What is the role and purpose of the inspector in Priestley’s ‘An inspector calls’?

John Boynton Priestley was born within the city of Bradford on the 13th of September 1894. His childhood consisted of many major historical events, including the First World War in the period of 1914 – 1918, within this period he would have been 20, he served on the front line, and this life experience could have left Priestly with long-term mind like effects. Before the war his mother died, and collectively these two major events could have made him unstable or unsure of position within the world.
You could describe his life as war, marriage and tragedy. Throughout his lifetime priestly wrote a number of novels, plays and other texts, mainly containing and expressing his own beliefs and experiences. As an individual he believed very much in capitalism and everybody living within there own success, benefiting from their own profits. Priestley was very left wing, whereas he disagrees with the right wing policies and prefers policies that are of a different extreme.
This left wing attitude made up his main and general characteristic, which was that of someone expressing their views, his membership of the socialist party allowed him to do exactly this and share in other people’s societal beliefs and views. This idea of Priestley’s expression of beliefs, views, emotions and feelings of the world and society are shown clearly through the characters of Priestley’s play “An inspector Calls”. Prior to the arrival of the inspector Mr. Birling appeared to be very confident in what he spoke, making his beliefs shown to his surrounding family.

He made it clear that he was powerful and a strong believer of capitalism where oneself would benefit from all working efforts. From the opening scene Mr. Birling’s characteristics started to be shown to the audience, he says, “I speak as a hard headed, practical man of business”, this shows that he considers himself of a high class and somewhat intelligent, however there is an understanding of his arrogance, self satisfaction and complacency. The idea of him being a man of business also suggests his obsession for money and power. Mr.
Birling’s confidence is shown in furtherance when he says, “the titanic-she sails next week forty-six thousand eight hundred tons- New York in five days and every luxury and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable”. This to the audience shows irony as we know that the titanic went onto sink, however in context to the characteristic of Mr. Birling it becomes clear that he is a very confident and arrogant man. When the inspector arrives it is made clear that the family are tense, uneasy and uncomfortable with the arrival of an unexpected visitor. When the inspector asks any questions, very blunt and subdued responses are given.
The family regard themselves as class which should receive no such suspicion of any crime or any police related incident. Mr. Birling believed that the inspector must be calling regarding his “Knighthood” or a warrant, however in actual fact there are questions to be answered, and this scenario shows the arrogance of Mr. Birling, alongside his self satisfaction and his complacency. The inspector at this time plays a vital role in the implementation of fear, worry and guilt. In furtherance Mr. Birling becomes victim to a thorough scrutiny by the visiting inspector. Before the inspector begins his questions Mr.
Birling shares information which highlights his importance within the local community, His mellow minded approach to the scenario has no huge effect and instead suggests and expresses his personal characteristics to the audience. The way that Mr. Birling says, “I was an alderman for years and lord mayor two years ago and I’m still on the bench so I know the Brumley police officers pretty well”. This shows his eagerness to express his importance and destroy any of the inspector’s suspicions or questions.
As the questions carry on being delivered by the inspector, Mr. irling’s level of impatience increases. He also shows an eagerness to complete the interview and carry on with the evening celebrations. At this stage of the play the inspector is staging a battle, where he has to bring Mr. Birling down to reality and try to extract information regarding the death of Eva Smith. As the inspector continues to reveal the horrific happenings, Mr. Birling continues to defend his position, expressing a query regarding the role in which he plays as a high class business man in connection to the death of an ‘unknown’ person. Mr. Birling says, “Yes, yes. Horrible business but I don’t understand why you should come here, inspector? ” In relation to human nature in general it highlights people’s arrogance, directly what is being shown through the character of Mr. Birling. It is made clear at this point that it was the idea of J. B. Priestley to express peoples characteristics and show them to the reading audience, probably intended to support the main theme of the play which is to extract information using certain techniques which are used in order to allow people to face their actions and relate it to guilt, making people realise the consequences of their actions.
As more details become revealed by the inspector and as Mr. Birling realises that he has previously employed Eva Smith, tension starts to build, Mr. Birling begins to give very blunt, sharp and self centred, with the inspector interrupting with a very abrupt manner, suggesting that he wants answers and will not let Mr. Birling’s attitudes and beliefs stand in the way.
In relation to the real world, people often have to use appropriate manners and techniques to show that they are important and will not let anything slip away from the matter in hand, regardless of a person’s attitudes and characteristics etc. Although Mr. Birling accepts that he has once employed Eva Smith, and in furtherance sacked her, due to a protest over the smallest increment of pay, which solely adds to and shows his arrogance, business man like ways and higher class ignorance.
He stills shows denial, he says, “Oh – that’s it, is it? Well we’ve got several hundred young women there, y’know, and they keep changing”. This clearly shows that Mr. Birling has no care for anybody other than himself and his family, this is also shown within the following quotation, he says, “A man has to make his own way – has to look after himself – and his family of course, when he has one”, Small details which are given off by Mr. Birling relate to a major or important and meaningful thing.
Mr. Birling’s actions and characteristics are very important towards the main theme of the play, as they separate truth from reality, just as many defensive people within today’s society would also contemplate, it shows in general how people will withhold information for the sole purpose of preventing a leakage of information which could be potentially harmful lot themselves, there business or there social dealings. Within the context of ‘An Inspector Calls’, Mr.
Birling makes every possible attempt to prevent a scandal which would involve himself, he repeatedly says to the inspector, “I don’t see where I come into this”. The use of the word ‘I’ shows his belief in a society where oneself looks after themselves and there surrounding family only. Mr. Birling continues this self satisfied and self belief attitude as he continues to use words which refer to himself, this is recognised by the audience and the inspector who are now in realisation of his full characteristics. Mr.
Birling is faced with the realisation of responsibility and how it is affected by small and simple actions which in context to the guilty party may appear harmless. The inspector says, “What happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her may of driven her to suicide”, this makes Mr. Birling think and realise fully what his actions could have caused, however instead of simple straight confession he replies to the inspector with the following comment, “oh – well put it like that, there’s something in what you say, still I cant accept any responsibility.
If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward”. At this moment in time Mr. Birling demonstrates once again his strong and clear attitudes, however the inspector makes his first challenge, questioning his use of vocabulary, he asks more questions, forcing more related detail. The inspector starts to be shown as a strong character who is unwilling to take blunt and meaningless responses, however the inspector needs to be shown as strong, otherwise Mr. Birling would express no relevant detailed information, and instead only the bare minimum. Priestly made this idea significant by showing that so called superior high class citizens are not entitled to withhold and ignore information which links and directs to a plea of guilt. The Inspector asks very probing and searching questions, which have great significance, his role becomes much more exposed, the inspector as a character becomes someone who is confident, wise and possibly someone who is an advisor like person who is warning of a future event.
He is seen as someone who can adapt to an individual to extract the highest quality of information. He acts as a catalyst, wanting to change something in the case of the Birling family, this is to turn their attitudes away from uncaring to somewhat sympathetic. The inspector says, “But after all it is better to ask for the earth than to take it”. This quote is significant because it shows a man of wisdom, and knowledge, but it also shows Priestley’s perspective of life, showing that it is better to ask for something rather than just taking it.
In relation to the general world it shows how people will just take something or do something without thinking of the consequences, this is exactly the point that the inspector is making when he makes this comment to Mr. Birling. Mr. Birling continues to show his arrogance as he begins once again to relate to his superiority and importance he says, “How do you get on with our chief constable, Colonel Roberts? ” The way that he gives names is supposed to impress the inspector, and release himself from any further suspicions, even though at this stage he does realise that he has played a part in the death of Eva Smith.
However it makes the inspector more eager to move on and away from the situation, leaving Mr. Birling beginning to realise his wrong doings which had consequences eventually leading to a death. Sheila enters and her interview begins. When she enters she appears totally oblivious to the presence of the inspector, although all is about to be changed as her true doings and actions are about to be exposed changing her high class status into a guilty, responsible and conscious citizen.
Although Sheila is totally oblivious to the scenario and situation, she is eager to find out exactly what is going on, the complete opposite to her father, showing a difference in character. Sheila appears much more subtle and sympathetic, personally asking questions to entice more information. It becomes clear that the inspector will play up to Sheila’s nature and play a different game, using different techniques.
It appears at the outset that Sheila has driven herself into the situation and dragged herself in purely because of the many questions which she is posing. It appears that priestly wanted to make the play more interesting to the audience by introducing from the outset a mix of characters, creating conflict, opposition and contrast, however it is soon to be made clear that only from the outset the family are different, and in fact very similar within their ‘unintentional’ actions. Gerald and Mr.
Birling soon realise potentially what Sheila could be doing to the family, too much information can be never to good! Gerald intervenes with the following comment to the inspector, he says, “And I don’t see that this inquiry gets you anywhere, inspector”. This shows Gerald’s desperation to release Sheila from the scenario, and save the families from a public scandal. Gerald and Mr. Birling at this stage seem to have at least one thing in common, and this is the matter of business.
Sheila starts to turn against her father, precisely what the inspector is trying to do, she says, “I think it was a mean thing to do”, this conflict starts to draw tension, totally obliterating the happy followings from the earlier evenings, Priestley’s idea of creating conflict is the basis for the revealing of the truth, in relation to the general world it often takes a simple disagreement or argument for people to confront there guilt.
Shelia has won the gold award for drawing attention to herself, asking many questions has eventually led her to be faced with the truth, the inspector appears to know more than he is letting on, and instead of showing it he allows the family to expose there corrupt ways themselves. Priestly made this idea of self exploitation significant because it shows how uncaring, unsympathetic people in general will expose themselves is correctly probed, in the case of the Birling family they are turned against each other, which makes them face to an extreme guilt and true reality.
The inspector keeps the photograph to himself and only one family member at a time, refusing access to no one other than the interviewee. Could the photograph be someone different each time he shows it to somebody, the way that priestly keeps the audience guessing and allowing for them to draw there own conclusions on the situation is very cleverly done. Slightly coincidental but the inspector keeps the photograph very secret, just like the Birling family with there secret’s, kept hidden from anyone other than themselves.
The inspector has taken a very different approach to the interview with Sheila, this approach to Sheila is to extract information, however with the rest of the family members it is seen to be inappropriate and somewhat intrusive. With the continuation of the Inspectors questions and Sheila’s subtle approach, she realises that she has some responsibility for the happenings of Eva Smith. She realises that the inspector had his suspicions and admits her responsibility, a total contrast to her fathers approach.
As is shown in the following comment, she says, “I’ve told my father, he didn’t seem to think it amounted to much – but I feel rotten”. It just shows there contrasting attitudes to life. Priestly made this idea of contrast significant because it shows how people on the outside can be very different, but inside can be very similar. As Sheila continues to expose her conduct, the audience starts to understand her character from a different angle, her innocent early impressions change as she tells of a story of jealousy. It becomes clear that Sheila was jealous of the girl, her looks and her position within the world.
She says, “She was a very pretty girl”, this shows her jealousy of other glamorous threats within her society, she went onto to misuse her power, by using a threat to the manager, she says, “If you don’t get rid of that girl, I’ll never go near the place again”. This is significant because it shows how people’s actions can be solely driven by jealousy and power, without thinking of the consequences, this is exactly the case of Sheila, the audiences perceptions of Sheila have suddenly changed, and as an audience we begin to understand that people shouldn’t judge on first appearances as there is usually more to be told.
The inspector says, “Well, we’ll try to understand why it had to happen? And that’s why I’m here, and why I’m not going until I know all that happened”, this quote is significant because it shows the inspectors determination to change the family, to extract and make them face reality and guilt, making them confess to all of there wrong doings, making them realise that actions have consequences. Sheila’s interview takes less time than Mr. Birling’s, possibly because of co-operative manner, showing a willingness to become involved and share all that she knows, accepting reasonability.
Now that Sheila accepts what she has done, she casts her suspicions to Gerald, who is next for the hot seat. Gerald is confronted on his own honesty, Sheila realises that the inspector knows about each person, this is imprinted on her mind and she confronts Gerald about his own doings with Eva Smith, he admits a relationship only to Sheila expressing no real details, however not with an Eva Smith but instead with a Daisy Renton, the change in name suggests confusion and deliberate separation to attract no links between the very secretive family members.
As Gerald’s interview begins he again starts the routine where he tries to excuse his rather fragile Sheila. He protests that she must leave, escaping the following disturbing details which are to be revealed by Gerald. This is significant because it continues to show the families rather secretive motives, relating and sharing to nothing with the possibilities of exploitation leading to a public scandal. Gerald says, “I think Miss Birling ought to be excused any more of this questioning. She’s nothing more to tell you”.
From this comment he shows to the audience that he is hiding something, which appears to be his affair with the dead girl. The inspector makes a very interesting comment when he says to Gerald, “And you think young women ought to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things”, which is closely followed by, “we know one woman who wasn’t”, this comment is an attempt to hit Gerald with guilt in the face, it is yet another revelation from the part of the inspector. The inspector wants Sheila to stay with Gerald throughout his interview, he says, “She feels responsible.
And if she leaves us now, and doesn’t hear any more then she’ll feel she’s entirely to blame”, this quote is significant because it relates to an idea of sharing guilt and not just accepting as a sole being, however in relation to the general world, people are prepared to burden guilt onto a sole being to save themselves from any shame of guilt. As the interview of Gerald continued there were numerous interruptions, possibly planned, possibly coincidental, Mrs Birling made her first appearance who also tries to expel Sheila from the ‘damaging’ scenario.
Sheila continues to defend her case and manages to stay for the remaining of Gerald’s story. There is an element of surprise when the inspector directly asks Gerald when he started seeing Daisy Renton, Gerald plays down the claim by saying, “where did you get the idea that I know her? ” However the inspector continues to say, “I knew already! “, this tactic used by the inspector is interesting as it shows the ignorance and arrogance of Gerald and Mr. Birling, who are unwilling to take and accept responsibility.
The inspector is getting Gerald to reveal and expose his secret life, which prior to this interview no other person was aware of. Gerald reveals that he felt sorry for the girl and he was acting to save her from an atrocious womaniser, surely this shows a caring side to Gerald, yes, this other side to people is significant because it shows that people are made up of a mixture of personalities and characteristics, what would the world be like if we only had one mode?
Gerald says, “We went along to the country hotel, which I knew would be quiet at that time of night” this suggests that he has been there before and possibly has a habit of taking in women for short petty affairs, this in relation to the real world shows how people have secret lives behind the backs of there supposed family.
Gerald is exposed almost to be as bad a Muggerty, although he had saved someone from an extreme sexual relationship from an intense womaniser, he himself took advantage of the situation, turning a simple refuge campaign into a secret affair, although he did implement thoughtful and caring measures to make sure that she was well looked after, and free of trouble, you could say he was only helping a weak, vulnerable and deprived person.
He said, “It was inevitable. She was pretty and warm hearted”, Priestly made this idea significant because it shows in relation to the world how people will take advantage of a weak and vulnerable person to benefit themselves in some way, In the era of priestly it was common for high profile men to take advantage of weak lonely women for the sole purpose of making there reiterating lives into something more exciting with a bit more entertainment.
Gerald eventually puts into context what he has done and realises that elements were unscrupulous and inappropriate, Gerald explains that the relationship ended a few months after it begun, it was clear to the audience that the affair wouldn’t of continued for a long period of time, because back then within the days of Priestly it was totally expelled that only people of the same class could have a relationship, and not a mixture in the case of Gerald and Daisy.
In furtherance Gerald offered Daisy money to keep her sustainable and out of trouble, however she refused as she wanted the relationship to be meaningful and representative, she also wanted to take away the idea that Gerald was paying her for her services, this idea is significant because it shows that a proud person does not have to be of a social high class, and instead should be respected whatever there actions or beliefs.
Gerald appears to have moved by the story in which he has told, he asks politely to be excused, the inspector allows for this to happen, the upset of Gerald is significant because it shows even a high class man of business with unsympathetic feelings for others in the world can and does feel emotion for tragedy’s that occur within the world, I believe that it was the idea of priestly that characteristics must be shown and covered from every angle, in accordance with the main theme of the play which is the expressing of emotions, feeling guilt for the of consequences caused by an unintentional action.
Gerald leaves and Mrs Birling now becomes accustom to settling routine of interview. Mrs Birling is very assertive showing that there should be no such suspicion hanging over her. She answers very sharply being very inconsiderate, when the inspector poses a question she immediately without thought gives such an answer which releases no such relevant information. The inspector says, “You’re not telling me the truth! “, which is followed abruptly with the following comment from Mrs Birling, she says, “I beg your pardon! already just seconds into the interview Mrs Birling and the inspector are having major clashes of personalities, Mrs Birling’s attitudes are shown very strongly and she repeatedly makes the point that she has no point to play in this charade. As tension continues to grow, and as the inspector continues to fire questions which antagonise Mrs Birling, Sheila makes a point which brings the family back down to mother earth, she says, “We’ve no excuse now for putting on airs and that if we’ve any sense we won’t try”.
This allows Mrs Birling to realise that there is no escape as the inspector has already uncovered information from three characters, finally the inspector can resume his questioning to a more subtle level. Priestly made this point significant because it shows how people will act without full information to save themselves from suspicion or scrutinising. Still a little hesitant but more cooperative, Mrs Birling responds to the inspectors questions, it is revealed that she is a volunteer working for women’s charity, she says, “We’ve done a great deal of useful work in helping deserving cases”.
From this the audience starts to understand that she must be very caring, but indeed we are very wrong, our perception of a volunteer would be a caring person, but in the case of Mrs Birling it is non existent, it appears that she only carries out the volunteer work to gain status within her community, showing that she is prepared to be caring and work for free, to serve and aid the needy. Priestly gave the audience this idea because it is very true throughout the world, Mrs Birling represents the snobs of the world who participate in such events which gain them credentials within the community’s perceptions.
The inspector reveals that Mrs Birling was in fact one of the last people to see the girl before she died, she had appealed for help to the women’s organization, however due to Mrs Birling’s bitterness and prejudice she influenced the decision that no help would be given, Mrs Birling says, “I didn’t like her manner”, jealousy and prejudice are shown. Priestly made this significant as he showed that a snobbish like person will feel no such remorse for somebody else’s misery or wrong doing.
In my own personal opinion Mrs Birling is the worst character out of them all, she had the opportunity to help this harmless, vulnerable, friendless, penniless, desperate victim but instead because she was dissatisfied with her initial case she dismissed her and made sure that the other members gave a unanimous vote to refuse help, it should be Mrs Birling who feels the most sympathy, but instead she probably feels the least amount of compassion from the overall spectrum of the Birling family.
Tensions continue to rise as Mrs Birling’s attitudes towards the inspector change, as she begins again to give responses which suit herself and not that of the inspector. More details are revealed which will eventually link back into the remaining character, Eric. The inspector Wants Mrs Birling to release more information to make her face the consequences of her actions, repeating and exploring the avenues more of the incidents will hopefully help Mrs Birling realise what she has done.
The family begin to realise that Eric plays a role in the death of the girl, and his scrutinising will begin shortly, just as Mrs Birling’s interview comes to a firm conclusion. The family sit and wait in anticipation for the return of Eric. Priestly made this idea of time significant, because it changes the way that we as the audience interpret the play, somebody who read the play twenty years ago will have different interpretations of the meanings than somebody who reads the play today.
Eric enters and is sharply questioned, he enters with a realisation that the inspector knows about his traits, and actions, His realisation that his family are also aware of what he has done creates a rather subdued atmosphere, arguments arise and there is an overall feeling that Eric has committed such an act that jeopardises the family’s status. With the family firing questions wanting to know why and what possessed him to do such a thing, the inspector becomes increasingly angry and frustrated.
Eric says, “Could I have a drink first? “, this is answered with a ‘No’ from Mr. Birling and a ‘Yes’ from the inspector, this conflict of interests between the two is increasingly apparent with a case of rivalry implemented. Is alcohol the answer to all problems? Priestly wanted to show how different people deal with their own problems in there own ways, this varies videly throughout the world.
Suspicion and guilt hits Eric straight in the face, He tells of the secret meetings with the girl, and he explained how he made love to her on more than one occasion, it is suggested that himself and Gerald both took advantage of the girl, for her good looks, and her vulnerable position within life. Eric says, “She told me she was going to have a baby”, Eric then replies with, “I was in a hell state about it”, this shows that only consequences hit certain people in the face when they are confronted with reality, a baby for Eric created by accident with somebody he didn’t love would have catastrophic and disastrous.
Priestly wanted to show exactly how some high class families were humiliated back then within his era, when such events occurred it was common that the families would banish the perpetrator, and escape any disgrace from the local community, for the Birling family it would have been cataclysmic if any such news escaped of there corrupt wrong doings, this would have been followed by a public scandal. Eric’s integrity is severely questioned by his fathers somewhat raging temper and annoyance.
It is revealed that that he stole money from his own family business, as the truth is revealed, it becomes clear that Mr. Birling is more concerned about the money, than the pregnancy of the girl. He says, “He’s admitted he was responsible for the girls condition”, Mr. Birling burdens total blame onto the Eric, as his secret life unfolds, for the position that the girl was left in. Priestly made this idea significant because it shows how people will prioritise things to there own aptitudes and attitudes of life, in the case of a business man (Mr. B) he is putting money and theft before family and pregnancy. This is shown by Mr. Birling when he says, “I’ve got to cover this up as soon as I can”. A childhood revolt begins to occur as Sheila continues to blame her mother and father for all of the endeavours committed by the younger generation. Eric blames his mother for the final death of the girl, saying, “You killed her – she came to you to protect me – and you turned her away”.
This idea of a childhood revolt is significant because it shows how disrespect on the child’s part occurs within a family, in the time of priestly it was unheard of a child questioning there parents, in the case of the play it was the inspectors job to remove such disrespect.
The inspector continues to assert his authority, interrupting and taking charge, He gives a summary of events, hitting each perpetrator directly in the face with guilt and realisation of there true given consequences, he burdens the main blame onto Mr. Birling, who is left with a moment of thinking to reiterate what has just been said, this idea of repeating what has been done is allowing for the family members to understand the extent of there actions, coming to terms with the consequences, realising what they did then was unacceptable and a feeling of guilt should be felt. The interviewing of the family draws to a conclusion, he leaves the family divided, with opinions against each other, they are allowed to reserve judgement and come to terms within there own hemisphere just exactly what they have done. The inspector leaves giving a rather meaningful speech

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