Context

Social Context

  •  In post-war Britain, society was still suffering the divides of the Industrial Revolution.  During the Industrial Revolution, the poorer farming classes had come in their masses to the cities where jobs were created in factories, becoming the poor working class.   Their lives were often brutal, working in poor conditions in the smog and smoke of Industrial London.  The Industrial Revolution took place in the 1800s, but people very much still felt its affects in the 1900s, when the play was written and set.  Mr Birling, one of the main characters, is a factory owner, who directly disadvantages the women who work for him, refusing Eva as pay rise, and showing the disdain the upper classes held for those of lower status.

  • Thus post-war Britain, still feeling the effects of conflict, was poised between ideas of capitalism and socialism, individual rights and the rights of the money.  Priestley himself often sympathised with Socialism, though was allied with no one party.  Nevertheless the play debued in Russia in 1946, showing how closely its ideas aligned with those of contemporary Communism.  An allegory may also be drawn between the collective responsibility of the family for Sheila's downfall, and the collective responsibility of Europe for war.

  • The upper classes and upper middle classes represented by the key family of the play (Mr and Mrs Birling, Sheila, Gerald and Eric) are shown by Priestley to act hypocritically towards the lower classes.  Mrs Birling, for instance, heads a charity designed to help women, but instead turns an impoverished Eva away.  Sheila, equally, demands that Eva is fired due to her own envy of Eva's looks.  The upper classes, Priestley tells us, may outwardly display Christian charity and philanthropy to the poor of society, but in reality cast them aside like objects.

  • At the time the play was written, women's’ status was largely due to social class, specifically their husbands who represented them in society. A young lady like Sheila would have enormous pressure upon her to marry well for the good of the family. We might see Eva and Sheila's positions directly contrasted in this - Sheila is engaged to Gerald, whereas Eva has an affair, Sheila has social status due to her birth and lack of job, Eva relies on a job for money and has no social standing.

  • Capitalism, Priestley suggests, directly disadvantages women, as much as it disadvantages those who must work for a living.  Sheila's marriage to Gerald shows her status as a valuable object, infantalised and passed from the care of one man to another.  Similarly, Eva is objectified by both Gerald and Eric.  This would have been particularly controversial, as the early 1900s saw the growth of Women's Suffrage, the movement via which women campaigned for equal voting rights.

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