An Inspector Calls comparison with Hope

4. a) Compare how business decisions are presented in these two extracts. [20].

You should consider:

  • the situations and experiences faced by the characters
  • how the characters react to the business decisions
  • how the writers’ use of language and techniques creates effects.

In both texts, business decisions are presented as decisions that are taken by the powerful but that affect the weak. In An Inspector Calls, Mr Birling makes it clear that he alone had the power to refuse a rate rise and to reinstate the strike leaders. For example, he explains that “I refused. Said I couldn’t consider [a rate rise]”. The use of the first person pronoun and short, clipped sentences emphasises the power he wields over his workers. Moreover, the relative weakness of his workers is made apparent in the way the strike is described as a “pitiful affair” and fails rapidly. The asymmetrical relationship between Mr Birling and his workers reflects the reality of the relationship between capital and labour in 1912, the year in which An Inspector Calls is set. As a result, we can see that this specific business decision illustrates the wider division between the powerful and the weak at the time. A similar division is explored in Hope, as Laura recounts how her working life was controlled by those in positions of power. She is moved from one role to another because her “new manager was worried about [her]”. The use of the euphemism “worried” suggests that this treatment might have been unmerited, idiosyncratic or even arbitrary, highlighting the power that the manager had over her. Moreover, the fact that she was literally expelled from the premises underlines the degree to which Laura was powerless to resist her manager’s decisions. Here, too, then, despite the passage of time, business decisions are clearly shown as being taken by those in positions of power, with the effects being felt by those who are unable to challenge them.

Despite this similarity, however, a difference emerges in the way that the ‘victims’ of business decisions are presented in the two extracts. In An Inspector Calls, the striking workers and Eva Smith are absent from the stage and are unable to defend themselves in person. In Hope, by contrast, Laura is on stage making her own case to Julie. By dramatising Laura’s resistance to the business decision that is set to affect her life, Jack Thorne encourages the audience to see Laura as a potentially powerful, active agent in her own life, not as a weak, passive victim. A similar contrast is played out within An Inspector Calls itself, as Mr Birling and Gerald repeatedly depersonalise the striking workers, referring to them with the generic third person plural pronoun. However, where Mr Birling speaks dismissively of “some of these people”, Eric instead notes that it isn’t a free country “if you can’t go anywhere else”. The use of the second person pronoun “you” reveals the empathy that Eric feels towards the striking workers, as he imagines himself in their position. The contrast between Eric and the other two businessmen is indicative of a division within the upper classes at the time. Priestley was hopeful that the younger generation would show solidarity across class divisions after the experience of World War II (with An Inspector Calls written in 1945). Eric, therefore, can be seen as representative of the younger generation, for whom business decisions did not simply affect nameless masses, but specific individuals.

A significant difference between the two texts is whether and how decision-makers seek to justify their decisions. Mr Birling in An Inspector Calls repeatedly suggests that he was constrained in his ability to reach any other decisions. He describes the rejection of a rate rise as his “duty” and that he “couldn’t consider” the alternative. Gerald, likewise, agrees that Mr Birling “couldn’t have done anything else” other than let the strike leaders go. By using the lexis of obligation and compulsion, Mr Birling and Gerald appear to be seeking a moral alibi to excuse their business decisions. Priestley is thereby calling attention to the hypocrisy that he identified at work in the Edwardian capitalist class, which he saw as clinging to an outwardly Christian respectability that masked a set of moral values derived purely from the profit motive. By contrast, in Hope, Julie makes no attempt to excuse the decision to close the day centre. Instead, her responses to Laura seek to offer understanding and empathy. The use of short, simple sentences, such as “Yes. I understand that.” underscores the honesty with which she is responding to Laura’s desperation. Structurally, however, this extract leads to the climax of Laura’s direct appeal to Julie not to shut “[her] day centre”. It is unclear to the audience whether Julie’s empathetic approach would be able to continue after this point or whether she too would try to excuse her business decision.