In this play, Inspector Goole arrives at the Birling home with news of a young woman who committed suicide by drinking disinfectant. Priestley establishes guilt by showing how each family contributed to her hardships until the young woman killed herself. None of them directly poured the disinfectant down her throat, but each one put a nail in her coffin, so to speak, through the way they treated her.
It emerges that the woman, whose name changes to reflect how the different characters knew her, worked in Mr. Birling's factory but was fired for asking for a small wage increase. Fortunately, she was able to find a new job in a department store, but she was fired when Sheila, the Birlings' adult daughter, complained about her and demanded she be fired. This sent the woman on a downward spiral. She finally had an affair with Gerald Croft, Sheila's fiancé, to keep herself afloat; she was then impregnated by Eric Birling, Sheila's brother. Abandoned by him, she went for help to a charitable committee headed by Mrs. Birling. Mrs. Birling turned down her request on the theory that the baby's father, whose name the young woman wouldn't reveal, should be held responsible.
The play shows that the wealthy Birling family and Gerald Croft used their wealth and power to oppress this young woman without money or status. They are all implicated in her death.