Insights from A Key Theme in An Inspector Calls
Most of us, if not all, will wine about how we feel powerless in some aspects of our life. You see governments pushing for laws that aim to snatch away an individual’s right to free speech and you say, “What can I do about it? How can one individual make a change?” Yes, there are activists protesting but nothing comes off it. An individual seems to be powerless in face of the monstrous government machinery.
I see poverty around me and I say I am powerless. I can make charitable donations but I can’t reach out and make a change for the larger population. I see millions and millions of people affected by COVID and I say I am powerless in face of a disease. Hit by a lockdown, I complete a part of my masters program sitting in a cold darkish room at the peak of Edinburgh winters and I say I am powerless. I don’t get a glamorous launch into an even glamorous career after graduating from a top notch University and I say I am powerless. After all, what can I do if the job market was at its lowest?
Like me, what could Eva Smith do after she was discharged from a job, for simply “asking” to be paid an extra four shillings a week, for the hard work she put in at the works? What could she do after she was sacked from a job on the whim of a customer who found her “smile” upsetting? What then could she do when a “well-bred” man proposes to help her and eventually uses her in a moment of vulnerability? What could she have done when the son of an ex “Lord Mayor” and a magistrate uses her as an object for having fun in a drunken state of euphoria? What could she do when a charitable Lady of society refuses to help her in her most vulnerable state? Nothing.
She was powerless.
Eva Smith, is the character that has committed suicide by swallowing a disinfectant and has died a terrible and agonising death in JB Priestely’s play An Inspector Calls (1912). Indeed, events caused in her life by the other characters in the play seem to have driven her to suicide. Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, his daughter Sheila, his son Eric and Sheila’s fiancé Gerald Croft all seem to have played a part in Eva’s horrifying death.The play follows Michael Foucault’s “picture of modern disciplinary society” and its “three primary techniques of control: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination” (Gutting).
One needs to watch the play or read it to understand the way in which each of the above characters, belonging to an upper class society, primarily saw Eva as a woman of lower class society and therefore considered her a non-human, a pretty object without emotions, a beautiful object for a brief distraction, an object for having pleasure and lastly a non-human unworthy of sympathy and care. It is evident that the power wielded by each of the upper class characters in the play drive Eva to her ruin.
However, each of these characters also wield power over each other, power that creates conflict between them and pushes each of them into an invisible abyss.
Arthur Birling, the “portentous” patriarch of the family, is a man hungry for power. He is a biter, who in his attempt to copy the important and powerful governor, Gerald Croft’s father, turns a blind eye towards Gerald’s actions; a man who while being engaged to his daughter carries on a relationship with another woman. Arthur Birling, in his attempt to appear as an important man of society, refuses to acknowledge Eric’s independence as an adult. Arthur refuses to see that his desire to control Eric is responsible for making Eric retaliate with irresponsible actions.
Eric on his part, in order to resist his father’s power, in his attempt to assert himself, refuses to see that he was wasting away his life. His desire to resist all forms of control makes him exercise his distorted sense of independence on Eva Smith against her will, thereby compromising her and placing her in an irretrievable position in the early twentieth century British society.
Moreover, Eric’s mother, Mrs Birling, is Arthur Birling’s social superior. Her sense of superiority, not being restricted to society, permeates all her relationships. She is a woman who exerts her power by imposing propriety on every member of her family. She stops her husband from simple acts like praising the cook for her meals for the sake of propriety. She is willing to pass away Gerald’s relationship with another woman as a trifle for the sake of appearances in society. Unbelievably, as a mother, she is completely immune to the uncertainty, pain, hurt and anger in Sheila’s life brought in by her own behaviour towards Eva and by Gerald’s actions. Sybil Birling in her desire to appear in control, to impose her views on her daughter and son, is unaware of the conflict raging within her son whose voice and independence has been stifled by her and her husband.
Nevertheless, Sheila shows considerable resistance against her mother’s powers. There is a gay and happy side to Sheila that jars with the serious and questioning side. She is also a woman who wants to be right and therefore she is hysterical after being made aware of the part she played in Eva’s death. On the other hand, Sheila is also concerned about how much she is to blame. She accepts her part in Eva’s death but finds it would be “more” horrifying if she were the only one to blame. Sheila places her guilt and her pain of knowing that she is guilty over the pain of a girl who was driven to suicide and died an agonising death.
And what about Gerald? He wields the power of a well-bread young man. He deems it his responsibility to protect women and protects Eva by drawing her into an opportunistic relationship. He protects Sheila by cheating her. He protects Sheila further by quelling her doubts and uncertainties about him by presenting her an engagement ring, washing away all hurt with a beautiful object. Additionally, he is adept at protecting himself by attempting to shower phrases of endearment on Sheila when his truth is about to be revealed. He attempts to protect himself and the Birlings by putting up a hypothesis that absolves them from their guilt and culpability in Eva’s death.
Each of these characters follow the pattern of modern power and disciplinary control (Gutting). Each of them wishes to use their power to make the others aware of how the other is falling short of the standards set by society and wants others to the other to undergo reform to conform to society’s standards. These standards, irrespective of its consequences on humanity, are normalised and entrenched, even deeper, again and again.
Though you will have to read the play to completely unearth the subtle power relations between each of the characters and the way in which they are in conflict with each other and with themselves, one idea did jump at me after I finished reading it.
For a moment, I was tempted to take a step back and think about the sort of power I wield over others like my family, friends and colleagues. What have I turned a blind eye to in the quest of my ambition? Are there relationships in my life that are being stretched thin as I exert the power of my will? Are there incidents from my life that I dismissed as a trifle but eventually they did powerfully impact someone else?
You could join me as I go down the rabbit hole of introspection or in the mean time, go ahead and read or watch An Inspector Calls. I am heading off to watch some of its adaptations. After all, there is no denying that the play is packed with killer hooks and suspense.
In obeisance to the divine in you,
-Priestley, J B. An Inspector Calls and Other Plays. Penguin Classics, 2000.
-Gutting, Gary and Johanna Oksala, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/foucault/>.