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Saturday, September 11, 2021

An Inspector Calls: Themes | Litgalaxy2019

An Inspector Calls” is one of the interesting three-act plays produced by John Boynton Priestley. The play presents various themes such as social responsibilityclass conflict, cause and effect, clash between capitalist and socialist ideologies, poverty and exploitation, and guilt. 

All these themes are closely associated with the life and death of Eva Smith. But the play “An Inspector Calls” can also be deemed as a ‘problem play’’ written in the manner of John Galsworthy's three act-play "The Silver Box". "The Inspector Calls" is a social drama in the sense that it deals with incident of social importance that takes place in the society.

An Inspector Calls: Themes
An Inspector Calls: Themes 

Like Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, it presents the hollowness and hypocrisy of high-brow society, and it attacks the evils such as exploitation, unemployment, harassment, inequality, and injustice in the society.


The playwright has shown the evil effect of irresponsible behaviour of the rich and sophisticated members of the upper strata society who hardly think and care about the lives of others. The play unveils snobbishness, artificiality, and hypocrisy of the high-brow society which tries to hide their irresponsible, immoral and ugly acts in the name of culture and traditions.

Themes in J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” 

The play “An Inspector Calls” also comments upon the social evils of disparity and injustice in society. The play revolves round the story of Eva Smith and the mysterious Inspector Goole who investigates the case of suicide of Eva Smith and interrogates the Birling family who are responsible for the sorry lot of Eva Smith. The whole play revolves round the character of Eva Smith who does not appear on the stage.   

The character of Inspector Goole has been portrayed with great care that arouses great interest in the play. He is an angel-like and ghostly figure who enquires about the role of the Birling family and Gerald Croft in the suicide-case of Eva Smith who belongs to a lower strata of society. “The Inspector Calls” is a psychological mystery drama of J.B. Priestley produced in 1947

The play “An Inspector Calls’ imparts a moral message that emphasises on the importance of social responsibility. It advocates J.B. Priestley’s socialist principles and it is a criticism of middle-class snobbery and hypocrisy. The play was staged in 1945 in Leningrad, Russia before it was performed in the UK in 1946

Social Responsibility:

The major theme of “An Inspector Calls” is social responsibility of a man living in the society in which he is expected to follow the basic principles and values of social living. In society, people are expected to live in peace and maintain harmony by cooperating with each other. They are expected to some social norms and principles of social living in order to have the desired effect. Hence, it becomes a kind of moral duty of the people not to behave in a way that may harm and ruin others. 

J.B. Priestley expects this kind of social responsibility but some people think otherwise. They do not care for others; they neither have moral sense nor possess social sense. As they are egocentric they do not feel any need to take social responsibility and pay no heed to the suffering of the poor and destitute. 

The members of the Birling family and Gerald Craft, their would-be-son in law are unkind, rude, pretentious, and snobbish people through whom the J.B. Priestley has exposed the hypocrisy and snobbery of people. 

Mr. Arthur Birling, a northern manufacturer and mill owner, has become rich and wealthy because of his devotion, sincerity and hard work. But instead of having respect and soft corner for the poor people, he has contempt for them. 

Arthur Birling has portrayed as man ‘who minds his own business nothing more than that’. He is a practical and ruthless businessman. He believes in his own principles that ‘a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own.’

Class Conflict

Owing to Arthur Birling’s ruthless and insensitive acts Eva Smith is thrown out of her job and she has to suffer. In the world of Arthur Birling there is no place for a poor working class girl like Eva Smith. 

Mr. Arthur Birling wants to maintain contact only with those who can prove of some profit to him and who can equal to his status. He even expects the same outlook from his son, Eric Birling and his daughter, Sheila Birling. 

Sheila, the daughter of Arthur Birling too behaves in rude and insensitive manner as her father. She cannot put up with Eva Smith’s reactions at the Milwards which appear insulting to her. Hence Sheila uses her influence to get Eva sacked from the Milwards. 

On Sheila’s complaint, Eva Smith had to lose her another job. The only difference is that Sheila feels some kind of sympathy for Eva Smith when she comes to know about the reality. It may be because she is also a woman. 

Here at this point that the readers can see both Sheila and her mother, Sybil Birling prepared to some extent share their partial responsibility but it is only after the revelation of the cause of suicide of Eva Smith. Had it not been so, they would not have felt so. 

The character of Sheila Birling arouses interest in the play due to her soft nature. She feels pity for Eva Smith. On the psychological plane, she feels the pain of suffering and hardship of Eva Smith, and she feels ashamed of her rude behaviour.     

Mrs. Sybil Birling is one of the members of high-brow class of society. She is the organiser of Charitable Institution. When Eva Smith goes to her to seek some help in her pregnancy in a miserable and pathetic state but Mrs. Sybil Birling behaves in the most uncharitable manner. 

Sybil Birling expresses neither pity nor sympathy for the unfortunate girl, Eva who is in a family way. She condemns immoral act but that proves of no help to Eva Smith. 

Cause and Effect: 

The play “An Inspector Calls” also comments on the impact of a chain of events which spoils the life of a poor and destitute girl, Eva Smith. It also presents how one action becomes the cause of another action which has combined effect on the life of people. 

Mr. Birling sacked Eva Smith due to her demand of fair wages to the serving class. But instead of getting the fair amount for her service, she had been dismissed from the Birling Firm. As a result, Eva Smith had to seek for another job. 

Eva Smith got a job at the Milwards but only after changing her name as Daisy Renton, but unfortunately she had to leave the job due to Sheila complaint to the manager of the Milwards because her ego was hurt. As a result Eva Smith had to wander on the streets and fine refuge somewhere like Palace Bar where she met Gerald Croft. Gerald Croft gave her some support and shifted her to his friend’s house

Mr. Eric Birling, son of Arthur Birling and Mr. Gerald Croft, fiancé of Sheila Birling try to exploit the opportunity. They pretend to be very friendly and have sympathy for Eva Smith. But actually they used her for their lust. They forced her to sleep with them. They know how to exploit the poor and destitute girl who becomes a victim of injustice and immoral acts imposed upon Eva. 

The character of Eric Birling presents the recklessness and indifference of a merry-go-lucky man who least bothers about the poor and needy girl, Eva Smith.


Clash between Capitalist and Socialist ideologies: 

The play “An Inspector Calls” throws light on the conflict between the capitalist and socialist principles. The character of Arthur Birling is representative of capitalist class, he is a manufacturer who does not like to increase the wages of his workers though they have been suffering and going through extreme poverty. 

Arthur Birling thinks about the loss his company would bear after giving perks to his workers like Eva Smith. When the workers go on strike, he dismisses Eva Smith from her job which leaves her jobless. 

The dialogues of Inspector Goole clearly suggest his socialist principles and he rebukes Mr. Birling about his rude and insensitive attitude. Inspector Goole thinks that the workers should have been paid fair amount for their work but even their small demand was not fulfilled by Mr. Burling. That is why; Mr. Birling calls Inspector Goole a ‘Crank’ socialist. 

Thus the play clearly indicates the difference between the two ideologies. Life is merely a game of profit and loss for Mr. Birling who pays no attention to the workers’ demands who work for him. 

Poverty and Exploitation: 

Though Eva Smith does not appear on the stage, she is a protagonist of the play and the whole play revolves round her story. She faces many hurdles in her path, she fights for her rights, and she maintains her self-respect in the course of drama. She demands fair wages from Mr. Birling but her demand is disapproved by him in order to get profit. 

Eva Smith has to go through hardships and she lives in penury when she is dismissed and she becomes jobless. She sought some support from people but instead of getting help she was exploited. Eva’s poverty and adverse conditions made her sleep with Gerald Croft and Eric Birling. Gerald Croft and Eric offer her money but not love which was needed.


Inspector Goole can be deemed as ‘Conscience Incarnate’.  The last statement of Inspector Goole is the key point and main highlight of the play; it is a message to all humanity by the playwright. 

Inspector Gooloe says, “One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” 

Inspector Goole makes the Birling and Gerald Croft aware about their social responsibility and for that matter each and every individual of society. He suggests that if the capitalists and rich people do not take collective responsibility of the downtrodden people there will be anarchy in the so called ‘modern society’. And many girls like Eva Smith will die of hunger and unemployment. They will be exploited and harassed. 

It becomes a collective responsibility of people to look after the welfare of the poor and destitute as Eva Smith. There will be unrest, revolt and war if people do not care about every member of the society look after each other. 

Inspector Goole's last dialogue in the play hints at the two world wars and the social problems humanity will face if it does not pay attention to their social duties. Inspector Goole seems to have travelled back only to remind people about their role in modern and industrialized world. 

Inspector Goole harps on the matter of suicide of Eva Smith and makes the Birling family confess their guilt because they have already been rude and selfish to the poor and destitute Eva Smith. 

The Birling family also seem to be suffering from their guilty conscience which makes them coward and confess their hidden and ugly secrets. Thus on the psychological basis, Inspector Goole skillfully and craftily unveils the sins and crimes committed by the Birling family who have deprived Eva Smith of her rights. 

If people expect great reform in society, they will have to make a sacrifice as a responsible member of society and pay little attention to profit and loss because life is not business. 

The play “An Inspector Calls” of J.B. Priestley depicts Eva Smith as a victim of a corrupt and snobbish society. The hardship and sufferings are not natural; they are products of the higher strata of society. 

The members of the Birling family are responsible in some way or the other for the misfortune, ruin and tragedy of Eva Smith. They irresponsible behaviour make Eva Smith suffer infernal pain. 

The play “An Inspector Calls’ imparts a moral message that emphasises the importance of social responsibility and social welfare. It advocates J.B. Priestley’s socialist principles and it is a criticism of middle-class snobbery and hypocrisy. 

Thus J.B. Priestley’s three-act play “The Inspector Calls” comments on the follies of people and it has been written in propagandist manner. There is a fine blending of satire, sarcasm and irony in “An Inspector Calls”. 

All the characters in “An Inspector Calls” except Eva Smith appear pygmies before her because they are selfish and they are devoid of sympathy, compassion and love for humanity.   

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