An Inspector Calls Literature Notes
The Inspector Calls by JB Priestly is an arguably most fascinating play that is most commonly taught and in Singapore secondary schools. In this series of “Like Lit or Not?” we have consolidated some character traits with quotations. These are quality and useful notes for students who are currently reading this book as part of IB Language Literature syllabus or their lower secondary literature. These notes are completely free and if you are still struggling with English or English Literature, reach out to our team of current and ex MOE tutors for tuition.
What is the play about?
“An Inspector Calls” is a play written by J.B. Priestley, first performed in 1945. The play is set in 1912 and follows the Birling family, a wealthy and privileged family living in England. The family is celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to a wealthy businessman named Gerald Croft, when an unexpected visitor arrives – an Inspector who is investigating the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith/Daisy Renton. Through the series of interrogations by Inspector Goole, the audience witness how the family members slowly reveals their various roles in the woman’s death, as each character is forced to confront their own culpability in the tragedy.
What are the themes?
The play explores the following themes
- Social responsibility
An Inspector Calls is scathing in its criticism of middle-class hypocrisy. The play gives voice to Priestley’s strong socialist principles, and carries a clear moral message, stressing the importance of social responsibility: ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other’. The play raises questions about the interconnectedness of all human beings and the impact of our actions on others.
Who are the characters?
The central characters in the play are members of the Birling family and Inspector Goole.
- Arthur Birling – the patriarch of the Birling family in “An Inspector Calls,” He is a wealthy and successful businessman who values profit and social status above all else. As such, he represents the values of capitalism, individualism, and self-interest. Character Traits: He is a proud and arrogant man who is focused on maintaining his social status and power. We can see this in his opening speech, where he suggests that “a man has to make his own way – has to look after himself – and his family too, of course.” From this, we can see the self-serving attitudes of the wealthy and powerful people in the society.
- Sybil Birling – Arthur’s wife and a member of the local Women’s Charity Organization. She bears testimony to the hypocrisy and class prejudice of the wealthy upper class in England. Character Traits: She is hypocritical and lacks empathy. We can see this when she says ‘I’m sorry she should have come to such a horrible end. But I accept no blame for it at all.’ Mrs Sybil Birling considers herself a champion of social justice and charity yet her attitudes towards those she deems beneath her, as well as her refusal to accept responsibility for her role in Eva/Daisy’s death, highlight her lack of genuine concern for others.
- Sheila Birling – The daughter of Arthur and Sybil, and engaged to Gerald Croft. Sheila has a complex and dynamic character arc. Unlike her parents, she is a character that experiences growth and change throughout the play. She is initially portrayed as somewhat frivolous and shallow, but comes to show a greater sense of empathy and social responsibility as the play progresses. Character traits: Materialistic and Superficial We witness how Sheila Birling is materialistic in Act 1 when the Birlings are celebrating Sheila’s engagement.
Sheila: (who has put the ring on, admiringly) I think it’s perfect. Now I really feel engaged.
Sheila’s desire for material possession and her need to have the ring in order to feel engaged shows that she is rather materialistic.
However, we witness how Sheila changes throughout the play. Initially, she doesn’t take the investigation seriously and assumes that her family’s social status will protect them from any consequences. But as the play progresses, when the Inspector reveals that Eva/Daisy was a factory worker, Sheila is shocked and says, “But these girls aren’t cheap labor – they’re people.” This shows her growth in the course of the play as Sheila begins to recognise her own complicity in Eva/Daisy’s death and starts to take responsibility for her actions.
- Eric Birling – The alcoholic son of Arthur and Sybil, who is portrayed as a troubled and insecure young man who steals from his family and hits the bottle to numb himself from life realities Character Traits: Eric is initially portrayed as irresponsible and immature, often turning to alcohol to cope with his family’s issues. He is also shown to be apathetic towards the struggles of the working class, as evidenced by his flippant attitude towards Eva Smith’s death. However, as the play progresses, Eric begins to take responsibility for his actions and express remorse for his mistakes. He acknowledges his role in Eva’s death and admits that he needs to change his ways, stating “We’ll have to start all over again, getting to know each other” (Act 3).
- Gerald Croft – Sheila’s fiancé and the son of a wealthy businessman. At the start of the play, he is described to be “an attractive chap about thirty … very much the easy well-bred young-man-about-town.” Character Traits: As the play progresses, we see how he is actually an unfaithful man who cheats on Sybil Birling and toys with the feelings of Daisy Renton/Eva Smith. He manipulated the feelings of Eva and not only did he not love her as he confessed to not ‘feeling about her as she felt about’ him. He even tries to defend himself by saying that he made a mistake just like ‘nearly any man would have done.’
- Inspector Goole – A highly enigmatic figure whose name rhymes with Ghoul. He arrives at the Birling house unannounced and starts to investigate the death of Eva/Daisy. He represents a force of morality and justice, and his questioning of the characters ultimately exposes their various roles in the tragedy. Throughout the play, the Inspector’s identity and purpose remain ambiguous. Was he a supernatural figure that represents the spirit of divine justice? Others have argued that he is a metaphor for Priestley’s own socialist beliefs, which emphasize the interconnectedness of all people and the need for collective responsibility.
Hope these notes are useful to students are are preparing for their literature exams or IGCSE, IB individual oral commentary (IOC).
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