An Inspector Calls | Study Guide

J.B. Priestley

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Course Hero, "An Inspector Calls Study Guide," December 20, 2019, accessed January 23, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/An-Inspector-Calls/.

An Inspector Calls | Plot Summary

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Summary

Act One

On a spring evening in 1912 Arthur and Sybil Birling are in the process of celebrating their daughter Sheila's engagement to Gerald Croft, a wealthy businessman with ties to England's nobility, when an inspector named Goole arrives at their door. Sybil and Sheila, having left the dining room to talk, do not learn about the inspector's arrival right away. Arthur, Gerald, and Sheila's brother Eric meet the inspector, who tells them that a woman named Eva Smith has committed suicide by drinking disinfectant. After going through her journal, Inspector Goole discovered she had encountered Arthur Birling, as well as the other members of his family, and he now believes they are responsible for her suicide.

When shown Eva's photograph Arthur Birling admits that he used to employ Eva at his workhouse but that she had been fired for helping lead a strike. Gerald sides with Arthur, but Eric believes his father's response was overly harsh. Sheila enters and is told about Eva's death. The inspector shows her the photograph, and she leaves the room in tears. Arthur accuses the inspector of intentionally upsetting his daughter. He then marches out of the room to find his wife. Gerald asks to see the photograph, but the inspector refuses to show it to him, explaining he will when the time is right. Sheila returns to the room. She reveals that she complained to Eva's employer at Milwards, the shop where Eva found employment after Arthur fired her. As a result of Sheila's complaint about her disrespectful behavior, Eva was fired.

Inspector Goole then tells the group that Eva changed her name after her second firing to Daisy Renton. Although he tries to hide it, Gerald Croft clearly recognizes the name. Eric and Inspector Goole leave the dining room in search of Arthur. While they are gone, Sheila accuses Gerald of cheating on her with Eva, and Gerald admits they were in a relationship. He tells her to hide this fact from the inspector, but she insists the inspector already knows, just as he knew everything about her and Arthur.

Act Two

Upon his return to the room Inspector Goole resumes questioning Gerald. Sheila refuses to leave the room, even though her part of the questioning is finished. She wants to learn who else had a role in Eva's death so she does not feel solely responsible. Sybil comes into the dining room and promises to cooperate with the investigation, although she insists her family had nothing to do with Eva's death. After commenting on her son's strange behavior that evening, Sybil learns from Sheila and Gerald that Eric has a drinking problem. Arthur reenters the room.

Gerald begins relating the details of his relationship with Eva. He met her at the bar in the Palace Variety Theater. He helped rescue her from the unwanted attentions of Joe Meggarty, a local alderman. They left the bar and went to the County Hotel. He bought her a few drinks and then dinner. For the next few months Eva was Gerald's mistress. She was allowed to stay in a set of rooms left in Gerald's care by a friend, in exchange for maintaining a relationship with Gerald. Eventually he grew tired of her and ended the relationship. Eva moved out and traveled to a seaside town. Surrounded by the peace and quiet, she hoped to reorder her life.

After Gerald has finished his story, Eva gives him back his engagement ring, and Gerald leaves. Inspector Goole shifts his attention to Sybil. He shows her the photograph, but she pretends she does not recognize Eva. The inspector calls her out for lying. The gathered group hears the door slam, and Arthur goes to see if Eric has left the house. When he returns, he tells them that Eric is gone.

When pressed by the inspector, Sybil admits she met Eva when the young woman applied for charity. She was offended by Eva's decision to call herself "Mrs. Birling" and then lie about her situation, which in her mind was a blatant sign of disrespect and moral depravity. Realizing she had been caught in a lie, Eva revealed she was unmarried and that the father of her unborn child was stealing money in an attempt to pay away his guilt. Sybil refused to believe her and convinced the town's various charities to reject Eva's application for aid.

Sheila is appalled, but Sybil is unrepentant of her decision, arguing that the blame lies with Eva for committing suicide and the father of her child for abandoning her. Having figured out who Inspector Goole wishes to question next, Sheila attempts to quiet her mother's loud condemnation of the man responsible. Arthur insists Goole has no more reason to stay in their house. The inspector explains he is waiting for the father of Eva's child to return. Finally, Arthur and Sybil realize why he wants to talk with Eric. At this moment, Eric enters the room.

Act Three

Eric can tell the truth now that the others know what he has done. He gets a drink to steady himself and then begins answering the inspector's questions. Back in November, Eric explains, he met Eva at a bar. Eva was slightly drunk but not as intoxicated as Eric. He followed her home and then threatened to make a fuss if she did not let him inside. Once she had let him inside, he forced her into bed with him. Two weeks later, he came across her at the same bar. Like before, he went home with her, although this time they talked more. For the next few weeks, they occasionally slept together. This ended when Eva discovered she was pregnant.

Eva refused to marry Eric, since she recognized he was not mature enough for that level of commitment. Desperate to atone for his actions, Eric stole money from his father's business to help support Eva. When she learned the money was stolen, she cut off all ties with him. At this point in Eric's story Arthur becomes enraged at his son, much more so than when he simply believed Eric had taken an unwilling woman to bed. He demands that Eric pay back the stolen sum. Through Sheila, Eric learns Sybil rejected Eva's pleas for help and accuses her of killing his child.

The already tense conversation threatens to devolve into an all-out fight between the family members, but Inspector Goole stops them before physical violence can begin. He accuses them of abandoning a woman in need because of their greed and selfishness. Then he warns them that, although Eva is dead, there are still millions of people like her who need help. If people like them continue to turn a blind eye to those in need, they will all suffer in the end. Having said his piece, Inspector Goole departs the house.

Once the inspector is gone, the family members begin to wonder whether Inspector Goole was actually a police inspector. Gerald comes back to the house and confirms their suspicions. They realize that no two people saw the same photograph of Eva at the same time, so the inspector could have been referring to different women when he addressed each person. Calling the Infirmary, Gerald learns that they have not had a case of suicide in months.

Arthur, Sybil, and Gerald dismiss the night's events as a failed attempt to scam them. However, Eric and Sheila are unable to forgive themselves or the others for their callous mistreatment of Eva, even if Eva is actually multiple individuals. Sheila wants to, at the very least, postpone her engagement to Gerald while she sorts things out. Arthur is in the process of condemning her for this attitude when the telephone rings. He answers it and learns a woman has just killed herself. A police inspector will be arriving shortly to question them.

An Inspector Calls Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 The Birling family celebrates Sheila's engagement to Gerald.

Rising Action

2 Inspector Goole arrives and explains Eva committed suicide.

3 The inspector questions Arthur, and Arthur admits he fired Eva.

4 Sheila confesses she cause Eva's firing from her new job.

5 Gerald reveals Eva was his mistress.

6 Sheila breaks off her engagement with Gerald.

7 Sybil is questioned about rejecting Eva's plea for help.

8 The inspector reveals Eric is the father of Eva's unborn child.

Climax

9 Eric shares how he met Eva; the inspector warns the family.

Falling Action

10 Gerald tells the Birlings that Goole is not a real inspector.

11 Everyone except Eric and Sheila laughs off the situation.

Resolution

12 Arthur learns a woman has committed suicide.

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