Planning your answer
Before beginning an answer, it is important that you plan it carefully. You must ensure that all the points you make are relevant to the question and that you are addressing the assessment objectives.
Below is a structure you could use for your answer:
- Introduction - show you know where the extract is from.
- Who is Mr Birling?
- Point 1 - How is he presented in this extract?
- Point 2 - What ideas does he represent?
- Point 3 - How is he presented in the rest of the play? Does he change?
- Conclusion - sum up your main ideas.
Consider how Mr Birling is presented in the extract and the ideas he represents.
Sample answer 1
In this extract Mr Birling is shown as being ignorant; he makes a joke out of young peoples' behaviour, suggesting "you don't know what some of these boys get up to nowadays" but he does not know that his own son has been drinking heavily and mistreating Eva Smith. Mr Birling also shows that he is very arrogant, stating that "a man has to make his own way - has to look after himself" showing that Mr Birling believes that everyone should look after themselves. J B Priestley did not believe this. He thought we should look after one another. Finally, Mr Birling shows that he can be quite sexist. After talking to Eric and Gerald, he says that they will "join the ladies. That'll stop me giving you good advice". Mr Birling sees men and women as being two separate species: the advice he gives is only good for the men that he is with. This shows that he does not see men and women as equal.
Feedback - good but could be improved
- This answers the question but there could definitely be further exploration.
- There are good quotations chosen but they explain their impact rather than explore them. They could consider the impact on the audience further.
- Some of the writer's ideas are mentioned but there is not enough detail. Ideas on age, social responsibility or context of the play are not mentioned.
Sample answer 2
Priestley presents Mr Birling in a negative light in this extract. Priestley does this by showing Mr Birling's ignorance when he says that they "don't know what some of these boys get up to nowadays." He is joking here about the behaviour of young men, but he has no idea that his own son has a drink problem, has stolen money from him and has had an affair that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. Perhaps Priestley is making a point about gender and age, that older male role models do not take the excesses of younger men as seriously as they should. This lack of understanding between the generations is reflected again when Mr Birling states that "so many of you don't seem to understand now". Mr Birling again shows his ignorance, referring to young men as 'you', putting them all together in one group and not seeing them as individuals. Mr Birling’s ideas about social responsibility are summed up when he tells Eric and Gerald that is “a man has to make his own way – has to look after himself”. Here Priestley presents in a very obvious way Mr Birling’s selfish outlook and lack of concern for others, highlighting one of his key ideas in the play, that of social responsibility. Mr Birling doesn’t agree with the idea that we should look after one another “like bees in a hive”; Priestley strongly disagreed with this idea and used the play to try to convince the audience of the time that they should care for the needy, not just ignore them. It is interesting to note that whilst Mr Birling is in the middle of his speech, suggesting that a man should "look after himself and his own-and-", he is interrupted by the 'sharp ring' of the doorbell. This signals the arrival of the Inspector. The ring of the doorbell at this moment could be a suggestion by Priestley that it signals the arrival of a character who has the power to interrupt Mr Birling and to challenge his arrogant assumptions.
Feedback - much better!
- This answer shows a good understanding of the question. The response is clear, thoughtful and evaluative.
- The quotes are explored in detail, considering the impact of specific words. The impact on the audience could be looked at more.
- The answer shows a clear understanding of the ideas that J B Priestley wanted to get across with this play and the points are explored fully. There could be a bit more detail around context - what were the issues at the time of writing?
Use the skills you have learnt and revised whilst reading this chapter and write your own response to An Inspector Calls. Time yourself and try to hit all the assessment objectives.
Trace the different levels of tension throughout the play. How does Priestley create tension?
To answer this question, you might want to consider some factors associated with tension: twists, pace, momentum, and so on. It is important to consider what the audience knows and does not know at any given point, as well as the clues that Priestley drops. Note that some tension can be found within a character and that some can be found between characters. You can consider tension similarly to the way you consider conflict, but do not just name the conflicts; this question asks you to examine the different levels or magnitudes of tension and how Priestley produces tension for the characters and for the audience.
The Inspector is nothing more than a perfectly human hoaxer, and Priestley makes it clear. Do you agree?
This question asks you to focus on the role of the Inspector. You might begin by explaining how you might justify the premise in the question, noting the evidence that suggests he is a human hoaxer, then opening your answer out to take in some other points of view. Consider that Priestley might have left the Inspector's identity ambiguous on purpose.
How are Birling and the Inspector coming from "opposite ideological points of view"?
This question asks you to focus on two characters and how their political and social views differ. Use a lot of quotations from the play to develop an understanding of the different standpoints of each character. Consider what each one seems to believe about the role of an individual in society, and use the theme of responsibility as a major guide. It might also be helpful to consider a few similarities.
Delineate the "chain of events" that allegedly led to Eva Smith's death.
This question simply asks you to explain the chain of events that led to Eva Smith's death, from the point of view of the Inspector. A good answer to this question might go further and look at the idea of the "chain of events" itself, who believes in it, and its relevance as a metaphor.
Write a character analysis of Gerald Croft.
Outline his characteristics based on what he says and what he does, both during the play and before it begins. Try to assess both the good and the bad things about him before drawing a conclusion.
Why is time an important theme in Priestley's play?
Focus not only on time as a concept (consider what Priestley thought and wrote about time) but also on the pecularities of time as it applies to this play in particular. Think about how the Inspector in particular has to do with this theme, and consider how the past actions of individual characters build the scenario of Eva's death, the interrogations and judgments of the present, and the Inspector's warning about the future.
J.L. Styan has written that the play's final twist gives a "spurious emphasis irrelevant to the substance of the play." Might he be wrong?
This question asks you to engage with a critical opinion regarding the final twist of the play. First, outline your view of the final moments of the play, focusing on the strange news and the themes involved. Do these themes intensify or distract from the play thus far and the play as a whole? Does the news put a kind of bracket around the rest of the play that gives the whole episode with the Inspector a new meaning? If so, does this put us in the place of Mr. Birling, such that the theme of responsibility no longer has as much weight if it was all a hoax or a weird supernatural event--or does the prospect of it having been a supernatural event invest the idea of responsibility with even greater import?
Make the case for Edna being the play's most important character.
This question asks you to look at the role of Edna and consider how she, perhaps more than anyone else, might be central to the play and its themes. If Edna represents the living objects of all of the characters' present social responsibilities, she may be even more important than the deceased Eva. If in some sense the rich have a social responsibility toward the poor, then perhaps Edna embodies the central message of the play regarding the need to look out for one another. A good essay also will examine the counter-evidence: perhaps at best she is a symbol of the play's message and in that sense only a minor character. And isn't social responsibility really about each person's responsibility to all others, rather than the one-sided class-based responsibility, drawing on old notions of a social elite, that would narrowly see the class issue as central to the play?
Compare An Inspector Calls to another play by Priestley that you have read.
This play asks you to look at An Inspector Calls against another play by Priestley. Time and the Conways or I Have Been Here Before might be good choices. Consider the similarities and differences in the plays' plots, characters and, of course, dominant or important themes and apparent messages. Also consider the historical context of the plays.
To what extent is Birling essentially a comic character, lacking a serious or ominous side?
This question puts forward quite a provocative view of Birling. Most readers will disagree with the idea that there is no serious dimension to Birling's actions and words or that there is nothing ominous presented about his allegedly selfish views and politics. Yet, keen readers will notice the moments at which an audience might find Priestley's presentation of him and his views comic, especially for the sake of making his views seem ludicrous. Weigh both sides of the issue before drawing a conclusion for your essay.