Short Summary of the Play
Eva Smith haunts the play. She was a young working-class woman whose social status meant that she was alone and struggling to survive. She wanted to die. Pregnant and penniless, she took her own life by swallowing disinfectant. Despite being the main character, she doesn’t even appear in the play. Once “a lively good-looking girl”, Eva was now forgotten by the wealthy capitalist elite, represented by the Birlings, who had abused her. Her story had been lost. It is the task of the Inspector to reclaim it.
From the BBC’s adaptation of An Inspector Calls.
Why did Priestley write An Inspector Calls?
An Inspector Calls is set in 1912. But Priestley wrote the play in 1944, when Britain was about to decide its direction after World War II. Preistley believed in Socialism. He wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’ to promote socialism and to highlight the inequalities and, as Priestley saw it, injustice of society in 1912. He wanted to remind his audience that things weren’t so different in 1945 (when the play was first shown) in comparison to the days before World War One.
Manchester in 1944, showing the destruction of many towns and cities across England at the time Priestly wrote the play.
What kind of play is it?
An Inspector Calls can be seen as a detective story, a ghost story and a family drama. In a way, it is a ‘whodunnit’ where each of the Birling family are suspects. It is, perhaps, a ghost story, too - the Inspector’s surname is Goole after all! It is also a family drama, where secrets come out and disrupt the apparent harmony of Sheila’s engagement party. Most importantly, Priestley wrote it as a social commentary, where the immorality of the upper class is revealed when a mysterious police inspector visits the wealthy Birling family, and exposes how each of them has contributed to the death of this poor young woman, Eva Smith. He argues “we are responsible for each other”. He also meant for it to be a morality play, where the characters represent weaknesses, and are eventually judged.
A photo of J. B. Priestley – looking remarkably similar to Mr. Birling!
Characters and Plot
Meet The Birlings
Mr Birling - a self-made man in his “middle fifties”, he owns a factory and is obsessed with his social status and is particularly self-conscious of the fact his wife is “posher” than he is.
Mrs Birling - Mr Birling’s social superior, she’s snobbish and is a prominent member of Brumley Women's Charity Organization.
Sheila Birling - the Birlings’ daughter, is a pretty woman in her early twenties. She is engaged to the wealthy Gerald Croft, a guest at dinner.
Gerald Croft - an “attractive chap about thirty”,the son of Lord and Lady Croft, heir to Crofts Ltd (a competitor of Birling and Co.). Lady Croft thinks Gerald could have been engaged to someone higher in the social hierarchy than Sheila.
Eric Birling - the Birlings’ son, is in his “early twenties”. He appears to be drunk.
Appearances can be deceiving: the far-from-respectable Birling family.
It’s 1912 and set in Brumley, a fictional north Midlands town.
When the curtain rises, we see a dining room and a family sitting around the dining table. These people are the Birlings, relaxing after dinner. We see Edna, the parlour maid, clearing away their “champagne glasses” and “dessert plates”. The “good solid furniture”, lets us know that the Birlings are wealthy. The formal “evening dress” they wear makes us think that the Birlings are respectable people.
Dinner at the Birlings’
The dinner we see at the start of the play is to celebrate the engagement of Sheila to Gerald, the son of a wealthy businessman. The atmosphere is pleasant. Priestley shows his audience what these characters are like through his use of dramatic irony; Mr Birling uses the occasion to express his confidence that neither the workers’ strikes nor talk of war with Germany will pose a threat to their way of life.
Birling mentions the new “unsinkable” Titanic to support his argument. He also claims that “The Germans don’t want war”. Of course, a 1945 audience will be well aware that the Titanic did indeed sink in 1912 and that his war prediction was completely wrong, with WW1 beginning in 1914.
This scene leaves the audience with questions. Why did Gerald stay away from Sheila last summer? Why is Eric drinking? Why is he provoking his father, or checking himself when he was about to speak of some woman he remembers? There is more to all this than meets the eye. The Birlings have secrets. A “sharp ring of a front door bell” interrupts Mr Birling in full flow, just as he is dismissing socialist ideas of “community and all that nonsense”. Edna announces the arrival of an “Inspector Goole”.
The Arrival of Inspector Goole
The Inspector is an impressive figure, with a direct manner. Throughout the play, he acts as Priestley’s mouthpiece and as the Birlings’ moral superior. He brings news of a young woman, Eva Smith, who has taken her own life by drinking disinfectant.
A Chain of Events and Collective Responsibility
Mr Birling’s Involvement
Mr Birling is confident that Eva’s death has nothing to do with him. The Inspector produces a photograph of the young woman. Birling remembers her. She was a worker in his factory, and her troubles began when he dismissed her for asking for higher wages. Mr Birling denies any responsibility for her death – this happened eighteen months ago – but the Inspector believes this is part of a “chain of events” which led from Eva losing her job, to her suicide.
Quickly, others begin to be involved. Gerald is shocked when he hears Eva also went by the name of Daisy Renton.
Sheila is distressed when she learns Eva was dismissed from her next job at Milwards, a local department store. Sheila had complained as a customer; she had been trying on a new dress, against the advice of her mother and an assistant. Eva held the dress against herself and it suited her better than Sheila. As Sheila tried it on in the mirror, she caught Eva “smiling” at her fellow assistant as if to say “Doesn’t she look awful?”. Sheila had Eva sacked. Unlike her father, Sheila understands now she was wrong and accepts responsibility. She feels it is “a rotten shame”.
Sheila thinks that Gerald is hiding something. The Inspector “knows”. Act One ends dramatically. Gerald and Sheila are confronted by the Inspector, who “looks steadily and searchingly at them”. The curtain falls.
The Inspector is an enigmatic character central to the plot and unravelling the truth of Eva Smith’s demise.
Sheila and Gerald argue and she insists on hearing what Gerald has to say to the Inspector. Gerald says he is staying “to see somebody else put through it”. Sheila’s understanding of the circumstances that led to Eva’s death is growing. She sees that each family member will be responsible in some way. She realises Mrs Birling shouldn’t be patronising towards the Inspector and warns her mother she “mustn’t try to build up a kind of wall between us and that girl”.
By January 1911, Eva had changed her name to Daisy Renton. Gerald “happened” to meet her at the bar in The Palace music hall in Brumley. This is a “favourite haunt of women of the town” (prostitutes). He noticed Daisy, who was “very pretty”. Daisy was being harassed by a “notorious womaniser”, Alderman Meggarty, and she gave Gerald “a glance that was nothing less than a cry for help”. Gerald began to help Daisy. He offered her a meal and arranged for her to live in “a nice little set of rooms” at “Morgan Terrace”, which he was looking after for a friend. Gerald emphasises that he “didn’t install her there so I could make love to her”, but he admits that she became his “mistress”, and says “I suppose it was inevitable”.
Eventually the relationship came to an end. Gerald “broke it off” before going on a business trip. Daisy “hadn’t expected it to last”. He insisted on giving her money, which she reluctantly accepted. Daisy then left for two months at a” seaside town”. Here she wrote a diary which showed her disappointment at the end of the relationship, that “there’d never be anything as good again for her.”
Sheila now knows where Gerald was last summer. She vents her anger in sarcastic comments about him being a “hero” and a “Fairy Prince”. She wants to know if he was in love with Daisy, as she tries to gauge the depth of his betrayal. As Gerald leaves, upset by memories of Daisy, Sheila hands back the engagement ring. She is relieved at least that he has been “honest”. She respects him more than she did. On his part, Gerald asks her permission to return later. Here, mid-way through the play, the impact of the Inspector is felt in the separation of Sheila and Gerald.
Mrs Birling's Involvement
Now attention turns to Mrs Birling, who is reluctant to tell her story. She met Eva at the Brumley Women’s Charity Organisation, where she decided who should receive help from the charity. This was only two weeks ago, in the spring of 1912. Eva needed help as she was unmarried, pregnant, and tried to pass herself off as a “Mrs Birling”.
This annoys the real Mrs Birling and she refuses to help. Eva didn’t want to say who the father was. In Mrs Birling’s opinion, Eva was guilty of “impertinence”, “disgusting” sexual impropriety, and “telling us a pack of lies”. Mrs Birling feels “a girl of that sort” was also not entitled to help; she didn’t see Eva as “a deserving case”. She insists that the father should be made to pay.
As usual, Sheila is the first to see what is happening: Eric is the father, so the more Mrs Birling blames the ‘anonymous’ father, the more she is blaming her own son. Eric enters dramatically as Act Two ends. He is next.
By discovering the truth about Eva Smith, Sheila also finds out the truth about Gerald.
In November 1911, Eva Smith was again at the Palace music hall. Eric had a vague idea “some woman… wanted her to go there”. Eva was now in peril of prostitution. Eric was “squiffy”(drunk). He forced himself into her rooms in a threatening way, and “that’s when it happened”. Priestley implies that he raped her. They met again by chance, had sex, and she became pregnant. Eric was “in a hell of a state about it”, and offered Eva money. He even offered to marry her, but she wouldn’t, dismissing him as if he were a “kid”. All that was left for Eva was the Brumley Women’s Charity Organisation.
The Aftermath of the Inspector’s Revelations
Eric’s story causes more upset amongst the Birlings and Mrs Birling is shocked to hear of his behaviour. Mr Birling is furious when he discovers that Eric stole money from the factory to keep Eva going. Eric recognises that his father has been a bully and turns on him saying, “you’re not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble”. He then accuses his mother of killing Eva and the baby who would have been her first grandchild, saying “you killed them both”.
The Inspector is about to leave, so he interrupts the family arguments. He ends with the lesson of the play, its most important statement about society: “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for one another”. He leaves with the warning that “if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” (hell)
After the Inspector leaves, there is a family scene. Sheila asks if he were a real inspector, and Gerald returns with news from a local constable that there is no Inspector Goole. Gerald reveals the idea that the investigation was an elaborate “hoax” and points out how the Inspector could have been talking about different girls, since he only showed the photograph(s) to one person at a time. Birling telephones another police officer who confirms there is no Inspector Goole. Gerald drives things further forward by phoning the infirmary to see if a girl has died that evening, apparently no-one has committed suicide for months.
Upon hearing this news, Mr and Mrs Birling are eager to discredit the Inspector, and present him as “a fake”, a “socialist or some kind of crank”. Gerald seems to be in agreement. Mr Birling is delighted at the prospect of avoiding public shame, and attaining his expected knighthood. Sheila and Eric, the younger generations, realise the consequences of their actions: “it’s what happened to the girl and what we all did to her that matters”. The older generation and Gerald seek to erase the past, and deny any “responsibility” for what they did.
When it appears no girl has died, Gerald renews his proposal to Sheila, saying “What about this ring?”, showing that he is eager to move on and hasn’t learnt his lesson. The play ends, however, with another kind of “ring”. The “telephone rings sharply”. It is dramatic news. A girl has in fact died swallowing disinfectant, and a police inspector is on his way. In a final turn of events, Priestley shows the Birlings are unable to escape their “responsibility” for Eva’s death and they will pay for their actions. Justice will be done, and the ending is also effective by pointing to the Inspector’s lesson that we must learn from our errors, or suffer as we repeat them, “in blood and fire and anguish”.
Mrs Birling is shocked to find out about her son’s behaviour; she assumed such behaviour is the preserve of the lower classes.
Characters: Key Quotes
“I speak as a hard-headed business man” - Shows that Mr Birling lacks empathy and only cares about his business.
“But you must understand that a lot of young men-” - Mr Birling excuses Gerald’s cheating because he wants a partnership with the Crofts as it will be good for business.
“You're just the kind of son-in-law I always wanted” - An indication that Mr Birling sees Gerald as a person that will help him climb the social ladder, rather than a good husband for Sheila.
“Sheila! What an expression!” - Relates to themes of patriarchy and gender inequality in 1912. She is outraged at Sheila’s language, whereas if Sheila was a man she might accept it.
“Girls of that class-” - Indicates her snobbish view of the lower classes.
“I'll tell you what I told her. Go and look for the father of the child. It's his responsibility.” - Her confidence reflects her view that the upper class (Eric) couldn’t possibly be responsible for getting an unmarried, lower class girl pregnant.
“Yes - except for all last summer, when you never came near me”- Shows that the Birling’s have more secrets than initially apparent.
“But these girls aren't cheap labour - they're people.” - Sheila’s recognition of Eva’s humanity.
“I tell you - whoever that Inspector was, it was anything but a joke.” - Reflects Sheila’s ability to take responsibility for her actions.
“We're respectable citizens” - Reflects Gerald’s views that because they are upper class they are “respectable”, and those of the lower classes are not.
“But how do you know it’s the same girl?”- Reflects Gerald’s failure to recognise the magnitude of the problem and his inability to take responsibility.
[when the Inspector asks how Eva took his ending of the relationship]:
"Gerald: better than I'd hoped. She was – very gallant – about it.
Sheila: ( with irony) that was nice for you.
Gerald: No, it wasn't. ( he waits a moment, then in a low, troubled tone.) she told me she'd been happier than she'd ever been before – but that she knew it couldn't last – hadn't expected it to last. She didn't blame me at all. I wish to God she had now. Perhaps I'd feel better about it” – Shows how Gerald would have preferred if Eva was less graceful in her acceptance of him ending their relationship; had she made a fuss and been less ‘gallant’ it would have validated his decision to end their relationship and made him feel much less guilty. The surprise in his response, shown through the pause “– very gallant –” shows he was unsettled by Eva’s grace, together with his “low, troubled tone” indicates he feels ashamed by his selfish actions and preconceptions of her, or at least being forced to admit to them.
"Well, I was in that state where a chap easily turns nasty" - Implies that Eric was drunk and also the upper-class’ ability to become violent (treat the lower classes and/or women as insignificant and disposable).
“you killed her – and the child she’d have had too” - He recognises his mother’s denial and the truth is that they’re all responsible for Eva’s death.
“Half shy, half assertive”- Implies that Eric lacks confidence or has a secret.
Eric recognises his father is a bully and implies he is the product of bad parenting.
THEMES & ADVANCED REVISION
Look again at the opening scene, the sheer materialism, the consumption: the splendid “evening dress”, the cigars, the fine port, the “first-class” dinner. All of these material things indicate that Birlings are successful, socially ambitious. Wealth appears in their clothes, furniture, food, and drink. Mr Birling tells Gerald this engagement to Sheila “means a tremendous lot to me”, as it will pave the way to Gerald’s family company working with Birling and Company “for lower costs and higher prices”. Mr Birling hints to Gerald that he is expecting a knighthood. Mrs Birling is in control of conduct at the table. She understands that good manners make wealth seem natural, proper, and well deserved, so she tries to make sure her family’s behaviour is proper.
The Birlings have acquired wealth. They want to preserve it. This process is supported by the ideology they have; a set of social beliefs which present their wealth as justifiable, while also concealing its corrupt sources.
The Birlings and Gerald all present their treatment of Eva as justifiable. Each of them sees her through the attitudes of their class. Unconsciously they think they are in the right and Eva who is working class, is disposable.
Mr Birling’s after dinner speech expresses his beliefs, he speaks as “a hard-headed business man” and defends “the interests of Capital”. For him and his class, it is a time of “peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere”, and those who agitate for the rights of the working class or “Labour” are wrong. For Birling, Eva is a number in a business equation. She is twenty two shillings and sixpence a week, not twenty five shillings. It is morally necessary to protect his capital, to dispense with her. It was his “duty to keep labour costs down… she had to go”.
As the customer at Milwards, Sheila is always right, and “that girl” had been “impertinent” to one of her betters. She had refused to conform to the social standards that those lower down defer to those higher up. For Sheila, deference (showing polite submission and respect) to the elite matters more than someone’s livelihood.
Mrs Birling can also be used as an example of injustice due to social class. The poor can be divided into the “deserving” poor, and undeserving cases like Eva. She thinks that Eva’s poverty is her own fault, the result of her “disgusting” sexual offences. In her opinion, Eva is to be disposed of, however difficult her life has become.
Gerald uses double standards of sexual morality to justify his behaviour. In visiting the Palace music hall, the “favourite haunt of women of the town” Gerald is simply being an “easy, well-bred young man about town”, behaving as rich young men do, whereas Eva is shamed for being there in the first place. It is “inevitable” that an “affair” between a poor girl and the son of Lord Croft will come to nothing. Gerald may be “distressed” when he realises Eva is dead, but it doesn’t last. He fails to see a human that is worthy of the same respect as someone from a higher social standing. To prove it he is soon back offering Sheila her engagement ring. Even though he betrayed her, a marriage between Birlings and Crofts makes perfect social and business sense.
Eric is even worse. He is so drunk he doesn’t even try to justify what he does. He says “I couldn’t remember her name or where she lived. It was very vague.” Eric, like all of them, does what he wants with her. She doesn’t have a “name”, an identity. He just takes her. When he found out she was pregnant, he says “I was in a hell of a state about it”, and gives her money he has stolen from the business; money which was part of the profit made from the labour of workers like Eva.
Viewed together, these attitudes have a single purpose and effect. They allow the wealthy characters to justify what they are doing. Their ideology provides them with, in their eyes, perfectly reasonable excuses to treat Eva as they did.
Only Eric lacks an excuse for what he did, but Eric is perhaps the most honest of them all. When it comes to taking responsibility for his actions, he clearly stated what was really going on. In what perhaps is the most disturbing line in the play, Eric says “I was in that state when a chap easily turns nasty – and I threatened to make a row”. Here Priestley takes the notion of a “chap”, and makes a connection with violence.
Social Class and Responsibility
It may surprise us that a “chap” (especially an upper-middle class one) can be “nasty”, but Eric is right. In fact, each one of the Birlings turned “nasty”. In each instance, Eva behaved in ways that challenged their sense of status and entitlement, so they punish her. Birling talks of “capital”, but there is real hostility in the way he decides to “come down sharply” on her. Sheila is “absolutely furious”. Mrs Birling sets about Eva in a way Sheila correctly describes as “cruel and vile”, and which Eric describes as murderous, “you killed her – and the child she’d have had too”. There is a lot of anger directed towards Eva. And in each case it is because Eva has stepped out of line. The Birlings want to protect their position in the hierarchy.
The play exposes a social violence beneath the stories they tell. Mrs Birling is here, doing her good works at the Brumley Women’s Charitable organisation. On the surface she talks of charity and love of one’s neighbour, but in reality she exercises her privilege to decide the fate of others; she acts moral, but she’s just being superior.
It is no surprise, perhaps, that Eva herself begins to internalise all this abuse, and social violence. She was a feisty class warrior at the strike at Birlings. She was a mischievous attendant at Milwards, a girl of spirit, wishing to rise in the world. But gradually she becomes demoralised, reduced to an object of men’s attention, a mistress for Gerald, a visitor at the Palace music hall, an unmarried mother and a charity case. And, in the end, of course, she literally internalises the violence meted out to her in the play. She takes her life by drinking disinfectant, “destroying herself” at the infirmary.
As we shall see, Eva’s suicide is a complex act. She is completing the violence done to her. She is also reclaiming control of the body which had become a kind of commodity. Dying by “disinfectant” is also significant. It is a way of purifying herself of the contaminating effects of the Birlings. To understand more about this, we need to pay attention to her story. There is a lot in it. This is where the play gets really interesting.
What is the significance of Eva Smith?
Each of the dinner guests abused their power over Eva and saw her from an upper-class perspective. The Inspector exposes this abuse, collects these episodes into one account, and offers them the opportunity to accept their “responsibility”. She is not actually dead for most of the play, but about to die, if we remember that she has not yet reached the infirmary when Gerald rings late in Act Three.
She is very much present in the play, being the subject of the Inspector’s interrogations. And, lastly, there may be something still missing from this account of her life: anger and a demand for revenge which has been repressed. Eva still wants revenge. This is where the Inspector comes in, he portrays the anger she couldn’t express.
Eva Smith: A Timeline
Eva begins as a “lively good-looking girl”, who has the confidence to demand “higher wages”. She has “a lot to say – too much” about the rights of labour, so “she had to go”. Despite being fired, two months later at Milwards, she still seems confident. This is seen in the way she models the dress for Sheila, and the cheeky smile directed towards Miss Francis.
Eva Smith now becomes Daisy Renton. She changes her name to remove her identity, which suggests a desire to lose who she once was and a wish to hide who she might be about to become. She had been “Eva”, with it’s christian connotations of Eve, the original woman. She had been “Smith”, representative of the working class as it is a common surname. The new name of “Daisy” retains her youthfulness and innocence, while “Renton” conveys a new sense of herself as a commodity, something for sale.
She is “young and fresh and charming and altogether out of place down there” in the Palace music hall – but she is there and she is “wedged… into a corner” by Alderman Meggarty “with that obscene fat carcass of his”. Daisy is now the damsel in distress, trapped by the monster, and she is rescued by her “wonderful Fairy Prince” (as Sheila calls Gerald).
During her time with Gerald, Eva is fulfilling other fantasies women were expected to have by society at the time. Her life at Morgan Terrace speaks to a wish for security, shared domesticity, and a fulfilling sexual relationship. Eva is in love with Gerald, and it seems that she gives herself sexually to him, not in payment, but in the hope of a flourishing intimacy and eventual marriage. And yet, she is still Daisy Renton not Eva Smith. She has lost her independence and become dependent on Gerald. Eva wants to feel she has been rescued, she also recognises she is imprisoned. As Gerald selfishly says “She told me she’d been happier than she’d ever been before – but that she knew it couldn’t last – hadn’t expected it to last. She didn’t blame me at all. I wish to God she had now. Perhaps I’d feel better about it”.
Here, Eva behaves nobly. She doesn’t react angrily and lets him go. The relationship is now becoming a memory. She thinks about it “just to make it last longer”. Eva begins writing a journal to express her sadness and to hold onto memories of events which have gone forever. She has given away her innocence and is now mourning her loss. She is questioning herself and blames herself. In her eyes, Gerald couldn’t be blamed because she had loved him.
She is next seen in the Palace music hall. It may be she has lost her self-esteem, and is embarking upon prostitution – or it may be she has returned because she wants that moment again when she first saw Gerald.
What does happen next is Eric. This is not “the Fairy Prince” who offers her free lodgings. This is effectively a rapist who invades her lodgings. Eva does not press charges, and even allows a sexual relationship to develop – and one which lacks the feelings which were the point for her of her intimacy with Gerald. Nevertheless, the earlier Eva is still intact somewhere here. She refuses to take stolen money or marry Eric when he doesn't love her.
Pregnant, unmarried, on the verge of motherhood. Eva is the central character. She dominates the action – but she doesn’t appear in it. Eva is both present and absent. If we try to fit her into a female stereotype here, we see that none of them quite fit her.
An Inspector Calls is presenting a critique of patriarchy alongside its exposure of the evils of social class. In 1912, indeed, Eva might have hoped to meet a woman who sympathised with female suffrage at the Brumley Women’s Charitable Organisation, but instead she met Mrs Birling. Mrs Birling is unsettled by her sexual misconduct and blames Eva for her situation more than the father. She doesn't believe a word she hears from “a girl of that sort”. By refusing her help she finishes the job started by the young men in the story. As far as Mrs Birling is concerned, Eva, the victim is to blame.
And so Eva dies by swallowing disinfectant, both internalising the violence directed towards her and seeking to purify her body of the pollutants inflicted upon it by the Birlings. She lies upon the slab at the infirmary, her suicide a denial of herself which is also a refusal to direct any blame towards Gerald, the one person she loved in the story.
The Inspector’s Purpose
The Inspector immediately has a large presence, as his arrival is announced by “the sharp ring of a front door bell”. He has “an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness”, as well as a forensic air, “a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses”. This determined figure will not be bought by social niceties or influence and speaks plainly about the “nasty mess” of Eva’s death. He is always “cutting through” irrelevancies as he outlines the “chain of events” leading to Eva’s death by following “one line of inquiry at a time”.
The Inspector has a purpose: to draw our attention back to Eva herself, her humanity, her rights, her independent life, her picture, her letters, her diary, and her dying body. The Birlings see her as a disruptive force, or a “very pretty girl” who behaves rudely. The Inspector makes them face the consequences. He repeatedly returns to the imagery of Eva dying “after several hours of agony, tonight in the Infirmary” in order to bring them face to face with Eva here (as in the moments when he shows them her photograph.) Through these motifs, and even more in the stories each is required to tell, the Inspector is insisting that they see Eva at last. He ensures that they no longer hide behind convenient explanations which suit their class. They have to look him and Eva in the eyes.
The Inspector as a character
The inspector has many sides. He begins as a detective in a murder mystery. But this is no ordinary police investigation, and the Birlings rightfully question it. Is he a “fake”, as Birling calls him? Perhaps he is “a Socialist or some sort of crank”? No, because the ending removes that possibility – a girl has died, and “a police inspector is on his way”.
And if he investigated Eva’s death before it happened, he must be some kind of ghost? The clue is in the name: Inspectre Ghoul. His final speech makes use of Christian imagery – “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body” – as well as a warning that if they do not change they “will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”, here he is referring to hell. As this language is also being used to enforce the author’s socialist views, there is a suggestion that the Inspector is acting as Priestley’s mouthpiece.
The Inspector could be the conscience of each of the Birlings, voicing the moral sense they have each suppressed? The Inspector could represent God coming to us on the Day of Judgment when all things shall be brought to light? The Inspector has become mysterious, insubstantial. He is now a spirit, reminding the Birlings and the audience that not everything in this world is solid, material, and a possible possession.
How does Priestley connect Eva and the Inspector?
Eva and the Inspector are alike in the sense that they are both elusive and representatives of the many. They relate one to another. He is her spokesman, of course, but there’s more to it than that. We have noticed how Eva refuses to “blame” Gerald, how she treats Eric as a “kid”, how she internalises their treatment of her through her suicide. She completes their abuse towards her.
She seems to rise above the most natural, inevitable emotions of anger and resentment. In reality she has repressed these feelings. Her suicide (as we have seen) is also an expression of these unconscious, hidden feelings of anger towards the Birlings, and a demand for retribution – this is where the Inspector comes in.
Following this line of thought, the Inspector can also be interpreted as being a repressed part of herself, Eva’s unconscious anger against those who have victimised her. He may be her unconscious feelings, or an alter ego, or even a ghost who is returning to demand retribution from those who have wounded her. (But wouldn’t she be the ghost, in that case, haunting the Birlings? No, she can’t be. She’s not yet dead, so the Inspector is a kind of representative for her.) He is enacting Eva’s hidden feelings, her unfulfilled wish for revenge or justice. They both add to the complexity of one other as characters.
Eva and the Inspector are alike in being elusive (difficult to grasp). There is a photograph of Eva, and a “rough sort of diary”. These things bring her back for a moment, but they also remind us she is gone. She is both a presence and an absence.
Gerald adds to the sense of her elusiveness, when he asks “but how do you know it’s the same girl?”. Hoping to discredit the investigation, he asks if the Inspector may have shown photographs of different girls. The Birlings, indeed, want her to be lots of girls, because then they won’t be guilty of harming her. They try to take her identity away from her all over again, but this fails, of course. The telephone rings, and they learn a “girl has just died” after all, and they’re back on the hook.
In the play as a whole, then, Eva and the Inspector each grow in symbolic meaning, whereas the Birlings and Gerald are presented in fairly straightforward terms. Eva and the Inspector also win another kind of victory as they become the most complex and compelling figures in the play. Priestley is working here to grant them a symbolic and imaginative power over the Birlings. The Inspector is more than a mere police inspector. Eva represents much more than one girl. As the Inspector says, there are “millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths”. At the end of the play, they have a power over the audience as well as the Birlings. In An Inspector Calls, how Priestley presents his characters has a political effect and purpose.
Realism in the Play
As the curtain rises, we are presented with elements of realism. The audience is invited to look through “the fourth wall” into a dining room, with all its “substantial and heavily comfortable” furniture. The play occurs within a single space and time frame presents the Birlings as the products of their society and culture, and in the depiction of the sad elements of Eva’s life and death.
‘An Inspector Calls’ is a didactic play, some thought it was written to influence people to vote for the Labour party at the next election. It is also often pointed out that An Inspector Calls is a morality play. Thus, Eva is Everywoman, navigating the world, plagued by personifications of vice and virtue. The Birlings could also be representative of character flaws: Avarice (Birling), Anger or Envy (Sheila), Lust (Gerald), Pride (Mrs Birling) and Intemperance, Lust, and Sloth (Eric). Here, as in its’ social realism, the play becomes a reflection of Priestley’s values; charity, social connectedness and “community” over the Capitalist values exemplified by the Birlings, An Inspector Calls is similar to a ghost story. We discover Eva was yet to die when the Inspector arrived to begin his questioning. Was he a ghost, a vengeful spirit demanding retribution? Is the play a kind of revenge tragedy, where a ghost makes the guilty pay for what they did? Is it an allegory of the Day of Judgement?
Naturalism and Materialism
Naturalism establishes the materialism of the Birlings. It presents their “substantial furniture”, their enjoyment of food and drink, and their dinner dress (compared with the poverty, hunger, and loneliness experienced by Eva). It also suggests the limitations of their world. The play occurs in one time frame, one space, and one continuous action. The lighting changes from “pink and intimate” to “brighter and harder”. The characters are enclosed, under examination, unable to escape their “responsibility” for Eva’s death.
This naturalism also makes what follows more credible. Imperceptibly, the play makes us look again, see allegorical meanings, that characters represent weaknesses perhaps, or that the Inspector may be the conscience of the Birlings, or a figure representing God. Priestley uses naturalism to present the materialism of the Birlings – and he uses allegory and the supernatural to pull it apart. He discounts the Birlings’ Capitalist values and replaces them with his own Socialist ones.
A critique of the problems and inequalities in a society, with possible explanations of the causes.
A play that presents a lesson about good conduct and character.
A literary technique, by which the full significance of a character's words or actions is clear to the audience or reader while being unknown to the character.
Intended to teach
The realistic depiction in art of contemporary life, as a means of social or political comment.
Day of Judgement
Christian belief - The time of the Last Judgement; the end of the world. God decides a person’s fate according to the good and evil of their earthly lives.
Extreme greed for wealth or material gain
Reluctance to work or make an effort; laziness.
Excessive indulgence, especially in alcohol.
Can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
Style of representation based on the accurate depiction of detail
To consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.