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Subverting Patriarchy in An Inspector Calls

Having recently re-read An Inspector Calls, I was struck by just how relevant the play still is, not only in terms of what it says about class and civic responsibility, but also gender, especially in light of the Me Too movement. I thought I would try to capture and distil what I take to be some of the really significant moments within the play as far as gender and patriarchy are concerned.

One of the earliest moments in the play that really struck me in this regard was Mrs Birling’s following comment to Sheila: ‘When you’re married you’ll realize that men have important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business. You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had’ (3).

A couple of different things came to mind, here:

  • There is created a clear hierarchical distinction between men and women where men ‘have important work to do’ and women must make themselves busy with something of far less importance.
  • This is said by Mrs Birling: she has internalised the social norms of the Edwardian period. It is not simply that men are telling women what to do, but that women are complicit in this also. The patriarchal ideology is so entrenched within society that is adopted and accepted by Mrs Birling.
  • There is a sense of resignation: there is nothing that can be done about this and as such Sheila will just have ‘to get used to that’. This also speaks to the idea that this ideology has been passed down through the generations: just as Mrs Birling accepted the ideology so too, in time, will Sheila. However, it is exactly this cycle that Priestley seeks to break through his play. Notice, for instance, that Sheila’s response to this is: ‘I don’t believe I will’ (half playful, half serious)’ (3). She may only be half serious now, but by the end of the play she will be entirely serious.

There is another moment slightly later in the play, which mirrors the above. Sheila returns and asks her father ‘what’s all this about’ to which he responds: ‘Nothing to do with you, Sheila. Run along.’ (17). The supremely belittling way in which Birling speaks to his daughter betrays the patriarchal nature of Edwardian society. In the same way that Mrs Birling spoke of leaving men to do man’s business so too does Mr Birling seek to exclude his daughter from this conversation.

We might also notice the phrase ‘Run along’. Priestley’s use of imperative and also the use of the short, snappy syntax reinforces that, as far as Mr Birling is concerned, what he says is absolute. It is also something that would usually be said to a child thus highlighting Birling’s view of Sheila.

So, having been entirely dismissed by her father, Sheila is then dismissed by her fiancé in much the same manner: ‘I think Miss Birling ought to be excused any more of this questioning. She’s nothing more to tell you. She’s had a long, exciting and tiring day […] and now she’s obviously had about as much as she can stand’ (27).

In the same condescending tone that Mr Birling adopted earlier in the play Gerald seeks to assert his patriarchal influence by speaking on Sheila’s behalf and as such suppressing her voice. Yet, Sheila does not accept this and assertively states that she is staying. This represents a significant change in her tone and manner that will continue from now until the end of the play.

At this point we discover Gerald’s true involvement: he met Eva whilst at an event and ostensibly took her under his wing. He offered her a place to stay and gave her money and she soon became his mistress. As Shelia summarises: ‘Gerald set her up as his mistress and then dropped her when it suited him’ (41). To Gerald, Eva is disposable: he is able to do what he wants with her with any consideration of the consequences. She is simply a plaything to him and as her name suggests she is for ‘rent’.

Whilst it is not resolved as to whether or not Gerald genuinely cared for Eva, this is not what is at stake. The point is that he put her in a compromising position: he was providing her with the necessities of life (food and shelter) and as such she no longer had a choice as to whether or not she could decline sex.

Perhaps she wanted to be with him and perhaps he cared for her, but the more salient fact is that either way she could not have said no without also casting herself out onto the street. The cruelty at the crux of the play is that different people held power over and had control of her. Whether it be as an employer, as a customer where she works, or as a man she is in a relationship with: people had power over her and then abused that power for their own ends. The play is an attempt to provoke a reconfiguration of society where no one person has a monopoly over the life of another.

This reconfiguration is, of course, fully embodied in the character of Sheila when she concedes that ‘I behaved badly too. I know I did. I’m ashamed of it’. Sheila and Eric start the play with a similar outlook to their parents but soon diverge. They grow during the play, learning the value of community and of caring for others.

This is especially true in the symbol of her engagement ring: she is at first enamoured by it only to then reject it, which in turn is a rejection of her relationship with Gerald and the materialistic values which she previously upheld. Through Eric and Sheila Priestley is modelling and promoting the behaviours that he would like to see in his audience: a rejection of Edwardian values in favour of a recognition that one must be responsible for others. If the play is didactic and seeks to impart a moral lesson then Eric and Sheila have learned this lesson whilst their parents have not.

However, it would be a mistake to think this moral lesson is only directed at the capitalist ideology espoused by the Birlings. It is also emphatically levelled at the pernicious patriarchy that both Mr and Mrs Birling represent. Sheila’s transformation is not simply one of accepting civic responsibility, but also finding a space in which to assert her autonomy and in so doing disrupt the patriarchal strictures that would otherwise control her.


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