How does Priestley create tension in the play An Inspector Calls?

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Tension as a literary device refers to the emotional strain or pressure that a writer creates for his or her characters to heighten the drama. The author creates anxiety by exposing characters to intense internal or external conflicts. Such conflict puts the character under pressure and, as a result, affects...

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Tension as a literary device refers to the emotional strain or pressure that a writer creates for his or her characters to heighten the drama. The author creates anxiety by exposing characters to intense internal or external conflicts. Such conflict puts the character under pressure and, as a result, affects the atmosphere in which events occur. The mood becomes suspenseful and may lead to situations in which the character snaps and either loses their sanity or behaves irrationally.

Priestly creates tension in An Inspector Calls with the arrival of Inspector Goole. The mere fact that he appears in the middle of the Birlings' celebration at such an odd hour creates tension. The Birlings and their guest (Gerald Croft) see his unwanted arrival as an intrusion and believe that the visitation of a detective at such an unusual moment can only predict an unpleasant outcome. Furthermore, Mr. Birling is looking forward to a knighthood, and the inspector's untimely arrival may compromise his prospects. 

Mr. Birling's worst fears are confirmed when the Inspector starts speaking about Eva Smith's suicide and begins asking questions about each of the Birlings' relationships with her. Priestly increases the tension by allowing the Inspector to divulge only the most basic details about Eva and allowing those he is interrogating to disclose more than they care to admit. In addition, the Inspector does not allow any of the characters, other than the one he is questioning, to see Eva's photograph. His actions increase the characters' anxiety. The Inspector's uncompromising and harsh questioning also adds to the tense atmosphere.

The suspense becomes so great that the characters turn against each another. Sheila breaks off her engagement with Gerald, and Mr. Birling becomes very critical of Eric. Sheila criticizes and admonishes her parents for their lack of empathy and their refusal to accept responsibility. Eric becomes aggressive and turns against his mother. The only one who seems to keeps a cool head is the Inspector.

The tension eases once Inspector Goole eventually leaves. The remaining characters try to rationalize the preceding events. They express utter relief when it is discovered that the Inspector is not employed at the local police station. All those present conclude that the whole affair must have been a hoax. The elder Birlings and Gerald are probably the most relieved. Sheila and Eric, however, feel that a lesson has been taught.  

The atmosphere becomes relaxed and everyone settles down. The play ends, however, on a moment of anticipation when all the tension floods back after Mr. Birling answers the phone and informs his audience that an inspector from the local constabulary is on his way to start an inquiry into a young woman who committed suicide by drinking disinfectant.  

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Priestley creates tension by making the play a mystery which unravels slowly, entangling the Birling family members.

Strangely, the Inspector is unknown to Mr. Birling, who is familiar with the police. Purposely, Inspector Goole only questions one person at a time because, as he says,

"...what happened to her may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide."

It seems that each person in the Birling house plays a role in the death of Eva Smith, and no one sees her photograph until the Inspector allows him or her to do so. The Inspector speaks first to Mr. Birling, who fired Eva after she went on strike for higher wages; then the Inspector talks to Birling's daughter, Sheila, who in jealousy had the young woman dismissed from a dress shop. The young woman then changed her name and tried to have men take care of her; soon, she met Gerald, Sheila's fiance, who put her up in a friend's apartment and became her lover.

When she hears Gerald relate what has happened, Sheila says  to him,  

"Why—you fool—he [the Inspector] knows! ...And I hate to think how much he knows that we don't know yet. You'll see, you'll see....We all started so confidently until he started asking questions."

Tension becomes so great between Sheila and Gerald that Sheila returns the engagement ring to Gerald, telling him, "You and I aren't the same people who sat down to dinner."

Of course, the greatest tension is created among the family members when they learn that the cold-hearted Mrs. Birling refused Eva Smith the aid of her Brumley Women's Charity Organization. When Eric learns that Eva was refused, he blames his mother for Eva's death as well as the death of the baby—"your grandchild," he tells her. Sheila, too, is upset with the mother.

Clearly, the family members are equally guilty of the girl's demise as they have each acted selfishly and even arrogantly. The greatest irony, however, is that they discover what types of persons they all are behind their veneers of respectability.

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