What is one key moment in Act I of An Inspector Calls?
What's the significance of the moment?
What message does it convey about characters to the audience?
What's the language and dramatic impact of the moment? And, finally, what is the significance and context of the moment to the play?
One key moment from Act I of An Inspector Calls is the interruption of the engagement celebration at the Birling home by the arrival of Inspector Goole, who is investigating the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. He asks Mr. Birling if he recognizes her photograph; Birling does, and replies to the inspector's inquiry that she had worked at his plant but was fired after she and others went on strike for higher wages. However, as the plot develops, the audience learns that each member of the Birling family is, in part, responsible for the young woman's tragic end.
The significance of the moment
The Inspector calls precisely at the moment that Mr. Birling is feeling very complacent about himself and optimistic about the future. Priestley experimented with the theme of Time in other works (Dangerous Corner, Time and the Conways, I Have Been Here Before) and uses it to great effect here and at the end of the play. At this particular moment, everyone is very optimistic and solely concerned with his or her own desires and comforts, making it a very ironic moment, indeed, for the inspector to appear on the scene.
The message conveyed about the characters to the audience
The Birlings and Gerald Croft are very insulated in their social class and feel little concern for those of the lower class. With much irony, Priestley's characters say things that come to have deeper meaning later. For instance, Gerald complains of Sheila, "She's got a nasty temper sometimes...." and later the audience learns what effect her temper has had upon Eva Smith; Mr. Birling says, "...you don't know what some of these boys get up to nowadays. More money to spend and time to spare than I had when I was Eric's age." Of course, later the audience learns what it is that Eric has been doing. Birling also contends selfishly that "A man has to make his own way--has to look after himself--and his family, too, of course when he has one--and so long as he does that he son't come to much harm."
When he is asked about Eva Smith who worked at his plant, Birling replies flippantly that he has many employees; Eric shows some concern when he hears that his father fired the young woman, and Gerald is rather supercilious as he asks why he cannot see the young woman's picture at the same time that Birling looks at it. Shortly after this, he asks to leave as though he wants to be no part of anything.
The language and dramatic impact of the moment
Certainly, the mood of the moment is drastically altered by the sudden interloper into their comfortable complacency. Mr. Birling appears to be rather unconcerned about the death of some lower class woman, although he does not want to be implicated in any way; then, within the minds of the younger people in the room, there is concern, both about the woman and the possibility of their father's involvement, as well as other unknowns at the moment.
The significance and context of the moment to the play
This moment is pivotal to the remaining action and characterization of the drama. Suspense is created by the inspector's calling upon the Birlings as readers/audiences wonder what this woman may be to others and why she killed herself. This is the beginning of the "Whodunnit" plot.