Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Set two years before the start of a devastating world war, Eden End evokes a simpler time in an innocent world. The title itself implies that loss of innocence. J. B. Priestley had lived his formative years in Bradford, a city in Yorkshire. After World War I, in which he was wounded and gassed, he looked back at the prewar world with fondness and affection. It became in retrospect a golden world, too fragile to survive the changes, both social and economic, that would mark the postwar years. It had been a time of optimism, of faith in the values of home and family. Great Britain had ruled an empire, creating jobs and opportunity for young men such as Wilfred Kirby. Those opportunities would disappear, along with the empire, in the years of the Great Depression.
As his characters look to a bright future that will not in fact dawn for them, Priestley suggested to the audience that their present complex time, the 1930’s, might be remembered by a later generation with the same nostalgia, the same sense of loss, with which his generation viewed the world before the Great War. As Priestley’s own optimism waned, he seemed to sense, as does a disheartened Stella in Eden End, that the future could be bleaker still. Like Stella, however, Priestley determined to commence again with the business of living and suggested that his beloved countrymen do so as well. As Charlie tells Wilfred, despite its faults, its disappointments, its moments of pain, life is ultimately a wonderful thing. The telephone will ring, sometimes bringing good news, sometimes bringing bad, but it must be answered. Sarah has lived out her life and can ignore telephones, motor cars, and other signs of so-called progress; the rest of the Kirby family, however, must attempt to cope with the present and to prepare for the future, whatever it brings.
Even if life seemed simpler in the Eden Ends of the past, human nature remains constant, according to Priestley. Men and women frequently love foolishly, fail in their endeavors, and cause one another unnecessary pain. However, Dr. Kirby, aware of his oncoming death, continues to bring new life into a world that has disappointed him. That better world that he expects to dawn in one or two years may be slow in coming—but it will come. Humankind will survive.