In An Inspector Calls, J. B. Priestley highlights socialist ideas and ideals through the representation and treatment of woman in the play. The upper-class women within 1912 society are shown to be respected and wealthy—obedient by their husbands. However, the women of the lower classes are neglected and abused by men of the higher class.
One of the most important ways women are presented in An Inspector Calls is through the portrayal of Eva’s vulnerability in the workplace. Eva Smith works for Mr Birling, a businessman that owns a factory which employs many people of the lower class. Eva Smith is fired from Birling’s factory after stirring up trouble and demanding increased pay due to unfair wages. “She’d had a lot to say- far too much- so she had to go.”.
This shows the ruthless behaviour of Mr Birling as he shows no compassion or understanding of her situation and states that she could “go work somewhere else.” The fact that she is considered to have had “too much to say” represents how women of this class lacked a “voice” in society.
Another way J. B. Priestley reveals how women are treated in An Inspector Calls is shown through Gerald’s interview with the Inspector. He depicts his encounter with Daisy Renton in detail. He met her in a bar, while she is cornered by an older fat man called Joe Maggerty. He describes the bar as a “favourite haunt of women of the town”. This eludes to the women at this establishment being prostitutes.
It is degrading and insulting. He also describes the women as “dough faced and hard eyed”. Through this disrespectful language, it reveals Gerald’s demeaning view of women. In addition to this, the description of how she was cornered by Joe Maggerty’s “fat carcass” shows the exploitation that women experienced from supposedly “respectable” men.
Another way that women are shown to be mistreated is through Eric’s attitude towards Daisy Renton. One night, he uses his strength and power to overcome her in an abusive manner. He states, “I was in a state when a chap easily turns nasty and I threatened to make a row”.
This suggests that this behaviour was the result of being intoxicated and implies that this behaviour would have been commonplace during this time. While the inspector interrogates Eric, he states that Eric “Used her for the end of a stupid, drunken evening, as if she was an animal, a thing, not a person.” The use of this simile clearly highlights the way women are treated like objects.
In addition, Priestley also shows the prejudice present within society. As a respected, well known women of the upper class, Mrs Birling is assertive and powerful, but she is also lacking compassion which is suggested in the stage directions which describe her as “cold”. The fact that she is a member of the “Brumley Women’s Charity Organization” demonstrates that she wants to be portrayed ostensibly to the community as a feminist and an advocate.
However, we soon discover that Mrs Birling is hypocritical and that unmarried women are unfairly judged by members of the upper classes. This is seen when Mrs Birling states to a girl seeking help that she should “Go look for the father of the child. It’s his responsibility.” This shows Mrs Birling’s elitist nature and how callous her demeanour is. She discriminates against the girl because she is a single mother with a child out of wedlock.
Despite this negative portrayal of women, J.B Priestley uses the character of Sheila to give some hope for the future as he highlights the way in which Sheila grows and develops in the play. This is very important because at the very beginning of the play Sheila is very childlike and needing of her parents’ approval. Sheila’s development is also evident in the way her language matures.
At the start of the play, she is submissive and states “Yes, go on, Mummy”. The word Mummy has very childlike connotations. By the end of the play, however, she states “Now, Mother – don’t you see”. This is especially important as it indicates that she has become a more confident individual with independent ideas and strong morals.
This is also ironic as despite being a member of the younger generation, she demonstrates far more insight than the older leaders of the family, Mr and Mrs Birling, who are very antiquated and don’t care what the Inspector says to them.
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