In 1912 Britain was at the height of Edwardian society, known as the “Golden Age”. A quarter of the globe was coloured red, denoting the vast and powerful Empire and all Britons, no matter what class they belonged to were proud to be British – the “best nation in the world”. Theatres, musicals, proms concerts and films entertained the growing population. The upper classes led such a lavish life of luxury that the Edwardian era is now infamous for its elegance, ostentation, extravagance and sexual license.
However despite the illusions of these secure times this epoch was full of hypocrisy, prejudice and exploitation. There was a huge divide between the upper and lower classes and the difference between the affluent lifestyle the wealthy lived compared to the downtrodden existence of the poor was remarkable. In 1947 Britain had just come to the end of a devastating world war where families had suffered immense losses and society was desperate for a fairer, more equal lifestyle. Socialism and left-wing Labour views were becoming increasingly popular and Priestley, himself a Socialist, was anxious to point out the flaws of a society which rewarded rich men who openly exploited the poor for profit. He effectively uses hindsight in his play to ensure the corruption, hierarchy and discrimination of Edwardian Britain was not repeated.
There is an irrefutable message in Priestley’s thriller, a feeling felt by many Socialists at the time. Being responsible for oneself, it was thought, was not enough, if one wishes to obtain a fairer society then one must accept responsibility for others. Priestley believed that the upper classes have wealth and influence and therefore have responsibility for the way in which society is organised. He argues that the upper classes control what happens to the lower classes and that this power must be exercised with care. He is trying to convey to the audience the need for personal responsibility and also responsibility for the way in which our actions affect others.
In the play Priestley explores the diverse aspects of responsibility. He relates these ideas to the Birling family although the family members are stereotypes representing people at the time. Mr. Birling is ascribed very Capitalist views and believes “A man has to make his own way – has to look after himself.” These clearly contrast the views portrayed by the Inspector, Priestley’s mouthpiece in the play, which are very socialist. “We don’t live alone.
We are members of one body – we are responsible for each other.” The character Mrs. Birling automatically tries to pass the blame and responsibility of the suicide of Eva Smith onto someone else, willingly creating a scapegoat, “Go and look for the father of the child, it’s his responsibility”, she tells the Inspector. Although Sheila Birling’s views are more socialist she represents the younger generation in society, she is more concerned with fashion, her appearance and family life, rather that the controversial political and social views of the time. The play as a whole is addressed to all of society and the characters are purposefully created for the audience to be able to relate to them.
There are four main roles played by the clear-thinking Inspector. As well as representing Priestley and being his mouthpiece in the play he acts as a narrator, summarising key events for the audience and as a conscience for each individual family member. He also portrays a traditional policeman of the time with a “disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking”. This immediately unnerves and discomfits a person.
He has a very concise way of questioning and interrogating his suspects and as a policeman he is always in control, adapting the manner in which he addresses the family members to suit their personalities. He is firm and direct with Sheila, yet not too unkind. She has admitted to her involvement in the incident involving Eva Smith and has shown that she will learn from the experience. He also becomes much tougher when it is necessary. Mrs. Birling refuses to admit to her involvement in Smith’s suicide and the Inspector becomes almost aggressive in his attempt to prise the truth from her. As a dramatic devise Priestley uses the Inspector as the role of narrator and unifies the structure of the play.
There are many connotations within the name “Inspector Goole”. As an inspector he has come to investigate or inspect the family members and their actions. “Goole” is similarly sounding to the word “ghoul”, a ghost or phantom. It introduces a very eerie, morbid feel to the play as if the Inspector is not real, a ghost from the past and ever present in the lives of the Birling family. The Inspector is a “father-confessor”, a moral force who has made the characters judge themselves. He claims to know a limited amount but expertly draws the confessions from each individual character. Throughout the play he has used relatively simplistic language, often minimal amounts, allowing the members of the family to relay their versions of events in their own time and manner. However when he states to the family, “each of you helped to kill her”, he links all of the events together, recalling each character’s involvement.
His final speech dramatically contrasts his use of language throughout the play. He uses ornate, oratorical, exaggerated and hyperbolic diction in an almost biblical tone, preaching to the family and the audience. He moves from commenting on one particular person to all of those people who are cruelly and unnecessarily exploited in society, “millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths”. This is Priestley’s main message, echoed in the character’s actions and the Inspector’s interrogation through the play; we are all responsible for each other.