In 1912, the time in which "An Inspector calls" is set, British society was in a state of great unrest. Even though the play was written in 1946, Priestly reveals his opposition to materialism in society by attacking an Edwardian family with his criticism. He writes about his worries about society at the time and how they affect the community. By setting the play back in the Edwardian times, Priestly seems to be warning everyone about how the way things used to be and the dangers of the same system returning to our present society. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. There were genuine fears of a revolution.
The community was divided into three different classes. The Aristocracy, the Middle classes and the Working classes. The Aristocracy was the richest class, where the men were very prosperous and the women stayed at home, merely welcoming guests at dinner parties and providing them with entertainment.
Gerald has a mother, Lady Croft, who comes from the landed aristocracy, and a father who is a knight, so to Sheila's family her engagement represents welcome social recognition. The class below the Aristocracy is the Middle class.
This is the class in which the Birling family are from. Mr Birling's new arrival into the Middle classes was due to his wealth, which he earned through his trade. Throughout the play, Mr Birling desperately tries to protect his chances of getting a knighthood, and foolishly attempts to use his social superiority to undermine the Inspector's authority.
"I was an alderman for years- and Lord Mayor two years ago- and I'm still on the bench." Ms Birling also tries to use her husband's social position to intimidate the Inspector and is confused when this tactic fails.
The lowest and worst class is the Working class. These people lived unprotected, dangerous lives with no hope for their future. This is the social class to which Eva Smith belongs. With both her parents dead, unlike Sheila, she is forced to work under terrible conditions to survive. The workers were paid low wages and exploited by the rich. It only took a common circumstance like redundancy, illness, old age, birth of more children or drunkenness for families to fall into real poverty. The rich, industrial people exploited the working classes ruthlessly. In 1910, there was a miner's strike, and in 1911 there was another one by seamen, dockers and railway men.
At the time of the play, women had just been given the vote in 1918, but they had to be over 30 years old. J B Priestly shows his concerns for the society in this play by connecting the terrors of the community to one family who have a high social status. Due to the low wages and high prices, many unemployed people saw charity as their last resort. Charities were the only form of social help so people were only granted their requests if they were very desperate. Mrs Birling works with a charity, and although this shows her as a kind, helpful person, serving to help the community, she is merely helping with a charity, so that she will be accepted higher up in the social classes. The separation of the upper and working classes were evident on board the ship Titanic. Whereas the upper classes enjoyed long, comfortable parties in the large halls, the working classes were forced to make their own entertainment in the little space that they had at the bottom of the ship. Priestly uses dramatic irony in the play, when Mr Birling begins to talk about the Titanic being unsinkable "and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable" This reveals what Priestly saw in his society; the rich being content with life and refusing to accept the harsh realities of the outside world.
Sheila is one of the most complex characters of the play. She has been brought up in a wealthy family, which has prevented her from glimpsing the harsh realities of the outside society. Being brought up in a wealthy family means that Sheila is not expected to go out and earn a living. Maids are constantly looking her after and her parents influence most of her decisions. At the start of the play, Sheila has the same attitudes as her parents. She refuses to notice all the pain and suffering in the outside world, just like her father. Mr Birling, who is "rather portentous", is so morally blind that he rules out any possibility that there will be a World War two and that the Titanic will sink. Priestly makes this very ironic because at the time that the play was written, the titanic had sunk and the World War Two had finished. Not only was Mr Birling content with his life, but also his wife, Mrs Birling is very much the same. She is even more hypocritical and arrogant than her husband and is " a rather cold woman". She considers anybody in the class below her to be "impertinent" and worthless; almost as if they are another species.
"Girls of that class" Therefore she cannot see how the death of a "lower class" person can be of any importance to the Birlings. Mrs Birling is so morally blind that she seems genuinely shocked by her son's drink problem, and also refuses to believe that Alderman Meggarty is a womaniser simply because of his status.
"Well, really! Alderman Meggarty! I must say, we are learning something tonight." Sheila also seems to follow in their footsteps at the beginning of the play. She uses her wealth and power to lose Eva Smith her job just because she was jealous. She even lacks sympathy with her; "But she was very pretty and looked as if she could take care of herself. I couldn't be sorry for her".
All throughout the play, Sheila parents, Mr and Mrs Birling, are constantly protecting her. They try to conceal the fact that Gerald deceived Sheila and they try to prevent the inspector from dragging Sheila into all of this misfortune.
"I protest against the way in which my daughter, a young un-married woman is being dragged into this".
The Inspector then replies in an ironic way: "Your daughter isn't living on the moon, she's here in Brumley too." Mr and Mrs Birling's concerns that Sheila should not be exposed to "unpleasant" things suggest that they regard their daughter as a child. Again the Inspector turns their comments back on them.
Sheila starts off in the play as a "pretty girl in her twenties-very pleased with life and rather excited". She lives in a large, comfortable house where all her needs are attended.
"The dining room of a fairly large suburban manufacturer. It has good solid furniture of the period." In Edwardian times, the wealthy families would employ servants to cook, clean, and do all the chores that were needed to be done.
"EDNA, the palourmaid, is just clearing the table." On the verge of getting married to Gerald Croft-whose mother is from the Aristocracy, she has no worries in the world.
Eva Smith, described as a "very pretty girl- with big dark eyes", represents the lives of many of the people in the working class and how they were exploited ruthlessly by the upper classes. From what we know of Eva, she has no family to help her financially or physically. Though she is a conscientious worker with a much stronger sense of moral rectitude than the Birlings, she is condemned to unemployment, poverty and exploitation. Due to the lack of help she is given by the middle classes, she is eventually driven to suicide.
Eva is a young girl working in Birling's factory. Due to her low paid wages, Eva helps to organise a strike against Mr Birling to increase the wages from 23 shillings and 6 pence to 25 shillings. Priestly shows the widespread discontent in the beginning of the century. Mr Birling refuses to increases the wages and sacks Eva, now left with no job, he knows that she will have no means of survival. When accused by the Inspector for starting the chain of events, which led to Eva's death, Birling refuses to take responsibility, and regards sacking Eva as his duty.
"Well, it's my duty to keep labour costs down." In many ways, he is a stereotype for his time; most of the businessmen in the Edwardian times were also heartless and self-centred. The attitude to which Mr Birling has towards life, shows the individualism which all the upper classes carried- hypocrisy and snobbery. Priestly shows how morally blind the rich were through Mr Birling. This is revealed ironically when he makes predictions about the impossibility of going to war and the Titanic as unsinkable.
"The Germans don't want war." Not only is Eva treated wrongly by Mr Birling but also by his wife; Mrs Birling. When Eva comes to Mrs Birling for help, Mrs Birling deliberately refuses help- not because of her case but because she is prejudiced to Sheila for using her name; Mrs Birling.
"Yes, I think it was simply a piece of gross impertinence- quite deliberate- and naturally that was one of the things that prejudiced me against her case".
She also refers to Eva as if she is a different species.
"As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money".
Priestly uses the Inspector to criticise the similarities and differences between Sheila and Eva Smith. By doing this Priestly is also putting across his personal views of society. Priestly shows how the working classes (Eva Smith) were treated ruthlessly by the upper classes (Birling family). While Sheila Birling lived a perfectly satisfactory life at home, Eva struggled to survive, living off 25 shillings and 6 pence, a low-paid worker in Birling's factory.
The Inspector challenges the whole concept of protection for Sheila Birling ironically, as there was none for Eva Smith.
"So you believe that women should be protected from unpleasantness, do you?" "Well, we know one young woman who wasn't, don't we?" The Inspector shares the same views as Priestly.