An Inspector Calls: Social Class and Historical Context



in this video I'm going to be talking about both the historical context of an inspector calls and how it deals with the concepts of social class and I've decided to combine those into a single video because I think they are very much bound together now I want to start out by talking about the two different time frames that are relevant to this play on the one hand you have 1912 which is the time to play is set and on the other hand you have 1945 which is the time Priestley wrote the play so it's important always to bear in mind that Priestley when he constructs this 1912 setting is doing so with the benefit of historical hindsight so the play is set at the end of the Edwardian era which is the period of time that separates the Victorian era from the first world war in terms of society and culture and fashion it wasn't hugely different from the Victorian period we were still talking about a time where roles of gender and roles of class were very very very firmly set what started to happen during this period in a big way was the spread of what we would understand to be modern technology particularly early electronics the telephone starts to become widespread here so does early recorded music it's the era of the beginning of cinema that kind of thing the dark side of that is the industrialization and the mechanization of the military and it's that that led to the scale and horror of the first world war which started in 1914 and really brought the Edwardian era to an end I might go so far as to say that the first world war is the true cultural beginning of the 20th century so that's the context of the setting of the play this is the world inhabited by the characters Priestley's worlds 1945 is extremely different it's changed unrecognizably consider that it's actually a relatively short interval of time between 1945 Britain had just emerged victorious from the Second World War Europe had been very badly damaged Britain was in a great deal of debt but alongside that there was a feeling of optimism fascism had been defeated and there was a sense of opportunity the old ways that had led to war were over and there was now the chance to rebuild society in a way that was more egalitarian and would lead to a more prosperous future that was the theory and it led to an absolutely colossal victory for the Labour government in 1945 and that's where the NHS makes its debut and it's where we see the beginning of the modern welfare state so what Priestley's doing in setting the play when he's setting it is he's looking back at a time where the old social order as he sees it was about to come to an end now on the subject of social order I want to talk about the British class system of 1912 or at least the class system as mr. Birling appears to understand it this is a simplification of the reality but that simplification better reflects what Klaus means to mr. Birling he does not have a particularly sophisticated understanding of the class system and recognizing that these terms lack a bit of subtlety helps us to understand and analyze him as a character because he lacks subtlety so we'll start out with the upper class the upper classes are associated with inheriting rather than earning wealth so we're not talking about businessmen and industrialists here we're talking about the aristocracy people who own land and whose families have owned land going back hundreds and hundreds of years because it's associated with what you inherit rather than what you've earned there isn't very much an individual person can do to become upper-class virtually the definition of upper-class is that you haven't earned your wealth you've inherited it so that puts Burling however rich he is in the middle class he is a business owner he owns Capitol beat money albeit factory equipment that allows him to make use of the labor of the working class that makes him a member of the bourgeoisie and part of burling's neurosis is that he has this desire to become a member of the upper class but he knows that he never really can because however much money he earns he just doesn't have the right kind of background the right kind of breeding now below Burling is the working class and that's where eva smith fits here earnings are not based on what you own eva smith doesn't really own anything apart from the clothes he's wearing so the working class sell their labor to the middle classes in exchange for basic necessities so this three-tier system is class as Burling understands it and like I said earlier he is middle class he's very rich and he's driven by the desire to become part of the upper class that he can't ever really be a part of and that awkward neurotic paranoid relationship with class characterizes so much of his interactions with other characters I've picked out a few key quotations here all from relatively early in the play the very first line of the play is Burling talking to Gerald his future son-in-law and pointing out a specific round of pork that he's bought he also points out but it's exactly the same port that Gerald's wealthy father buys now this seems at first glance to be a fairly trivial interaction just setting some background scenery but think about what it says about Berlin Berlin has no reason to point out the specific brand of port other than to try to associate himself with other wealthy people and this gets at the heart of what Burling thinks class means Burling thinks class is marked by stuff by objects by material possessions so this seemingly inconsequential moment where he points out a particular brand of port is actually very important for giving us an insight into how Berlin feels he needs to showcase the fact that he can buy certain possessions a little bit later in the second quotation Burling expresses his worries that Gerald's mother may not approve of the Burling family because they don't have the right eros to critique connections he tries to compensate for that by suggesting that he's in line for a knighthood and look at the false modesty just a knighthood of course as if it's something that doesn't really matter to Burling when in fact it's everything that he cares about he is absolutely obsessed with this idea of appearing upper-class and the thought that somebody else might judge him for not being upper-class explains a lot of his neuroses over the course of the play mrs. Birling on the other hand comes from a slightly different position we're told right at the beginning in the opening stage directions that she is her husband social superior so she represents the kind of good breeding that mr. Birling holds in such esteem she holds very aristocratic attitudes towards society and culture that are extremely in built and internalized within her we see this right from the beginning when she's correcting her family's behavior around the dinner table but the clearest example of it comes later during her interrogation by the inspector when she's defending herself against the accusation of heartlessness in her dealing with Eva Smith her attitude towards class are so deeply ingrained in her character that she cannot look beyond stereotypical views of class when talking about Eva specifically her entire attitude towards Eva is based on stereotypes so look at this quotation here she was claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that was simply absurd in a girl in her position it sounded ridiculous to me now look at the situation this puts Eva Smithee it's an absolute lose-lose position if Eva Smith had been rude mrs. Birling could have dismissed it as being typical of her class because she's polite mrs. Birling instead suggests that eva is being dishonest to her now admittedly Eva did not help her own case by giving a false name to mrs. Birling but nevertheless the point stands there is no approach that Eva could have taken that mrs. Birling could not have found a pretext for dismissing that is virtually the definition of prejudice because she has such a stereotypical view of what it means to be working-class mrs. Birling has made up her mind about eva smith before she's had any opportunity to make an argument so from Eva's point of view why not make up a false name it seems that her desperation is entirely justified by the circumstances now before I wrap up I just want to spend a little bit of time talking about the inspector the inspectors role in the play is to highlight and expose the prejudice and hypocrisy that we see from the Burling family now some of this comes directly from the accusations the inspector makes of the family but some of it comes merely from his nature his manner his behavior he has an innate sense of Authority the Burling just can't match the inspector is authority without being authoritarian whereas with mr. Birling it's the other way around mr. Birling is constantly trying to remind other characters of his authority which is a sure sign that he doesn't really have it the inspector doesn't need to remind anyone of his authority he just has it the subtext of this is that integrity morality and worth has nothing to do with class but it's very important to the themes of the play that the elder burling's mr. Birling and his wife don't really take that messaging it falls to the younger burling's Eric and Sheila to appreciate it so to sum up mr. and mrs. Birling stand in for a social order that priestly regards as being outdated it's about to be swept aside by a pair of world wars and priestly uses the fact that he has this historical knowledge to showcase how complacent Burling is now we need to be a little bit careful here because it would be easy to fall into the trap of criticizing Burling for not knowing things that it's not reasonable to expect him to know nobody in 1912 thought the Titanic would think before it sank nobody in 1912 could reasonably have expected the First World War to have gone the way it did so we shouldn't be thinking of it in terms of Burling being stupid but we should be thinking about it in terms of Burling being complacent he is too comfortable he cannot see the risks to his own position and that's Priestley's point so it's no coincidence that the moral lesson of the play comes from an explicitly working-class character in the inspector that is consistent with priestly zone socialist principles and I'm just going to leave with one more point the fact that the elder burling's don't learn the lesson but the younger burling's do is Priestley's argument in a not his point is that the kind of social change that he regarded as a positive requires the younger generation to take over from the old and in that you see a kind of symbol for the optimism that Priestley had for the future of the country in the world




Comments
  1. Magic, you cannot prepare for grade 9 responses. It is the pinnacle of success in GCSE, you are compared to everyone else and the response basically has to be basically perfect. I would suggest you use the notes now as a part of your preperarion, doing your own analysis, reading the play and researching, then using the information to form you own interpretations and form essays. Get them marked and act on the feedback. Read other literature from the time and learn some broader context about the era and Priestley. Also, make sure to include high level vocabulary, and link your ideas throughout. You can't just achieve a grade 9 in your sleep. Without going above and beyond, working for so many honours a grade 9 is not achievable, a grade 7 maybe is if you aren't already very familiar with literature and don't explore your own personal, sophisticated view of the text. Work your way up and continuously improve your work. That is how you get the top grades. A grade 9 is an extremely refined grade 7 with utter dedication, foresight, planning and reviewing and improving. It's never too early to get started and go full force.

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