'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.
The Inspector then states that Eva, in despair, changed her name to Daisy Renton, and Gerald Croft's involuntary reaction reveals that he knew her too. After some serious discussion between Sheila and Gerald, an attempt by Mrs. Birling to usher the Inspector away and the revelation that Eric Birling is a experienced drinker, Gerald admits that he in fact had known Daisy Renton. He had met her at a local theatre, known to be the haunt of prostitutes - and had rescued her from the unwelcome attentions of a local dignitary. Finding out that Daisy was almost penniless, he let her stay in the flat of a friend of his and she became his mistress. He ended the affair when he had to go away on business, giving her some money to see her through for a few months.
Mrs. Birling is scandalised, but Sheila is glad to have heard this confession from her fiancé. Gerald leaves to go for a walk and get over the news of Daisy's death, and Inspector Goole shows a photograph to Mrs. Birling who grudgingly admits that she had seen the girl two weeks previously. Now pregnant, Eva had come to ask for financial assistance from the Brumley Women's Charity Organisation of which Mrs. Birling was chairwoman. Mrs. Birling, however, persuades the committee to turn down the girl's appeal on the grounds that she had the impudence to call herself Mrs. Birling and because she believed that the father of the child should bear the responsibility, saying that the girl refused to let the father of the child support her because she believed money he had given her previously to be stolen. Mrs. Birling is proud of refusing the girl aid and claims that she did her duty. She sees no reason at all why she should take any blame for the girl's death. As Mrs. Birling denounces the father of the child and claims he needs to be made an example of, Sheila (and the audience) realise that Eric is involved. There is an intense meeting between Eric and his parents, which the Inspector interrupts to question Eric. Eric had met the girl in the same theatre bar as Gerald, had got drunk and had accompanied her back to her lodgings where he almost turned violent when she didn't let him in, so she relented. They made love, and when he met her two weeks later they slept together again. Soon afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant, but did not want to marry Eric because she knew he didn't love her. She did accept gifts of money from him until she realised it was stolen. Eric admits that he had taken about £50 from Mr. Birling's office - at which Mr. and Mrs. Birling are furious.
Mr. and Mrs. Birling are immediately concerned about covering up their involvement in the girl’s death, whereas Sheila and Eric are more aware of the personal tragedy and feel guilty. The Inspector leaves, after delivering a strong message about how we all should be responsible for each other. After he has left, the family gradually begin to wonder about the Inspector: was he who he appeared to be? Gerald returns from his walk and explains that he also had suspicions and has found out that there is no Inspector Goole on the force, which Birling confirms with a phone call.
All gradually realise that perhaps the Inspector has deceived them - he could have shown each person a different photograph - and when they telephone the infirmary, they realise that there hasn't even been a suicide case for months. Birling is delighted, assuming they are now all off the hook, while Sheila and Eric maintain that nothing has changed - each of them still committed the acts that the Inspector had accused them of, even if they did turn out to be against five different girls.
The telephone then rings: Mr. Birling answers it, and then tells the family that it was the police on the line: an Inspector is on his way to ask questions about the suicide of a young girl...
An initial glance at the play’s structure seems to indicate that we have found a story related entirely through the people present in the dining room in which there appears to be no single protagonist as such. Let’s look more closely, though, using some of the exploratory techniques outlined in How Stories Really Work, by asking a series of questions based on analysing what genre the story belongs to.
• Does the tale begin in a remote, quiet, pleasantly ordered environment of some kind, which contains little to challenge or threaten the reader?
Yes - the Birling family are holding a dinner party in their own home to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son and heir of Mr. Birling's rival in business.
• Is the reader coaxed into the world lightly and gently, by being amused or by being shown things with which he or she is accustomed?
Yes -the banter is pleasant, the action very light, the dinner party conforms to conventions of that time and place.
• Within a short space of time, however, is there a suggestion or hint or clue or shadow of tension -something isn’t quite right, something doesn’t quite fit?
Yes -there are a few signs that not everything is perfect: Mr. Birling is a bit too anxious to impress Gerald, Eric seems rather anxious and Sheila playfully rebukes Gerald for not having come near her the previous summer.
• Is some kind of external threat or menace implied?
Yes -Mr. Birling’s rantings about labour trouble and possible European war, even though he proclaims both are not possible, serve only to highlight their possibility, especially when he ironically claims that the Titanic (about to sail in 1912 when the play is set) is 'absolutely unsinkable' .
• In this setting, is there a young boy or servant -usually a male character- not quite fully developed, making mistakes or at a disadvantage due to factors in his environment?
Here is where we could be thrown off, as the only character who seems to fit the bill here is Eric -until we recognise that the character in question is one who never appears on stage: Eva Smith. The fact that the protagonist is female is significant and should tell us, per How Stories Really Work, that we are watching either an Irony or a Comedy .
Eva Smith, the unseen suicide victim whose death is the motivating factor for the entire play, is portrayed as a moral and kind person. Given two names under which various of the other characters have known her leads some of them to believe that she is in fact various women stitched together by the Inspector, but for us her role is contiguous and central.
• Are this character’s roots unclear and distant, with at least one parent dead?
Yes -Eva is later shown to be from the country, but with no family left.
• While away from her usual haunts, does our protagonist encounter a threat from outside the comfortable normality to which we have been introduced and to which she is used, and then meets an old man?
Yes -Eva is caught up in a labour dispute at her place of work and meets Mr. Birling. The fact that she is given misguided advice by this twisted archetype confirms that we are watching an Irony. However, see the comments about the Inspector below.
• Does this old man represent a different world-view, a more mature and ordered perspective of the world we have entered?
Yes -though quickly proven wrong from the author’s perspective, Mr. Birling is full of advice which seems, to him at least, to be clear and wise. The wrongness merely confirms that this is an Irony.