The role of the Inspector

When interrogating the characters, the Inspector treats each character differently. The second character that he questions is Sheila who he questions after Mr Birling. Sheila is treated less harshly by the Inspector, probably because she is a woman and in 1912, women were protected from unpleasant things. However, Sheila is more ready to answer the Inspector’s questions and accepts the blame. She is greatly affected by her actions and is ‘distressed’ and begins ‘crying’.

Ready and willing to accept full responsibility Sheila asks the Inspector ‘so, I’m really responsible? ‘ but the Inspector, sympathetic towards Sheila because she has realised what she has done, says that it is not just her to blame, however he doesn’t coat the situation in sugar for her just because she is a women; he makes sure that she cannot deny responsibility once she has accepted it. Eric reacts in a similar way to his sister, fully accepting his role in Eva’s death. However, what Eric did is too much for the Inspector to sympathise with him.

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The Inspector, however, treats the two older Birlings in a totally different way, as they are stuck in their old ways and are too concerned about their social standings to care about what the Inspector has to say. Mr Birling, concerned that the Inspector’s inquiry will jeopardise his chances of receiving a knighthood, tries to scare the Inspector by saying he is a good friend of the Chief Constable and that they ‘play golf together’. However the Inspector remains unswayed by Mr Birling’s attempts to put him in his place and proceeds to try and get the information out of him.

Unlike with Sheila where she didn’t actually know what she had done before and how much her actions had affected the girl, Mr Birling knew that his firing of the girl would affect her greatly, but he tells that the Inspector that ‘I can’t accept responsibility’; Mr Birling refuses to accept the blame even though the Inspector tries to put the blame on him. The Inspector is also quickly angered by Mr Birling, telling him not to ‘stammer and yammer at me again man… I’m losing all patience with you people’ showing that he is fed up with their pretentious attitudes.

Mrs Birling reacts in a similar way to Mr Birling, refusing to accept the blame, but the Inspector gets fed up with their denials of their involvements and gets more and more curt in his questioning, talking ‘firmly’, ‘very sharply’, ‘with authority’, and ‘rather savagely’ to the Birlings, becoming impatient with them. Because the Inspector cannot get the narrow-minded Mrs Birling to accept the blame, he makes her shift the blame on to someone else. She says ‘if the girl’s death is due to anybody, it’s due to him (the father of the child)… he ought to be dealt with severely’.

In the Inspector’s questioning of Mrs Birling, he manages to manipulate Mrs Birling into condemning Eric; as she won’t accept the blame herself, the Inspector makes her place all the blame on Eric as she doesn’t know that Eric is the person who she is blaming; she says that ‘a public example’ should be made of the father of Eva Smith’s child so for all her trying to protect the family’s standing in society she has gone and undermined herself by blaming Eric. Clear to see throughout the play is the Inspector’s dislike for the older Birlings, shown by how quickly he jumps to judge Mr Birling.

After ‘turning on him sharply’ the Inspector says to Mr Birling ‘Why should you do any protesting? It’s you who turned the girl out in the first place. ‘ The Inspector easily puts the blame on Mr Birling even though he knows that all of the Birlings contributed to Eva’s death. The Inspector also quickly judges Mrs Birling for her actions when he says ‘she came to you for help… you must have known what she was feeling. And you slammed the door in her face’. He is judging Mrs Birling’s actions as callous and heartless.

The Inspector seems to know everything, a power recognised by Sheila when she realises ‘he knows. Of course he knows. And I hate to think how much he knows that we don’t know yet’. Even though the Inspector questions the family, he seems to know all what they have done before he even speaks to them and his questioning is only to get them to take responsibility for their actions and to fully appreciate how much their lives affect others. Priestley repeats the word ‘know’ to emphasise the knowledge of the Inspector.

To sympathise with the poor in 1912, Priestley makes the Inspector compare Eva’s life with many poor people. The Inspector says ‘there are a lot of women living that sort of existence in every city and big town in this country… no money, living in lodgings, with no relatives to help her, no friends, lonely, half-starved’. Highlighting the problems that many people suffered Priestley drives the point home about the problems of modern society by comparing the difficult life of Eva Smith to the lives of many poor people in the Edwardian era.

Though his character of the Inspector is quick to judge the older Birlings with their superior attitudes, Priestley doesn’t judge the poor in the same way as people of the time would have done; he shows them as normal people who just have a hard life and not as people who were scrounging money of good, hard-working people as many richer people of the time believed. Eventually, the Inspector blames every single one of the Birlings ‘helped to kill her’.

The Inspector believes that every single Birling played a part in Eva Smith’s death but he believes that each Birling committed a different wrong towards Eva. Mrs Birling ‘turned her away when she most needed help… which pushed her over the edge’. The Inspector blames Mrs Birling for being the last straw and pushing the girl away instead of helping her. The Inspector says that Eric ‘used her… as an animal, a thing, not a person’. Eric’s crime against Eva is the fact that he selfishly used her and was ignorant to the fact that she was a person just like her.

Sheila ‘helped, but didn’t start’ the chain of events that led to Eva Smith’s death; the Inspector places the blame of starting the chain on Mr Birling. The Inspector says to him ‘You started it. She wanted twenty-five shillings… you made her pay a heavy price for that’. Because Eva wanted a better life she ended up dead; this echoes the times of the play when the poor could not better themselves. Before leaving, the Inspector has a final speech which conveys Priestley’s views on society. The Inspector says ‘we are responsible for each other’.

Priestley, through the play, has shown the audience how only caring for yourself and your own can destroy people’s lives and so he is trying to express the message of helping other people. Some commentators on the play have suggested that the Inspector’s name, ‘Goole’, has something to do with his true identity which isn’t revealed in the play. ‘Goole’ sounds similar to ‘ghoul’; ghouls are sometimes raised to avenge deaths, like the death of Eva, or it may be indicating that the Inspector is a fake as ghouls are not real.

However, what or who the Inspector actually is isn’t as important as the messages he puts across throughout the play. The role of the Inspector in the play, An Inspector Calls is to show people that caring for each other and looking after each other is a good thing; Priestley is putting across his socialist views in an easily understood way so his message can reach a wider audience. The message is easily comprehended as it is shown in the play how selfishness is bad and how helping each other is good. However, his message comes across without preaching it, so more people are likely to accept it.

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