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In J.B Priestley’s timeless, symbolic sermon about social conscience, he explores the change in Eric Birling: from an intractable and pompous juvenile to a mature and increasingly confident socialist. His transformation is perhaps the easiest for the audience to relate to: he blames the world for his mistakes but gradually accepts his social responsibility.
In the opening stage directions of Act One, Eric is presented as an obnoxious and juvenile boy. Priestley wrote the play during 1912 and he believed in many philosophers, one being John Locke who theorised that all human beings are born with ‘tabula rasa’ (empty minds) and are then shaped by nurture rather than their inherent nature. Indeed, Eric is initially presented as an immature man through the stage directions: ‘early twenties, not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive’. The adjective phrase ‘early twenties’ could suggest that he may not have many life experiences because of his young age, however, later in the play he does have a growing independence from his family (instigated by the Inspector) and Priestley does this to show how the younger generation have a malleable mind set, perhaps foreshadowing his inevitable change. Another interpretation of this stage direction is the juxtaposition between ‘shy’ and ‘assertive’ which instantly tells the audience that he is flawed from the beginning and is an awkward outsider as he ‘suddenly guffaws’. The audience is made to feel nervous and suspicious that Eric is hiding something from his family. Moreover, the juxtaposition can highlight his drunkenness which is revealed later in the play. That Eric mixes these worlds together: his wild drinking and conservative, capitalist household, suggests he wants to escape from capitalism. This makes the audience sympathise with his obnoxious yet nervous outlook as, after two devastating world wars, the people in 1946 yearned for a more peaceful and socialist future.
Secondly, in the rising action of the play, Eric appears to emulate Inspector Goole through his use of religious imagery, yet also takes on the role of a man who has revealed and repented his mistakes, implying that he is in the process of purging himself of his former capitalist beliefs. J.B Priestley also believed that nihilism was created from a lack of moral conscience and faith in God. As the Inspector rails against nihilism we can see his direct influence on Eric’s persona, enacting his change from an obnoxious, recalcitrant juvenile to a free minded and socialist man: ‘And that’s when it happened. And I don’t remember – that’s the hellish thing. Oh my God!’ The lexical field of Hell and Heaven can be viewed through the words ‘hellish’ and ‘God’, indicating that through the Inspector’s moral conscience, he has been reminded of his moral obligations to the vulnerable and prompted to reject his previously immoral behaviour. However, it can also emphasise the reckless sin of lust he has committed yet he refrains from the topic using the euphemism ‘it’. This induces the audience of 1946 to be angered due his lack of religious and social awareness towards women (although during 1912 women were viewed as possessions). Another interpretation of the lexical field is that it could allude to a second major Christian sin of sloth because Eric was too lazy to see or analyse his own actions and how they affected the life and livelihood of Eva Smith. Priestley uses the characternym of Eva to highlight how Eric corrupted the innocence of ‘Eve’ and it makes his sins seem more horrific. The audience in 1946 would be predominantly Christian and so would accept and understand Eric’s utter regret – emphasised through his fragmented and broken down language. Eric has changed through the Inspector’s visit and now understands the society around him; the audience can see him shifting through his cry to God – a symbol of his utter regret and remorse.
Finally, in Act Three, the audience witness the complete change in Eric Birling through his socialist persona as he becomes confident and fluent in his language as opposed to his previous polite and euphemistic statements. During 1946, a left wing party growing in popularity epitomised the victory of liberal political thinking: the Labour Party. This benefited much of society, mainly the working class who fought for equality and rights to vote as power. We can see this socialist attitude in Eric’s demeanour: ‘(shouting) The girl’s dead and we all helped to kill her – and that’s what matters!’ The active verb in the stage directions, ‘(shouting)’ highlights him fighting like those in the Labour party did and presents him as a confident and changed man. Priestley fought for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised and was an advocate for socialism – hence he uses Eric as his mouthpiece to convey his opinions. Another interpretation of ‘(shouting)’ conveys how passionate and enthusiastic Eric is about social responsibility and further highlights his change and shift towards socialism. Within the dialogue his language: ‘dead’ and ‘we all’ highlights him emulating Inspector Goole as he prompts those around him to accept their own responsibilities. The audience can feel his presence on stage and the didactic lesson of social responsibility resonates with them.
In conclusion, there is a stark contrast between Eric’s initial introduction as ‘half shy’ which shows he is immature and undeveloped in his attitude towards others and sense of social responsibility to how his character develops over time. Towards the denouement of the play, his confidence highlights his change. Priestley uses Eric as a reliable symbol to teach the younger generation that they can change. A deconstructive reading would highlight that the audience are given a dichotomy between the younger and older generation – Eric teaches the audience in 1946 that they have the large capacity to change and transform society through this shattering of the middle class illusion of respectability.
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