I’m an English teacher, so I love a metaphor. My obsession with applying metaphor to things must be a major character flaw; but I genuinely find them helpful. They’re a lighthouse in the storm of life. And I hope that usually they’re better than that lighthouse one.
As an English teacher, I’ve also taught JB Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ approximately four and a half million times in my career so far, and yet despite knowing the play intimately, and blogging about it here, I have never quite managed to boil it down to a single concept that the students can use for any exam question and still find useful.
I’ve been encouraging the students this week to think of the play as one big game of chess, in which Priestley constantly shuffles his characters around the board in order to achieve his final aim. It’s a tactical masterclass that builds to the ‘checkmate’ moment: Inspector Goole’s ‘fire, blood and anguish’ speech. As the Inspector finishes his speech (basically the entire message of the play explicitly bottled into one sublime paragraph) Priestley needs the audience to have no choice but to agree with him. By that point, Priestley has spent two and a half acts positioning his characters in such a way that his message seems impossible to argue with. Mr Birling has been established as a pantomime idiot, and Mrs Birling has revealed herself to be a monstrous villain, rendering their views on the subject unpalatable to all concerned. Eric has come clean about his actions (some quite forgivable, others less so) and Sheila has transformed herself into a kind of angelic ‘Saint Socialist’ figure. The audience cannot help but side with Inspector Goole, and by extension, with Priestley.
Like a chess master, Priestley makes his moves at exactly the right time. It’s not just THAT the characters are positioned carefully, it’s WHEN they are positioned there. Mr Birling needs to be the first to be undermined. He is the head of the family, and so to have him so firmly established as a pompous arrogant fool critically undermines every argument he makes; and Priestley makes sure he makes plenty. Sheila and Eric both display signs early on that there is more to them than meets the eye, but these traits are kept firmly in check by Priestley while Mr Birling spends the majority of the first act making a fool of himself. Once he has done this, slowly Sheila begins to reveal her humanity in the way she begins to distance herself from her father. Eric is taken out of the equation while we learn some important information about him that sets up our sympathy for later on in the play, only re-emerging after Mrs Birling has built her own gallows with her despicable diatribe about ‘girls of that class’ and how the father of Eva’s baby should be held responsible, destroying her credibility in the process. Eric clearly needs a guide to navigate his guilt, and by the time he returns, Sheila has matured into the perfect character for this job. The gulf between the older and younger generation is now clear, and the first half of Act Three is used to further cement it, so that by the time Inspector Goole delivers his final speech, the audience cannot help but agree whole-heartedly with him. Priestley has us right where he wants us. Checkmate.
So, if students begin to view that speech as the single key defining moment of the play, they can start to see how everything that goes before is leading up to it. This means they have a central focus point around which any exam question can revolve. If the question is about how Priestley makes the opening effective, they can relate it to that moment. If the question is about how Priestley makes the ending effective, they can discuss it in relation to that moment. If the question is about a character, (even Gerald) they can relate it to that character’s role in shaping that moment. It’s a one-size-fits-all metaphor that can help the students focus their writing.
I’ve attached the sheet I gave the students to start mapping each character’s journey, not only the shape of it but the importance of WHEN things happen in the play. Hope it can be helpful!