An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley

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As noted above, it is almost inconceivable to imagine a clairvoyant, as the term is usually understood, capable of reading the private diary of a dead woman before she has died. More significantly perhaps, it is also morally objectionable to accept the Inspector in this role, since, if he were fully prescient, or a time-traveller, he would have had a duty to save Eva’s life by preventing her from swallowing disinfectant in the first place. Given his obvious concern for her, it is unthinkable that the Inspector Goole who is met with in the play would have left her to die in agony and gone instead to the Birlings’ house in an attempt to investigate a death that has not yet taken place.

Another possible reading of the play therefore suggests itself: that the Inspector, instead of being a clairvoyant, has encountered some sort of personal ‘time-slip’ – that is, by some unexplained mechanism, he has already experienced events that lie in the rest of humanity’s future. This would make a degree of sense: it explains, for example, how he genuinely believes that Eva has died a horrible death – since otherwise, his harping on the fact to the Birlings sounds both inappropriate and hypocritical, given that Eva has not yet died. But Priestley seems to explicitly rule out such a time-slip by making it clear that Inspector Goole is not and never has been part of the Brumley police department. A time-slip would, therefore, have to include Goole’s transfer to Brumley, and this is impossible (as well as ridiculous), since the Inspector states that Eva’s supposed death takes place a matter of hours before the events of the play, while her ‘real’ death happens in its final pages. He can still conceivably be imagined as someone impersonating a police inspector who has unwittingly experienced a time-slip, but such a reading is too complicated and unwieldy to be convincing.

Priestley’s audience (or, more properly, those pondering on the meaning of the play after its conclusion) appear to be left with very few options regarding Goole, and most of these seem ludicrously improbable. If the Inspector is not prescient nor a time-traveller, nor somebody who has unwittingly experienced a time-slip, can his foreknowledge be explained by even more fanciful notions? Is he intended as a fully-fledged supernatural character? The difficulty faced here – other than the inherent unlikeliness of the notion – is that Inspector Goole fails to fall into any of the more familiar categories of such beings. His name may sound like ‘ghoul’ (and ghul in Arabic means ‘demon’), but he cannot truly be a ghoul or demon since he does his best to convert the Birlings to a more altruistic view of the world. He could, theoretically, be an angel, but he would have to be an angel believing more in the gospel of democratic socialism than personal and ecclesiastical salvation (though there is admittedly common ground between the principles of socialism and those of Christianity). The only possible interpretations of his character appear to be the most unlikely.

Perhaps the most satisfying reading of the Inspector is the simplest: he is impossible.

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J. B. Priestley