An Inspector Calls

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An Inspector Calls
Priestley grew up in Manningham, England. His mother died when he was two years old and, at the age of sixteen, he left school to work as a junior clerk at a wool firm. He served and was injured in World War I and then went to study at Trinity
College. Priestley hosted a popular radio show, “Postscripts,”
from the beginning of World War II until the show was cancelled in 1940 after members of the Conservative
Party—including Margaret Thatcher—complained about
Priestley’s broadcasting his left-wing politics. He continued nevertheless to have apolitical presence in the UK he and a group of friends founded the 1941 Committee, which advocated fora national wages policy and for railways, mines,
and docks to come under public control in 1942, he co- founded the Common Wealth Party, which sought to advance the causes of Common Ownership Vital Democracy and
“Morality in Politics Priestley wrote novels, plays, and newspaper articles throughout his life, including An Inspector
Calls in 1945. He was married three times.
The play takes place right before the First World War, during a moment of rising international tensions and significant industrial expansion. The industrial expansion resulted in again in influence and wealth for industrialists of the period (like Mr.
Birling). The early decades of the 20th century also marked the end of the Victorian era, and the consequent loosening of the formerly rigid class system the Labour Party, founded in was beginning to gain leverage and to become increasingly committed to socialist ideas. Socialism and Communism were also on an upswing in many places around the world. The
Russian Revolution, in which Communists overthrew the Czar of Russia, began in RELATED LITERARY WORKS
Insofar as the text is apolitical allegory of class tensions, it is reminiscent of
Animal Farm
, which also explores political conflict and the rise of Communism in a small representative narrative (though Animal Farm was strongly anti-Communist,
Orwell was himself a Socialist. In its suspense and the structuring of its narrative around a scaffolding of revelations and reveals of true identity, it resembles many of Alfred
Hitchock’s 20th century thriller films, including Vertigo, To Catch
a Thief, and North by Northwest.
KEY FACTS Full Title An Inspector Calls
• When Written 1945
• Where Written England When Published 1945 (play premiered in Soviet Union Literary Period mid-20th century British drama, social realism Genre Mystery drama Setting 1912; a comfortable home in Brumley, England Climax Gerald returns to the Birling home after Goole has left,
to report that the Inspector wasn’t actually areal inspector,
and to hypothesize that the whole thing was a hoax—that there was no single girl that all of the Birlings had offended, and no suicide that they precipitated.
Ghoulish Goole. Many interpretations of the text consider the
Inspector’s ghostly name to be symbolic of the mystery that surrounds his character.
The play begins in a nice dining room, with the prosperous
Birling family joyously celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft. Everybody is in good spirits.
Mr. Birling gives a toast, and Gerald gives Sheila her engagement ring, which she puts on her finger very excitedly.
Mr. Birling encourages Gerald and Sheila to ignore the pessimistic silly talk going around these days, and claims that fear of an inevitable war is “fiddlesticks.”
A Police Inspector arrives, and reports that he is investigating the suicide of a young woman who recently swallowed disinfectant and died in the Infirmary. When he mentions that her name was
Eva Smith, Mr. Birling identifies that she used to work at his factory, before he forced her to leave when she became the ringleader of a strike for higher wages.
Sheila returns to the room, and is very upset to hear about the girl’s tragic suicide. The Inspector goes onto tell the family that
Eva Smith, after Birling put her out, was hired at a shop—Milward’s—but was fired on the basis of a customer’s complaint. When the Inspector shows Sheila a picture of the girl, she begins to sob and runs out of the room. Upon reentering, Sheila explains that, out of jealousy and in a bad temper, she had told the manager of Milward’s to fire the girl after seeing her smile at a salesgirl when Sheila tried on something unflattering.
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The Inspector then recounts that, after Milward’s, the girl changed her name to Daisy Renton. Gerald appears startled by this. When they are left alone fora moment, Sheila discovers that Gerald had been having an affair with Daisy Renton all of the previous summer. When the Inspector returns, Gerald confesses to his acquaintance with Daisy Renton— he met her at the Palace Music Hall, and ended up inviting her to live in a set of rooms that belonged to a friend of his who was temporarily away. Gerald excuses himself to take a walk, and
Sheila returns his engagement ring.
The Inspector now shows Mrs. Birling the girl’s photograph.
The front door slams, and Mr. Birling discovers that his son,
Eric, has stormed out of the house. Though she resists, Mrs.
Birling finally admits that she had used her influence some weeks previous to deny the pictured girl aid from the Women’s
Charity Organization, as she was prejudiced against the girl’s case. The Inspector contributes the additional fact that the girl was pregnant when she committed suicide, and that it was due to her pregnancy that she was asking the Charity Organization for help. Mrs. Birling confirms that the child’s father had given the girl money but that the girl refused it because she found out it was stolen. Mrs. Birling claims that the only people responsible for the girl’s downfall and suicide are the girl herself and the man that got her pregnant.
Eric reenters the house, and admits to impregnating the girl and offering her stolen money. He divulges that he stole the money from his father’s office.
The Inspector leaves the Birlings brooding and guilty. Gerald returns to the room and announces that as he was walking he meta policeman and discovered that the supposed Inspector wasn’t really an inspector after all, and proposes his further hypotheses that there was no single girl that all of the Birlings offended, and no suicide that the Birlings precipitated. He and
Mr. Birling prove these hypotheses to be correct after calls to the Police Department and to the Infirmary. The Birling parents celebrate these discoveries, as they feel they have escaped both scandal and guilt, but Sheila and Eric remain affected by the proceedings and cannot forget what’s been revealed.
The telephone rings. After Mr. Birling hangs up, he reports that it was the police, informing him that a girl just died on her way to the infirmary after swallowing some disinfectant, and that a
Police Inspector is on his way to ask some questions. The
Birlings stare guiltily and dumbfounded As Sheila rises to stand, the curtain falls slowly.
Arthur Birling
Arthur Birling – Arthur Birling is introduced as a fairly prosperous manufacturer and a family man with a wife and two children, Sheila and Eric. He is large-bodied and middle aged, with easy manners and provincial speech. Birling is identified by the Inspector as the initiator of
Eva Smiths downfall he refused her request fora raise in his factory and forced her to find work elsewhere. He is portrayed throughout the play as a fierce capitalist, who cares only for the prosperity of his own company—even at the sacrifice of his laborers well- being—and for the prospect of ever greater success. He further seems to care more for success than for his own children, as people. When, at the end of the play, the Birlings discover that the Inspector was a fraud and no suicide has taken place, Mr.
Birling is triumphant and relieved that the revelations will not precipitate asocial scandal. He is resistant to any lesson that might be gleaned from the Inspector’s interrogation, and remains unchanged by it.
Mrs. Birling
Mrs. Birling — Mrs. Birling is described as being cold and Mr.
Birling’s social superior Throughout the questioning process,
she resists the Inspector’s inquiries and reminds him, to
Sheila’s frustration, of the Birlings’ high social status. Despite her reluctance, Mrs. Birling finally admits to having used her influence in the Women’s Charity Organization to deny aid for
Eva Smith because she was prejudiced against her manner and offended by the girl’s falsely assuming the name Mrs. Birling.”
After the revelations at the end of the play that the whole inspection was a hoax, Mrs. Birling prides herself on having resisted the Inspector more than the rest of her family. And,
like her husband, she feels completely relieved of any responsibility she had felt previously.
Sheila — The daughter of Mr. Birling and Mrs. Birling,
Sheila is a young woman in her early twenties who is generally excited about life and is engaged to Gerald Croft. She is most upset by the news of the girl’s suicide, and expresses the most remorse among the Birling's for her involvement in it. Throughout the play, she warns her mother against presumptuously putting up walls between themselves and the less fortunate girl, and, in the end, insists that it remains just as significant that the
Birlings did what they confessed to doing despite the absence of asocial scandal and legal consequence, or even any suicide.
Gerald Croft ald Croft — Gerald is engaged to Sheila. During the inspection, Gerald admits to having had an affair with the girl in question—at the time, Daisy Renton—which prompts Sheila to return his engagement ring. Gerald comes out seeming the least guilty of all for the girl’s suicide. In the end, it is he who realizes that the whole inspection, and all of its premises, was a hoax. Nonetheless, he also seems less affected by the
Inspector's casting of blame than Sheila and Eric, and Sheila denies his offer to renew their engagement.
Eric — Eric is the son of the family. He disapproves of his father’s decision to deny Eva Smith’s request for higher wages,
and becomes drunk and upset throughout the course of the evening, which prompts Sheila to expose him as a heavy- drinker, unbeknownst to his parents. In the middle of the play,
Eric storms out of the house. When Eric returns, he admits to being exactly the person—Eva Smith’s impregnator—that his
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mother had most blamed for the girl’s suicide, and to having stolen money from his father. His parents are ashamed of him and continue to remind him what he’s done but he is likewise ashamed of them for overlooking the true significance of the bad deeds that they all have been exposed as having committed. He joins Sheila in her judgment of their parents’
ignorance and in her regard for the significance of the facts at hand.
Inspector Goole
Inspector Goole — Goole is allegedly a police officer who has come to investigate the potential involvement of the Birlings in the recent suicide of a girl by the name of
Eva Smith
Throughout the play, he conducts himself in a manner unsuitable fora police inspector he takes moral stances throughout his interrogation, usually in support of labor rights,
and in the end he universalizes
Eva Smiths case to the cases of many such disadvantaged lower class citizens throughout the country. In the end of the play, it turns that he is not an
Inspector after all, and is suspected instead to be a person from the town with socialist tendencies and a grudge against Mr.
Birling. The final revelation—the call from the infirmary that there really was a suicide—renews suspicion about the
Inspector’s identity, as it makes it seem that Inspector Goole did somehow know what was going to happen, and was not merely seeking to make the Birlings cognizant of their moral wrongs.
Eva Smith
Eva Smith — Eva Smith is an employee at Birling’s factory who leads a group of workers in a strike for higher wages. When their request is denied, she is forced to leave the factory. The
Inspector alleges that Eva Smith repeatedly changed her name,
and is the same girl that Sheila requested be fired, that Mrs.
Birling denied aid, and that Gerald and Eric had affairs with. As
Gerald points out, however, there is no evidence that this is true. As such, Eva Smith becomes not just a character in the play, but also a symbol within the play.
Daisy Renton
Daisy Renton — Daisy Renton is the girl that Gerald Croft has an affair with and sets up in his friend’s empty set of rooms.
Sir George Croft
Sir George Croft — Sir George Croft is Gerald’s father, and the owner of Crofts Limited, a larger competitor with Birling’s business though older and more successful.
Chief Constable
Chief Constable — A friend of Mr. Birling’s, who leads the police department. Birling seems to believe that his friendship with the Chief Inspector protects him from any damage regarding the Inspector's revelations about Eva Smith.
Joe Meggarty
Joe Meggarty — An alderman whom the Birling parents deem respectable, before Sheila and Gerald inform them that he has a reputation as a womanizer. Gerald claims that he initially went over to Daisy Renton in order to save her from
Meggarty’s harassment.
Edna – The Birling family's maid, who cleans, pours drinks, and announces guests, but otherwise has little role in the play.
In LitCharts each theme gets its own color and number. Our color-coded theme boxes make it easy to track where the themes occur throughout the work. If you don't have a color printer, use the numbers instead.
The Birlings area family of wealth and power, who take pride in their high social position. Mr. Birling is a successful businessman, and the family inhabits a nice home with a maid
(and likely other servants. The play begins with the family celebrating and feeling generally pleased with themselves and their fortunate circumstance. Throughout the Inspector’s investigation, however, it comes out that several of the Birlings have used their power and influence immorally, in disempowering and worsening the position of a girl from a lower class Mr. Birling used his high professional position to force Eva Smith out of his factory when she led a faction of workers in demanding a raise Sheila, in a bad temper, used her social status and her family’s reputation to have the girl fired from Milward’s; Mrs. Birling used her influence in the Women’s
Charity Organization to deny the girl monetary aid. Both Sheila and Mrs. Birling acted upon petty motivations in injuring the girl Mr. Birling acted upon selfish, capitalist motivations.
Throughout the play, as these acts are revealed, the Birlings’
social status becomes a point of conflict amongst members of the family, as the children grow ashamed of their family’s ability to use their influence immorally and the parents remain proud of their social and economic position and do not understand their children’s concern.
The play demonstrates the corruption implicit within a capitalist economy in which wealth and influence are concentrated in a small portion of the population. The few wealthy people at the top maintain the social hierarchy in order to retain their high position, and have the power, on a petty whim, to push the powerless even further down the ladder.
And, in the conflict at the end of the play between the younger and older members of the Birlings, it becomes clear that as the powerful settle into their power, they become blind to the possibility that they maybe acting immorally, seeing themselves as naturally deserving of their positions and therefore of their actions as being natural and right (as opposed to selfish attempts to maintain the status quo that puts them at the top).
The question asked throughout the play is who is responsible for the suicide of
Eva Smith Who is to blame The arc of the play follows the gradual spreading of responsibility, from Mr.
Birling, to Mr. Birling and Sheila, to Mr. Birling and Sheila and
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Gerald, and soon and so forth. Each of the characters has different opinions about which of them is most responsible for the girl’s suicide. Mrs. Birling, most extremely, ends up blaming her own son, by suggesting that the person most responsible is the man that impregnated the girl, before realizing that the person in question is Eric.
In the end, the Inspector universalizes the shared responsibility that the Birlings feel for the girl’s death, into a plea for something like Socialism We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish The lesson of the Inspector, and of the play at large, is that our actions have an influence beyond themselves and therefore that we are
already responsible for each other so long as we are responsible for ourselves and our own actions. The play contends that
Socialism simply recognizes and builds upon this truth, in de- privatizing wealth and power and thus building an economy and politics on the foundation of shared responsibility.
The Inspector, and the play at large, challenges the privacy of the private sphere, by revealing that actions that the family may have conceived of as private and personal really have an effect beyond themselves and their family. For example, Sheila’s revelation that Eric drinks more than his parents had thought—“he’s been steadily drinking too much for the last two years seems like private information but turns out to have a greater effect, insofar as it helps to identify (in the Inspector’s alleged story) Eric as the father of the girl’s child.
In addition, what begins as an inspection of truths that had real consequence on someone outside of the immediate Birling family, ends up also uncovering truths and drama that pertain more privately to the family. For example, the Inspector’s discovery of Gerald’s relationship with Daisy Renton results in the severing of his engagement to Sheila. The inspector has to remind the family to keep their private drama out of his investigation “There’ll be plenty of time, when I’ve gone, for you all to adjust your family relationships.”
This blurring of the line between the public and the private reflects the play’s interest in class politics, in the conflict between those who want to maintain the privatization of wealth and production, and those who desire the communalization of the same. The Socialist perspective—as represented by the Inspector (and by J.B.
Priestley)—challenges and seeks to erase the line between public and private, by de-privatizing the economy, but also by making those who are privileged to see that what they consider
"private", by nature of their privilege, has an outside influence on the world from which they are insulated. In other words, the
Inspector argues not just fora de-privatized economy but a de- privatized sensibility, a recognition that what seems private to the privileged are in fact strands of a public web of relationships and the moral obligations such relationships create.
Mr. Birling describes the politics of the day as revolving around
“Capital versus Labor agitations Mr. Birling is a representative
Capitalist, who cares only about his company’s profit. He speaks of himself as a hardheaded, practical man of business,”
and looks forward to the prospect of being knighted. The girls who lead a worker’s strike in his factor, meanwhile, represent the Labor side of the conflict in trying to improve the rights and wages of laborers and the lower classes.
Birling loosely articulates his understanding of the agitations in his speech to Eric and Gerald a man has to make his own way—has to look after himself…and so long as he does that he won’t come to much harm But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive—a man has to mind his own business and look after himself The Inspector speaks the voice of Socialism, of the
Labor side of the conflict he seeks to make the Birlings realize the implicit corruption of Capitalism by emphasizing how easy it was for them to cause pain for the lower class without even realizing at the time the significance of their own actions.
The play interrogates the way that people construct, construe,
and apply their moral values, especially in relation to legality and illegality. Do actions have moral consequence in themselves, or in relation to their effects on other people or can we only measure morality in relation to legal rulings When the legal consequences of the truths revealed by the
Inspector’s questioning have been removed (through the revelation that the Inspector is not, in fact, an inspector, there remains a question about what significance and moral weight the uncovered truths hold. The status of their significance changes at each level of revelation that the Inspector wasn’t an inspector, that the girl wasn’t all the same girl, that the girl didn’t commit suicide.
After the discovery that the Inspector wasn’t an inspector, Eric declares, the fact remains that I did what I did. And Mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her. It’s still the same rotten story whether it’s been told to a police inspector or to somebody else After the discovery that there was no suicide, Mr. Birling declares, But the whole thing’s different now And the artful devil knew all the time nobody had died and the whole story was bunkum at the same time,
Sheila insists, Everything we said had happened really had happened. If it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us. But
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it might have done The final turn—the police’s phone call reporting a suicide—confirms Sheila’s view that, given the facts revealed by the Inspector, it was only a matter of luck that something tragic didn’t ensue that time—as something tragic did, in fact, ensue shortly after.
While Mr. and Mrs. Birling feel wholly relieved of their guilt by the final revelation, Sheila and Eric insist at each level that the truths uncovered by the Inspector about the family’s actions still remain significant and entail moral consequences. The play’s conclusion suggests the playwright’s sympathy with
Sheila and Eric’s view.
Symbols appear in red text throughout the Summary and
Analysis sections of this LitChart.
The symbol of
Eva Smith is the character that the Inspector constructs by explaining that she has changed her name multiple times, was injured by each of the Birlings in turn, and consequently commits suicide. In fact, the Inspector seems to have created her as an amalgam of several women, each of them separately harmed by the different Birlings. As a combination of many working class women affected by the
Birlings, Eva Smith represents the working class, the Labor side of the Labor vs. Capital agitations, who get squashed by the powerful upper class, such as the Birlings.
The color-coded and numbered boxes under each quote below make it easy to track the themes related to each quote. Each color and number corresponds to one of the themes explained in the Themes section of this LitChart.
Gerald: We’re respectable citizens and not dangerous criminals.
Inspector: Sometimes there isn’t as much difference as you think.
•Speaker er Gerald Croft, Inspector Goole
•Related themes
•Related themes Wealth, Power, and Influence, Blame and

•Theme T
Theme Trrack acker code er code Inspector There area lot of young women living that sort of existence, Miss Birling, in every city and big town in this country.
Sheila: But these girls aren’t cheap labor. They’re people.
•Speaker er Sheila, Inspector Goole
•Related themes
•Related themes Class Politics

•Theme T
Theme Trrack acker code er code:
It’s the way I like to go to work. One person and one line of inquiry at a time. Otherwise, there’s a muddle.
•Speaker er Inspector Goole
•Related themes
•Related themes Morality and Legality

•Theme T
Theme Trrack acker code er code:
There’s a good deal of silly talk about these days—but—and I
speak as a hardheaded businessman, who has to take risks and know what he’s about—I say, you can ignore all this silly pessimistic talk. When you marry, you’ll be marrying at a very good time.
•Speaker er Arthur Birling
•Mentioned or related char
•Mentioned or related characters acters: Sheila, Gerald Croft
•Related themes
•Related themes Class Politics

•Theme T
Theme Trrack acker code er code:
A man has to make his own way—has to look after himself—and his family, too, of course, when he has one—and so long as he does that he won’t come to much harm. But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive.
•Speaker er Arthur Birling
•Related themes
•Related themes Blame and Responsibility, Class Politics

•Theme T
Theme Trrack acker code er code If we are all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?

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