By Renée Stanton
When teaching a text that’s been around for a long time – whether in front of a class or remotely – it’s sometimes difficult to come up with new angles or approaches. So how can we ‘open up’ a familiar text like An Inspector Calls to promote discussion and encourage students to engage with it in ways that strengthen their understanding?
Themes – what a text is about – are elements that give a sense of the big picture. But, in this play, themes of power and status are more than just big ideas floating around. They are written into the context, relationships and speech styles of the characters and contribute to the play’s tension and dramatic action. Thus, they can be usefully explored in a three-pronged way. Understanding something about the text’s layering will also enable students to appreciate how its themes are created and built up.
1. Context of Edwardian England
Explore the idea of social-class hierarchy by getting students to consider what was really going on at the time. They’ll have some understanding of class and status from their own lived experience and so, as a starting point, you could ask them to consider their own experience of social class and the differences in expectations, values, wealth and status that they are aware of in their own social worlds.
When considering the play, students will need to think about what is driving the characters’ actions and behaviour and in particular what links/divides them in terms of class/socio-economic status.
A task to get students thinking about this hierarchy might be to put characters’ names (and textual references) to labels such as:
- industrial capitalist/factory worker
- shopper/shop worker
- aristocrat/aspiring aristocrat
- character associated with polite behaviour/character associated with impolite behaviour
- unpaid chair of a charity/person in need of charity
- employer of a domestic servant/domestic servant
- character associated with leisure and consumption/character servicing the consumption and leisure of others
- player of golf/non-player of golf
- frequenter of the Palace Bar/someone ‘out of place' in the Palace Bar
- somebody who wants to change the social-class hierarchy and its power relations/someone who wants to keep intact the social-class hierarchy and its power relations
Students are likely to provide different examples for some of these pairings which could lead to some interesting discussions. Following this, students could be asked to take one or two of these pairings and try to write a short explanation of how the play dramatises them.
This will focus minds and is designed to help understanding of:
- the social-class hierarchy in Edwardian times, its power relations and how these are being challenged by the socio-economic effects of industrialisation
- the expansion of social networks and the crossing of class boundaries
- the tensions between social rigidity and social mobility
- the unstable nature of old, established social boundaries
- the ways in which Edwardian social politeness is upheld/challenged
- how the relationships between characters are constructed to reveal the social changes happening in Edwardian society
2. Character relationships
Ask students to think more carefully now about the social-class relations underpinning some of the play’s key relationships.
What significant details do they know about the social backgrounds of the following character pairings?
Ask them to locate textual references for the ‘significant details’ and to consider what we are told in the scene directions and what we are shown in the dialogue.
- Mr and Mrs Birling
- Gerald Croft and Sheila Birling
- Gerald Croft and Eva/Daisy
- Eric Birling and Eva/Daisy
- Eva/Daisy and Mrs Birling
What do these pairings tell us about the possibilities/limitations of social mixing in Edwardian times?
Possible answers might include:
Mr and Mrs Birling: a union of ‘new’ (manufacturing) and ‘old’ (inherited/familial) wealth. Mrs Birling is both the industrialist’s wife and her husband’s ‘social superior’. Priestley draws attention to the Birlings’ material wealth or ‘property’ in the initial scene directions, implying that the décor is designed to impress.
Gerald Croft and Sheila Birling: ‘well-bred’ Gerald Croft is a socially desirable son-in-law for Sheila’s parents and an attractive prospect for Sheila because of his higher social class and more refined manners. Birling’s reference to ‘Lady Croft’ reveals his status anxiety around the prospective connection, as does his inappropriate mention of a possible ‘knighthood’.
Gerald Croft and Eva/Daisy: an example of the limitations of social mixing in the Edwardian era. They might frequent the same place, ‘the Palace Bar’, and have sexual relations but Eva/Daisy's low status and working-class background mean that she can never be more than his mistress. ‘She knew it couldn’t last’. Gerald calls her acceptance of this state of affairs ‘gallant’, a word traditionally associated with male nobility. He exerts social and sexual power over Eva/Daisy (and, to a lesser extent, over Sheila).
Eric Birling and Eva/Daisy: another example of the limitations of social mixing. The irresponsible Eric Birling is the father of Eva/Daisy's unborn child. Like Gerald, he has exploited his social power but, in his case, he has worsened Eva/Daisy's already vulnerable situation by making her pregnant. Her refusal to marry Eric, because he does not love her, reveals that she is not primarily motivated by wealth and social status.
Eva/Daisy and Mrs Birling: Eva/Daisy's desire to look after herself leads her to seek charitable help from the local community. Her use of an assumed social identity ‘Mrs Birling’ doesn’t reflect a desire to be married to Eric; rather it is a bold way of drawing attention to her plight. Priestley’s characterisation of Eva/Daisy reinforces her dignity and emotional integrity. The ‘real’ Mrs Birling, the chair of the charity committee, is horrified by this echo of herself, calling it a ‘gross impertinence’ as if Eva/Daisy has committed a social crime. Mrs Birling’s comment, ‘naturally that was one of the things that prejudiced me against her case’ communicates her social rigidity.
3. Speech Styles
In Priestley’s play, characters express different views on power and social status. Their language use is distinctive, reflecting differences in social background and attitude. To engage closely with the play’s language and dramatic tension, students need to understand how characters’ speech styles reflect different types of power and status. They already know a lot implicitly about language. In their everyday lives they know who they like/dislike talking to and whose language closes them down, undermines them or forces them into a corner. Encourage them to apply this knowledge, bearing in mind the play’s context and character relationships.
Ask students to find their own textual references to back up the following statements. Individuals could focus on a particular character and share their findings. Ask them to try out their own interpretations by reading aloud certain lines to bring out the speech styles.
- Mr Birling likes to hold the floor and shut Eric down. He tries to undermine the Inspector’s status and takes offence at his assertiveness
- Mrs Birling sees herself as more refined than her husband and tries to maintain politeness and social distance from the Inspector
- Sheila is more socially at ease than Eric and her language shifts as she challenges the power of her parents and Gerald
- Gerald’s higher social status translates into a desire to please and an ability to initiate and take control
- Eric is often interrupted and speaks/laughs inappropriately
- the Inspector interrupts, asserts his speaking rights (in keeping with his occupational status) and drives along his questioning
Tracing the links between context, relationships and speech styles enables students to appreciate how the key themes of power and status are built up, where they emerge and how frequently they recur. In this way they are actively opening up the play for themselves.
Renée Stanton has been teaching English for over thirty years, working in two sixth form colleges and a university. She has a PhD in English Literature and a long-standing experience of external examination assessment for a range of specification providers. She now works as a freelance writer, assessor and teacher of life-writing.
For more tips and tricks on studying An Inspector Calls check out the York Notes Study Guide, Workbook and Practice Tests.