By now, the audience realise that all the characters will be implicated in the death of Eva Smith. This creates excitement among the audience and tension among the characters at who will be implicated next, especially as the events of Eva’s life are revealed in a chronological order (with the exception of Mrs. Birling, who is the last person to have affected Eva but the second to last to be questioned) and there is no release of pressure due to a scene change or omission of time.
Mrs.Birling, a member of the Brumley Women’s Charity Organization (there is no evidence to suggest Mrs. Birling is a kind person and wants to help the poor, so we must assume this is because this is expected of a woman of her social standing), refused the pregnant Eva Smith help because of the ‘gross impertinence’ of Eva calling herself ‘Mrs. Birling’ (the reason for which is later revealed) and because ‘she was claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position’.
The word ‘absurd’ is ironic because principles, especially in the face of adversity, are usually seen to be admirable. This suggests that Mrs. Birling has a somewhat perverse sense of morals herself. The description of the father of Eva’s baby as ‘silly and wild and drinking too much’, along with the fact that Eric is the only member of the family left to be interrogated, leave the audience (and Sheila) in little doubt as to who the father of Eva’s child is.
Priestley intends the audience to regard Mrs. Birling as hypocritical and ignorant. He achieves this by two ironies: firstly, Mrs.
Birling’s view regarding ‘fine feelings and scruples’, and secondly, she insists that the father of Eva’s baby is ‘entirely responsible’ and should be ‘compelled to marry her’ and ‘dealt with very severely’. Yet when she finds out that this is her own son, she is more shocked that Eric stole money, and protests, ‘No – Eric – please – I didn’t know – I didn’t understand’. Act Two ends at a point of tension, when Eric walks in just as the family have realised what he has done. Not only has he got Eva pregnant, but he is also an alcoholic (or at least a heavy drinker).
Ironically, the audience are more disgusted with his parents, for caring more about Eric’s actions ruining the family’s reputation than the damage they have done to Eva, and for accepting no blame for Eric’s or Eva’s situation (‘you’re not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble’, says Eric). Like Sheila, Eric repents. What follows is the Inspector’s ‘final speech’, which could be considered the most powerful and poignant part of the play. It examines the moral and social consciences of the characters and of the audience.
First, on a more personal level, the characters are reminded that ‘each of you helped to kill her’, and of their role in Eva’s demise. The characters are very subdued; Sheila and Eric bitterly repent, while Mr. Birling misinterprets ‘You made her pay a heavy price… And now she’ll make you pay a heavier price still’, as referring to money! He then makes references to the ‘millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us’. Here the relevance of the play’s message outside the Birlings’ dining room is emphasised.
The Inspector is, in effect, throwing thoughts of ‘minding your own business and looking after yourself and you own’ back into the faces of the Mr. Birlings of this world. The audience know he is right; that men were taught a lesson in ‘fire and blood and anguish’ in the First and Second World Wars, and are still being taught it to this day, because they refused to be ‘responsible for each other’. The Inspector always has a sense of omniscience about him – he knows before he asks what the Birlings have done – it is difficult to argue with a godlike figure.
Even after the Inspector’s speech, and his departure, the older Birlings are still worried about ‘public scandals’ and Mr. Birling’s chances for a knighthood being ruined. Sheila and Eric seem to have matured far beyond the level of their parents, and scorn them (‘It’s you two who are being childish – trying not to face the facts’), embodying the audience and Inspector, who have seen what the Birlings’ attitude can lead to. Yet Mr. and Mrs. Birling are still the people ‘in charge’, which could symbolise the way that society is structured.
The family then start to wonder whether Inspector Goole was a genuine police inspector. Gerald comes back, and reveals that in fact he was not. They then find out that they may not all have been involved with the same girl, and no girl committed suicide that day and died in the Infirmary. Sheila and Eric retain their newly acquired sensitive minds, and insist that ‘it frightens me the way you talk’. This embodies the way Mr. and Mrs. Birling’s and Gerald’s attitudes are frightening: they lead to ‘fire and blood and anguish’.
To keep the content of the play fresh in the minds of the audience, a shocking end is required. Once again Mr. Birling is in the middle of a foolish comment (‘the famous younger generation who know it all can’t even take a joke’) when ‘the telephone rings sharply’. He is told that ‘a girl has just died… And a police inspector is on his way here’. The ending is partly for the audience’s satisfaction (Mr. and Mrs. Birling, two reviled characters, get what they deserve), but also so the audience will reconsider the events of the play (were they all involved with the same girl?
What will happen the second time round? etc. ) and thus its message. ‘An Inspector Calls’ can be seen as two things: a standard Detective Thriller, and a Morality play. Detective Thrillers usually have a purely entertaining function. ‘An Inspector Calls’ has elements of this because there is a mystery (why Eva killed herself) and the audience are left clues as to ‘whodunnit’ (e. g. ‘all last summer when you never came near me’). However, since none of the characters have done anything illegal (except possibly Eric, who stole his father’s money), the main function of the play is a moral one.
Morality Plays were popular in the Middle Ages. Abstract ideas and issues are given human form – such as, in this play the inspector, ‘God’ and Eva Smith, ‘Everyman’. It could be argued that the other characters embody different facets of the bourgeoisie, or ruling class, or the Seven Deadly Sins. These are lust, avarice, envy, wrath, gluttony, sloth and pride. In early Morality Plays characters were actually named after the characters they embody, e. g. ‘Lust’. ‘An Inspector Calls’ is subtler; the characters are not one-dimensional but can be identified with by the audience.
We never see Eva Smith; therefore we cannot pass judgement on her as an individual. All we are allowed to see is the way she is disenfranchised and exploited; so the only way we are able to view her is as the embodiment of the working classes, trampled on by the bourgeoisie and all its vices. The fact that all of the characters are highly symbolic enables us to view this not only as a play about the Birling family, but about the whole of society, and our own flaws.
It is due to this that the play is still relevant today. In my opinion, ‘An Inspector Calls’ will never cease to be relevant, challenging and controversial. There will always be Eva Smiths because there will always be Mr. Birlings: a relatively recent example of the ‘a man has to look after himself and his own’ viewpoint is ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, speaking in 1987: ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual women and men, and there are families. ‘
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