in A Level, English Literature

Below, you can find a detailed contextual analysis of “An Inspector Calls” by J.B. Priestley.

It’s suitable for students at GCSE, IGCSE or A-Level (Edexcel, AQA, OCR, CIE/Cambridge, CCEA, WJEC, Eduqas). I’ve made it as short and clear as possible so that they can get to grips with the main ideas and most important scenes quickly!


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AUTHORIAL 

  • Priestley was a devout supporter of socialism, and campaigned for the Labour party.
  • Priestley took advantage of the popularity of murder mystery stories of the day, so he structures his own tale like a detective investigation, inviting the audience to play along and guess who was to blame. The twist is that they were all to blame, and he uses this twist to spread his message of social responsibility.
  • The Inspector acts as a ‘mouthpiece’ for Priestley, he is representative of Priestley’s own views and beliefs within the play. We are supposed to see him as a force of good, exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of the middle class capitalists. 

HISTORICAL/POLITICAL  

Socialism vs Capitalism

  • Socialism is a political belief system that believes in the power of workers and the idea that society is one big community, where everyone should look out for and support each other as much as possible. One of its basic principles is that society as a whole, rather than private individuals, should be in charge of and own businesses and control the way in which products are created and distributed throughout society. The idea is that a democratic government would have complete control over the way in which a society is organised, in terms of industrial, economic, and social structures. 
  • Socialism stands in direct contrast to capitalism, where businesses and the means of production are owned privately by individuals who can profit from them, and where economics is regulated by the concept of a ‘free market’. 
  • In 1944, when the text was written, Socialism was a popular political ideology, and it still remains so today. 
  • The concept of Socialism is presented through the character of the Inspector, who proposes socialist ideas, such as ‘we are all members of one body’. As an audience we are meant to empathise with him and, by the end of the story, we are supposed to be persuaded by his socialist beliefs. 

World Wars I and II

  • The play is set in 1912, but performed in 1945 – set before both wars, performed at the end of WWII. 
  • The older generations in 1912 are idealistic, naive, unaware of the horrors that are to come. This creates dramatic irony, as the audience can see how wrong they are. 
  • WWI 1914 -1918. 
  • WWII 1939-1945. 
  • ‘Fire and blood and anguish’ > foreshadowing of the wars.

SOCIAL/CULTURAL

Gender 

  • Attitudes to gender are presented in a controversial way throughout the story. The Birling family follow a typical patriarchal structure – with Mr Birling as the male head of the household, who sees himself as responsible for making decisions on behalf of his wife and children: ‘a man has to look after himself and his own’. 
  • There are, however, subversions of the typical male-dominated family structure – Mrs Birling, firstly, is described as her ‘husband’s social superior’, meaning that she is of a higher class than Mr Birling and in some ways is able to exercise control over him – which she does several times throughout the play. 

An Inspector Calls: Character Revision

CLASS

  • Sheila uses her middle class social position to get Eva sacked, by threatening to close her family account with the department store unless they fire her. At the time, it was possible for wealthier families to exercise this kind of power. 
  • Mr Birling is middle class, whereas Mrs Birling is upper class, and has chosen to marry below her position (presumably for Mr Birling’s money). She is culturally more obsessed with behaviour and manners, as someone from her position in society would have been taught proper conduct and etiquette. Mr Birling ‘Provincial in speech’ 
  • Mr Birling is also picky about behaviour, but more in a show-off kind of way, and less about manners and etiquette. He’s proud of his reputation in the town – we learn that he’s a magistrate (someone who acts as a judge in a law court), and that two years prior he was the Mayor of the town. His speech at the beginning shows that he loves to spread his values about business to the younger generation. He also name drops influential figures that he knows and tries to use his connections to intimidate the Inspector, e.g. ‘Perhaps I ought to warn you that [the Chief constable’s] an old friend of mine’. 
  • The older generation of Birlings show no remorse, partly because Eva is ‘a girl of that sort’, meaning that they don’t identify with her because she is of a different class to them. 
  • The younger generation show empathy and remorse, connecting with Eva on a human level. Through this, Priestley demonstrates that there is hope for the future, as society is beginning to change and the distinction between classes is becoming smaller. 

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The Theme of Responsibility in An Inspector Calls

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