What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?
Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls in 1945, but set the play in 1912. Learning about the historical context during and between these two time periods, and about Priestley himself, is important if students are to fully comprehend the message of the play, and if they are to start to make connections between identity, society, and the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others. By examining the world of the play and the characters’ choices and decision-making processes, students will be able to better understand and reflect on their own identities, relationships and choices. Moreover, they will start to consider how the values of a society, and its spoken and unspoken rules can impact human behaviour. Such consideration is vital if they are to become active and responsible citizens, who address and challenge the social norms that foster inequality in the present day.
In the previous lesson, students explored wealth inequality in modern society, discussing graphs produced by the Social Mobility Commission, and drawing on their own views and experiences. This exploration laid the foundation for them to better understand the context and experiences of others, and the social inequality that Priestley explores and asks his audience to confront in An Inspector Calls. This lesson begins by introducing the historical context of the twentieth century. Students will learn about important events that occurred during Priestley’s lifetime up until 1945, completing a human timeline to understand their chronology. They will also be introduced to the concepts of socialism and capitalism, which are central to the play and to understanding Priestley’s ideological motivation as a socialist. Whilst exploring socialism and capitalism, students will have the opportunity to consider the justness and fairness of both systems, ultimately reflecting on what they think would make society a more just and fair place.
Alignment with the GCSE Specification
- Application of Contextual Information (Lit-AO3)
- Clear and Coherent Writing (Lang-AO5)
- Critical Reading of Non-Fiction Texts (Lang-AO2/AO4)
- Knowledge of Subject Terminology (Lit-AO2, Lang-AO2)
- Reading Comprehension (Lit-AO1, Lang-AO1)
Students are introduced to important contextual information that will facilitate their understanding of An Inspector Calls: the sociohistorical context of Edwardian England and that which is relevant to Priestley’s life and experiences. Knowledge of these contexts is vital if students are to engage critically with the content of the play, and if they are to write in-depth analysis concerning its purpose and message. They read for comprehension and critically, reflecting on and discussing the content of a primary source. Students also learn the meaning of socialism and capitalism – two political/economic systems which are referred to in the play and which underpin its central themes. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.
Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification.
Priestley was born and raised in Bradford, a city that was then a part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. His father was a schoolmaster, and he was brought up well educated, attending, first, a local grammar school and, later, Cambridge University. Bradford, however, left its mark on him for he was able to see first-hand the conditions in which some people lived and laboured. He knew of the exploitative working conditions in the factories and textile mills (his mother, who died when he was just a baby, had in fact been a mill girl), and he used his position as a writer to publicise this mistreatment of the working class.1 An Inspector Calls is perhaps his most famous example of this work.
Priestley, who was a soldier in the First World War, wrote the play towards the end of the Second World War in the winter of 1944–45 as a response to the destruction of war and as a call to action: he wanted individuals in society to reflect on their interconnectedness to avoid such suffering from occurring again. Priestley felt that the social systems of Victorian and Edwardian society, in particular, had created conditions ripe for global conflict, and he wanted to warn against them emerging once more. Before teaching the play, it is, therefore, important for students to understand what society was like in the build-up to the First World War.
In both Victorian England (1837–1901) and Edwardian England (officially 1901–10, though it is often extended to the start of the First World War), society was characterised by social inequality: class dictated one’s opportunities and dominated social interactions; women were regarded and treated as inferior to men (indeed, they were not allowed to vote); and industrial workers endured dangerous and exploitative working conditions, but reaped none of the financial benefits of their hard-earned work. It was also, in many ways, a period of civil unrest. The Suffragette movement, which fought for women’s rights to vote in elections, was gaining ever more traction: women demonstrated outside Parliament, engaged in hunger strikes, and put their lives on the line. Emily Davison, for example, who walked in front of the King’s Horse at The Derby, died in her fight for women’s suffrage. The working class in Britain and Ireland also took to the streets in regular mass strike actions in a period known as ‘The Great Labour Unrest’ (1910–14), subsequently forming the first trade unions that fought for workers’ rights. One of the most famous strikes from this period was the National Coal Strike of 1912; in this, their first ever strike, coal miners refused to work until they were granted a minimum wage. Almost one million miners participated in this strike and it lasted for thirty-seven days until the government intervened, passing the Coal Mines Act, which gave miners the right to a minimum wage.2 Priestley uses the character of Birling to refer to these labour ‘agitations’ in the play, very much highlighting the divide between the wealthy industrialists and their workers.
The year 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War, which is remembered for its stark loss of life (it is estimated that 15–19 million people died), brutal battlefield conditions (the trenches were places of disease and danger), and for the fact that as the ‘first industrial war’ it changed the face of warfare. Priestley, who joined the war effort as a soldier when he was just 19, was greatly shaped by his experiences, and felt that the war really opened his eyes to the power of class in society. In his autobiography, Margin Released (1962), Priestley wrote, ‘I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation’s fate, the best sorted out and slaughtered . . . The tradition of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry generals had come out of the chateau with polo mallets and beaten their brains out. Call this class prejudice if you like, so long as you remember that I went into that war without any such prejudice, free of any class feeling. No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh-bone.’3
Whilst some progress was made after the First World War, society did not come far enough, and just over twenty years later in 1939, the Second World War broke out. Priestley, who was a well-established writer and social commentator by this time, was prompted to write An Inspector Calls. He wrote the play quickly at the end of 1944 and the start of 1945. The speed with which Priestley wrote the play and the fact that Great Britain was still at war meant that An Inspector Calls was first performed in Leningrad (St Petersburg) as there were no London theatres available: the Second World War meant that the London theatre scene was much diminished and the theatres which were in operation had their schedules fully programmed. Throughout the teaching of the play, it is important to remember that Priestley wrote the play as a means of encouraging us to confront the impact of our decisions and actions, both individual and collective, on others.
When reading the play, students will also need to be able to distinguish between socialism and capitalism: Socialists believe in the redistribution of wealth, and in a society in which the government is directly responsible for the well-being of all of its citizens. Capitalists, on the other hand, believe in the power of the market and the individual; they support deregulation of industry and lower taxes as they think that this encourages creativity, competition, and progress. They support a stripped back form of government as they regard society welfare support through taxation as unfair because it does not champion the success of individuals. Socialism is often regarded as the opposite of capitalism; however, both systems can work alongside each other and in reality most modern societies have both socialist and capitalist features. In the UK, for example, we have a state education system that is funded through taxation and is available to all for free. We also have high streets of shops, which sell products and services to people for profit.
- Watch a Video about Class
Explain to students that they will be watching a short video about class in 1914 Britain. Ask them to take notes in their books during this video, noting down three things that they found interesting and any questions that they had. Play the BBC video The Class System in 1914 Britain (4:22). After watching the video, give students the opportunity to reflect on its content in a Think, Pair, Share activity.
- What did people believe about Britain before the First World War? Why?
- What was one of Britain’s most valuable commodities? Who profited from this?
- How did the lives of the working class differ from those of the wealthier classes?
- Reflect on Priestly's Motivations
Project the following questions on the board and either give students a piece of paper on which to write their answers or ask them to respond to the prompts in their books based on what they learnt in the Human Timeline activity:
- What do you think prompted Priestley to write the play in 1945?
- Why do you think he chose to set the play in 1912?
Socialism vs Capitalism Feature Match
Give students the handout Socialism vs Capitalism Feature Match to complete for homework. It can be reviewed at the start of the next lesson if desired, and can be stuck into their books as a useful point of reference when reading the play.