A Study of the Conflict Between Different Generations as Depicted in John Boynton Priestley' S Play An Inspector Calls

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Conflicts between groups are inevitable. One often hears of the term ‘generation gap,” which is defined as the difference in perspective between different generations. This generation gap is what often causes disputes between parents and children within families. In An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestley portrays this conflict between generations through the dissonance between Mr. and Mrs. Birling and their children, Eric and Sheila.

One of the main causes of disputes between generations is their divergent views. This is noticeable even during the first act of the play as Eric and Sheila’s upset reaction to the news of Eva Smith’s suicide and her being fired from Birling and Company is vastly different from Mr. Birling’s indifferent response. Before Eric and Sheila even knew the identity of the deceased girl, they burst out with exclamations of “My God!” and “Oh-how horrible!” Priestley use of stage directions further supports their genuine sympathy toward Eva with Eric’s “involuntarily” expression of shock and Sheila’s “rather distressed” figure (301, 306). The conflict between Mr. Birling and his children begins when Inspector Goole reveals that Mr. Birling had fired Eva for leading a strike for higher wages at his company. Eric defends the girl as he steps into her shoes - “why shouldn’t [she] try for higher wages? [Businessmen] try for the highest possible prices” (305). Sheila takes a similar stance as she argues that lower class young women such as Eva “aren’t cheap labor - they’re people” (308). On the opposite side of the spectrum, Mr. Birling not only brushes Eva’s death off simply as a “horrible business,” he doesn’t feel any sense of remorse or responsibility despite the words from his children and the inspector (301). Mrs. Birling’s attitude is just as bad as her husband’s as she insists that she has “done nothing wrong” and that Eva “had only herself to blame” (327-328). In the play, Priestley portrays the older generation with a capitalist view while the younger generation with a slightly more socialist view.

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Another cause for lack of agreement between generations is their dynamic and static states. Both Eric and Sheila have completely changed during the course of the play. They have become more mature as Eric is no longer the “drunken young idler” and Sheila no longer the shallow girl who won’t stop “admiring her ring” (297, 330). Eric and Sheila both admit their wrongdoings and are greatly sorry for what they did to poor Eva. Not only that, they have become more outspoken about their moral beliefs. In the last act of the play, Priestley has their characters deliver their lines “passionately” and act towards Mr. and Mrs. Birling “scornfully” and “bitterly” (338, 348). Eric and Sheila also take a further step in trying to convince Mr. and Mrs. Birling to accept their faults; however, their parents are not affected by the experience in the slightest and are ready to pretend “nothing really happened” and there’s “nothing to be sorry for, nothing to learn” (348). Eric and Sheila are “absolutely ashamed” of Mr. and Mrs. Birling who are “ready to go on in the same old way” (338, 348). After the inspector leaves, the older Birlings still accept “no blame for it at all” and firmly state that they had “every excuse” for their actions toward Eva Smith (330, 338). The older generation tends to be more stubborn in maintaining their traditional views while the younger generation are more open-minded.

Conflicts between generations also arise when the older generations don’t take the younger ones seriously. Older people feel more knowledgeable and superior to the “children” and Priestley effectively portrays this through the play’s dialogue. In Act I, Mr. Birling lectures the children about the greatness of capitalism. He tells the “youngsters” to take his “word for it” and even cuts off Eric in the middle of his sentence as he proceeds with his rant about the “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” Titanic and how “there isn’t a chance for war” (297, 300) This is a clever use of dramatic irony by Priestley as the audience knows that the Titanic in fact sinks on her maiden voyage in 1912, while World War I breaks out only a few years later. Mrs. Birling also treats her children as naive as she brushes off Sheila’s urgent warning about the inspector’s interrogation and labels Eric as “only a boy” who would never drink (317). This discredits the older Birlings and their views in the eyes of the audience, which was Priestley’s intended effect. Even after they were proven wrong, Mr. and Mrs. Birling still have the audacity to think their children are talking “nonsense and should “just be quiet” and leave all matters to them (340).

Conflicting views, open-mindedness, and arrogance and superiority are significant sources of disparity between generations. In today’s society, open-mindedness is a beneficial trait while arrogance is a detrimental characteristic. As the play ends with a phone call from the actual police regarding a girl’s suicide, Eric and Sheila who were willing to accept their responsibilities have learned from their mistakes and won’t make them again, while Mr. and Mrs. Birling who refuse to do so are bound to repeat history again and ultimately cause their own downfall.

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