An Inspector Calls | Study Guide

J.B. Priestley

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An Inspector Calls | Symbols


The Photograph

The photograph carried by Inspector Goole symbolizes revelation and judgment. When each of the characters sees the photograph, they are confronted by their own misdeeds. Even though Eva is dead, she is still watching them. People have different reactions when they are caught in a crime, and these responses reveal aspects of their character. In the same way, the characters' varied reactions to the photograph uncover elements of their true personalities.

When Arthur is presented with the photograph, he stares at it but gives no other reaction besides a look of recognition. After years of working as a businessman, he is accustomed to controlling his emotions and hiding his true thoughts beneath a mask. His level of control is also reinforced by his ardent belief that, in Eva's case, he did absolutely nothing wrong. By contrast, Sheila cries out and flees the room when she sees Eva's picture. She feels genuine guilt over her actions, so seeing Eva's eyes looking back at her in judgment produces a much stronger reaction than with her father.

In Gerald's case Inspector Goole does not have to use the photograph in order to prompt a confession. Even though Gerald tries to emulate Arthur's detachment towards the lower class, he feels much more of an emotional connection with Eva than Arthur, since she was his mistress instead of his employee. She had a stronger impression on him because she was not just another anonymous member of the working class, as she was for Arthur, Sheila, and Sybil. He recognizes her without any need for the photograph.

Sybil, like Arthur, tries to hide her reaction to Eva's picture. When asked whether she recognizes the woman in the photograph, she lies. However, the inspector is a practiced judge of people, and he can easily identify dishonesty. He takes a harsher line of inquiry towards Sybil, as if angered by her refusal to even recognize Eva's existence. Up until now, he has avoided directly calling out the suspects when they are untruthful, instead letting them reveal the truth through their own mistakes. With Sybil, he announces, "You're not telling me the truth." He wants her to know she will not escape judgment simply by trying to ignore Eva.

Like Gerald, Eric is never shown Eva's picture. He recognizes her by name because she was also an important person to him. The inspector does not reveal her photograph to Eric because it is not necessary in his case. He levels judgment upon himself without needing to see her face. All of the revelations about their relationship come directly from Eric: a sign that he continues to feel guilt and desperately needs a chance to confess, even if he did not realize it until now.

The Wedding Ring

In the beginning of An Inspector Calls, Gerald offers Sheila a wedding ring as a visual symbol of their engagement. It acts as a sign of commitment and a source of joy for Sheila. She proudly shows it off to her mother and then proclaims that it is "perfect." Having put on the ring, she says, "Now I really feel engaged." This ring, in her mind, makes their engagement official. It is a promise of faithfulness and love between Gerald and her. Considering the amount of significance Sheila places on the ring, it makes sense that she would later remove it when Gerald's untruthfulness is revealed. She thought the ring meant that Gerald valued her above all others and would never do anything to dishonor their relationship. However, she then learns that he not only strayed from his commitment to her but also lied about it. If the inspector had never shown up, he likely would have kept his dalliance with Eva a secret. Sheila made the mistake of assuming Gerald loved her to the exclusion of all others. After seeing this other, less honest side to her fiancé, she believes she cannot in good conscience keep wearing his ring, since they clearly do not know each other as well as they thought.

At the end of the play, Gerald offers Sheila the ring once more, but she can no longer see it as the pure symbol of trust and love that it once was. Now its meaning has been tarnished, and she refuses to put in on as if nothing has changed. While Gerald may believe all is forgiven, Sheila's rejection of the ring that once symbolized their connection shows she does not share his optimistic attitude. Knowing what she knows now, she refuses to act as if Gerald is the same man she agreed to marry.

Eva Smith

Eva Smith plays a double role. She is a character who influences the lives of both the Birlings and Gerald, and she is also a representative of the lower class in general. In real life, it is unlikely that one person would suffer so much indignity at the hands of a single family. Priestley compounded her woes in order to make a point about the upper class's treatment of their supposed social inferiors.

At one point, the Birlings and Gerald wonder whether Eva Smith is actually multiple individuals, since it seems absurd that they all would have wronged the same woman in the span of two years. Arthur observes, "He could have used a different photograph each time and we'd be none the wiser." This argument is never proven to be true or false, since the audience never sees the photograph. However, it reinforces the idea that Eva represents more than a single unfortunate person.

Even Inspector Goole implies Eva Smith is an archetype for all the lower-class men and women abandoned by society, stating that there are "millions of Eva Smiths ... still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering." He tells the Birlings and, by proxy, the audience that they still have the opportunity to help save the lives of the millions of Eva Smiths. In this way, Priestley uses Eva as an object lesson for his audience. When he wrote the play he wanted to create a story that was worth more than a simple piece of entertainment. In An Inspector Calls Priestley presents a case study in civic responsibility and the effects of our choices on the people around us. He put Eva through tragedy after tragedy in the hope that his audience would see the connection between this one unlucky woman and the millions of forgotten people around them.

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