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An Inspector Calls: A Detailed Analysis (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a 4 part analysis of An Inspector Calls, written with students in mind.

In this part we explore the arrival of the Inspector as well as his early interactions with Mr Birling and Sheila. Part 1 explored the initial moments of the play and the introduction of various key characters.

The Inspector Arrives

  • What is especially interesting about the Inspector’s arrival is that it takes place immediately after Birling’s speech in which he chastises the very notion of ‘community and all that nonsense’ and instead declares that a man has to ‘look after himself and his own’ (10)
  • Interrupting this speech is the following stage direction: ‘We hear the sharp ring of a front door bell. Birling stops to listen’ (10).
  • The Inspector disrupts Birling’s speech and therefore represents, from the very start of the play, the disruption of the ideology that Birling was espousing. Notice also Priestley’s use of ‘sharp’: this is not going to be a pleasant encounter, but rather has violent connotations as the Inspector’s arrival pops Birling’s ideological bubble.
  • The Inspector is described as creating ‘an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’ (11) who speaks ‘carefully, weightily, and has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses’ (11). He is also described elsewhere as ‘cutting in’ (31).
  • What is interesting about this description is the lexical field of ‘solidity’: the Inspector becomes the moral bedrock on which the play is founded and this is in contrast to Birling’s often fragmented speech, which is often interrupted by hyphens.
  • Notice also how he is described as ‘looking hard at the person he addresses’: he is to shine a spotlight on the actions of the Birling family and this is reflected by the way in which the light changes, upon the Inspector’s entrance, from ‘pink and intimate’ (1) to a ‘brighter and harder’ (1) colour.
  • This is further suggested in the National Theatre Production where the Birling family live in a doll’s house, which then swings open upon the Inspector’s arrival: the Inspector is to lay bare and unpick the moral assumptions, which have determined the family’s actions.
  • He is moral compass and Priestley’s mouthpiece: he is the textual mechanism through which the play is able to impart its didactic message.
  • The arrival of the Inspector is a consequence of the behaviour of the Birling family and as such there exists a causal (cause and effect) link between the two: the Inspector exists because the Birling family have abdicated civic responsibility just as the play exists because of the action of society at large.
  • One might even consider Inspector Goole’s name, which is a homonym for ‘ghoul’. A ghoul is a phantom that is said to feed on dead bodies and can also describe a person who is morbidly obsessed with death. Given the Inspector is there to investigate the death of Eva Smith this is an apt description, but it might also suggest that the Inspector is to feed on the Birling family.
  • Mr Birling’s response to the Inspector’s arrival is to seek refuge in his reputation: ‘I was an alderman for years – and Lord Mayor two years ago – and I’m still on the Bench – so I know the Brumley police officers pretty well’ (11).
  • This again suggests something of his moral vacuity, since he has no ability to defend himself through his own actions and substance, but rather must rely on his connections to other people. It also suggests the corrupt way in which those in power wield their influence to escape civic responsibility, exactly what the Inspector seeks to correct and challenge.

The Inspector and Mr Birling

  • It is quickly revealed by the Inspector that Eva Smith once worked in Mr Birling’s factory and that he fired her.
  • However, as this happened over two years before the evening of her suicide Birling refuses to accept any responsibility: ‘I can’t accept any responsibility. If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?’ (14).
  • It is exactly this abdication of responsibility that Priestley seeks to undermine and by articulating it through Birling, a character already established as a figure of ridicule, he is, by extension, able to make the critique all the more effective.
  • Birling then concedes that the reason he fired Eva was because she asked for a raise to which his justification is: it’s my duty to keep labour costs down’ (15) and then also ‘If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking the earth’ (15).
  • The lexical choice of ‘duty’ highlights the disparity between what Birling thinks his responsibility is and what the Inspector thinks it ought to be: for Birling his own concern is his pocket and not workers such as Eva.
  • Furthermore, to a post-war audience, ‘duty’ would have had connotations of war (‘do your duty’) and as such Birling’s comments would have seemed even more trivial and as such further heightened the distance between him and the audience.
  • It would have been particularly galling for an audience that may well have lost loved ones, even fought in the war themselves, to hear the concept of ‘duty’ being repurposed to include lining one’s own pockets. If Birling starting the play as a figure to lampoon with his misguided comments about the Titanic, he is quickly becoming a figure of loathing
  • One might also consider the lexical choice of ‘these people’ when referring to Eva: this dehumanises his workers by lumping them all together and as such demonstrates the entrenched prejudice that upper class had for lower class.
  • Birling does not see his workers as individuals with emotions and personal problems, but as tools that can do his bidding.
  • The Inspector, indeed the play as a whole, seeks to provide a platform for those workers otherwise denied representation.

The Inspector and Sheila

  • At this point in the play Sheila re-emerges interrupting the Inspector’s interrogation of Mr Birling.
  • The exchange between Sheila and her father is significant: ‘What’s all this about?’ // ‘Nothing to do with you, Sheila. Run along.’ (17).
  • The belittling way in which Birling speaks to his daughter betrays the patriarchal nature of Edwardian society. In the same way that Mrs Birling spoke of leaving men to do man’s business so too does Mr Birling seek to exclude his daughter from this conversation.
  • Notice also the phrase ‘Run along’. Firstly, the fact that it is an imperative and also the use of the short, snappy syntax reinforces that, as far as Mr Birling is concerned, what he says is absolute. Secondly, it is something that would usually be said to a child thus highlighting Birling’s view of Sheila.
  • Throughout these initial exchanges Sheila grows in confidence and ultimately challenges the prejudices of her father: ‘But these girl’s aren’t cheap labour – they’re people’ (19). Clearly, this isn’t a distinction that Birling understands.
  • Shelia’s denouncement of her father engages with one of the main themes of the play: the young generation are the ones most susceptible to change. This motif will be continued and developed as the play progresses.
  • Despite Sheila’s apparent integrity it quickly becomes apparent that she also played a role in Eva’s downfall, and upon discovering this, so the stage directions tell us, ‘she gives a high-stifled sob, and then runs out’ (21).
  • Just like her father Sheila abdicates her responsibility: rather than facing her accuser she instead runs away. However, significantly, she does return, ultimately fully accepting responsibility for her actions and pledging never to repeat them.
  • Whilst she has gone there is a particularly illuminating exchange between Birling and the Inspector. Birling comments: ‘We were having a nice little family celebration tonight. And a nasty little mess you’ve made of it now, haven’t you?’ (21). The Inspector then responds: ‘That’s more or less what I was thinking earlier tonight, when I was in the Infirmary looking at what was left of Eva Smith. A nice little promising life there, I thought, and a nasty mess somebody’s made of it’ (21).
  • The juxtaposition between these two comments and the repetition of key phrases serves to highlight the disparity between Birling and the Inspector and by extension they values they represent: what matters most to Birling is his celebration, but what matters most to the Inspector is the life of Eva.
  • Birling is brutally insular whilst the Inspector is compassionately communal.
  • Upon her return the audience discovers the role that Sheila played more exactly.
  • Whilst shopping at Milward’s she tried on a dress and caught Eva smirking at her believing that she was mocking her and because Eva was beautiful Sheila became jealous and requested that she be fired, which she was.
  • This perhaps tells us something about how the upper class control the working class: both Mr Birling and his daughter are in a position to have Eva fired and they wield this influence to disastrous effect.
  • This further highlights just how dependent people are on their jobs and as such the need for strict laws surrounding the work place, which Attlee’s Labour government sought to implement.
  • As the play continues, Sheila’s transformation and willingness to change her behaviour comes to represent and symbolise exactly the kind of change Priestley hopes his audience will make.
  • Sheila, unlike Mr Birling, comes to represent the moral template which the audience ought to emulate; a change provoked by the Inspector within the world of the play and perhaps, one might imagine, by Priestley himself out of it

Part 3 coming soon…


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