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An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls

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An Inspector Calls

In a nutshell

An Inspector Calls is a play written by J.B. Priestley in 1945 that tells the story of a wealthy British family and their encounter with an inspector who is investigating the death of a young woman. The play is set in 1912 and explores themes of responsibility, morality and social class. In this summary, you will revisit the plot, investigate the characters and their relationships and evaluate the themes with some key quotations.

Plot summary

An Inspector Calls is a play written by J.B. Priestley in 1945. It is set in the fictional town of Brumley, England in 1912 and follows the wealthy Birling family as they are visited by a mysterious Inspector Goole. 

Act 1

The Inspector arrives to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith and as he interrogates each member of the Birling family, it becomes clear that they each played a role in the events that led to her death. Throughout the act, the Inspector reveals that Mr. Birling, the head of the family, fired Eva from her job at his factory for leading a workers' strike, causing her to fall into poverty and desperation. Sheila also recalls having Eva fired when she was in a department store as Eva laughed at the dress Sheila was trying on. Eva then changes her name to Daisy Renton. At the mention of this name, Gerald begins to act guilty and his wife-to-be, Sheila, notices this and pulls him aside. Gerald reveals he had an affair with Daisy Renton.

Act 2

Gerald reveals the same to the Inspector and Sheila gives her engagement ring back to Gerald. Attention turns to Mrs Sybil Birling, who admits she has seen Eva, but under a different name when she, heavily pregnant, came to the charity headed by Sybil. Sybil refused her help when Eva introduced herself as "Mrs Birling", Sybil argues that the baby's father should be held responsible.

Act 3

Eric is revealed as the father. He is also revealed to have stolen money from his father to support Eva and is angry at his mother for failing to do the same. The Inspector's revelations cause the family to begin to examine their own actions and morals and he leaves with a warning, that failing to take responsibility for one's own actions will end in "fire and blood and anguish". The family begin to suspect that Inspector Goole was not a real police inspector and they telephone the Chief Constable who tells them they know of no Inspector Goole. As Mr Birling, Mrs Birling and Gerald celebrate the fact it was a hoax, Sheila and Eric become upset. Finally, the phone rings. Mr Birling relays that a girl has just died on her way to the infirmary of a suspected suicide and a police inspector is on the way to question the family.


Inspector Goole

A mysterious, enigmatic figure who investigates the suicide of Eva Smith and the role the Birling family played in her death.

Arthur Birling

The head of the Birling family and a wealthy, self-made man. He represents capitalist values and the belief in social and economic hierarchy.

Sybil Birling

Arthur Birling's wife and a social climber. She represents a lack of empathy and concern for others.

Sheila Birling

The Birling's daughter and a more compassionate and empathetic character. She represents the younger generation and the potential for change and growth.

Gerald Croft

Gerald Croft is Sheila's fiancé. His father runs Crofts Limited, a rival company to Birling and Company, but Mr Birling hopes their marriage will bring the two competitors together. He is revealed to have had an affair with Eva Smith.

Eric Birling

The Birling's son and a flawed, irresponsible character. He represents the consequences of selfish behaviour and the need for personal responsibility.

eva Smith

A working-class woman whose life is impacted by the actions of the Birling family. She represents the downtrodden and the consequences of societal neglect.


Arthur Birling \leftrightarrow​ Sybil Birling 

The relationship between Arthur and Sybil Birling is one of traditional gender roles, with Arthur being the breadwinner and Sybil being a housewife who focuses on social climbing.

Sheila Birling \leftrightarrow​ Eric Birling

The relationship between Sheila and Eric Birling is one of sibling rivalry, with Sheila being the more responsible and empathetic sibling and Eric being more careless and selfish.

Eva Smith \leftrightarrow​ Birling family

The relationship between Eva Smith and the Birling family is one of exploitation, with each member of the family using and mistreating Eva for their own gain.


Social responsibility

One of the main themes of An Inspector Calls is the idea that individuals have a responsibility to care for and consider the well-being of others in society. This theme is exemplified through the Inspector's investigation into Eva Smith's suicide and the way in which each member of the Birling family played a role in her demise.

Class division

Another significant theme in the play is the division between the upper and working classes. The Birling family, being wealthy and upper class, hold strong capitalist beliefs and prioritise their own self-interest over the well-being of those in lower social classes. This is highlighted through Mr. Birling's treatment of his factory workers and Mrs. Birling's disdain for the less fortunate.

The consequences of selfishness

The play also explores the theme of the consequences of selfish behaviour, particularly in regards to the way the Birling family treats Eva Smith. Each member of the family puts their own needs and desires ahead of Eva's, ultimately leading to her downfall. This theme serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of prioritising one's own interests over the well-being of others.

Key quotations




Act 3
Inspector Goole: "We are all responsible for each other, and I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish."
Social responsibility
The Inspector's warning about the consequences of failing to learn this lesson suggests that there will be dire consequences if people do not take responsibility for their actions and the impact they have on others. The use of violent imagery, such as "fire and blood and anguish," further emphasizes the gravity of this message.
Act 3
Sheila: "I behaved badly too. I know I did I'm ashamed of it. But now you're beginning all over again to pretend that nothing much has happened-"
The consequences of selfishness
Sheila's acknowledgement that she has behaved badly suggests that she, in contrast to Arthur, has come to understand the impact of her behaviour on others and is remorseful for her actions. This quote also suggests the potential for growth and change, as Sheila recognises her mistakes and expresses a desire to make amends.
Act 1
Arthur Birling: "Still, I can't accept any responsibility. If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we'd had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn't it?"
Social responsibility
Arthur's refusal to accept responsibility for what happened to Eva Smith stems from his ideals about meritocracy and economic hierarchy. Arthur is of the belief that a man must look after himself, and therefore Eva's demise is her own doing.
Act 1
Arthur Birling: "Rubbish! If you don't come down sharply on some of these people, they'd soon be asking for the earth."
Class division
Arthur is talking about his factory workers – he thinks it his personal obligation to put the working classes in their place. Referring to strike action about wages, Arthur makes the factory workers out to be greedy and questions the audacity of their asking for more.

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