An Inspector Calls
by J.B. Preistley
Setting, Summary and Character Analysis
When studying An Inspector Calls it is necessary and also highly important to look closely at the setting of it. The play is set in a fictitious industrial city called Brumley. Priestley grew up in the industrial northern city of Bradford and this may have been highly influential to him because in the play, Brumley, although not a real place, has a lot of background information given about it.
Brumley is a town of some importance. It has a Lord Mayor and a police force that boasts its own Chief Constable. In the play it is mentioned that there is to be a forthcoming visit by a member of the Royal Family and one of the main characters, Arthur Birling, is hoping for a knighthood through his activity in local politics and having once been Lord Mayor of Brumley.
There are clearly a large number of poor and needy women living in Brumley as there is mentioned in the play a place called the Brumley Women’s Charity Organisation. Another of the characters, Mrs Birling, is involved with this organisation and this gives us an insight into some historical context. In the time when the play was set a good many of these organisations were in existence and relied mainly upon financial support from wealthy people, such as Mrs Birling, and help was given to individuals at the discretion and decision of those benefactors. Priestley makes other references, apart from the Birlings, towards social injustice.
As for the action of the play – it all happens in the Birling’s dining room. The room is described as being ‘substantial and heavily comfortable, but not cosy and homelike’. This description of the room mirrors the lives of the Birlings. They are outwardly respectable and enjoy a comfortable and well off way of life and yet their relationships with one and other are not at all cosy and there are a great number of tensions between them. The realism of the stage set is important as it gives the audience a sense that they are in the safe confines of normality. This is something that Priestley often liked to begin his plays with. However, the mysterious role of the inspector and the telephone call at the end of the play suddenly introduce the audience to an element of the unreal.
Sheila Birling has become engaged to Gerald Croft and as a result the Birling family have enjoyed a family dinner together. Mr Birling makes grand speeches giving his views on technology and industrial relations, emphasising his opinion that a man should only care about himself and his family and no-one else. Their evening is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector by the name of Goole who is making enquiries into the suicide of a young woman called Eva Smith.
The inspector has a photograph of the woman and from it Mr Birling admits that he once employed her in his factory but had sacked her over an industrial dispute over wages. Gerald Croft backs Mr Birling’s belief that he acted within reason. Sheila and her brother Eric react differently, feeling that their father was harsh in sacking her. However, upon seeing the photograph herself, Sheila realises that she also sacked the same woman from her job as a shop assistant.
During the course of Act I it becomes clear that the inspector has an uncanny knowledge about the family’s dealing with the girl. He then announces that the girl has in fact changed her name from Eva Smith to Daisy Renton. The reaction that this causes in Gerald makes it obvious that he knows the girl also. By the time we reach the end of the act the inspector is already suggesting that many people share the responsibility for the miserable existence of the young girl which prompted her to take her own life.
There is by now an evident tension between Sheila and Gerald which becomes heightened when he admits that he had had an affair with Daisy Renton in the spring of the previous year. Whilst feeling angry with Gerald for his involvement with the girl she does have a certain respect for his openness and honesty with his admission.
Mrs Birling makes attempts to intimidate the inspector and control the situation. Despite this, Sheila feels that it is foolish to try and hinder the inspector’s enquiries and this appears to be well founded. At the point when Eric is out of the room Mrs Birling is forced to admit that she also has an involvement with the girl. Two weeks earlier she had refused the girl who had come to her seeking help. It is then revealed that the girl was pregnant and the suspicion now points at Eric as being the father of the unborn child.
Eric confesses that he was he who had got the girl pregnant. He also admits to having stolen money from his father’s firm in an attempt to support her. When he hears that his mother refused to help the girl he is horrified and blames her for both the death of the girl and of the unborn child. At this point it becomes clear that nay family unity has now dissolved. The inspector has therefore done his job by showing each of them that they had a part to play in ruining the girls life. He then goes on to make a speech about the consequence of social irresponsibility which is in direct contrast to the speeches made by Mr Birling at the start of the play. The inspector then leaves.
Gerald and Mr Birling begin to have doubts about the inspector’s identity and are gradually able to prove that the man was not a real police inspector. This then raises further doubts between them all about whether they have been talking about the same girl or indeed whether any girl had actually killed herself at all. Gerald telephones the infirmary who confirm that they have no record of any girl dying there that afternoon. Naturally there is a general feeling of relief upon hearing this. Sheila and Eric still feel guilty about their action although they seem to have been changed by the recent events. The others, however, feel a greater sense of relief and their confidence in the rightness of their own actions is restored. At that point the telephone rings and Mr Birling answers it. It is the police calling to say that a young woman has just died on her way to the infirmary and that an inspector is on his way to make enquiries about her death.
The Inspector, named ‘Goole’, is described as creating ‘an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’. His role grows as the play unfolds and the story of each character is revealed. Whilst they are broken down he remains solid and despite attempts from the others to distract him from his purpose he stays this way throughout. He is the one who makes things happen in the play. Were it not for him none of the secrets that the others have would be revealed and it is he who demonstrates how people are responsible for the affect they have on the lives of others. His sombre appearance in the play is in direct contrast to the Birling family. There is an air of celebration in the room until he enters bringing with him the news of the dead girl. From then on it is he who controls everything.
A successful business man, a magistrate and someone who is active in local politics, Mr Birling has also had the honour of being Lord Mayor of Brumley. He hopes that all this will lead to him being given a knighthood and therefore becoming more socially acceptable to Sir George and Lady Croft, particularly considering his humble beginnings. His description is of a ‘heavy-looking and portentous man’. This description helps to give an impression of him being of a threatening appearance. He is pleased about the engagement of Sheila to Gerald Croft, as he believes it will be good for his business. It is central to the play that his attitude to business and the fact that a man should ‘look after his own’ is discredited by the confessions that the inspector brings about.
Owing to her coldness and lack of conscience, Mrs Birling is seen as being unsympathetic and out of touch with reality. It is this lack of understanding that leads to her making several snobbish comments and even to be unaware of her own son’s heavy drinking. She is described as a ‘rather cold woman and her husband’s social superior’. However, she shows signs of weakening when she realises that her actions had resulted in the death of her own grandchild. Once the inspector leaves though, she quickly recovers her old self, emphasising her harsh and uncaring nature.
The Birling’s daughter. Engaged to be married to Gerald Croft. She is in her early twenties and is described as ‘pretty’. The attention surrounding her important engagement gives her great pleasure, showing her to be somewhat self-centred. She thus starts the play as someone whom the audience would regard as superficial however, this changes once she hears of the girl’s death and her potential part in it and becomes more caring and sensitive. She shows genuine remorse about the fact that it was her who caused the girl to lose her job at the shop.
Eric is an opposite of his sister and ‘not quite at ease’. His father does not approve of him and his mother cannot see his faults one of which is a drink problem. He has made the dead girl pregnant and he has also stolen money from his father to support her. Like his sister, however, he feels both a strong sense of guilt and real sympathy towards Eva Smith.
Sheila’s fiancé and the son of her father’s industrial rival. He is respected by Mr Birling with whom he shares an opinion on the way to conduct business. Self confident and at ease with anyone he comes into contact with are the his main traits. He is courteous and tactful towards the Birlings. It comes to light that he has had an affair with the dead girl who had changed her name to daisy Renton at the time.
The Birlings maid. She appears very briefly to announce the arrival of the inspector.
Eva Smith/Daisy Renton
We never see her but the play revolves around her. She is linked to all the other characters, except for the inspector and Edna, who all seemed to have played a part in her downfall. Her existence and death are in direct contrast with the wealthy lives of the Birlings and Gerald Croft.