An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley

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In Act One, the Inspector enters immediately after Birling first propounds his doctrine of a man ‘minding his own business’ to Gerald and Eric. Now, as soon as his prejudices have been restored and he feels safe and complacent again, the telephone rings and the process of intervention appears to begin afresh.

To be caught in a time-loop – if that is indeed what has happened to the Birling family – is to be without hope of change: it is potentially as powerful an image of damnation as that found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, with its ‘closed doors’ and its ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres.’ Neither Sartre, nor Priestley, however, are introducing metaphysical ideas into their plays for theological reasons. Priestley’s point is that the Birlings – and bourgeois society in general – are trapped in a vicious circle of self-serving prejudice from which they do not have the imagination and generosity of heart to remove themselves, despite the stern rebukes of the Inspector. The time-loop occurs, in this reading of the play, as a consequence of their pretending ‘nothing much has happened’, and the ‘judgement’ on them implied by the second inspector’s imminent arrival may be seen as a faint foreshadowing of the future ‘fire and blood and anguish’ with which the first inspector threatened them. As an important rider to this, it should be noted that while three out of five of the play’s bourgeois characters do not change their hearts and minds, both Sheila and Eric do, and this provides some important hope for the future. Indeed, audience members can feel secure in their optimism, given that, from the perspective of 1945 and onwards, they would know that there had been enough people like Sheila and Eric (along with the ‘Bernard Shaws and H. G. Wellses’ [7] Birling mentions early on in the play) to make enough difference in the lives of working-class men and women to ensure that a communist revolution did not take place in Britain as it did in Russia. Priestley was a democratic socialist not a Marxist revolutionary, and in 1945 he may well have wished his audience to look back on the historical development between the wars of a radical socialist movement poised to take power in the Atlee government and introduce the welfare state.

This ‘time-loop’ reading of the final lines of An Inspector Calls is, however, far from being the only interpretation possible. There may be no playing with time at all: the Inspector may simply be a character gifted with clairvoyance – and indeed this reading ties in, to an extent, with Priestley’s interest in the ideas of J. W. Dunne, whose book An Experiment with Time (first published in 1927) influenced a number of contemporary writers and thinkers, and is an important source for Priestley’s own later study, Man and Time (published in 1964). In his book, Dunne argues that while human consciousness experiences time in the sequential, linear fashion familiar to everyone, time itself is not inherently sequential, but instead exists in its entirety, as, for example, do the dimensions of length and breadth and depth in a three-dimensional universe.

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J. B. Priestley