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An Inspector Calls: A Detailed Analysis (Part 4)

This is part 4 of a four part series of posts looking at An Inspector Calls. It is written with students in mind. This post looks at the interactions between Eric and the Inspector as well as the end of play.

The Inspector and Eric

  • After having left earlier in the play Eric now returns.
  • It gradually comes to light that Eric was the father to Eva’s unborn child and that he stole money (from his father) ostensibly to support her.
  • What is especially telling is that upon his parents hearing of this their first concern is that he stole money: ‘Eric! You stole money!’ (12).
  • So obsessed are they with their wealth and status that what is most horrible about the event is not that Eric abandoned Eva only for her to kill herself shortly after, but that he stole money from the family company.
  • As the Inspector probes further, the manner of Eric’s initial meeting with Eva is made apparent. He walked back with her to her lodgings, explaining: ‘Yes, I insisted – it seems. I’m not very clear about it, but afterwards she told me she didn’t want me to go in but that – well, I was in that state when a chap easily turns nasty – and I threatened to make a row’
  • This is, whatever way one looks at it, an extremely chilling admission and one worth us pausing over:
    • Priestley’s use of ‘insisted’ immediately establishes the power dynamic between Eric and Eva where she, as ever, is stripped of autonomy and power. She has, it would seem, no recourse to say no to Eric
    • This is made even more clear in the next section of this revelation that Eva ‘didn’t want me to go in’. It is not, it seems, that she did not express a preference, but that clearly she did and that Eric, nevertheless, ignored, or actively rejected, this preference. Again, Eva is depicted as vulnerable and powerless with Eric a predator whose drunken desires outweigh what Eva wants. She does not, in this moment, have the ability to control her own fate, as was ever the case
    • Eric then explains why it was Eva could not reject Eric’s unwanted advances as, apparently, he ‘was in that state when a chap easily turns nasty’. Clearly, Eva felt threatened by what Eric might do next, and one could only surmise there is the threat of physical violence unless Eva does what he ‘insists’ upon
    • Looking at the situation that is being depicted, the obvious hierarchy that exists between Eva and Eric, and the threat of possible violence unless Eva capitulates, it would be difficult not to describe their subsequent sexual encounter as rape
  • This is an abhorrent moment that helps Priestley to cement the overarching trajectory of Eva’s character: she is a powerless to stop the predation of other people; an individual whose autonomy is monopolised by the will of others
  • Whilst Eric does accept liability more than his parents he still does attempt to relinquish his responsibility. Upon hearing of his mother’s involvement he stammers: ‘Then — you killed her. She came to you to protect me – and you turned her away – yes, and you killed her – and the child she’d have had too […] damn you, damn you’. (55). Priestley’s repetition of ‘you’ is telling here
  • This flurried set of statements represents an attempt to shift the onus onto someone else.
  • However, the Inspector quickly reminds him that they all had a role to play: ‘This girl killed herself – and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her. Remember that’ (55).
  • During the Inspector’s interrogation of Eric, one perhaps cannot help but make parallels to Gerald and consider, maybe, whose actions are worse.
  • Undoubtedly, both are morally repugnant, but whereas Eric does show remorse for what he has done (‘I was in a hell of a state about it’, ‘My God I’m not likely to forget’, ‘we all helped to kill her’) Gerald does not (Everything’s all right now Sheila. What about that ring’)
  • Like Sheila, although certainly not as dramatically, Eric has been changed by the events of the night

The End of the Play: Picking up the Pieces

  • Now that all the characters have been implicated and the Inspector has forced them to confront their guilt he leaves but before doing so gives them one final message.
  • This is one of the most important speeches and goes to the heart of what the play is about. This is the moral centre of the play and as such worth quoting in full: ‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, when they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish’ (56).
  • There are several things that could be said about this striking image:
    • The passage emphasises how Eva Smith is intended to represent all women and all people in society. This is reinforced by the name itself: in Biblical terms Eva is the first woman and Smith is the most common British surname. We are all Eva Smith and as such we need to help each other.
    • This is also highlighted by the use of polysyndeton (multiple conjunctions) in ‘millions and millions and millions’.
    • The passage stresses the fact that all people in society should share responsibility for one another: the metaphorical image of us being ‘one body’ highlights this. If one part of your body is ill or not function as it should then all the others parts suffer. We do not live in a vacuum, but are part of a whole. The health of the whole is dependent on the health of the part.
    • The final image of lessons being taught in ‘fire and blood and anguish’ would be especially evocative for an audience who has just fought through two world wars. This reinforces the fact that the natural consequence of a society that does not care for one another (in other words the mentality advocated by Mr Birling) is war and conflict. Thus, the only way to ensure further conflicts do not happen is to create a society where we look after one another. The natural political manifestation of this ideology, for Priestly, is socialism and this is what the play promotes.
  • After delivering this climatic speech the Inspector leaves and immediately Mr Birling reverts to his old ways: ‘There’ll be a public scandal!’ (57) and also ‘I was almost certain for a knighthood in the next Honours List’ (57).
  • The juxtaposition between the Inspector’s poignant speech telling of war and death and then Birling’s immediate apprehension as to whether or not his reputation will be hurt is a damning portrayal of the different values the two hold. The one is antithetic to the other.
  • This shows that Mr Birling and also Mrs Birling have not changed during the play: they are selfish, cold, preoccupied with their public image, impervious to the Inspector’s warnings. They are symbols of the Edwardian values that Priestley has sought to dismantle.
  • However, this is not true of Eric and Sheila. Upon hearing his father Eric declares: ‘Oh – for God’s sake! What does it matter now whether or not you get a knighthood or not?’ (57).
  • Similarly, Sheila says: ‘I behaved badly too. I know I did. I’m ashamed of it. But now you’re beginning all over again to pretend that nothing much has happened’ (57) and then also ‘The point is, you don’t seem to have learnt anything’ (58).
  • Sheila and Eric start the play with a similar outlook to their parents but soon diverge. They grow during the play, learning the value of community and of caring for others.
  • Notice also how Shelia begins the play by being subservient to her parents only to then speak her mind and how her speeches begin in a childlike manner only to then become more mature as the play progresses.
  • There is also the symbol of her engagement ring: she is at first enamoured by it only to then reject it: she is rejecting the materialist values that she initially lived by.
  • They represent a more socially responsible future. As the Inspector says earlier in the play: ‘We often do [make an impression] on the young ones. They’re more impressionable’.
  • Whilst the older generation will not change the young generation will and it is change that is needed to rebuild society into a fairer and more egalitarian place.
  • Through Eric and Sheila Priestly is modelling and promoting the behaviours that he would like to see in his audience: a rejection of Edwardian values in favour of recognition that one must be responsible for others.
  • If the play is didactic and seeks to impart a moral lesson then Eric and Sheila have learned this lesson whilst their parents have not.
  • At this point Gerald returns and suggests that Eva was not a single person, but multiple ones and the Inspector was not real.
  • The older generation rejoice at this idea whilst the younger generation is in dismay
  • Just when the Birling family feel they have avoided their comeuppance the phone rings and they are informed that an Inspector will be coming to talk to them as a girl has just died.
  • This relates to Dunne’s theory of time in which the past exists in the present and the one continually shapes the other: history will repeat itself until all of the Birling family have learned their lesson.
  • Perhaps the ultimate aim of the play is that the audience leave the theatre having learnt their lesson, never to repeat the mistakes of the Birlings, and to walk out into the fresh air morally reinvigorated.

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