An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

An Inspector Calls is set in the dining room of a large suburban house in the industrial city of Brumley, North Midlands, England. The time is early April, 1912, shortly before the fateful voyage of the Titanic. The action is in three acts. Act 1 opens during a formal dinner party. Around the table sit the Birling family: Arthur, a heavy-set manufacturer, in his middle fifties; Sybil, Arthur’s wife and social superior, a rather cold woman; Sheila, their pretty daughter, who is in her early twenties; and Eric, their son, about the same age as his sister but shy and not as vivacious as she is. With them is their guest, Sheila’s fiancé Gerald Croft, heir of a business fortune, an attractive young man of about thirty. A maid, Edna, is clearing the table and setting out port and cigars as the dialogue begins.

Birling is clearly pleased with himself. The occasion, an engagement celebration, has allowed him to ingratiate himself with Gerald, whose marriage to Sheila he hopes will smooth the way for a merger between the Birling and Croft firms. Gerald good-humoredly obliges his host’s fancy and behaves like a perfect suitor as he offers Sheila a ring—which she delightedly accepts. As the conversation continues, Birling complacently dismisses the “silly little war scares” of the time, predicting that there will be peace and prosperity for decades to come. After the ladies leave the room for their coffee, Birling lectures the young men about the need for self-reliance in the modern world. Suddenly, a sharp ring of the doorbell announces the arrival of Inspector Goole.

Goole is middle-aged, solidly built, and disconcerting in his direct manner of speech. He wastes no time in getting to the point of his visit: The body of a young woman lies in a local infirmary. She had committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of disinfectant. Further investigation revealed that she was formerly an employee of Birling’s company. Goole says that the woman’s name was Eva Smith and then shows Birling—only Birling—a photograph of her. Birling acknowledges that Eva Smith did indeed work for him, but that she had been discharged nearly two years before for helping to instigate a strike on the issue of a pay raise. Gerald commends the action Birling took, but Eric objects that the girl had every right to try to improve her wages. Sheila reenters the room and, learning of the affair, sides with Eric. Naturally, their father is not happy with their attitude, nor can he accept the idea that the inspector appears to be blaming him personally for the tragic death.

Goole does not, however, single out only Birling; he blames the whole household for what has happened. Remorselessly pursuing his investigation through the first and second acts, he asks each of the family to tell of his or her relationship with the deceased. Sheila confesses that she had been instrumental in getting Eva fired from her job as a clerk because she thought that the girl had smirked at her while...

(The entire section is 1,416 words.)