What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?
- What role does difference play in shaping the choices that the characters make?
- What are the consequences for those individuals and groups who fall outside of a community’s universe of obligation?
- What factors can prevent people from caring for and feeling a sense of responsibility towards other people and groups within their community?
- Students will discuss the factors that shape Mrs Birling’s behaviour towards Eva Smith.
- Students will complete a ‘universe of obligation’ graphic organiser for Mrs Birling using evidence from the play.
In the previous lesson, students discussed Gerald’s behaviour, considering what his actions suggest about his character and about the societal expectations that existed in Edwardian England. In addition to considering gender roles and expectations at the time, they also began to consider the different ways that people of different classes were treated.
In this lesson, students will further their exploration of the differences in class and consider what factors influence Mrs Birling’s treatment of Eva Smith. They will have an opportunity to reflect on Mrs Birling’s actions in group discussions and by creating a universe of obligation graphic representation for her character. Such activities will not only help students gain an in-depth understanding of Mrs Birling and the social context in which the play is set, but will also encourage them to think about the factors that get in the way of people caring for and feeling a sense of responsibility towards others in their community. This understanding is important if students are to reflect on the unintended consequences of their own actions, the impact that they can have on others, and the role that difference plays in shaping who we do and do not feel responsible for.
The activities in this lesson refer to pages 40–9 of the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.
Alignment with the GCSE Specification
- Creative Writing (Lang-AO5, Lang-AO6)
- Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO1/AO4)
- Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
- Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
- Reading Comprehension (Lit-AO1, Lang-AO1)
When students read the play and explore Mrs Birling’s treatment of Eva Smith, they employ their comprehension skills and critical reading skills, looping in their knowledge of context to gain a better understanding of Mrs Birling’s choices and actions. Students build on this when completing a universe of obligation graphic organiser for her character, using their knowledge of the text and evidence-based reasoning to justify their choices. The completion of the creative writing homework creates an avenue for personal engagement as students interpret the text imaginatively, whilst the questions concerning identity encourage students to use their critical thinking skills. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to develop and 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.
Mrs Birling’s treatment of Eva Smith is not only reflective of the class prejudice that existed in Edwardian society, but also highlights how it was only women of a certain class who were regarded as deserving of protection. Women from poorer backgrounds were expected to face the harsh realities of existence and were at the mercy of the wealthy who often decided their fates.
Notes to Teacher
- Classroom-ready PowerPoint Slides
Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.
- Create an Identity Chart
- Explain to students that today they will be examining the character of Mrs Birling and learning about her involvement in the death of Eva Smith.
- Ask students to work in pairs to create an identity chart for Mrs Birling, encourage students to support their ideas by including supporting examples from the play and sociohistorical context.
- Next, ask each pair to share one idea with the class and complete an identity chart for Mrs Birling on the board.
- Read the Play
- Have four students take the relevant props from the prop box and assemble at the start of the class to perform. You will need students to fill the following roles: Sheila, Inspector, Mrs Birling, and Mr Birling.
- Read the section from ‘We hear the front door slam’ (bottom of p. 40) to the end of Act Two on page 49.
- After finishing Act Two, project the following questions onto the board one at a time and facilitate a short class discussion:
- On page 43, Mrs Birling admits being ‘prejudiced against’ Eva Smith’s case. Which features of Mrs Birling’s identity may have led to such a response? What role does difference play in this response?
- How is class explored in this section of the play? What is the link between class and power?
- What moral codes and values do Mr and Mrs Birling express in this section? How are they similar to and different from England’s moral codes today?
- Create a Universe of Obligation
- Before asking students to represent Mrs Birling’s universe of obligation, it might be useful to give them the opportunity to review the one that they created for Mr Birling.
- Ask students to work with a partner to illustrate Mrs Birling’s universe of obligation using the Universe of Obligation Graphic Organiser handout. Give students time to follow the instructions and complete the activity on the handout. It might be helpful to first quickly brainstorm some ideas on the board that are relevant to the character of Mrs Birling and Edwardian society. You may want to give students the option of adding quotations from the play to support their choices.
- Have pairs combine to create groups of four to share their universe of obligation graphic organisers and to discuss the following questions:
- How is Mrs Birling’s universe of obligation similar to or different from that of other characters? What makes you say that?
- What do you find surprising, interesting, or troubling about Mrs Birling’s universe of obligation?
- How does Mrs Birling’s universe of obligation reflect that of society as a whole in Edwardian England?
- What did the process of mapping her universe of obligation suggest about the factors that get in the way of people caring for and feeling a sense of responsibility towards others in their community?
- Reflect on Mrs Birling's Actions
- To help students consider why Mrs Birling may have treated Eva Smith the way that she did, project the following prompts and ask students to journal their responses:
- What role, if any, do the following factors play in Mrs Birling’s treatment of Eva Smith?
- Societal expectations
- Rank them from the most influential to the least influential and explain your reasoning.
- Ask students to discuss their ideas with a partner using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Then lead a class discussion, inviting students to share their views with the class.
- Finally, ask students to reflect on themselves independently in a journal response to the following questions:
- What role, if any, do these factors play in how you treat others?
- Why is it important to be aware of the factors that may impact how we choose to treat others?
Reflect More Deeply on Class, Gender, and Social Responsibility
- Explain to students that they will be working in groups to reflect on the section of the play from ‘We hear the front door slam’ (bottom of p. 40) to the end of Act Two.
- Guide students through the steps of the Save the Last Word for Me strategy, focusing on the section of the play that they read in this lesson.
- After they have finished their small-group discussions, have them discuss the following question in their groups and then as a class: What can this section of the play teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?
Be Mrs Birling
For homework, ask students to write a short speech from the perspective of Mrs Birling when she is trying to persuade the other members of the committee not to help Eva Smith. Encourage students to use the conventions of a speech (direct address, greeting, sign-off, etc.) and persuasive writing devices (repetition, rhetorical questions, emotive/descriptive language, inclusive pronouns, etc.). If helpful, give students a sentence starter (e.g. We simply cannot do as the young lady demands as she has shown herself to be a morally bankrupt individual) and a small selection of the sorts of phrases Mrs Birling would use and the reasons she would give.
Each time that students complete a piece of writing, it is important to review their work, giving them feedback if necessary to ensure that they do not develop inaccurate writing habits. When students hand in their homework, consider using the Marking Criteria Codes teaching strategy to give in-depth feedback and to boost student engagement with marking.