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From Start to Finish: A Detailed Analysis of An Inspector Calls

Previously posted in four parts, the below is a detailed moment by moment analysis of An Inspector Calls written to be both rigorous and accessible to students. It covers the entire play from start to finish.

Setting the Scene

  • The play opens with a set of detailed and specific stage directions and Priestley’s use of stagecraft, here, introduces the audience to some of the play’s key themes.
  • The play begins in the Birling’s dining room, which is described as containing ‘good solid furniture’ (1) and of being ‘heavily comfortable, but not cosy and homelike’ (1).
  • The play begins in medias res with the family enjoying an ‘intimate’ (1) family dinner. A parlour maid is described as clearing the table of ‘dessert plates and champagne glasses’ (1) whilst also providing a ‘decanter of port, cigar box and cigarettes’ (1).
  • These items are all symbols of status and power: the Birling’s ostentatious display of wealth would have immediately introduced them to what would have certainly been a largely socialist audience as unashamedly upper class.
  • This would have been especially galling for an audience who has just gone through rations and rejected the materialism that the Birling family now revel in.  
  • Thus, one might describe these items as symbols that embodies the materialistic values of Edwardian society, which Priestley sought to dismantle and challenge.
  • There is immediately created an antagonistic distance between audience and Birling family, which would make Priestley’s subsequent critique of their attitudes all the more effective.

The Dinner Party: Meeting the Family

  • On the surface the gathering between Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, Eric, Sheila, and Eric seems convivial and intimate: they appear to be having a pleasant evening and are clearly celebrating something.
  • However, even in these early exchanges one begins to notice something amiss.
  • For instance, notice how the characters treat Edna. The very first line of the play, spoken by Birling, is a request for Edna to refill his port. Then once she has done this Mrs Birling dismisses her only to declare she will soon be summoned again: ‘All right Edna. I’ll ring from the drawing-room when we want coffee. Probably in about half an hour’ (2).
  • Throughout the play and established at the very beginning Edna is treated as just another prop, someone to be ordered around. Whilst these dismissive attitude towards the working class (itself a foreshadowing of later events of the play) would have been typical of the Edwardian age it would not have been looked upon favourably by the now socialist post-war audience.
  • The disjunction between Edwardian values and post-war values is continues to be played out in the next few lines when Mrs Birling says this to her daughter: ‘When you’re married you’ll realize that men have 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’ (3).
  • There are several interesting things to say about this comment:
    • There is created a clear hierarchical distinction between men and women where men ‘have important work to do’ and women must make themselves busy with something of far less importance. 
    • This is said by Mrs Birling: she has internalised the social norms of the Edwardian period. It is not simply that men are telling women what to do, but that Mrs Birling is complicit in this also. The patriarchal ideology is so entrenched within society that it is adopted and accepted by Mrs Birling.
    • There is a sense of resignation: there is nothing that can be done about this and as such Sheila will just have ‘to get used to that’. This also speaks to the idea that this ideology has been passed down through the generations: just as Mrs Birling accepted the ideology so too, in time, will Sheila. However, it is exactly this cycle that Priestly seeks to break through his play. Notice, for instance, that Sheila’s response to this is: ‘I don’t believe I will’ (half playful, half serious)’ (3). She may only be half serious now, but by the end of the play she will be entirely serious.
  • The audience soon discovers that the reason for the dinner party is to celebrate the engagement between Sheila and Gerald. However, Mr Birling’s initial speech is quite telling: ‘Your father and I have been friendly rivals in business for some time now – though Crofts Limited are both older and bigger than Birling and Company – and now you’ve brought us together, and perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together – for lower costs and higher prices’ (4).
  • It is clear that what most excites Birling about the engagement is the prospect of merging his business with that of Gerald’s father and as such the ability to reduce prices and increase prices.
  • This latter comment would have been anathema (despised) to the socialist audience: they were instead working towards a much more egalitarian society predicated on welfare and civic responsibility.

The Dinner Party: Mr Birling’s Wisdom

  • In one of the longest speeches of the opening section Mr Birling offers Sheila and Gerald some advice: ‘There’s a good deal of silly talk about these days – but – and I speak as a hard-headed businessman […] I say ignore all this silly pessimistic talk […] there’s a lot of wild trouble about possible labour trouble in the near future. Don’t worry. We’ve passed the worst of it’ (6).
  • And there’s more: ‘Just because the Kaiser makes a speech or two, or a few German officers have too much to drink and begin talking nonsense, you’ll hear some people say that war’s inevitable. And to that I say – fiddlesticks!’ (6).
  • And still more: ‘Why a friend of mine went over this new liner last week – the Titanic – she sails next week – and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’ (7).
  • And all of this to say: ‘There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’ (7).
  • Each of these examples is what is called dramatic irony: there is a slippage between what the character says and what the audience knows to be true. In other words, we know something they do not.
  • For example, when Birling says that there would be no labour trouble a 1945 audience would be only too aware of the 1926 General Strike and they would be only too aware of the war that did take place and which most of them fought in. They would also know that the Titanic did sink and that there certainly was not ‘peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’.
  • What is especially interesting is the derision with which Birling speaks of those who disagree with him. The lexical choice of ‘fiddlesticks’ in relation to the war would have been especially infuriating for an audience who had just lived through a war and almost certainly known people who had died in it. To speak of the war in such a flippant manner would have, to say the least, aggravated the audience.
  • Notice also the polysyndeton used in the sentence ‘There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’: the abundance of conjunctions would have only served to heighten the mounting anger as the audience is forced to listen to Birling list things that did not happen.
  • By utilising dramatic irony in this manner Priestley is able to open Birling up to ridicule: the audience immediately assume he is not only an idiot, but also a character to be reviled.
  • Birling is created in such a way as to be a caricature of the typical Edwardian capitalist.
  • Priestly seeks to undermine these values by associating them with a character such as Birling and as such disrupt the entrenched ideology that he represents and propagates.
  • This point is made even more explicit later in this same section and immediately before the Inspector arrives when Birling declares: ‘But what so many of you don’t seem to understand now, when things are so much easier, is that a man has to make his own way – has to look after himself – and his family too, of course, when he has one […] But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive – community and all that nonsense […] a man has to mind his own business and look after himself’ (10).
  • This is exactly the mentality that Priestly seeks to critique: that a person is willing not only to abdicate his own responsibility, but also chastise those who have retained it is precisely the problem with society as Priestly sees it.
  • The moral lesson that the plays seeks to impart is the necessity of acting as part of a wider ‘community’: it is not ‘nonsense’, but the only way to ensure that history does not repeat itself and this is what Priestly sought to enshrine through Attlee’s Labour Party.
  • Notice also how Birling mentions his family almost as though they were an afterthought: not only does he abdicate his civic responsibility, but also his familial one.
  • Birling is everything that is wrong with society: he is the apotheosis of the Edwardian ideology that ultimately resulted in war. He is not only hard headed, but also hard hearted and cares only for himself.

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

The Inspector and Gerald

  • At the end of Act One the Inspector reveals that Eva often went by a different name (Daisy Renton) and upon hearing this Gerald shows obvious recognition.
  • In an effort to remove Sheila from earshot Gerald says: ‘I think Miss Birling ought to be excused any more of this questioning. She’s nothing more to tell you. She’s had a long, exciting and tiring day […] and now she’s obviously had about as much as she can stand’ (27).
  • In the same condescending tone that Mr Birling adopted earlier in the play, Gerald seeks to assert his patriarchal influence by speaking on Sheila’s behalf and as such suppressing her voice.
  • As well as very obviously patronising, there is even an undertone here of something more sinister: he seeks to control Sheila, not only what and how she ought to think but even to exert a certain control over her body by suggesting she should be removed and that she is tired. This apparent willingness to exert control over Sheila foreshadows much of the subsequent revelations about Gerald’s pernicious interactions with Eva
  • Yet, Sheila does not accept this and assertively states that she is staying. This represents a significant change in her tone and manner that will continue throughout the play, but it also highlights Sheila’s ability to reject Gerald’s attempted control in a way that Eva could not. Perhaps Priestley is hinting already at the success of the Inspector’s interrogations. 
  • Before Gerald has a chance to relay his involvement Mrs Birling appears and attempts to end the Inspector’s inquiry with this comment: ‘I don’t suppose for a moment that we can understand why the girl committed suicide. Girls of that class –‘ (30).
  • This demonstrates the clear class prejudice that both Mr and Mrs Birling share and Priestley’s choice of ‘that’ has the same dehumanising effect that Mrs Birling’s earlier use of ‘these’ had. One can even imagine the actress spitting out this word, exhibiting, as it does, a certain repulsion that Mrs Birling has for ‘girls of that class’ 
  • Furthermore, it also emphasises that for Mrs Birling all that matters is Eva’s class: her worth and value as a human is inextricably linked to her social class and, again, this is the view that in writing the play Priestley sought to challenge and subvert.
  • At this point we discover Gerald’s true involvement: he met Eva whilst at an event and took her, as he would like us to think at least, under his wing. He offered her a place to stay and gave her money and she soon became his mistress.
  • As Shelia summarises: ‘Gerald set her up as his mistress and then dropped her when it suited him’ (41).
  • To Gerald Eva is disposable: he is able to do what he wants with her without any consideration of the consequences. She is simply a plaything to him and as her name suggest she is, in his view, for ‘rent’.
  • Indeed, the way in which Gerald speaks of Eva helps to capture this rather insidious attitude: she looked, he says, ‘young and fresh’ and was ‘out of place’. Priestley makes it clear, here, that Gerald recognised Eva’s vulnerability and took advantage of it for his own ends. 
  • The use of ‘fresh’ is especially revealing and a rather odd way in which to describe someone. ‘Fresh’ suggests vulnerability and youth, and as such the promise of a future squandered, but also indicates Gerald’s sexual attraction to Eva. It implies a rather sickening recognition and awareness of her inexperience and the ability for this to be exploited and leveraged. 
  • Gerald knowingly and manipulatively ‘set her up’ and in doing so manufactured a situation where Eva depended upon him for the necessities of life (food and shelter) so that he could, at his own whims, sexually exploit her, finally ‘dropping’ her when it no longer suited him. 
  • The cruelty at the crux of the play is that different people held power over and had control of Eva, and perhaps none so as manipulatively and insidiously as Gerald.
  • Whether it be as an employer, as a customer where she works, or as a man she turns to for help, people had power over Eva and then abused that power for their own ends.
  • At its most fundamental the play is an attempt to provoke a reconfiguration of society where no one person has a monopoly over the life of another.

The Inspector and Mrs Birling

  • It soon transpires that Mrs Birling chaired the Brumley Women’s Charity and Eva sought help from her.
  • At this point in the play it is revealed that Eva was pregnant when she committed suicide and she asked for help from the charity in order that she might better look after the child.
  • One reason that Mrs Birling denied the request of help, aside from her class prejudice, was that Eva used the name Birling, which Mrs Birling describes as a ‘damned impudence’ (43).
  • Mrs Birling also explains that she refused to help her because ‘she wasn’t married’ (44), which would have been especially frowned upon in Edwardian society.
  • Thus, instead of helping her Mrs Birling casts her aside. There is an interesting parallel here to Gerald who, unlike Mrs Birling, ‘sets her up’. Yet, Priestley seems to suggest both act without care for Eva, seeing her as disposable and someone able to be discarded
  • What is especially interesting about Mrs Birling is the complete lack of emotion she has for Eva: ‘I did nothing I’m ashamed for […] I used my influence to have it refused. And in spite of what happened to the girl since, I consider I did my duty’ (44).
  • Again, Priestley’s use of ‘duty’ in this context would have been especially jarring for a post-war audience: the conception of duty that Mr and Mrs Birling have is eternally different from the conception of duty that Priestly seeks to cultivate.
  • Furthermore, it comes to light that the reason Eva needed help in the first place is because the person who had previously been helping her (the father of the baby) had been stealing money and Eva did not want to be involved in this.
  • Yet, because her view is tainted by class prejudice Mrs Birling does not believe her: ‘As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!’ (47).
  • Even more perverse is that Mrs Birling, by her own admission, uses her ‘influence’ to turn the committee against Eva. It was not the case she was passive in her refusal, but, one assumes, actively sought to persuade others to reject Eva’s appeals. This is a cruel perversion of the kind of communal society Priestley envisages where we are all ‘members of one body’.
  • Likewise, Priestley’s evocation of ‘influence’, similar to Sheila leveraging her influence to have Eva fired, underlines the way in which influence wielded by the wrong people can lead to a disastrous outcome. Better, perhaps, Priestley is suggesting, not to have such power in the hands of prejudiced individuals, but rather an accountable government.
  • Mrs Birling, perhaps more so than the other characters, represents a complete abdication of responsibility and a complete lack of remorse: she utterly abused her position of power.
  • Contrast, for instance, Mrs Birling’s cold reaction to Eva’s death with Sheila’s now sickened reaction: ‘No! Oh – how horrible – horrible’ (45). The short syntax and fragmentary speech mimics her now disjointed frame of mind and she comes to realise what has taken place.
  • This section of the play also functions as a social commentary on the efficacy of charitable bodies. In the Edwardian Period if a person needed help they would typically go to a charity and rely on the ‘kindness of strangers’. However, the Welfare State saw to put an end to this. Thus, the play might be seen as an attempt to justify the introduction of the Welfare State by denigrating the previous system of charity, teasing out its many flaws.
  • In a manner far more pernicious and cruel than ether Sheila or Mr Birling, we see in Gerald and Mrs Birling a willing and unashamed capacity to wield power over another person and to treat them as utterly disposable. Eva suffered at the hands of both and neither, one feels, have learnt their lesson.
  • The challenge, indeed moral injunction, that the play presents to its audience, whether now or 70 years ago, is to ensure we do not follow in the footsteps of Gerald or Mrs Birling.

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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