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Although An Inspector Calls is set in 1912 it was written in 1944/45 and produced in London for the first time in 1946; it is as much about post-war Britain as it is about the Edwardian period. Audiences at the end of the war would have appreciated the irony of Birling's predictions for the future. Setting the play before the First World War enabled Priestley to make the most of class division and social hierarchy. There are many references to social position: Birling's compared to his wife's, the Birlings compared to Gerald's family, the workers at Birling's factory and the destitute women who go to the Brumley Women's Charity Organisation for help. Birling constantly name drops, talking of Alderman Meggarty and the Chief Constable as well as his own time as Lord Mayor. He tries to impress Gerald with talk of the possibility of his being knighted. Social position is clearly important to him and Priestley uses Birling to represent the capitalist viewpoint. Birling is concerned about money and what other people think; the possibility of scandal horrifies him.
You may also notice the different attitudes to women in the play. Sheila is seen as someone who needs protecting from the harsh realities of life; both Gerald and Birling try to get her out of the room when Gerald is being questioned. They have a different attitude to women of the town, and to Eva Smith. Mrs Birling adds to this by implying that Eva Smith had ideas above her station. Although both Gerald and Eric see that Eva was different from the usual women in the Palace bar, they are still both prepared to use her in a way which would be unthinkable in a girl of their own social standing.
The Birling family is celebrating the engagement of Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of Lord and Lady Croft, who comes from 'an old country family - landed people'. Arthur Birling is in a good mood and makes a number of speeches giving his views about the state of the world, technology and industrial relations. One of his main themes is about everyone being responsible for themselves; he doesn't believe that anyone has a responsibility to others apart from his family.
When Inspector Goole is announced, Birling and Gerald make a joke about Eric who shows his guilty conscience by reacting strongly to this.
The inspector informs Birling about the death of a young woman who has committed suicide by drinking disinfectant. It emerges that Birling had sacked the girl, Eva Smith, two years earlier after she had been one of the ring-leaders in a strike and demanding higher wages.
Sheila Birling is also connected to the girl, having had her sacked from her new job at Milwards. She is horrified by what she did and is genuinely remorseful.
The inspector seems to know details of the family's involvement before they speak and when he tells them that the girl changed her name to Daisy Renton, Gerald's reaction tells us that he, too, knew the girl. When they are temporarily left alone, Sheila warns Gerald not to try to hide anything from the inspector.
By the end of the first act, the audience is expecting the inspector to reveal further connections with members of the Birling family.
Although Gerald tries to get Sheila to leave the room, she insists on staying; Gerald admits to having had an affair with Eva Smith, the girl he knew as Daisy Renton, the previous summer. Sheila is hurt and disappointed in Gerald who had told her he was busy at the works at that time. After Gerald broke off the affair, Eva/Daisy had left Brumley for a few months. After Sheila has returned her engagement ring to him, Gerald goes out, seemingly genuinely affected by the news of the girl's death.
Despite Sheila's warnings Mrs Birling tries to intimidate the inspector, believing that she could have no possible connection to the girl. When the inspector reminds her of the pregnant girl she turned away from the charity organisation she chaired, Mrs Birling concedes but felt herself to be justified because the girl had lied to her about her name [calling herself Mrs Birling]. She also disbelieved the girl's claim that she had refused the offer of help from the father of her baby because she believed that he had stolen the money. Mrs Birling digs herself deeper into a hole by insisting that the father of the baby should be made to pay.
Eric has been out during this exchange but re-enters right at the end of the scene to expectant faces; we are expecting Eric to be the father of the baby.
Eric immediately realises that they all know and tells them of how he met Eva and of her subsequent pregnancy. Questioned closely by the inspector, he also reveals that he had tried to support the girl by giving her money but he had stolen it from his father's business. The Birlings seem more horrified by this than his responsibility for the girl's condition.
Having done his job, the inspector makes a speech about social responsibility and leaves the Birlings to examine their behaviour.
When Gerald re-enters he has news that there is no Inspector Goole is employed by the local police. Birling and Gerald now set about disproving the inspector's case although Sheila and Eric feel that that is not the point. When Gerald confirms that no girl has died of drinking disinfectant by telephoning the infirmary, The Birlings and Gerald are delighted and their mood of jollity and good-humour of the beginning of Act 1 returns.
Sheila and Eric do not feel the same way, continuing to feel guilt for what they have done and are appalled at the behaviour of Gerald and their parents. When Birling suggests that Sheila take back her engagement ring from Gerald, Sheila remarks that it is too soon.
Just at the point where Birling is teasing them for their lack of a sense of humour, the telephone rings and Birling is obviously stunned by what he hears: a girl has died in the infirmary and a police inspector is on his way to ask them some questions.
Birling is a snob and a social climber, very aware of his position in society, especially as his wife is higher up the social scale than him, as are the Crofts, Gerald's parents. He tries to impress and intimidate the inspector by mentioning having been mayor, emphasising his connections to the Crofts and his friendship with the Chief Constable. Birling is pompous and makes speeches revealing a selfish and arrogant attitude towards others. His proclamations about the Titanic, the state of the nation and the impossibility of war are all designed to make him look foolish in the eyes of the audience who would have the benefit of hindsight. Birling believes that each person is responsible only for himself and his family and denies any collective or social responsibility. More worried about scandal and his reputation than other people's feelings, Birling shows a callous and unsympathetic attitude towards Eva Smith. He is very impressed by Gerald and is indulgent towards his affair with Eva Smith even though it is his own daughter who has been betrayed.
An even bigger snob than her husband, Mrs Birling is described in the opening stage directions as a 'cold woman, and her husband's social superior'. She is narrow-minded and judgmental about the 'lower classes' without really understanding how other people live. She has no insight and is genuinely unaware that her son is a heavy drinker. Her life is governed by her notion of correctness and whilst her daughter is behaving in an appropriate way, she seems to get on with her but when Sheila expresses opinions she doesn't approve of she reprimands her. Her arrogant and patronising attitude towards the inspector means that she falls a victim to his questioning despite Sheila's warnings. Although she chairs the committee of a charitable organisation, Sybil Birling is not a charitable person; she is smug and self-satisfied and only serves on the committee out of a sense of duty rather than a genuine desire to help those less fortunate than herself. Because she only hears what she wants to, she is easily offended. It is because Eva Smith had the impertinence to use the Birling name that Mrs Birling refused to help her. She is delighted when it seems that the inspector is a fraud because she feels that she was the only one who didn't give in to him. She does not change her attitude, has no sense of empathy and shows no remorse for her role in Eva Smith's death.
At the beginning of the play, Sheila is presented as rather pleased with herself but also rather shallow. She makes inconsequential remarks and speaks in a rather childish way: she calls her mother 'mummy' and uses words like 'squiffy' and 'jolly well'. However, she is the only one to immediately accept responsibility for her role in Eva Smith's death and she is, therefore, probably the most sympathetic character in the play. She is genuinely remorseful for her actions and is very affected by details of the girl's terrible death. She shows perception in her attitude towards the inspector, realising that he already knows much of what he is asking them and showing intuition about what his questioning is leading to. She is the first to realise that Eric is the father of Eva's baby and tries to stop her mother from making it worse for Eric. This intuition is also evident in the fact that before information about Gerald's affair came out, she was suspicious about his behaviour when she speaks to him 'half serious, half playfully' about it. Although she acted out of spite and jealousy in getting Eva sacked, she has more of a conscience than any of the other characters and we believe her when she says that she will never do anything like it again. She has more empathy for Eva, recognising her as a person not just as a worker. She is therefore very different from her father and mother and nearer to the inspector in terms of her social conscience. Of all the characters, Sheila is most changed by the inspector's visit. She is more honest and outspoken than at the beginning of the play, often shocking her mother with her remarks. Sheila represents hope that people can change.
Eric is rather awkward and ill at ease with himself and others. He is described as 'half shy, half assertive' immature and weak. He is presented as a drunk who does not stand up for himself against his father. Neither of his parents know him well or understand him and he seems to be lacking their regard and affection. Birling makes it clear that Gerald is the type of son he would have chosen for himself. His liaison with Eva Smith was possibly as a result of his parents' lack of understanding but he did not treat her well at the time and the revelations that he is a thief compound our view of him as a weak and spoilt young man. He is, however, genuinely sorry about Eva and horrified by the revelations that his mother had turned her away. The audience feels a certain sympathy for him, particularly because he does redeem himself towards the end of the play when he seems to have learnt his lesson.
Gerald is the upper class fiancé of Sheila Birling; unlike Eric, he is at ease with himself and others and has the self-confidence of a young man of his class and upbringing. He is more like Mr Birling in his views and outlook on life than he is Sheila or Eric to whom he is nearer in age. He agrees with the way Mr Birling handles the sacking of Eva Smith and when questioned by the inspector, like Mr and Mrs Birling, his first impulse is to deny everything. However, unlike them, he shows remorse for his actions when he realises what has happened to the girl. He tries to protect Sheila from the revelations about his affair with Eva and once he has begun his confession, he admits what he did. However, he is the one who acts on his suspicions about the inspector and begins the chain of events which result in the revelation that the inspector is a fraud or impostor. Once he realises this, like the Birlings, he reverts to a light-hearted attitude which shows that he has not learned anything from the events of the evening.
The inspector is described as creating 'an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness'. As each of the characters part in the death of Eva Smith is revealed, he remains constant and unmoving. Although he is described variously as speaking 'calmly' and 'steadily', he also speaks 'sternly' and 'grimly'. There are several references to his taking control and intervening. The inspector could be said to be a mouth-piece for Priestley's own opinions and as a contrast with the views of Birling; he has also been called merely a dramatic device to move the plot along. Certainly it is the inspector who makes things happen and takes control of how and when the revelations occur. He decides the order in which each character is questioned. The fact that he is quite ordinary in appearance underlines the fact that he is not ordinary in the way he asks questions and his attitude towards the other characters. He is direct and takes charge on a number of occasions. Both Birling and Mrs Birling remark on his rudeness. He is very single-minded and seems very certain of himself and his facts. He also seems to be omniscient [all-knowing] and Sheila is the one who recognises this most. He is a catalyst who seems able to get characters to reveal their involvement with Eva Smith because he seems to already know what they are going to say. Some critics have argued that he is like a confessor figure with the characters revealing their sins to him just as they might to a priest. He does not make things easy for them and he does pass judgment on them aloud, unlike a real police inspector although unlike a priest, he neither forgives them nor punishes them. Goole seems to be working to a very tight time-scale and makes a number of remarks about being in a hurry.
There are various possibilities for who or what Inspector Goole represents:
The voice of conscience
A dramatic device
A 'ghoul' or evil spirit
A forewarning of what the characters will face on Judgment Day
The power of Inspector Goole's character lies in not knowing exactly who he is or what he represents. Priestley gives us no clues and deliberately leaves it open at the end because he does not want to impose just one interpretation of the inspector.
When he is uncovered at the end as not being a real inspector, it makes a huge difference to Mr and Mrs Birling and Gerald because not only have they avoided a scandal but they are also very aware of status, whereas for Sheila and Eric it makes no difference: 'he inspected us all right'.
The themes of the play are closely connected and at times indistinguishable from one another.
Priestley uses the play to put across a social message that reflected his own views of society:
The comparison between the Birlings and the contrast with the workers in Birling's factory striking for a few pennies a week more
The fact that someone like Mrs Birling can have a say in whether the Eva Smith's of the world get help or not
Mr Birling as representative of capitalism and the Inspector championing the poor
The inspector counters Birling's selfish attitude by talking about the need to be 'responsible for each other'
Priestley shows the attitudes of the different characters towards responsibility:
Mr Birling does not have a sense of responsibility to his workers, just to making a profit and towards his family
Mrs Birling has a sense of responsibility to do good deeds by being on the Brumley Women's Charity Organisation but feels no sense of responsibility for what happened to Eva Smith after she turned her away
Gerald seems to show a responsible attitude when he rescued the girl from the attentions of Alderman Meggarty but then used her for his own purposes, discarding her once she was of no further use to him
Eric shows little responsibility for his own actions, forcing himself upon Eva when he was in a drunken state and even when he tried to help her, he did it by stealing from his own father
Sheila does show a sense of responsibility somewhat belatedly, realising that her actions in Milwards had a devastating consequence for one young woman's life
Apart from Eric stealing money from his father, no crime has been committed in the play, yet the characters are examined as if it has. What is being put on trial to some extent is the morality of their different actions or inactions. Although they may not have acted illegally, could each of the characters be said to have acted immorally in their dealings with Eva Smith, using their relative power over her to have her sacked [twice]; to seduce her and then discard her when she was no longer wanted; to force her into having sex against her will and leaving her pregnant; and refusing her money and turning her away when she was destitute.
The play could be seen as a microcosm of society with different attitudes being shown through the different characters. Through the character of Birling, we are shown the antithesis of everything that Priestley believes in; in the Inspector we get a glimpse of what Priestley would advocate instead. Unlike Birling, Priestley believes that everyone has responsibility towards others. In Inspector Calls, Priestley shows his fear that the country would not stand up to scrutiny, that as a society we might be like Birling although he shows some hope, in the characters of Sheila and Eric, that things might change.
TENSION IN 'AN INSPECTOR CALLS'
there is a very compact structure to the play, nothing is allowed to distract the audience from the central theme. There is no sub-plot
the play takes place in just one location; the action is continuous and takes place over one evening
Act One begins by introducing the characters and establishing the idea of a happy and united family looking forward to the future with a degree of confidence. In retrospect, there are a number of hints that all is not as it seems but these are not particularly obvious until later in the play. There is nothing to warn us of the shock of the Inspector's visit
events soon gather speed and it is not long before we are being informed of Birling and Sheila's involvement with Eva Smith
tensions increase, firstly as Gerald's affair is unveiled (and the scandal it would cause) and Sheila begins to realise that they are all implicated in some way 'he is giving us rope - so that we'll hang ourselves'. As reader/audience we realise that all the characters are going to have secrets to reveal under the clever questioning of the inspector; the anticipation of the audience raises the level of tension
Mrs Birling's attempts to shift the blame for the girl's suicide lead her to blame the father of the unborn child. Despite Sheila's attempts to prevent her from digging herself deeper into a hole, Mrs Birling ploughs on relentlessly adding to the dramatic tension as the audience waits to see what will happen
the tension is heightened at this point by the dramatic entrance of Eric.
with the departure of the Inspector it would appear that what follows will be something of an anti-climax as the Inspector's identity is put into doubt by a series of observations made by the Birling family and Gerald. Even the existence of Eva is called into question.
however, the tension remains to some extent as the two generations show a split in their attitudes, confirming the differences highlighted by the Inspector's questioning - the moral divide is very great indeed
the final denouement, the phone call announcing that a police inspector is on his way to ask some questions about a girl who has just died in the infirmary, is as shocking as it is surprising and ensures that the audience will leave the auditorium in a state of real shock
DRAMATIC DEVICES IN 'AN INSPECTOR CALLS'
stage directions are used at the beginning of the play to give information about the set; it tells us that the Birlings are well off and middle class [it is 'a fairly solid suburban house' with 'good solid furniture' which is 'substantial and heavily comfortable' rather than cosy]
stage directions are used at the beginning of the play to give information about characters; Priestley tells us not only about their appearance but also about their character [Birling is 'heavy-looking' and 'rather portentous' (it means self-important or pompous); Mrs Birling is 'rather cold', Sheila is a 'pretty girl...very pleased with life and rather excited'; Gerald is an 'attractive chap' whilst Eric is 'not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive'; when the inspector enters, we are told that he 'has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking']
stage directions are widely used to give information about the feelings or actions of the characters which would help the actors playing the characters ['bitterly', 'distressed', 'after a pause, with a touch of impatience', 'massively taking charge']
lighting is used to create effect - at the beginning the lighting is described as 'pink and intimate'; after the inspector enters there is a reference to his moving 'nearer a light - perhaps a standard lamp'. This suggests that the inspector is shining a harsh light on the Birlings and Gerald Croft
sparing use of sound effects help to enhance the drama - the doorbell in the first act and the ringing of the telephone in the final moments of the play are both highly significant
Priestley frequently makes use of the dash - to show a character's emotional state; the dash represents the fact that the character is speaking in a disjointed rather than a flowing and articulate way [see Sheila's speech on page 29 and Eric's on p.55]
not all the characters are on stage all the time; exits and entrances are cleverly used to create dramatic tension [see separate notes about this]with some characters being unaware of what has happened whilst they were out of the room [examples include; the entrance of the inspector shortly after Birling has made his pompous speeches; Mrs Birling's not knowing that the inspector is implicating everyone with his clever questioning techniques and Eric's re-appearance at the end of Act 2 just at the moment when the audience and the characters on stage realise that Eric is the father of Eva Smith's baby]
dramatic irony - this is particularly evident in Birling's speeches at the beginning of the play when he makes pronouncements about war, the state of the nation in 30 years' time and, more immediately, the unsinkable nature of the Titanic; compare this apparent foolishness with the inspector's talk of 'blood and anguish'. An audience seeing this immediately after the second world war with knowledge of the first war would think of Birling as a fool and the inspector as a prophet
the major dramatic device used by Priestley is that of the Inspector himself. He is used to good effect to move the plot along, controlling the pace of events and deciding in which order the characters are questioned. He is also used to voice Priestley's socialist views and opinions
contrast between characters is another effective dramatic device - the juxtaposition of Birling and the inspector provides an effective contrast of beliefs; the attitudes of Sheila and her father to the fate of Eva Smith also provides effective contrast
symbolism is a further dramatic device used by Priestley: Birling represents capitalism whilst the inspector as a mouthpiece for Priestley himself represents socialism. Mr and Mrs Birling and Gerald Croft represent the old order of things whilst Sheila and Eric are symbolic of hope for the future
cliff-hangers - Priestley uses this device several times to make the audience wait in anticipation for what they know will happen: The end of Act 1 and beginning of Act 2 begin with the inspector saying 'Well?' to Gerald; the beginning of Act 3 is 'exactly as at the end of Act 2'
EXAM QUESTIONS ON AN INSPECTOR CALLS
IN THE EXAM, you will be asked to write TWO answers on An Inspector Calls:
one compulsory question based on an extract from the text [10 marks]
This is known as a CONTEXT question. You are advised to spend about 20 minutes on this answer.
one longer question from a choice of two [20 marks]
You are advised to spend about 40 minutes on this answer.
HOW TO ANSWER A CONTEXT QUESTION [No choice/10 marks/20 minutes]
Look carefully at what you are being asked to comment on - is it character, theme, dramatic devices?
Read the extract carefully and try to locate the passage - whereabouts in the play does it come? Before what? After what? This will give you a context for answering the question. BUT
Focus on the extract - only refer to elsewhere in the play if it is relevant e.g. shows a change of character.
As you read, write down about 3 or 4 points that you want to make to answer the question; underline a few quotes to support your points.
Don't do an introduction/conclusion - there isn't time.
Get straight into answering the question by making a major point in your first sentence.
Write about 3/4 short paragraphs covering the points you have highlighted as being relevant.
Use only very short quotes.
Read the extract on the opposite page. Look closely at how Sheila speaks and behaves. What does it reveal about her character?
Sample answer major point
From the very beginning of this extract Sheila shows more assertive behaviour than earlier in the play. Although Gerald tries to protect Sheila from the revelations which are to follow, Sheila does not want protecting and shows her determination to stay.
shows understanding of the context
There is evidence of a stronger character than there was in Act 1; she is far less subservient towards Gerald, showing her disappointment in his judgment of her by speaking 'bitterly' and interrupting him when he tries to explain himself.
knowledge of text
Priestley shows that Sheila is a more sympathetic character than either of her parents through selective use of stage directions. She is 'distressed' when reminded of the way Eva Smith died and reacts 'eagerly' when the inspector suggests that she does not want to feel entirely to blame. However, the fact that she does acknowledge her responsibility, and feels remorseful about it, makes the audience feel more warmly towards her:
'…I know I'm to blame - and I'm desperately sorry…'
Priestley effectively conveys Sheila's emotions through the use of dashes which suggest that she is speaking in a disjointed way and that she is under some strain.
During the play, Sheila is shown to be perceptive and to have some sympathy with the inspector and intuition about what he is doing. The first hint of this is shown at the beginning of this extract she says:
'…but you haven't finished asking questions - have you?' and then later, when he seems to echo her own thoughts, she 'stares at him wonderingly and dubiously'.
Although this may seem a short answer, it is enough for the 20 minutes you have for a context question.
SHEILA No, but you haven't finished asking questions - have you?
SHEILA (to GERALD) You see? (To INSPECTOR.) Then I'm staying.
GERALD Why should you? It's bound to be unpleasant and disturbing.
INSPECTOR And you think young women ought to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things?
GERALD If possible - yes.
INSPECTOR Well, we know one young woman who wasn't, don't we?
GERALD I suppose I asked for that.
SHEILA Be careful you don't ask for any more, Gerald.
GERALD I only meant to say to you - Why stay when you'll hate it?
SHEILA It can't be any worse for me than it has been. And it might be better.
GERALD (bitterly) I see.
SHEILA What do you see?
GERALD You've been through it - and now you want to see somebody else put through it.
SHEILA (bitterly) So that's what you think I'm really like. I'm glad I realized it in time, Gerald.
GERALD No, no, I didn't mean -
SHEILA (cutting in) Yes, you did. And if you'd really loved me, you couldn't have said that. You listened to that nice story about me. I got that girl sacked from Milwards. And now you've made up your mind I must obviously be a selfish, vindictive creature.
GERALD I neither said that nor even suggested it.
SHEILA Then why say I want to see somebody else put through it? That's not what I meant at all.
GERALD All right then, I'm sorry.
SHEILA Yes, but you don't believe me. And this is just the wrong time not to believe me.
INSPECTOR (massively taking charge) Allow me, Miss Birling. (To GERALD.) I can tell you why Miss Birling wants to stay on and why she says it might be better for her if she did. A girl died tonight. A pretty, lively sort of girl, who never did anybody any harm. But she died in misery and agony - hating life -
SHEILA (distressed) Don't please - I know, I know - and I can't stop thinking about it -
INSPECTOR (ignoring this) Now Miss Birling has just been made to understand what she did to this girl. She feels responsible. And if she leaves us now, and doesn't hear any more, then she'll feel she's entirely to blame, she'll be alone with her responsibility, the rest of tonight, all tomorrow, all the next night -
SHEILA (eagerly) Yes, that's it. And I know I'm to blame - and I'm desperately sorry - but I can't believe - I won't believe - it's simply my fault that in the end she - she committed suicide. That would be too horrible -
INSPECTOR (sternly to them both) You see, we have to share something. If there's nothing else, we'll have to share our guilt.
SHEILA (staring at him) Yes. That's true. You know. (She goes close to him, wonderingly.) I don't understand about you.
INSPECTOR (calmly) There's no reason why you should.
The second question you will answer on An Inspector Calls is a longer question - sometimes an essay style question. You need to choose ONE question from a choice of TWO. Aim to spend 40 minutes on this question: 5-10 minutes thinking and planning and about 30 minutes writing. Don't do a long introduction or conclusion.
This might be about an individual character:
How is Sheila Birling presented?
Which character do you have least sympathy for?
It might ask you to compare two characters:
Choose two characters in Inspector Calls with different attitudes. How does Priestley present these two characters?
You might also be asked about the relationships between two characters:
How is the relationship between Gerald and Sheila presented at different points in the play?
In this type of question, you are asked to put yourself in a character's shoes and write as if you were them. You need to think about their attitudes, their attitudes to others and their reactions to what has happened. Try to use appropriate language and get the tone right for how they speak.
Imagine you are Eric. At the end of the play, you look back over events. Write down your thoughts and feelings.
DRAMA BASED QUESTIONS
These tend to be about the advice you would give to an actor playing a character.
What advice would you give the actor playing Arthur Birling?
You may be given some prompts but even if you are not, remember to think about different times in the play. You might take four different points when giving advice about Birling. For example: the beginning when he is making his speeches, after the Inspector has entered, then when he realises that the inspector does not exist and finally after the telephone call at the end.
WHOLE TEXT THEMES/ISSUES
Which character is most to blame for the death of Eva Smith?
How is the theme of responsibility presented in the play?
This could be about the structure of the play or about the dramatic devices used by Priestley.
What do you think of the ending of the play?
How does Priestley create and maintain tension in 'An Inspector Calls'?
What do you think of the way Priestley uses dramatic devices in 'An Inspector Calls'?