An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley

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Sheila’s comment that Gerald’s honest assessment of his relationship with ‘Daisy Renton’ was ‘probably about the best thing you’ve said tonight’ (Act Two, 38) is recapitulated in Act Three when she describes Eric’s speech deploring his family’s readiness to forget Eva’s death as ‘the best thing that any one of us have said tonight' (65). On no-less-than four occasions, Inspector Goole refers to members of the family having to ‘settle’ things amongst themselves once he has departed. Furthermore, each of the Inspector’s five interviews follows roughly the same pattern, as, one by one, the characters of the play are forced to recognise that their actions have had a significant influence on Eva’s life and her decision to commit suicide.

This continual element of repetition in the play tends to work against a sense of linear progression and change; indeed the audience – like the character of Sheila on stage – can often accurately predict the direction the play is about to take on the basis of what has come before.
It should also be noted that An Inspector Calls has a circular structure independent of its three continuous acts. In a sort of prologue, the Birlings and Gerald Croft are first seen on their own, celebrating the marriage alliance between their families, who ‘are no longer competing, but are working together – for lower costs and higher prices’ (4). After this introductory section, the Inspector arrives and interviews all the main characters in turn, concluding with Eric. Finally, in a form of epilogue, the Birlings and Gerald are again left alone to ‘settle’ things. This section of the play is the most important, since it deals with the unspoken question of whether the characters on stage have learned anything from the Inspector’s intervention in their lives. The answer to this question is that Sheila and Eric have learned something; Mr and Mrs Birling and Gerald have not. However, the Inspector leaves the Birling house only, as he himself states, when he is satisfied that the whole family will remember the individual and collective lessons he has taught them: ‘No, I don’t think any of you will forget’ (56) he says. He also leaves them with the not-so-veiled threat of communist revolution (‘fire and blood and anguish’, ibid. ) if they do forget.

The avoidance of this ‘fire and blood and anguish’ is obviously contingent upon a change in hearts and minds: specifically, in the abandonment of what might be called the ‘Birling doctrine’ of each person looking out for his own best interests regardless of the whole. The circularity of the play’s structure, therefore, mirrors the circularity of the character arcs of Mr and Mrs Birling and Gerald – those who do not ‘learn their lesson’. These three begin the play with an assumed set of bourgeois prejudices (essentially derived from laissez-faire capitalism) that are challenged by the Inspector’s covert narration of Eva Smith’s life and death. But by the ending, all three have reverted to their previous way of thinking. They have come full circle, as Sheila opines: ‘you’re beginning all over again to pretend that nothing much has happened –’ (57).

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J. B. Priestley