By Nancy Mitchelson
The play An Inspector Calls by J.B Priestley begins with the engagement celebrations of the Birling family- an upper middle class family living in Britain in 1912. J.B Priestley uses characters for a symbolic purpose in this play and in doing so further links to the theme of people’s social duty to one another.
Sheila and Eric are the two adult children of Mr. and Mrs. Birling, and are used didactically to represent the idea that morality is equally or even more important than the law. Sheila and Eric both had a role to play in Eva Smith’s alleged suicide. Sheila reported Eva Smith to her manager at Milward’s, thus getting her fired. Eric made Eva Smith pregnant, however they didn’t get married because it wasn’t appropriate, and instead Eric gave her some stolen money that she refused. Although both these examples are dishonourable acts, Sheila and Eric redeem themselves by feeling morally responsible for their actions, even if they were not legally responsible- “It’s what happened to the girl and what we did to her that matters” This is Sheila and Eric’s symbolic purpose in the play- they are accepting their moral responsibility, and in turn teaching the audience about it. This also connects to the theme of social duty as my accepting this, they’re showing their social duty as they come to realize how interconnected they are with Eva Smith.
In contrast to Sheila and Eric, Mr. and Mrs. Birling are used didactically and for a symbolic purpose to represent the idea of selfishness and having no moral compass They too were involved with Eva Smith’s suicide- Mr. Birling fired Eva after she requested more wages, and Mrs. Birling refused her charitable money because she thought she was lying to her. Although this is immoral already, but Mr. and Mrs. also fail to realize that their actions impact on other peoples lives- “But the whole thing’s different now. Come, come, you can see that can’t you?” This quote shows how Mr. and Mrs. Birling are in denial that they are still in the wrong after it turns out the inspector may not be real, which points to the fact that they have no moral compass. It teaches the audience the importance of realising how you affect people is a good thing, because a particularly bad example of that has been made of Mr. and Mrs. Birling. This also relates back to the theme, as they’ve failed to realize their social duty and act upon it.
The inspector’s symbolic in