The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a triumphant celebration of the contemporary belief in man’s ingenuity and society’s ascent to a new level of civilisation. For six months, visitors to the exhibition were able to delight in the greatest technological advancements of the age; as Charlotte Brontë observed, “whatever human industry has created, you find there“. In “Household Words” Dickens saw the exhibition as a demonstration of “the progress of humanity”. The next half-century saw the consolidation of this faith in the dominance of technology over nature, until Philip Franklin – vice-president of the White Star Line – felt able to announce that “we place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable“.
Franklin’s words are echoed in the script of Priestley’s best known work: An Inspector Calls. At the pinnacle of Mr Birling’s capitalist speech in Act 1, the audience listens incredulously to his hubristic insistence that the Titanic was “unsinkable. Absolutely unsinkable”. The dramatic irony is impossible to ignore, and indicates that Priestley is working to discredit Birling from the outset of the play. This sense of Birling’s shortsighted arrogance is compounded by the brevity of the statement and the qualifier “absolutely”. Given that Birling claims a friendship with someone who has “gone over” the Titanic, it is clear that he perceives himself to have insider knowledge, and thus to be a member of the manufacturing and engineering elite. Thus, we can conclude that Priestley is portraying Birling as a symbol of the age: as a slightly comic and highly dislikeable character who proudly regales all and sundry with his capitalist, individualist views, Birling epitomises the rising middle-classes whose self-interest is – in Priestley’s mind – damaging society.
The Titanic also exemplifies the rigid class system of the Edwardian period. The disproportionate number of first-class survivors and the huge loss of life in the third-class is paralleled in Priestley’s plot, in which a vulnerable and hard-working woman loses her life as the upper-middle class family enjoy an existence of easy excess. Perhaps the sinking of the Titanic also symbolises the sinking of the family into chaos and disagreement after the arrival of Inspector Goole. Thomas Hardy’s description of the ship in “The Convergence of the Twain” seems relevant here: the product of “human vanity” and “the Pride of Life that planned her” lies on the indifferent sea floor, just as the Birling family’s party (which Priestley uses to represent a comfortable lifestyle maintained at the expense of the working classes) is transformed into a “nasty mess”.