'An Inspector Calls' -An Irony


The play An Inspector Calls, written by J. B. Priestley during the closing moments of the Second World War, premiered on 1 October 1946. It is set entirely within the dining-room of the middle class Birlings' house in Brumley, an invented town in the English Midlands, in Spring, 1912, and shows the interconnectedness of human life, reflecting Priestley's socialist views and outlining the problems he saw with the capitalism of the society of his day. Duty and individual conscience play their roles too -it is not a purely political drama.

To understand this play as a work of fiction, it’s worth summarising the events that take place inside the Birlings’ dining room.

The family hold a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son and heir of Mr. Birling's business rival. There are a few signs that not everything is completely right (Mr. Birling is clearly trying to impress Gerald, Eric seems rather anxious and Sheila lightly rebukes Gerald for not having come near her the previous summer) but the overall impression is of a happy, if somewhat shallow, atmosphere. When the ladies leave the men to their port, Mr. Birling gives a lot of advice to Gerald and Eric, telling them that a man needs to 'look after himself and his own family' and not worry about the community as a whole. As he is telling them this, the door bell rings and Inspector Goole enters, an impressive figure of whom none of them has heard.

The Inspector explains that he has come to investigate the suicide of a young working-class girl who died that afternoon: Eva Smith. After seeing a photograph of her, Birling admits that she used to be one of his employees: he fired her when she became one of the ringleaders of a strike asking for slightly higher wages. Birling justifies discharging her by saying he pays his workers the usual rates; he fails to see that he has any responsibility for what happened to her afterwards.

Sheila enters, and the Inspector reveals that he would also like to question her about Eva Smith's death, explaining that the girl’s next job was at a big shop called Milwards. She was sacked after a customer complained about her. Shown a photograph of the girl, Sheila is very upset and admits that it was her fault that Eva was fired: when Sheila had tried on a dress that didn't suit her, she had thought Eva was looking askance at another shop assistant and, in her anger, Sheila threatened to close their account unless the girl was gotten rid of. Sheila feels hugely guilty and responsible for Eva's death.