Relationships Between Two Generations in Priestley’s An Inspector Calls

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How are the relationships between the two generations presented by Priestly?

One of the main themes presented by Priestley in “An inspector calls” is the divide between the two generations who both have different ideas in response to taking responsibility or changing their actions in the future. This is shown through the direct relationships between characters of different generations and the tension created which is presented through the change in tones of voices towards other characters and the development in the way they interact. The concept of different generations is also explored more generally which at the time would have the audience questioning the idea of a segregated society with clear divisions between the different classes which was very topical when the play was first performed in 1945.

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One way the relationships between the two generations is clearly presented to the audience is through the interaction between Shelia and Mrs Birling, whose relationship arguably shows the most development. At the beginning of the play Sheila refers to Mrs Birling as “mummy” but by the end of Act three she simply calls her “mother”. This distinctive change from colloquial to more formal language may reference that Sheila has grown up out of her immaturity and naivety. However, an alternative interpretation is that she has become more distanced from her mother as he disapproves of her actions and her denying her involvement in the accident of Eva Smith. Furthermore, during the three acts Sheila becomes more independent and stands up for what she believes in. Mrs Birling says “[After a pause recovering herself] Sheila I simply don’t understand your attitude”. The concept of young women speaking against their mothers in a more aggressive manner and speaking for themselves may mean that in this play Sheila is a symbol for the drastic change in the role of women in society and the idea that they can stand up for themselves. Furthermore, Sheila is also shown to the audience as being more mature than her mother in regards to her understanding of the fact that class and social status will not change the situation they are stuck in. Sheila states “We’ve no excuse now for putting on airs and if we’ve any sense we won’t try”, stating that no matter the position they hold in society it does not change their actions or give them an excuse for acting the way they did. So therefore, one way in which Priestley presents the generation gap is between the development of individual character relationship such as Sheila and Mrs Birling and their different views on ideas such the importance of social class.

In general, the relationships between the two generations and not presented to the audience in a positive light and generally hint towards a lack of love and closeness. There is an overall lack of community and familiarity within the family itself first presenting to us through the stage direction “The general effect is substantial and heavily comfortable but not cosy and homelike”. This quote shows how the Birling’s use the accumulation of their possessions to show off their status or an alternative interpretation is that their home is seen as fake and pretend and therefore may be inferring to the audience that they buy possessions to make up for the love they don’t have. This idea of there not being any intimacy in the relationship is heavily emphasised in the relationship between Eric and his parents. When Eric is first presented to us he is said to be “[Not quite at ease]”, indicating that he is not comfortable sitting with his family also suggesting it is a rare occasion that they are all together. Furthermore, the idea that Mrs Birling was unaware of Eric and his drinking problem insinuates that she is not involved in his life as she is described as being “[shocked]”. Additionally, Eric is described as saying “[bitterly] you haven’t made it any easier for me mother”, the adjective “bitterly” implies that he doesn’t have any real love for her. As a result, this idea of a lack of caring between the two generations is shown to the audience through actual stage directions as well as the involvement Mrs Birling had in her son’s life.

Priestley also explores the relationship between the two generations in general by presenting different reactions and ideas towards concepts such as responsibility and being forced to recognise the significance of their actions and the consequences they had. The two characters belonging to the younger generation, Sheila and Eric, both show willingness to acknowledge their roles in the incident, for example, Sheila says, “I behaved badly too. I know I did. I’m ashamed of it”. This greatly contrasts with Mr and Mrs Birling who are both unable to the see the importance of the actions presented to the audience clearly through Mrs Birling saying “I accept no blame”. Furthermore, Sheila and Eric and both more moved by the incident involving Eva Smith and are seen as more empathetic with Sheila being described as “[distressed]”. The younger generation also seem to be more in touch with their human emotions and face their consciousness, yet the older generation seem to be unable of evoking pathos as they ultimately resort to money to solve everything. Mr Birling offers to pay “thousands and thousands” in order to right the death of Eva Smith suggesting that he does not think there is another way to express his guilt which he ultimately ends up denying. Therefore, the two generations are brought together by Priestley when they are faced with concepts such as responsibility and the way they deal with their guilt. Furthermore, how they express their emotions, whether they are more in touch with their feelings or if they are clouded by materialistic objects such as money.

The two generations are also related as a whole and the differences between them are compared when it comes to the idea of people changing their ways, mostly explored in the end of Act Three when the prospect of the Inspector being a hoax arises. The younger generation are opposed to the thought of them reverting to their selfish ways shown through Sheila saying “[passionately] You’re pretending everything is just as it was before”. Sheila and Eric are both willing to accept the consequences and as a result change their ways and become better people. This juxtaposes with the older generation who admit their actions yet still they refuse to change their ways and are “ready to go on in the same old way” pretending as nothing ever happened. This unwillingness to change also shows that they think they can get away with their actions and nothing will ever happen but also disregard what happened because the girl was of a lower class in comparison to them. Therefore, the willingness to change is something that relates the two different age groups together with the younger generation willing to become better people in the future. This clearly shows Priestley’s message that some people who are stuck in their traditional ways are only concerned about themselves and not with others and the world will only begin to change for the better when people adopt Sheila and Eric’s point of view.

In conclusion, the idea of the contrasting two generations is one of the most prevalent ideas Priestley explores because when the play was performed in 1945, it was a time of women holding more importance as well as the divisions between social classes diminishing, something that the two different generations held distinctive views on. This concept is explored through characters being symbolic such as Sheila representing the new role of women in society and the two younger characters holding beliefs that they need to change their ways and attitudes towards the lower class by accepting responsibility for their actions as well as facing their consciousness. This then allows them to feel empathy for others something the contrasting older generation seem incapable of doing. Not only does Priestley explore the overall relationship between the two generations by seeing the way their views contradict, but he also explores it more deeply through individual relationships of characters. In these two ways, he effectively presents to the audience the idea of the opposing generations and their relationships.

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