An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley

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THEORIES OF TIME AND THE CONCLUSION OF AN INSPECTOR CALLS.

Page references are to the Heinemann edition.

The final twist of J. B. Priestley’s play changes the audience’s perspective on everything that comes before it in a notable coup de théâtre, and is the most celebrated example of the author’s dramatic (and philosophical) fascination with the nature of time. The surprise ending has startled and entertained generations of theatregoers, but how, precisely, is it to be interpreted? Are the actions of the drama about to repeat themselves in a ‘time-loop’; has there been a ‘time-slip’ involving the character of Inspector Goole, or is he somehow blessed with foresight?

Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief that events repeat themselves over and over again unto eternity, is only one example of the idea that time is circular – a notion that has been revisited in various ways throughout the history of mankind. The modern philosophical justification for this ‘doctrine of eternal recurrence’ assumes an endless universe: given an infinite amount of time, everything will happen again – and then again. The recapitulation suggested by the ending of An Inspector Calls is, by contrast, one in which the audience imagines the events of the play repeated almost immediately, albeit in a somewhat different form, given what has already taken place. It is immediately clear that such a freakish occurrence has nothing to do with any recognised ‘circular’ understanding of time. But then why is there a strong hint of such circularity – of a ‘time-loop’ – at the end of the play?

That the events of An Inspector Calls may be about to repeat themselves draws attention, first of all, to a number of internal repetitions within the text. Some minor examples of this involve stage business: the sound effects of people ringing the bell, or going out by the front door. Others are found embedded in the play’s dialogue: Birling’s important speech about how ‘a man has to mind his own business and look after his own’ (10) is repeated almost verbatim by Eric (‘You told us that a man has to […] look after himself and mind his own business’, 58) in Act Three.

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J. B. Priestley