Contrasts in Priestley’s An Inspector Calls

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An Inspector Calls has been called a ‘play of contrasts’. Write about how Priestley presents some of the contrasts in the play

An Inspector calls addresses the problems faced by society such as the hierarchy and class system and different ideologies which were seen as topical in 1945 when the play was first performed in the Soviet Union and later in 1946 in the United Kingdom. These problems are emphasised to the audience through the clashing of ideals, characters and other contrasts which are evident in the play. Techniques used by Priestley such as contrastive pairs as well as irony are used as the play develops to engage the audience but also further the use of contrasts.

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One way in which a contrast is portrayed throughout the play is the two opposing generations and their clashing views on society. One way in which their opposing ideas are presented to the audience is through their willingness to accept responsibility. The younger generation of the Birling family comprising of Shelia and Eric accept their responsibility and the role they played in the suicide of Eva Smith. Sheila when addressing the problem states, “I behaved badly too. I know I did. I’m ashamed of it”, clearly showing her willingness to acknowledge her role in the incident but also address how she feels about her own actions and recognising that they do affect other people and their lives. Similarly, Eric states “You lot may be letting yourselves out nicely, but I can’t”, when addressing Mr and Mrs Birling. Like Sheila, he to understands the affect his actions and understands that there must be consequences for what he has done. Contrastingly, the older generation at first try to deny any involvement in the situation and even once they admit their actions they refuse to change their ways and are “ready to go on in the same old way” and begin to ignore the consequences of their actions once the prospect of the Inspector being a hoax arises. So therefore, the generation gap that runs throughout the play addresses one of the key themes of accepting responsibility and how different ages respond to facing consequences and admitting they have done wrong.

Another contrast represented in the play is presented by the different mannerisms and views of the Inspector and Mr Birling. The introduction of the Inspector in the play is described as him creating “[at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness]” and throughout the play he “[takes charge massively]”which contrasts with the authority of Mr Birling which is presented to the audience as insignificant and in the beginning stage direction of Act One the Birling’s home is said to be “[the general effect is… heavily comfortable, but not cosy or home-like]”. This quote shows how the Birling’s use the accumulation of their possessions to show off their status and enforce a sense of authority. Nevertheless, their home is seen as fake and pretend and therefore may be inferring to the audience that the power Mr Birling holds is fictitious. So, in this way one contrast is created between the Inspector and Mr Birling, however the contrast between them creates tension and helps it to escalate in the beginning of the play in order to engage and captivate the audience. Furthermore, this juxtaposition between characters introduces a key contrast that is discussed in regards to ideologies which were a topical idea at the time seen as the first performance of the play was when the Cold War was said to have started in 1945. Mr Birling is presented to the audience as portraying characteristics similar to capitalism such as a lack of community spirit and a belief of rugged individualism as seen in this quote “a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own- and-”. This speech is then immediately interrupted by the “[sharp ring of the doorbell]” which is the introduction of the Inspector who, in the play, is represented as the belief of communism with him expressing his ideas of humans being part of “one body”. Mr Birling’s speech is purposefully halted by Priestley in order to portray to the audience that the Inspector is attempting to put a stop to the capitalist views that Mr Birling has. This may infer that the play writer was attempting to show to the audience that the traditional capitalist views should be abandoned for the rapidly expanding views of communism. Therefore, the effect of this contrast to the audience is that they think more deeply about views on the community and conventional ideas they hold concerning how society should be run.

The idea of a social class and hierarchical society is further expressed to the audience through the problems faced by those of a lower class and the derogatory views on the less privileged that the upper class tend to hold. Social prejudice is explored and presented to the audience by the character’s reactions to the incident. When Mr Birling becomes aware of the incident and his involvement he asks the Inspector “what happened to her after that? Get into trouble? Go on the streets?”. This stereotypical view held by him implies that anyone of a working class is seen as “trouble” which has disparaging connotations. Furthermore, when Eva Smith appeals to Mrs Birling’s charity organization for aid then Mrs Birling, regarding Eva Smith making use of the Birling name, states that “she was giving herself ridiculous airs… claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position”. This shows to the audience that the upper class tended to hold views that those lower down the social ladder would never be of any importance. Additionally, throughout the play the characters never use her name but simply refer to her as “girl”. During the period when the play was set and performed, a person’s name tends to show their status and position in society. Seen as Eva Smith was not even referred to by her name suggests that she has no authority in society and as a result didn’t deserve to be called by her name. Therefore, the stereotypical views when regarding the lower class and the treatment of people in the working class shows the discrimination they faced in the community and presents the problem to the audience and lets them think about the consequences of their actions.

Lastly, Priestley further shows contrasts towards the audience through the actual techniques he uses. One technique he uses in order to captivate the audience and also provide another contrast is irony created through Mr Birling’s speech. Priestley is able to use Irony as the play is set 33 years before it was performed in 1912. As a result he can use irony in order to portray Mr Birling as an ignorant and uneducated character but also to contrast the knowledge of the audience in today’s society in comparison to the society it was set in and show development or lack of change. An example of the ironies used in his speeches is “The Titanic… unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” and also “The Germans don’t want war”, referencing the outbreak of WW2 which occurred two years later in 1914. Another technique used to create contrast is contrastive pairs which are more evident and highlighted through a use of three in the Inspectors last speech before he exits such as “hopes and fears… suffering, and chance of happiness”. The juxtaposition between the noun “hope” and “fear” is a clear example of a contrastive pair. These techniques used by Priestley help to further amuse the audience and engage them in order to show the problems faced by society clearly.

In conclusion, there are many contrasts represented in the play through either techniques used or problems expressed to the audience such as a difference in generations between the characters as well as the gap and difference between classes in society. These problems are all highlighted to the audience further by internal arguments or increasing tensions between characters or difference in viewpoint such as ideologies. So therefore, an Inspector calls can be seen as a ‘play of contrasts’ by the audience due to the problems in society that are presented to them.

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