Themes and Meanings
J. B. Priestley once said that, as a dramatist, “I owe much to the influence of Chekhov.” He came to maturity during World War I, and his vision of the bourgeois family was shaped by the incisive topical realism of the plays and short stories of Russian writer Anton Chekhov. In An Inspector Calls, the audience is made more aware of the family’s weaknesses than of its strengths, as the foundation of modern society. However, the play is marked by a hortatory tone that is generally absent in the more subtle Chekhov. Still, it is a work of solid theatricality and has proved very popular in many countries since its first production.
The play has, perhaps, three main themes. First, it points to the need for each human being to accept his or her moral responsibility for the welfare of others, especially of those who are less privileged. Second, it explores the various kinds of evasion of which humans are capable—through indifference or rationalization—when they try to avoid this responsibility. Finally, it shows through a conflict of generations that young people are at least more conscious than their elders of the importance of altruistic belief and behavior.
These themes find their focal point in the character of the inspector. Goole, as the instigator of the action, constantly endeavors to remind the Birlings and Gerald of their complicity in a young woman’s sad life and death. More like an inquisitor of souls than a police officer conducting a routine examination, his questioning leads the audience to see how snobbishness, spite, and prejudice blind people such as the older Birlings to the wrongs in their society. The parents’ moral obtuseness is countered by a sense of guilt and an openness to correction in the hearts of their children. Thus, Priestley dramatizes both the failure and the hope of the empathic imagination.
This said, it must be stated that the weakest character in the play is the one never seen in the flesh: Eva Smith. She remains an abstraction, more sinned against than sinning, certainly; yet surely she bears some fault for her own destruction, a fault that is never shown convincingly. Nevertheless, it is on what Eva represents that the symbolic meaning of the play depends, for only if humankind overcomes its egotism can society become a genuine community of shared values, respect, and love.