An Inspector Calls | Study Guide

J.B. Priestley

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An Inspector Calls | Themes

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Women's Rights in 20th-Century England

Prior to World War II, when women moved into a more active role in society while men fought in mainland Europe, women and men were relegated to fairly strict social and political positions. According to historian Susan Grayzel, women were seen as "guardians of morality." They acted as "the representative of family and domesticity" and, as such, were expected to relegate their sphere of influence to the home. The Birlings and Gerald all seem to support this idea at the outset of the play. Sheila becomes increasingly outspoken and rebellious as the plot progresses and her innocence is removed, but her fiance and parents still hold firmly to their responsibility to shelter her from life's unpleasant realities. Inspector Goole recognizes Gerald's desire to hide the details of his affair from Sheila. He observes, "You think young women ought to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things?" When Gerald heartily agrees, Goole then points out the logical inconsistency of this viewpoint. Gerald thinks that Sheila should be protected, but he believes it was fine to expose Eva to the risk of public ridicule since she was already seen as a fallen woman.

This contradictory treatment of women appears again in Act 3 when Eric confesses to raping Eva while under the influence of alcohol. If such a crime had happened to Sheila, the public would have been up in arms, demanding that her assailant be punished by the harshest means available. However, since Eva is a member of the lower class and, more importantly, has been working as a prostitute, she has much less legal recourse. During the early 20th century, the public called for increased police attention to prostitution. Unfortunately, the police were simultaneously encouraged to focus their efforts on arresting prostitutes instead of their clients or managers. If prostitutes reported assaults by their clients, they faced two probable outcomes: 1. The police would disregard their claims because prostitutes were seen as unreliable witnesses because of their illegal profession. 2. The police would arrest them for prostitution.

Instead of reporting Eric's attack Eva accepted it as part of the risk associated with her line of work. She went so far as to continue seeing him. The exact nature of their following encounters is not revealed, but it is likely that he became a client. Since the majority of prostitutes had little to no financial security, they often learned to take clients whenever they appeared. If Eric had been paying her for her time, it would help explain why she kept seeing him after being assaulted.

Although women's role was in the process of changing in the early 20th century as a result of the newly founded suffrage movement which advocated for women's voting rights, these changes took longer to work their way into all social classes. Upper-class men were still taught to look down upon lower-class women, leading to an attitude that such women were more appropriate targets for abuse. Arthur, Gerald, Eric, and even Sybil all espouse the beliefs of valuing women and protecting them, but they also showed no hesitation when it came to harming Eva. They believed that the combination of her gender and lower social class made her an acceptable target for predation.

Judgment

A recurring theme in An Inspector Calls is judgment. Multiple characters set themselves up as rightful judges of their neighbors, but the majority of them rely on their own biases when casting judgment. When Arthur decides to fire Eva for asking for higher wages, he justifies his decision by labeling her as an ungrateful troublemaker. He determines her worth based on how useful she is to him at the moment. Since Gerald has been raised to evaluate people through the same lens, he agrees with Arthur. Sybil also sees herself as a judge of character, a power she exercises when determining who should receive charity, but she later admits she is influenced by her own prejudices.

Inspector Goole, by contrast, is an outsider from their society. He has the distance necessary to maintain objectivity. For him, the main qualities he is looking for when leveling judgment are honesty and a genuine desire to change. He explains in the beginning, "if you're easy with me, I'm easy with you." Penitence and a forthcoming attitude will be rewarded with less harsh judgment. He does not allow ignorance to be used as an excuse. When Sheila protests, "How could I know what would happen afterwards?" in the hopes of diminishing her guilt, Inspector Goole shows little sympathy for her.

Characters attempt to shift the blame onto other people, even society in general. Sheila accuses Gerald of reveling in Eva's gratitude, and he responds, "Nearly any man would have done." Arthur argues that it is not his fault for firing Eva because plenty of other employers would have done the same. They think that society's overall corruption should exempt them from blame.

By contrast, Inspector Goole holds to the idea that more than one person can be held responsible for a crime. Justice does not mean finding who is the most at fault and then heaping all the guilt upon that individual. Goole never blames one family member's actions over the others'. In his mind, they are all responsible, so they all must carry judgment for their choices.

Group Culpability

Eva's tragic life serves an object lesson in group culpability. This idea is first introduced in Act 1, when Arthur offers a warning about believing in "community and all that nonsense." He argues, "the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you'd think everybody has to look after everybody else." Arthur is convinced that the best road to success is for every person to look after their own needs and the best interests of their family members, to the exception of everyone else. He encourages his children to evaluate their choices based on what will best benefit them. During this time period, ideas about community living were often labeled as "socialist" and dismissed as either a symptom of delusion or an intentional attack on capitalism.

From the moment he is introduced, Arthur is set up as the exact opposite of Inspector Goole. Where Arthur is self-minded, Goole believes that everybody has a responsibility to look after one another. Actions do not occur inside a bubble; people all affect one another, for better or worse. This outlook is why he sees Eva's death as "a chain of events." He is able to step back from the initial horror of her death and see how a series of unfortunate encounters led to her suicide. Instead of blaming Eva alone for choosing to take her life, he is determined to find out what led her to this point. Describing his reaction to seeing Eva's corpse, he says, "A nice little promising life there, I thought, and a nasty mess somebody's made out of it." Where some people would dismiss her death as a tragic accident, or worse, condemn Eva for taking her life, Goole believes there was more at work than a single person's despair.

Sheila is the first person to recognize his perspective. In Act 1, she observes, "You talk as if we were responsible." Unlike her parents, she is open to the idea of interconnectedness and group culpability, partially because she believes it will remove some of the weight she feels over Eva's death. For her, accepting the concept of collective responsibility is more of a relief than a burden. By the time Gerald confesses his role in Eva's death, Sheila has fully accepted the concept, as evidenced by her observation to Gerald, "probably between us we killed her." However, her parents are less open to Goole's perspective on guilt. Arthur thinks it is ridiculous to hold people responsible for the unintended consequences of their actions. He did not intend to kill Eva when he fired her, so he should not be blamed for her death. Sybil shares this idea, which is why neither of them believe they need to change their ways.

Class Discrimination

One of the primary reasons why the Birlings and Gerald Croft justify their treatment of Eva is because she occupied a lower social class than them. During the 1940s in England, as well as in many other Western countries, a stark division still existed between the upper and lower classes. Unfortunately, members of the upper class often used division as an excuse to mistreat those they saw as beneath them. Arthur's censure of Eva and the other workers' demand for increased wages is based on this idea of class discrimination: "If you don't come down sharply on some of these people, they'd soon be asking for the earth." He has been taught by his culture to see people in the lower class as a greedy and manipulative mob who must be kept in line. He punishes Eva because he wants to use her as an example, cowing his other workers into submission.

The other members of the Birling family follow the same pattern of discrimination, as does Gerald. Sheila demands Eva's immediate firing because she thinks it is inappropriate for a lower-class girl to look prettier than her. She feels a need to defend her social status from Eva's perceived impudence. Later she feels regret, but she still allowed her prejudice to determine her actions. She was too prideful to apologize and ask the manager to hire Eva back. Conversely, Gerald and Eric use Eva's lower status to take advantage of her. They both recognize she is a vulnerable target, and they decide to use her as a means of sating their own desires. Like Sheila, Eric is ashamed later. He tries to fix the situation through money, but there is no indication that he ever offers Eva a genuine apology for his actions.

Although Sybil is a clearly discriminatory person, at least she does not try to hide her prejudice. She openly admits that her rejection of Eva's charity application was based on her own visceral reaction to the girl, not on the facts of her situation. Where the others try to veil their prejudices, Sybil is much more straightforward. She first claims that it is impossible to understand "girls of that class," implying that women from the lower class act irrationally. Later she says that Eva pretended to have "elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position." She has been brought up to believe that poor people lack the emotional refinement seen in the wealthy: they are driven solely by their baser instincts, acting without conscience.

Confronted by the Birlings and Gerald's narrow perspective on class, Inspector Goole is appalled. He believes that upper-class citizens such view their wealth as a blessing to distribute amongst those less fortunate. Since the rich have more resources to offer the world, they carry more responsibility. He also holds that respectability is not determined by class. When Gerald protests, "We're respectable citizens and not criminals," Goole responds, "Sometimes there isn't as much difference as you think." Unlike the other characters, Goole does not see a distinct line between groups of people. He only sees individuals who each have a duty to help those around them to the best of their abilities.

Artificiality and Performance

It is fitting that An Inspector Calls is designed to be performed on a stage, since most of the characters live inside a constant performance. They are rarely genuine in their interactions, parroting society's expectations instead of voicing their own thoughts. However, once Inspector Goole enters and begins stirring things up, the characters' performances begin to slip, and their true identities are revealed for all to see. After years of hiding behind masks, the characters are terrified of exposure. More than being indicted as criminals, they are afraid of being ashamed in front of their peers.

At the beginning of Act 1, a veneer of civility hangs over the family. Gerald comments, "You seem to be a nice well-behaved family." In this observation, the key word is "seem." They are all on their best behavior, with the possible exception of Eric. Since Eric is still distraught over Eva's pregnancy, he is having a harder time maintaining appearances. Arthur, Sybil, Gerald, and Sheila are all wrapped up in self-gratulation for their past successes and future prospects. Since they share a mutual agreement not to look too closely at one another's masks, the party has every sign of going well, without any uncomfortable truths being shared.

The family's plans are shattered with the arrival of Inspector Goole. Unlike them he has not entered into their social contract of respecting privacy by ignoring lies. He methodically works his way through the family, exposing their true faces for everyone to see. By Act 2, Sheila has recognized the inspector's plan, which is why she tries to warn her mother not to lie: "We all started like that ... so pleased with ourselves until he began asking us questions." Later, when her parents continue lying, she insists, "we really must stop these silly pretenses." Sheila knows that Inspector Goole has no patience for artificiality and no desire to help maintain their fictions, so it is better to be honest and get the interrogation over with.

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