"An Inspector Calls," by J.B. Priestly: Free Essay for GCSE Courses
Before we begin, here are a few tips to remember when writing your essay.
- Write an introduction.
In the introduction, write a brief explanation of the book. Keep this very brief, and let it serve as an opening paragraph to your essay. Writing this introduction will give you a natural platform on which to introduce the subject of your text.
- Use powerful quotes throughout your essay.
Use powerful quotes throughout your essay to back your ideas up with strong evidence. A few quotes here and there just won't cut it.
GCSE Example Essay: Dramatic Tension in J.B. Priestly's "An Inspector Calls"
An Inspector Calls was written by J.B. Priestley, after the Second World War. It is set in the spring of 1912 in the fictitious town of Brumley, England. This is where the Birlings, a prosperous industrial family, live. The plot focuses on the suicide of Eva Smith, the soon-to-be daughter-in-law of the Birlings. Throughout the play, J.B. Priestly uses Eva Smith's suicide as a plot device to build dramatic tension, dramatic irony, and to share his socialist message. Socialist issues are explored by the two main characters, Mr. Birling and Inspector Goole, who subtly debate their outlooks for the future. Mr. Birling claims there will be prosperity and peace, while Inspector Goole sees more war on the horizon. Over the course of the play, the Birling family is interrogated and it's revealed to have been responsible for the young woman's exploitation, abandonment and social ruin, effectively leading to her death.
Before the Inspector tells us that we are all links in the chain and we should look out for each other, the audience bears witness to exactly what might happen if we choose to ignore this view of society. Each of the Birlings is a link in the chain of events that lead to Eva Smiths suicide. Even Gerald is a link to the suicide—even though he has just recently become engaged to Sheila.
Priestley reveals that all the Birlings and Gerald are connected with Eva Smith’s suicide. Here, he reveals his message when he says, “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”
This sudden revelation is very effective because it makes the audience aware that they, too, could have brought about similar tragedies without even knowing it. The audience is made aware that there are “Millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left." This means that there is a multitude of people in the world to whom similar circumstances have transpired. These are the people who are often forgotten in modern society. This revelation is given weight and significance by the sudden manner in which the Birlings' involvement with Eva Smith is made clear.
We see how seriously he takes this rather socialist concept when he says, “the time will soon come when, if men do not learn this lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.”
Socialism was a very relevant topic because An Inspector Calls was released in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. Much of the original audience would have been able to identify with the “fire and blood and anguish” because of the rather turbulent past six years.
As we can see, Priestley uses Eva Smith as a representative of the forgotten people of society. She is one of the millions of individuals who are ignored and shunned as a result of a series of misfortunes. She received disdain from others and likely lacked capital or the means of support. Generally, she would have been referred to as one of the "down and outs" of society. The World War had caused pain and anguish for the Smiths, who suffered, and are still suffering. The fact that this type of tragedy could happen to anyone gives weight to Priestley’s views about looking out for each other.
The Inspector's doubles as a device used by Priestley to both convey his ideas about society and to build up dramatic tension. We see this tension in the way in which he contrasts with Mr. Birling. Mr. Birling is extremely confident and, some would say, arrogant at the beginning of the play. He dismisses the possibility of a war based on his belief in progress. Ultimately, he is selfish and arrogant. We see this when he says, “Nobody wants war except for some half-civilized folks in the Balkans,” and when he says,“The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible." This contrasts strongly with the Inspector’s views. He doesn't think so highly of these capitalist developments.
When Mr. Birling had finished giving his "good advice" to Gerald and Eric, saying, “A man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own,” we know the Inspector would not entirely agree. The fact that the Inspector arrives just after Birling gives this advice is a great example of dramatic timing. We see these contrasting characteristics develop more throughout the play.
The Inspector gains weight, charisma, and power, and therefore tension is built, throughout the play. The Inspector belittles and erodes the confidence of Mr. Birling, a man that is supposedly a powerful figure. Mr. Birling becomes insecure while trying to defend his actions. We see that he becomes anxious, and this builds tension, because the audience is made aware of how formidable a character the Inspector is. The Inspector draws the audience's attention, making them wonder what he will do next, what his next line of inquiry will be.
Another way in which Priestly builds dramatic tension is by gradually revealing that all of the characters are found to have played a part in the alleged murder of Eva Smith. Everytime the Inspector shows the photograph to a different character, a little more is revealed about their collective guilt. The photograph is a great device for moving the plot.
Dramatic tension is also built through the use of dramatic irony. The audience instantly knows that Mr. Birling is wrong and is awe-misguided when he talks of the Titanic, saying, “TheTitanic...forty six thousand eight hundred tones—New York in five days…and unsinkable.”
We also know he is fatally inaccurate when talking of war, saying, “Just because the Kaiser makes a speech or two, or a few German officers have too much to drink and begin talking nonsense…you’ll hear some people say that war is inevitable.”
While the audience knows that Mr. Birling is wrong, Mr. Birling is too arrogant to see the flaws in his logic. This builds tension, making the audience more involved because they are in possession of knowledge that the characters are not.
Priestley’s decision to set his play in 1912, when it was written in 1944, is an interesting one. He does this for a number of reasons.
In Act 1, he talks about how war is impossible, saying, “The world’s developing so fast it’ll make war impossible.” Before the arrival of the Inspector, Mr. Birling also states, “In twenty or thirty years time…in 1940…you may be giving a party like this…by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares." Birling truly thinks, "There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere.”
The audience knows this to be untrue. In 1940, the Second World War was raging and, after the war, there was not “progress everywhere.” “Capital versus Labour agitations” were rife, especially in Eastern Europe, where Labour (Communism) was taking hold. For years to come, countries would be entrenched in the Cold War (the long-lasting standoff between Capitalism and Communism).
This quote, amongst other extraordinary pearls of ignorance from Mr. Birling, once again pulls the audience into the play, because they know more than the characters know. This gives the Inspector more credibility because the audience is aware of how accurate his statements are about the future.
The setting of the play is also a device used to communicate Priestly's message of social equality. We can see this when, at the end of the play, the Inspector says:
“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other…And the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”
The timing is crucial. Setting the play in 1912, Priestly uses the setting to convey a sense of dramatic irony. Only two years later, The Great War, or World War One, occurred. And only 2 decades later, in 1939, a Second World War occurred. The “Fire and blood and anguish” almost certainly refer to these wars, in which millions of lives were lost because, arguably, nations were acting like Mr. Birling—greedy and ignorant to the “Eva and John Smiths” of the world.
JB Priestley communicates his ideas and beliefs of social equality and collective responsibility through Inspector Goole. Goole teaches the audience just what can happen if one chooses to ignore others and deny responsibility for one’s own actions.
Showing the photograph of Eva Smith to only one character at a time is an extremely effective way of progressing the play, ensuring smooth continuity, because it is subtle. It is probable that the audience does not, and did not, notice the possibility that the characters were being shown different photographs.
So, in this way, JB Priestley makes the characters believe, makes them know, that they are each implicated in the suicide of a young girl. Mr. Birling saying, “[I] would give thousands, yes thousands” for Eva Smith to be alive again, cements Priestley’s ideas of socialism by making clear the spinelessness of the upper class, and making clear the social divide that exists. No one admits their part in the suicide, but looks to money as an answer instead of personal change.
The very fact that the characters can brush off their responsibility in the murder, and ignore the fact that each of them had treated "Eva Smith" badly, is meant to shock the audience.
The "pawn" characters and Inspector Goole operate extremely well with each other. Each make statements containing dramatic irony. Each says something that the audience knows will be false. Finally, when it is revealed at the end of the play that another inspector is coming to see the Birlings, the audience is left wondering who Inspector Goole was. He seems almost like a prophetic figure. By leaving the audience with this question, Priestly ends the play by implanting internal tension within us. Certainty was a luxury of the time. Everyone else was left with the chaos of the World Wars and their stark aftermath.