'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.
• Does the old man hint, in his first conversation with our heroine, at the existence of, and growing threat from, a nemesis figure of some kind?
Yes, though this ' nemesis' is actually false and Birling’s statements are quite clearly intended to be taken ironically. He fears and hates socialism, implying that we are meant to admire and respect it, as Priestley wants. But, as we are in an Irony, this makes perfect thematic sense.
• Is a sort of psychic bond established between the heroine and this 'nemesis' ?
Yes - Eva comes to represent the millions of dispossessed human beings who fall victim to capitalism, the real villain of the piece as far as the author is concerned. The bond is symbolic.
• Does this bond, in effect, drive the plot forward emotionally and spiritually even when other factors are at work externally?
Yes -it is the clash of classes which is at the heart of the play’s dramatic rhythm.
The quest which epic heroes now set out on is here distorted ironically into a decay, a desperate search for succour, a tragic and inevitably ironic decline. Our heroine sets out on the expected journey of confrontation, both geographically and emotionally, at first trying to follow the advice given by the system to get another job, but inevitably deciding to drop out, and, as a result, collapsing through facing danger after danger into a suicide case.
On the way, instead of acquiring loyal companions who share her goals in some way, she ironically meets betrayal after betrayal.
One of her companions, Eric, while a source of comic relief, also acts as a pivotal participant in the unfolding journey. An evolution takes place for him - he gradually evolves into a closer approximation of the heroine, or at least an understanding of her true position.
• At some point, does the whole quest or dynamic of the story depend on this character’s actions?
Yes -as the person who gets Eva pregnant, his is the final act which pushes her into a desperate attempt to seek charity.
• Does one of these companions, frequently one not so loyal or who becomes duplicitous, act as a love interest?
Yes -Gerald Croft is the one man with whom Eva Smith (now calling herself Daisy Renton) falls in love, but he ends up letting her down and ending the relationship and then, in the action of the play, betraying even her memory by backtracking from his position of remorse and actively undermining the Inspector’s investigation. Almost incredibly, Gerald fits this character template exactly.
• Is there a warrior-hero companion who possesses many of the more mature attributes of our heroine, though usually flawed in some way?
This is difficult to spot at first until we recognise that we are in the ironic quarter of the circle -just as Eva as protagonist is our unseen female victim, so Sheila has taken on the attributes of this archetype: she learns and evolves, as the template demands, in the course of the story, and her reward is the love interest mentioned above: Gerald Croft. This is exactly as we should theoretically expect.
• Does the heroine, in some way intimately attached to her main foe or nemesis, either familially or in some other way, come to finally clash with her opposite, a conflict between the two which is as much internal as it is external?
Yes -Eva even borrows Mrs. Birling’s name when appearing before her charity committee, and pretends at first to be married to a Mr. Birling (actually Eric, though this becomes clear later). Mrs. Birling is astutely aware of the importance of social class at the time, and the varying ranks of the characters; she also is completely oblivious to what is really happening to her family and to their feelings. Indeed she represents Eva’s opposite -heartless, selfish, with fixed social ideas and unforgiving manners.
• Is war taking place on a grand scale around this personal conflict, as though mirroring it?
Yes - for Priestley, the story was a microcosm of the universal class struggle taking place in the society at large.
• As that contest becomes a deeper struggle, does the partly comic friend and companion of the heroine play a more central role?
Yes - Eric’s role as the father of Eva’s unborn child acts as a catalyst in the latter section of the play, bringing everything to a head.
Eventually, with the close assistance of this companion, the heroine fails utterly -this being part of the Ironic genre template - at the cost of bodily injury and death.
Is there any important aspect of An Inspector Calls which doesn’t fit neatly into an Ironic template as described in How Stories Really Work?
Well, yes. Inspector Goole plays a central role in this play as the detective investigating the suicide of the girl. Apparently omniscient, he is an enigma and the reality of the Inspector's character is debated by the characters and literary critics alike. But he is an authority figure, an attention commander, exactly as defined in How Stories Really Work: he is the figure who informs the rest of the players (and the audience) what is really going on and what's really at stake. He acts as a counter-point to the Ironic Mr. Birling and is a true ‘old man with a stick’ character, pulling the play towards an Epic mould. This would be in keeping with Priestley’s hope, that society still had a chance of survival if the socialist message was listened to.
So An Inspector Calls turns out to be either a Winter Epic - a story with a happy, uplifting message but which has many of the trappings of an Irony- or a Summer Irony -a story which has a depressing and introverting message but some hope - depending upon the audience member’s point of view. That fact that the final impact is left to the audience member suggests that Priestley wanted to leave it as an Irony, even though he was hopeful of positive change in society. What is perhaps remarkable is that, as a work of fiction, it follows these patterns and templates as closely as many novels, films and other plays. All that is needed, to see through its external ‘flesh’ to the bones upon which it is constructed, is the raw data contained in How Stories Really Work.