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Character Analysis of An Inspector Calls

Eva Smith

Although not physically present in J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play, Eva Smith plays an essential role in An Inspector Calls (set in 1912). The sequence of events, and structure of the play unfold from her character: she is the catalyst. Eva Smith represents the marginalised, under-paid and exploited working class:

“One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us…”

(Inspector’s dialogue)

We learn that Eva maintained two other identities – Daisy Renton and (calling herself) Mrs Birling – in the hope that it would lead to different outcomes (but it didn’t). Having financially struggled, Eva Smith is a metaphoric symbol for the working-class people of the era.

Inspector Goole

Arguably the other central character is Inspector Goole, who serves as a moral compass in the play, revealing the characters’ true natures and moral shortcomings.

Inspector Goole arrives unannounced to interrogate the Birling within the confines of their “fairly large suburban home”. The Inspector’s methodical approach provides factual declarative sentences: “each of you helped kill her” and sometimes moments of the subjunctive mood (using “if”) – “if men will not learn that lesson…” – to question the characters (and audience) on their morality.

Goole is also a homophone of ‘ghoul’, reminding us of ghostliness and how (perhaps) our social footprint lives on. It also gives us a double entendre of the character’s mystery and reminds us of the morbid nature of the play.

As a socialist, Priestley used the Inspector as a mouthpiece to share his political views. Even though the Inspector’s true identity remains ambiguous, he is the catalyst for prompting change within the younger generation. At the same time, he marks out the stubborn arrogance of the older characters.

Mr Arthur Birling

The self-proclaimed “hard-headed practical man of business”, Mr Birling, often discusses topics related to status, power and money. Priestley uses this character to represent the capitalist ideology and attitude, and those who were dismissive of socialism and shared responsibility.

Mr Birling claims that “a man has to make his own way” because he thinks it would be no good to be “all mixed up together like bees in a hive – community and all that nonsense.” The purpose of the “like bees” simile serves a double purpose:

  • It supports the characterisation of Mr Birling and how he felt the lower classes were an irritating (insect-like) nuisance to him.
  • The image of a “bee” symbolises the hard-working working-class people.

Mrs Sybil Birling

A judgemental and cold-hearted character, Mrs Birling upholds similar views in favour of capitalism similar to her husband’s. Even though she is a prominent figure of the local Women’s Charity Organisation, she is a hypocritical character because she turns Eva Smith away from help – calling her “a girl of that sort”.

Priestley makes Mrs Birling’s attitude look ridiculous because her reason for turning Eva away was that she was offended by her coincidentally using the same name “Mrs. Birling.” There is also dramatic irony when Eva is judged for being unmarried and pregnant – yet the audience comes to realise that the baby would have been Mrs Birling’s own grandchild.

Sheila Birling

At the beginning of the play, Sheila is presented as a naïve, frivolous daughter engaged to Gerald Croft. Her character changes dramatically as she becomes aware of the true behaviours and attitudes of her own family and class. She later tells them:

“It frightens me the way you talk, and I can’t listen to any more of it.”

Sheila

The verb “frightens” shows how horrified she feels about her parents’ views, and her refusal to “listen to any more of it” shows independence in her character by the ending. She is willing to stand up for justice.

Eric Birling

Depicted as somewhat aloof and troubled, Eric’s reliance on alcohol represents the societal pressures placed on young men of the time, too. His tragic involvement with Eva Smith shows the patriarchal society when he says:

“I wasn’t in love with her or anything – but I liked her – she was pretty and a good sport.”

However, the audience grows in sympathy towards Eric as the character recognises the error of his ways and shows a willingness to be socially culpable (responsible).

Gerald Croft

Gerald doesn’t fit the mould of the ‘older’ or ‘younger’ generation in the play. Instead, his character pivots from seeming more sensitive than Mr and Mrs Birling, to later revealing that he is also morally flawed. This is through his involvement with Eva Smith, and lying to Sheila about his affair.

He says, “Everything’s alright now Sheila” making ignorant assumptions that his status and wealth will count for more than loyalty and truth.

Edna

Edna, the housemaid, plays a minor yet significant role. The opening line of the play is “Giving us the port, Edna?” (Mr Birling), and this presumptuous language immediately sets out the class divide that Priestley intends to disrupt by the end of his play.

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