Write about how the difference in attitudes between the generations is presented in the play.
Throughout ‘An Inspector Calls’, J.B. Priestley suggests that humanities sole hope resides in the more modern and caring views of the younger generations as he mocks and satirises, by contrast, the selfish attitudes of the older generations. The extract from the latter half of Act 3 is the perfect epitome of this idea. Sheila and Eric react angrily at what they see as their parents’ attempts to gloss over and forget the important lessons that have been taught to the family by Inspector Goole.
In the stage directions Priestley describe Mr Birling’s tone of voice as being jovial as he states “But the whole thing’s different now” suggesting that after the shock of the Inspector’s inquisition, Birling is reverting to his early confidence and regaining his arrogant ideas, especially prevalent in Act 1. The fact he mockingly imitates the Inspectors final speech “You all helped to kill her” and is then described in the stage directions as “(Pointing at Sheila and Eric, and laughing)” emphasises his attitudes have not been changed by Inspector Goole, he is the same at Act 1 as he is in the extract. He is very selfish telling Eric and Gerald “A man has to make his own way”, as well as making fun of ideas about “community and all that nonsense” but the clearest comparison is when he says “I cannot accept any responsibility,” which Priestley is particularly critical of. This refusal to accept responsibility is a key theme in the play and Priestley emphasises that it is the older generations who are unable to do this. This can be seen in the extract when Birling says “Look, you’d better ask Gerald for that ring you gave back to him hadn’t you” as it is almost him suggesting that now no suicide has taken place no one need take responsibility for anything they have done. Gerald has still been unfaithful towards Sheila and yet Birling seems to see this in the same light as the suicide; it didn’t happen. Priestley is highly critical of this attitude, he sees it as being unfair and outdated.
Mrs Birling character is presented in an almost identical fashion to her husband, however, Priestley is perhaps even more critical of her character due to her higher social standing. In the extract when Sheila points out that Mr and Mrs Birling are acting as if everything was just as it was before, Mrs Birling asks “Well, why shouldn’t we?” Through this Priestley presents Mrs Birling’s attitudes as being similar to her husbands, she has not learnt anything from the experience with Goole, and rather she, like her husband, reverts to her own predefined convictions. In the rest of the play Mrs Birling is very cruel and callous in her attitudes towards others. She scathingly refers to Eva Smith as “Girls of that class-” indicating that she sees those who are of a lower social standing than herself as inferior. The fact that she has been told of Eva’s suicide at this point only goes to emphasise her uncaring nature hinted in the opening stage directions “a cold woman”. Priestley characterises Mrs Birling in this fashion to criticise the upper classes carelessness. They are the ones who are able to make life harder or easier for the ordinary workers and yet, Priestley suggests they do not and this is wrong. In the extract Mrs Birling almost mirrors what Mr Birling says suggesting Eric and Sheila will be “as amused as [they] are” in the same way Birling tells them they will “have a good laugh over it yet.” This mirroring is evident in the rest of the play as Mrs Birling like Birling won’t accept any responsibility for what she has done “I did nothing I’m ashamed of or that won’t bear investigation.” Priestley, clearly suggests that the upper classes and older generations are not caring or socially aware enough to recognise the flaws in their own characters.
By contrast, Priestley shows that the younger generations have a much more caring and considerate outlook and he seems to praise this perspective. Sheila is the character who Priestley presents in the most positive light. In this extract, Sheila’s and the younger generation’s views come across in a much more positive light. In response to Mr Birling’s mockery she says “It frightens me the way you talk.” By this point in the play it has become clear that Sheila rejects the attitudes of the older generations and indeed, in this example, these ideas clearly scare her. Initially in the play Priestley presents Sheila as being very similar to her parents “You talk as if we’re were responsible”, however, it doesn’t take her long to change and reject the ideas of her parents “But these girls aren’t cheap labour - they’re people.” The younger generations offer hope for Priestley and the way Sheila’s words contrast with those of her mother “Girls of that class-” show that the younger generations recognise that the differences between different social classes are very fine and to create divisions between these groups is wrong. At the conclusion of the play it is clear that Sheila will take the words of the Inspector on board as she remembers “what he said, how he looked, and what he made me feel” and as Priestley says it is the younger ones who are normally affected by the attitudes Goole embodies.
Likewise, Eric also represents the ideas of the younger generations and he also finds what his parents say “frightens [him] too.” From the outset of the play Priestley implies that, unlike the other characters Eric suspects he has done something that the Inspector is going to bring to light. This turns out to be the rape of Daisy Renton and her subsequent pregnancy. However, unlike the older generation Eric accepts his role in Eva’s death “the fact remains that I did what I did” and, even when it is revealed that the suicide was a hoax Eric still recognises that he is still responsible for his actions “You lot may be letting yourself out nicely, but I can’t.” Although arguably the character who commits the worst ‘crime’ against Eva, Priestley seems to present him in a more positive light as at least capable of reflecting on his actions and learning from his mistakes, unlike the older generations.
In conclusion, Priestley’s presentations of the different generations demonstrate that he believes the older generations views are old fashioned and outdated, offering nothing but division and cruelty. By contrast the younger generations, while not blameless, are presented more positively and their attitudes are praised by Priestley, who suggests that they present hope for the future.