of some of Arthur’s views – for instance, he declares that the Titanic is ‘absolutely unsinkable’; his assertive and confident tone is entirely undermined for Priestley’s audience by the situational irony that the Titanic sank soon after Mr. Birling made that statement. The effect is to demonstrate Mr. Birling’s idiocy as a whole and to deter the audience from believing his capitalist attitudes, as he is clearly so wrong about his other beliefs.
In summary, Priestley treats the issue of class as integral to the plot of ‘An Inspector Calls’. He criticises the upper and middle classes for their lack of awareness of their privileges and their misinformed judgment of the lower classes in an effort to create a harmonious future society where the problems of class difference and class oppression are greatly minimised, or ideally no longer exist. This is demonstrated within a political framework, in which the Inspector’s socialist views are encouraged in the audience, whereas Mr. Birling’s capitalist views are discouraged. Finally, Sheila and Eric, as younger generation characters, exemplify Priestley’s hope for the future as they show the potential to think for themselves and no longer just copy the entrenched values of their parents.
Thanks for reading! If you found this page useful you can take a look at our full ‘An Inspector Calls’ course, as well as ‘An Inspector Calls: Story Summary‘, where we break down Act by Act for easier understanding!