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English Literature

Themes

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In An Inspector Calls, the central theme is responsibility. Priestley is interested in our personal responsibility for our own actions and our collective responsibility to society. The play explores the effect of class, age and sex on people's attitudes to responsibility, and shows how prejudice can prevent people from acting responsibly.

So, how does Priestley weave the themes through the play?

Responsibility

The words responsible and responsibility are used by most characters [character: A person portrayed by an actor in a play; an individual in a narrative or non-fiction text; a real or imaginary individual's personality or reputation. ] in the play at some point.

Each member of the family has a different attitude to responsibility. Make sure that you know how each of them felt about their responsibility in the case of Eva Smith.

The Inspector wanted each member of the family to share the responsibility of Eva's death: he tells them, "each of you helped to kill her." However, his final speech is aimed not only at the characters on stage, but at the audience too:

One Eva Smith has gone - but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do.

 

The Inspector is talking about a collective responsibility, everyone is society is linked, in the same way that the characters are linked to Eva Smith. Everyone is a part of "one body", the Inspector sees society as more important than individual interests. The views he is propounding are like those of Priestley who was a socialist.

He adds a clear warning about what could happen if, like some members of the family, we ignore our responsibility:

And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, when they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

 

What would Priestley have wanted his audience to think of when the Inspector warns the Birlings of the "fire and blood and anguish"?

Probably he is thinking partly about the world war they had just lived through - the result of governments blindly pursuing 'national interest' at all costs. No doubt he was thinking too about the Russian revolution in which poor workers and peasants took over the state and exacted a bloody revenge against the aristocrats who had treated them so badly.

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