In An Inspector Calls, what is the inspector's message to the audience, and what is Shelia's response to the Inspector?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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An Inspector Calls is a significant title because not only does an investigative agent arrive at the Birling house in order to interrogate each member of the house regarding a recent suicide, but he also calls upon these adults to acknowledge his "core message" which is best expressed by John Donne, "No man is an island, entire of itself" (Meditation XVII). This message of each person's responsibility for others is at the core of the play.

  • The Inspector's message to the audience

Inspector Goole talks to each person at the Birling house separately in order to impress upon each one that she or he has a personal responsibility for what has occurred to Eva Smith.

The Inspector's messages and ideals differ vastly from the philosophy of Mr. Birling, a self-serving industrialist of the early 1900s, whose concerns are purely about profits for his business. For instance, he is delighted that his daughter is marrying the son of his largest competitor and toasts their forthcoming wedding as a business merger rather than the union of two loving people. Also, when he is asked by the inspector about Eva Smith, Birling derogates her as being one of the leaders of a strike at his plant, and feels justified in having fired her.

A foil is a character who contrasts with another, and who thus serves to draw the reader's attention all the more to the other character's traits. Birling is a foil to the inspector because he is completely self-centered and avaricious while the inspector is concerned for others. 

  • Sheila's response to the Inspector

There are three key phrases which Priestley uses at this moment to move the persona of the Inspector to another level.

In Act II, Sheila is very distraught when she learns the consequences of the young woman's being fired from the dress shop and left destitute. She tells Inspector Goole, "I can't believe...it's simply my fault that...she committed suicide." Then he replies,

"...we have to share something. If there's nothing else, we'll have to share our guilt." 

His remark causes Sheila to stare at him and say, "That's true." Moving closer to him, she wonders aloud, "I don't understand about you?"

This point in the play foreshadows what occurs at the very end as Sheila wonders at his including himself in the guilt for the young woman's suicide.

The inspector's reply to Sheila is ambiguous, as well: "There's no reason why you should." This means that he recognizes that Sheila's actions against the young woman have no connection to his interest and probable involvement in the death of Eva Smith, although she wonders. He is not going to reveal this connection, though.

The stage directions that she stares at him wonderingly and dubiously suggest that Inspector Goole, also, has played a role in the young woman's despair which leads to her death. After all, at the end of the drama phone calls by the Birlings prove that no such Inspector Goole exists, and a trick has been played upon them. But shortly afterwards, the phone rings, and the Birlings are informed that an inspector is on the way to question them about a young woman who has just killed herself by ingesting disinfectant. Indeed, somehow "Inspector Goole" already knew about this tragedy.

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