The role of the Inspector in JB Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls
The Inspector’s arrival at the Birling household comes as an unwelcome surprise to the family. He arrives as the Birlings are celebrating an engagement; Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft of Crofts limited are to be married. The Birlings and Gerald have just finished a grand celebratory dinner and are in high spirits when Edna, the Birling’s servant announces the Inspector’s arrival. The Inspector quickly changes the mood of the household when he tells Mr Birling that a girl called Eva Smith had committed suicide earlier that evening by drinking disinfectant, and now rests dead in the infirmary.
The Birlings and Gerald’s shock and sympathy for the girl quickly turns to curiosity and intrigue as the Inspector begins to ask them questions. The Inspector questions each of them in turn, and with the help of a photograph of the girl he catches them off guard and forces them to reveal acts they have committed which contributed and eventually led to the death of Eva Smith. As the play evolves the audience is kept in suspense as one by one the characters let slip new items of information.
These include affairs, selfish acts and class prejudice which eventually, build up a picture of a series of events that led to the girl committing suicide. As the play draws to a close the Birlings are tainted by scandal which if it became public would ruin their reputation and social standing. The character of the Inspector in the play is very effective as a dramatic device. We are first introduced to him in the stage directions where he is described to, “create at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness.
This makes the Inspector out to be dominant, intimidating and shows that he is not a man to be messed around. It creates an air of superiority about him, and shows that he is not going to be afraid to voice his opinions and stand up to Mr Birling. We are also given the information that the Inspector “speaks carefully, weightily and has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking to them. ” This backs up the point that he is a very intimidating man, and also suggests that his actions are very deliberate and well thought out.
The Inspector is also very mysterious and at times appears to have an air of the supernatural about him. His name, Inspector Goole appears to be a pun on ghoul, a word with ghostly and supernatural connotations. He also appears to be able to see what will happen in the future “if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. ” This phrase, uttered by the inspector seems to accurately predict the First World War and possibly also the Russian Revolution. It is also important in the overall context of the play.
He is also very careful never to reveal anything about himself “Sheila- I don’t understand about you, Inspector- There’s no reason why you should. ” This makes the Inspector seem very mysterious and interesting to the audience. The Inspector also has a strange way of making them talk, even if they are being completely un-cooperative. “Sheila- I know, somehow he makes you. ” Although he becomes passionate when talking about his socialist philosophies the inspector never loses his temper and always appears to be very calm and collected, this adds to the mystery surrounding him.
Another thing that is noticeable about the Inspector is that he is always in control of the situation. After an initial power struggle with Mr Birling the Inspector asserts his dominance and then leads the events throughout the play. “Inspector- it might be you no, Birling- I don’t like that tone, Inspector- I’m sorry but you asked me a question, Birling- you asked me a question before that, a quite unnecessary question too, Inspector- It’s my job to ask questions. ” He also asserts his authority when he refuses to show the picture of the girl to Eric and Gerald and also by the way he insists on questioning the Birlings one by one.
His great power and authority is also highlighted in the stage directions when he is described to speak with “calm authority” and also to “take charge masterfully. ” He also intimidates the characters “watching Birling. ” The Inspector also plays a key role in how the tension builds and falls and also how the atmosphere changes throughout the play. He uses his questions and also the information he already has to tell the characters stories and build the tension as he does so.
However when the tension builds too high, and the atmosphere becomes too heated between the characters he also has the ability bring it back down again “Birling- why you hysterical young fool, get back, or I’ll, Inspector-Stop! they are suddenly quiet staring at him. ” This quote shows the Birling family instantly silenced by the inspector; this displays his power and superiority. Dramatic irony is used in the play in order to make the Birlings especially Mr Birling out to be stupid and selfish. It is first used with the arrival of the Inspector.
He arrives to tear Mr Birlings Capitalist philosophies apart just as Mr Birling was concluding his speech to Eric and Gerald “community and all that nonsense, that a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own. ” It is also used when Mr Birling tells Eric to “face a few responsibilities. ” Dramatic irony is used here as Mr Birling said this just after he said “still, I can’t accept any responsibility,” when referring to the death of Eva Smith. However this technique is probably used most effectively when looking at the plays two endings.
After the first ending, where Gerald tells the Birlings how he had discovered that the Inspector was not actually a real police Inspector Mr Birling and Mrs Birling were once again triumphant and in high spirits. However it doesn’t seem to make any difference to Eric and Sheila. It is when Mr Birling makes fun of them for not changing their attitudes “the famous younger generation who know it all, can’t even take a joke” that the phone rings telling Mr Birling that “a girl has just died on her way to the infirmary after swallowing some disinfectant. ”
The Inspector also acts as Priestley’s mouth piece; he delivers Priestley’s socialist views to the audience. The play was set in 1912, just before the start of the first world war. It was a capitalist era with huge social inequality; social class determined the shape your life would take and social mobility was very rare. Although set in 1912 the play was written in 1945, just after the second world war. This gave Priestley the ability of hindsight and allowed him to incorporate events that had happened since 1912 into Mr Birling’s speech in order to make him sound pompous and stupid.
Birling talks about the impossibility of war and the Titanic being unsinkable. “The Titanic-she sails next week-forty-six thousand eight hundred tons-and every luxury-and unsinkable. ” His comments would have made the audience uneasy as they knew them to be wrong. However Priestley makes the socialist Inspector out to be clever by having him predict the wars and the labour uprisings. This is a persuasive dramatic technique which allows the audience to side with the socialist inspector and Priestley and puts the Birlings clearly in the wrong.
Priestley uses the Inspector to get across his socialist ideas for the future through to the audience. He uses the play to show how an uncaring society can have disastrous consequences for those not lucky enough to be born in to a wealthy family, that lack of community spirit leads to conflict and that all it takes is honesty and willingness to accept responsibility to instigate change. In conclusion I believe the most important role of the Inspector in the play is that of a moralist.
He teaches the characters, notably the younger generation the morals and ethics of Priestley and therefore at the same time teaches those same morals and ethics to the audience. The death of Eva Smith affects Sheila and Eric by far the most “Sheila- they’re not cheap labour, there people. ” However the older generation, Mr and Mrs Birling, are relatively un-affected by the ordeal and are perfectly content to go on the same way as they did before.
This shows the audience that the capitalist philosophies are old fashioned and that socialism and sharing responsibility are fresh new ideas and are therefore a step forward. This division between the views of the younger and older generation is highlighted by the two endings. Eric and Sheila were genuinely upset about what happened to the girl, whereas Mr and Mrs Birling were only concerned with how it would affect their social standing and reputation.
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