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In the play An Inspector Calls, the character of Gerald Croft is extremely significant, as he is the only perpetrator not to be a part of the Birling household. He is also the character who knew Eva Smith most intimately and has many significant ties to all of the Birling family, the largest of those being with Sheila. Yet he is also significant on a deeper thematic level: he is central to conveying playwright J.B. Priestley’s ideas of collective responsibility and acts as one of the harshest examples of the unacceptance of these ideas.
At the beginning of the play, Gerald is introduced as a member of the upper class whose position in society is held by ‘old money’. He almost flirts with Mr. Birling at his engagement dinner, and when Birling puts forward the idea of lower wages and higher prices, in a private conversation with Gerald, Gerald applauded the idea, saying “Hear, hear!”. Here, Priestley is trying to convey how the upper class’ ideals revolve around money. Gerald’s outburst of joy signifies this, as the audience may infer that he is ecstatic to the idea of further business resulting in further prosperity for himself. An audience in 1945 would be appalled by this, after a world war where the middle and lower classes fought together and learned of the working class’ struggle. However, a contemporary audience may be less affected by this, where they are living in a world of billionaires only looking to further increase their own wealth. Gerald’s reaction is also significant as it shows his disregard for Sheila, where Priestley is again highlighting the unfair, capitalistic ideologies of the upper class.
Later on in the play, Gerald reveals an emotive exterior, when he is found to have known Eva Smith. In his recollection of events, he describes Sheila as having “Big, Dark eyes”, conveying his admiration of Eva. The fact that Gerald can remember Eva’s feelings so clearly signifies his feelings towards her, and that he actually cared for Eva Smith. Priestley is trying to sow the audience that the upper class are people with feelings, and although they may be privileged and protected, they can still be sympathized with. This may bring that exact sympathy from the audience, where Gerald has taken a huge social risk in front of the Birlings to have been identified with a member of the working class. This confirms again the true nature of Gerald’s feelings for Eva. However, Priestly is still highlighting the underlying problems with the way that Gerald thinks. He describes Eva’s features, signifying his misogynistic beliefs as he portrays Eva’s physical attributes as the only ones of value to discuss, suggesting Gerald may value not actually value Eva as a human being, due to the objectification she receives from him. Priestley is again highlighting the upper class’ lack of change and development in their ideas.
Toward the end of the play, Priestley uses Gerald to illustrate how the world with such class barriers in place will have a very conservative nature. After discovering that no girl has been taken to the hospital, he says how “Everything’s alright now.” This one line destroys any hope of development and movement forward of the ideas that are held by the upper class. Gerald is clearly relieved, and so the audience can infer that the only worry he ever held was about the potential tarnishing of his reputation. He did not care for Eva. He did not rejoice in her being alive, only to rejoice in the preservation of his position. His own self-centered intentions will disappoint the audience hugely, with an audience in 1945, being angered by his lack of empathy, reminding them of the upper classes often dodging of any fighting during World War 2. Priestly is driving the audience to campaign for social change, illustrating that the upper class are incapable of making any positive change possible, and so the responsibility of the bridging the class gaps lies with the masses. This would motivate an audience from 1945, who had recently been buoyed up by the introduction of the welfare state.
Overall, the role of Gerald in An Inspector Calls is very similar to the role of Sheila Birling, since both characters are included in the story motivate the audience and make them leave the theater with increased acceptance of Priestley’s socialist ideals. While Sheila is used as an audience’s surrogate to move the audience through the play, Gerald acts as a negative pressure for the audience to retaliate against, ultimately motivating them further than Sheila. He does so potently yet indirectly: he creates an opponent for the audience to target.
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