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An Inspector Calls is a three-act drama by J.B. Priestley that intertwines mystery, morality, and the social fabric of early 20th-century Britain. This intriguing play exposes the intertwined lives of the seemingly respectable Birling family and a tragic working-class woman, Eva Smith, unravelling hidden secrets and challenging our understanding of responsibility. Priestley's exploration of society's failings and the human conscience…
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An Inspector Calls is a three-act drama by J.B. Priestley that intertwines mystery, morality, and the social fabric of early 20th-century Britain. This intriguing play exposes the intertwined lives of the seemingly respectable Birling family and a tragic working-class woman, Eva Smith, unravelling hidden secrets and challenging our understanding of responsibility. Priestley's exploration of society's failings and the human conscience means An Inspector Calls continues to resonate, serving as a compelling reminder of our collective duty to one another no matter their class or gender.
An Inspector Calls is a play written by J.B. Priestley and first performed in 1945 in the United Kingdom. Set in 1912, the play centres around the prosperous Birling family's dinner party which is being held to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila Birling, to Gerald Croft, the son of a competing industrialist.
|Overview: An Inspector Calls|
Author of An Inspector Calls
|J. B. Priestley|
Publication date & First performed
|1945 Soviet Union|
Summary of An Inspector Calls
|The play centres around the prosperous Birling family who are hosting a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila Birling, to Gerald Croft, the son of a competing industrialist. The merriment is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Inspector Goole, who investigates the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith/Daisy Renton|
|Foreshadowing, dramatic irony, stage directions, cliffhangers, time shift, symbolism|
|Main characters||Inspector Goole, Arthur Birling, Sybil Birling, Sheila Birling, Eric Birling, Gerald Croft, Eva Smith|
|Setting||1912, Edwardian England|
|Themes||Social responsibility, judgment and consequences, hypocrisy, generational gaps|
|The play is a critique of the hypocrisies of Victorian and Edwardian English society and is particularly scathing in its indictment of the callousness of the British upper class towards the lower class. It's also a reminder that our actions have consequences, and we are all responsible for each other.|
Act 1 takes place in the Birling family's lavish dining room, where a celebratory dinner is taking place. The family, including Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, their daughter Sheila, and their son Eric, are celebrating Sheila's engagement to Gerald Croft, the son of a fellow successful industrialist.
Arthur Birling, in a moment of patriarchal pride, delivers a toast for the young couple and then gives advice to Gerald and Eric, expressing his strong belief in individualism and capitalist values. He dismisses the rumours of war and predictions of social unrest, claiming they are nonsense.
Just as the mood becomes jovial, an unexpected visitor arrives. Edna, the maid, introduces Inspector Goole, who has come to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. The inspector shows a photograph of Eva to Mr Birling, who admits that Eva used to work in his factory. He had sacked her eighteen months ago for inciting a strike for higher wages. Mr Birling is defensive and maintains that he was justified in firing her.
Inspector Goole next reveals that after leaving Birling's factory, Eva worked in a shop where Sheila often went. He shows Sheila the same photo of Eva Smith, and she breaks down and runs out of the room, confessing she had been instrumental in getting Eva fired from the shop. Sheila had been envious and spiteful after Eva had looked better in a dress that Sheila wanted to buy.
Throughout the act, the Inspector continues his questioning in a calm and methodical manner, allowing the Birlings to incriminate themselves. The inspector's presence and questions start to reveal the flaws and cracks in the seemingly perfect Birling family.
The act concludes with Sheila warning her family that they are just beginning to realize the full implications of their actions, suggesting that the family's entanglement with the deceased Eva Smith is far from over. The stage is set for further revelations in the subsequent acts.
Act 2 sees the Birling family and Gerald Croft in their dining room, facing questioning from Inspector Goole about their connection to the suicide of a young woman, Eva Smith.
The Inspector turns his attention towards Gerald Croft, who initially denies knowing Eva Smith. But when pressured, Gerald admits to having had an affair with a woman named Daisy Renton, who the Inspector suggests is Eva Smith under a different name. Gerald had met her at a local bar and, learning she was in a desperate situation, had provided her with money and temporary accommodation in a friend’s vacant apartment.
Sheila, upon hearing this, is deeply upset and returns Gerald's engagement ring, although she appreciates his honesty. Gerald then asks to leave the room to get some fresh air, which Inspector Goole allows.
The Inspector then turns his questioning to Mrs Birling. It is revealed that Eva, pregnant and destitute, had approached a women's charity headed by Mrs Birling for help. Eva used the name 'Mrs Birling,' which greatly offended Sybil. Without investigating Eva's circumstances, she used her influence to deny her the assistance she sought, driving her further into despair.
Throughout this act, Sheila grows increasingly distressed as she begins to grasp the full implications of her family's actions. She contrasts sharply with her parents, who persistently refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for Eva's death.
Act 2 ends with Mrs Birling trying to shift the blame onto the father of Eva's unborn child, insisting that he should be made to pay and be held responsible, not knowing that the person she condemns is her own son, Eric. This cliffhanger sets the stage for the final act.
Act 3 opens with the aftermath of Mrs Birling's condemning statement about the father of Eva's unborn child, whom she's unaware is her own son, Eric. The family anxiously awaits Eric’s return as Gerald comes back from his walk outside.
When Eric returns, he admits to meeting Eva/Daisy at the same bar Gerald had and having a relationship with her. When Eva became pregnant, he stole money from his father's office to support her. However, Eva refused to take any more money when she found out it was stolen. Eric is remorseful and upset over Eva's death and angrily responds to his parent's attempts to cover up their part in Eva's fate.
As the revelations wind down, Inspector Goole delivers a final monologue, reminding the Birlings of their responsibility towards other people. He warns them that if they don't learn from their actions, they will be taught in "fire and blood and anguish," foreshadowing the upcoming wars. After delivering this message, he leaves.
After the Inspector's exit, the family begins arguing. Gerald, who had left the room for some time, reveals that he met a police officer outside who claimed that no Inspector Goole works at the police department. The family begins to speculate that the Inspector might have been a fraud. They also find out that there might not have been a recent suicide case.
Just as they start feeling relieved and begin to believe they've escaped the consequences of their actions, the phone rings. Mr Birling answers and is informed that a young woman has just died in the hospital after swallowing disinfectant, and a police inspector is on his way to question them. The play ends on this cliffhanger, leaving the audience to wonder what will happen next and reinforcing the themes of collective responsibility and the cyclical nature of consequences.
An Inspector Calls was written by J.B. Priestley just after the end of World War II, but it is set in 1912, during the Edwardian era. The context of both these periods significantly influences the themes and messages of the play.
The Edwardian era (1901-1910), which slightly extended into the years beyond 1910, was a period of significant social disparity in Britain. The upper class enjoyed luxurious lifestyles, while the working class struggled with low wages, poor working conditions, and a lack of social mobility. The character of Eva Smith represents the plight of the working class, and the attitudes of the Birling family and Gerald Croft towards her highlight the class-based prejudice prevalent during this time.
The theme of social responsibility in the play is directly tied to these conditions. The Inspector repeatedly emphasizes that everyone in society, regardless of their social status, has a responsibility to care for others. This message directly contradicts the values held by many in the Edwardian upper class, like Mr Birling, who believe in looking out for their own interests without considering the impact of their actions on the lower classes.
The fact that Priestley wrote the play in 1945 is also significant. Britain had just emerged from World War II, and the nation was coming to terms with the vast human cost of the conflict. During this period, there was a strong desire for social change and improvement, leading to the election of a Labour government and the creation of the welfare state, including the National Health Service.
In this context, Priestley's call for social responsibility can be seen as a response to the social conditions of both the Edwardian era and his contemporary post-war Britain. His message is a critique of the self-interested capitalist values that had contributed to social inequality and two devastating world wars and an appeal for a more caring and community-focused society.
The dramatic irony of the play lies in the fact that the audience, aware of the historical events that followed 1912, such as World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, knows that Mr Birling's optimistic predictions for the future are terribly wrong. This irony serves to further discredit his views and reinforce Priestley's message about the dangers of social irresponsibility.
In Act one, Mr Birling says 'unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable' as one of his several confident predictions about the future. This quote refers to the Titanic, which is particularly significant because the play is set in 1912, the same year the Titanic infamously hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, resulting in a tragic loss of life. The audience, knowing the historical fact of the Titanic disaster, realises the inaccuracy of Birling's assertion.
The Titanic itself, like the society represented in An Inspector Calls, was a microcosm of early 20th-century class divisions. On the Titanic, passengers were segregated into different classes: first, second, and third, each with different levels of comfort, luxury, and safety precautions. First-class passengers enjoyed opulent accommodations and had the highest survival rate during the sinking, while third-class passengers had far less comfortable conditions and a significantly lower survival rate. This structure mirrors the class system of the Edwardian era, where upper-class individuals, like the Birlings in the play, enjoyed privileged lives at the expense of the working class, represented by Eva Smith.
In An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestley uses the Birling family's treatment of Eva Smith to reflect the indifference and contempt the wealthy often had for the poor. Like the disadvantaged passengers on the Titanic, Eva is a casualty of a society that values the lives of the rich more than those of the poor.
Moreover, Mr Birling's confident assertion that the Titanic is 'unsinkable' can be viewed as a metaphor for his belief in the stability and fairness of the social system in which he thrives. The sinking of the Titanic, known to the audience but unknown to the characters, symbolizes the coming collapse of this system in the face of war and social change. Therefore, the class system on the Titanic and the fate of the ship serve as powerful symbols to underline the theme of class inequality and social responsibility in An Inspector Calls.
Below is a table of the main characters from An Inspector Calls who are affected by Eva Smith's traffic fate and are forced to confront their lack of social responsibility.
|An Inspector Calls: List of Characters|
|Inspector Goole||A mysterious figure who interrogates the Birling family about their involvement in Eva Smith/Daisy Renton's life. He serves as the moral compass of the play, encouraging the characters to accept responsibility for their actions.|
|Arthur Birling||The patriarch of the Birling family. He is a prosperous factory owner, a local magistrate, and a former mayor. He is more concerned with his family's reputation and his potential knighthood than the welfare of his employees. He fired Eva from his factory for demanding higher wages.|
|Sybil Birling||The matriarch of the Birling family and a prominent member of local women's charities. She is cold and detached, refusing to accept responsibility for denying help to Eva, who was pregnant and destitute.|
|Sheila Birling||The Birlings' daughter, initially portrayed as naive and sheltered. After learning of her role in Eva's dismissal from a job at a local shop, she becomes remorseful and is the most receptive to the Inspector's message.|
|Eric Birling||The Birlings' son who is revealed to be an alcoholic and the father of Eva's unborn child. He stole money from his father's business to support Eva but was rejected when she discovered the money was stolen.|
|Gerald Croft||Engaged to Sheila Birling, he is the son of a wealthy industrialist. He had an affair with Eva (known to him as Daisy Renton) while he was in a relationship with Sheila. He provides Eva with temporary shelter and financial aid before eventually ending the affair.|
|Eva Smith/Daisy Renton||Eva Smith is a pivotal yet unseen character in J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls". She is a young working-class woman who tragically commits suicide by ingesting disinfectant, sparking the investigation that forms the basis of the play.|
Throughout Inspector Goole's inquiry, it becomes clear that each member of the family is implicated in the woman's demise, demonstrating the important roles each character has in the play.
Arthur Birling, a self-made businessman, had fired Eva from his factory because she led a strike for higher wages.
Sheila Birling had Eva dismissed from her job in a shop through a fit of jealousy and spite.
Gerald Croft, Sheila's fiancé, had an affair with Eva when she was out of work and later abandoned her.
Eric Birling, the Birlings' son, also had an affair with Eva, resulting in her pregnancy. He stole money from his father's business to support Eva, but she refused to accept it once she knew of its origins.
Sybil Birling, Arthur's wife, used her influence in a charity organization to deny aid to Eva when she was pregnant and destitute, resulting in Eva's suicide.
The main themes in An Inspector Calls are:
Social Responsibility: The play underscores the idea that every individual is responsible for their actions and their impact on others, particularly those less fortunate. The Inspector's probing questions force each character to confront their actions towards Eva Smith, emphasizing the interconnectedness of society.
Class and Social Inequality: The stark differences between the lives of the Birlings and Eva Smith highlight the deep-seated class divisions in early 20th-century Britain. The characters' attitudes towards Eva are heavily influenced by her lower social status.
Gender Roles: The women in the play face different expectations and opportunities compared to the men, reflecting the gender inequalities of the period. The tragic circumstances of Eva's life are partly a result of her vulnerability as a woman in a patriarchal society.
Guilt and Responsibility: The characters' different reactions to their roles in Eva's death reflect their feelings of guilt and their willingness (or unwillingness) to take responsibility for their actions. Sheila and Eric feel guilty and accept responsibility, while their parents, Arthur and Sybil, deflect blame.
Judgment and Consequence: The arrival of Inspector Goole forces the characters to face judgment for their actions. The prospect of public scandal reflects the societal judgment they fear, while the repeated phone call at the end of the play suggests that actions have consequences.
Age and Youth: There's a clear divide between the younger and older characters in the play. The younger characters (Sheila and Eric) are willing to change and accept responsibility, while the older characters (Mr. and Mrs. Birling) are set in their ways and refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoings. This represents the clash between the old and new generations.
Hypocrisy: The Birlings are initially portrayed as a respectable upper-class family, but as the play progresses, their actions reveal them to be hypocritical. They preach high moral standards but fail to live up to them, illuminating the hypocrisy prevalent in the upper classes of society.
Below are some of the main quotes present in the play.
When you're married you'll realize that men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business. You'll have to get used to that, just as I had.
Sybil Birling, Act 1
Sybil's quote, directed towards her daughter, Sheila, offers a perspective on gender roles and expectations in the early 20th-century society the play is set in.
Mrs Birling is suggests that when Sheila marries, she will need to accept that her husband will be largely occupied with his work. This reflects the patriarchal society of the time, where men were typically the breadwinners and their careers often took precedence over family or domestic life. Women, on the other hand, were expected to be supportive, focusing on domestic duties and taking a backseat to their husband's professional lives. Mrs Birling's advice to Sheila is to 'get used to' this arrangement, indicating that she has accepted this gender dynamic in her own marriage and expects Sheila to do the same.
In the broader context of the play, this quote adds depth to the portrayal of gender roles and women's lack of power.
You're not the kind of father a chap could go to when he's in trouble.
Eric Birling, Act 2
The quote reflects Eric's feelings of alienation and lack of emotional support from his father. Eric feels he cannot approach his father for help or advice when he's in trouble, indicating a distant, possibly cold, father-son relationship. This suggests a lack of understanding and open communication within the Birling family, which is one of the aspects Priestley critiques about the upper classes.
In a broader context, this quote also underscores the generational gap and differing values between Eric and his father. While Mr. Birling embodies the older generation's adherence to social status and appearances, Eric, like his sister Sheila, shows a capacity for empathy and guilt, representing the potential for change in the younger generation.
But I accept no blame for it at all.
Sybil Birling, Act 2
This quote by Sybil Birling comes after she learns that her actions contributed to Eva Smith's despair, leading to her suicide. Despite this, Mrs Birling insists that she accepts 'no blame for it at all,' demonstrating her continous refusal to take responsibility for her actions. The quote encapsulates her lack of empathy and denial, themes Priestley uses to critique the attitudes of the upper classes towards those less fortunate in society.
We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.
Inspector Goole, Act 3
This quote is spoken by Inspector Goole and underscores the main moral message of the play: everyone in society is interconnected, and actions have far-reaching impacts. By stating 'we are members of one body,' the Inspector stresses the collective responsibility that individuals have for each other's welfare, a sharp critique of the selfishness and lack of social responsibility displayed by characters like the Birlings.
An Inspector Calls was written by J.B. Priestley in 1945.
An Inspector Calls is about the Birling family and Gerald Croft, who are interrogated by Inspector Goole about the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. Each character is revealed to have had a role in her demise, representing the destructive impact of social inequality.
Priestley presents responsibility as a social and moral duty that all individuals owe to each other. Through Inspector Goole, he criticizes characters who shirk responsibility and commends those who accept it. The play suggests that ignoring our responsibilities towards others can lead to tragic consequences, emphasizing Priestley's call for a more caring and community-focused society.
An Inspector Calls was written by British playwright J.B. Priestley.
Inspector Goole is the mysterious figure who interrogates the Birling family about Eva Smith's suicide. He appears to know a great deal about each character's involvement with Eva. His role is not just to uncover the truth but to force each character to face their own responsibility. He serves as the moral compass of the play and is the mouthpiece for Priestley's social critique.
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