The play An Inspector Calls presents a variety of broad themes to be interpreted by the reader, and of those themes is responsibility. Responsibility is a reoccurring message that Priestly delivers several times throughout the play, and is usually manifested by character speech and development in people such as Sheila and Eric Birling to a wider scale of the Inspector, the Birlings, Eva Smith and Gerald Croft. The play often carries varied themes of social issues such as class, age and gender and shows how prejudice can prevent people from acting responsibly in cases such as these.
Throughout each character’s response to interrogation and the Inspector’s treatment towards them, morality and responsibility come up side by side. Inspector Goole’s method of debriefing the characters by accusing them of their crimes put them on edge and force them to spill the truth. The Inspector wanted each member of the family to share the responsibility of Eva’s death: he tells them, ‘each of you helped to kill her’ — (referring to Eva Smith) to add depth to the situation. “One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us…” Here, the Inspector is referring to collective responsibility on a wider scale, linking society in the same way everyone is connected to Eva Smith. He suggests that everyone is a united front and sees society as a factor that is more important than the lives of individuals. Priestley uses common names to show how universal the suffering of the working class is – it is not just women, but also men who experience this pain, and this leads to the social theme of gender prejudice.
Mr. Birling’s concept of morality is seen as a short-sighted view of ‘every man stands for himself’, meaning that he believes one should take responsibility for their individual actions and that no one can morally affect another when he proclaims that ‘a man has to look after himself and his own’. His attitude towards morality is further revealed when he shows that his main concern revolved around the presentation of his honorable name as a Birling and how it could be tarnished by the suicide linking them to her, not by Eva Smith’s wellbeing or her affairs. Therefore Birling shows no relative concept of responsibility for anything other than his dignity and is interpreted as Priestly shows how morally out of touch the older generation can be by showing how Arthur leads himself to believe that everything he has is a direct consequence of his own power and achievement.
Although Arthur Birling shows close to little signs of taking responsibility for Eva Smith’s suicide, his son showed remorse and grief for the young girl’s story. Priestly presented the younger generation to be more responsible, as opposed to Sybil and Arthur Birling, which links to the theme of age. Eric shows moral sensitivity towards the ending of the play alongside Sheila by notably saying, ‘so what, the girls still dead, no one’s brought her back, have they?’ which highlights his own way of claiming responsibility for his actions. Although Eric started as an immature, slightly squiffy young man which a small role in the play, Priestly uses character development to get Eric to own up to his actions. The seven deadly sins are also seen through the characters as the young Birling symbolized the consequence of lust that could be linked with greed. Despite the fact that the play was written 72 years ago, Eric displays futuristic views and opinions on moral and general principles when labour versus capital was not as developed as it was today. He also shows this when he challenges Mr. Birling for firing Eva Smith, firing back at his defensive lines with an attitude relating to things like ‘He could have kept her on,’ and ‘Why shouldn’t they try for higher wages?” which displays how he feels about the side and choice that Birling took, which he feels is wrong.
Sheila shows a similar stance to her brother in the theme of responsibility. Going back to the seven deadly sins, her portrayal of envy and pride when she was jealous of Eva Smith goes back to her being an irresponsible, possessive figure. Priestly wants us to see Sheila as an independent individual with her own views on social issues. For example, when Sheila learned that Mr. Birling sacked Eva Smith over wages she speaks out against her father by saying, ‘but these girls aren’t cheap labour — they’re people’. This illustrates the image that the young woman has her own sense of mind and is willing to challenge his authority by attacking sexist points of view, relating back to Eric and generation differences. Priestly uses figures of a younger class to go against capitalist views of the world in the form of Mr. Birling, using dramatic irony when Mr. Birling talks about the Titanic as ‘unsinkable’. He used stage directions and settings to create the play in 1912, just before the Titanic did, ironically, sink. A 1945 audience can relate to Sheila’s feminist views as there was a social change shown in Labour’s landslide win the general election and women gaining the right to vote. Overall, Sheila’s take on responsibility is delivered clearly through Priestly’s relevance to development as she takes full acceptance of her actions from the middle and end of the play and shows signs of repeated guilt and self-blame — this is why Sheila is the most important character in presenting and developing the theme of responsibility.