“An Inspector Calls”: The Symbolism of the Dining Table

Visually, the Birlings’ dining table dominates the scene, ostensibly a symbol of cheerful family life. At first glance, the act of harmoniously sharing a meal around a table suggests that the cast of characters is close-knit and contented in each other’s company. Therefore, the initial impression is one of the stability of upper-middle class Edwardian life. However, Priestley’s stage directions clearly hint at undercurrents of discord within this apparently comfortable tableau. For example, Eric’s position near the audience – slightly distanced from the family – indicates his growing discontent and frustration, whilst the sheer ostentatiousness of the décor in what is only a “fairly large” house suggests that this family are putting on a façade of gentility. The audience starts to question the truth of what initially appears to be a display of smug, but stable, capitalism.

Notably, Priestley is at pains to emphasise that the dining table is “good solid furniture”. The solidity of this realistic set tells the audience that the events that are about to unfold onstage are rooted in their historical moment (albeit with an imagined scenario and characters) and that Priestley is critiquing the lingering moral code of the recent past. As the play progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the solidity of the set – and its association with the family’s stable social position and unchanging happy family life – is actually a façade. The “heavily comfortable” effect of this fixed and unchanging setting implies the sense of entrapment created by the older generation’s moral code, which is particularly felt by the younger generation. Later, when the Inspector shatters the illusion of stability – exposing the callousness of each individual character, as well as the conflicts within the family unit – it is a relief that Sheila is able to move away from the table and towards the door.

The sparse quality of Priestley’s stage directions indicates the significance of each detail, and so the note that the table has “no cloth” must be considered. It could be suggested that the cloth has been removed in order for the Birlings to showcase the solidity of their social status and their wealth; they have no need to worry about this expensive piece of furniture becoming scratched or damaged because they have servants to maintain it, and ample means to replace it if necessary. Or perhaps the removal of the cloth indicates that the family mistakenly believe they have nothing to hide? Yet the juxtaposition of the Birlings’ newly-purchased table with Gerald’s ring (acquired with “old money”) reminds us that the family have a long way to go until they achieve what they want: to be members of the upper-class.

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