What is the significance of the different types of power in An Inspector Calls?

In An Inspector Calls, the significance of the different types of power is that they work together to consolidate upper-class supremacy and keep the poor oppressed. These types of power include the financial, the moral, and the marital.

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The various forms of power on display in An Inspector Calls all have the same purpose: to keep the poor and downtrodden in a state of subjection.

Whether it's economic power, moral power, or the power that comes from high social status, all of them are brought to bear upon...

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The various forms of power on display in An Inspector Calls all have the same purpose: to keep the poor and downtrodden in a state of subjection.

Whether it's economic power, moral power, or the power that comes from high social status, all of them are brought to bear upon Eva Smith, a vulnerable working-class girl whose tragic suicide is directly linked to her shabby treatment by the Birlings.

To the Birlings, Eva Smith was nothing, less than nothing in fact. As far as they were concerned, she was a potential source of scandal and nothing more. So long as she was around, so long as she remained in Gerald's life, she represented a real and present threat to their moral power, to their standing in the community.

So the Birlings used her—by employing her and paying her a pittance—and abused her, showing her the door when she became too much of an embarrassment, discarding her like a used handkerchief. In doing so, the Birlings exerted their economic power, demonstrating the whip hand that employers had over their workers in Edwardian England.

Indeed, Eva Smith could be said to symbolize the lamentable condition of the English working class in the early twentieth century, victims of a power structure represented by the heartless Birlings.

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In An Inspector Calls, the Birlings are a powerful family because they have money and because they are employers. Mr. Birling is a factory owner, which means that he is the archetype of the industrialist and the capitalist, the bourgeois figure who wrested economic power from the old aristocracy during the industrial revolution.

When the inspector calls on the Birlings, he represents the power of officialdom. Although he is the social inferior of the Birling family, he is backed by the power of the state, or so it first appears. Later, Mr. Birling questions whether the inspector really has this power and uses his political and social connections to ascertain that there is no such police officer as Inspector Goole.

For Mr. Birling and his wife, this result is definitive: if the inspector does not represent the power of the state and the law, he has no authority over them. However, Eric and Sheila, representing the younger generation, recognize a higher power. This could be the power of God, but it need not be explicitly religious. The point is that the inspector is morally right, and they feel that he has the power to judge them, even if he is not a police officer and even if they are not legally guilty of crimes.

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Priestly shows how the different members of the Birling family, including Sheila Birling's fiance, Gerald Croft, use different types of power to oppress a lower-class young woman (who goes by different names throughout the play). This is significant because it shows the power of the wealthy is multi-layered—it primarily lies in the preponderance of money the family has but also in moralism and marriage.

Mr. Arthur Birling has the power to fire the young woman, who once worked in his factory, for requesting a modest raise and to morally justify it by labeling her a troublemaker. When the same young woman gets a job as a clerk in a department store, Sheila uses the threat of withholding her family's shopping in the store to get the woman unfairly fired for an imagined slight. In both cases, we see money used to keep poor people servile and groveling.

When both Gerald and Sheila's brother Eric, knowing nothing of the young woman's history, have affairs with her, the intersection of money and marriage as tools of social control of the poor becomes apparent. The young woman sleeps with both men because she is desperate for the financial support they offer after she loses her second job and can't find another (she is condemned to unemployment because she lacks good recommendations). The men don't have to marry her: in fact, that thought never seems to cross their minds. Because they have the power to have sex without marriage—to, in effect, prostitute her—she (like other women of her class) gets no access to the benefits and security marriage with a wealthy man could provide. In contrast, Gerald's marriage to Sheila will further consolidate upper-class wealth and power by merging two rival businesses.

Finally, Mrs. Birling uses moral judgment to withhold aid to the desperate, pregnant Sheila, insisting that the father of the child be forced to provide support. Mrs. Birling has no idea that the father is her own son. However, she is quite willing to use moral condemnation of a poor woman for being "unwed" to deny her relief when the young woman had no way to compel her "lover" to marry her. Mrs. Birling's morality is shown as cruel and punitive.

All of these forms of power—financial, marital, and moral—help consolidate upper-class power and hold the poor in place.

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