Set entirely in the dining room of a house in 1912, J.B. Priestley’s play features the Birling family responding to the arrival of an Inspector, questioning their involvement regarding a girl who has committed suicide. It is revealed that each member of the Birling family had contact with Eva Smith. Each action contributed further to the hardships of her life.
The play was written in 1945, after the Second World War and the sinking of the Titanic. This instantly creates a lack of trust for Mr Birling in the play, because he believes these events won’t occur. Priestley uses the inspector to channel his own views on capitalism and socialism, using the Birling family as a microcosm for wider society. Ultimately, this is a play with a moral message: social responsibility must be shared.
Below is a list of the main characters, along with a brief description, to help you navigate the play:
Stage directions set the scene of the “suburban” dining room setting used to symbolise the status of the social climbers, the Birling family. They are celebrating Sheila Birling’s engagement to a character called Gerald Croft, who is also at the scene. Mr Arthur Birling gives a celebratory talk, dominating the conversation with his views on war, business, and workers. He claims that community is “nonsense” and people act “like bees in a hive”. The character also claims that the Titanic is “absolutely unsinkable”, which would have been ironic for audiences who already knew that he was wrong.
Mr Birling’s ignorant spiel is interrupted by the sound of a doorbell. An inspector, Mr Goole, is there to make inquiries about the death of a young woman named Eva Smith. The inspector shows a photograph to Mr Birling, who admits to employing her in his factory, but he then sacks Eva for being a strike leader. She was striking for higher wages so that workers, like herself, could financially support themselves. Mr Birling’s children, Sheila and Eric, start to become disagreeable with their father’s actions, whilst Gerald thinks his future father-in-law has acted reasonably.
Sheila is shown the photograph next and realises she, too, had Eva Smith sacked from another job as a shop assistant. Sheila realises it was due to her own ill-tempered, jealous actions.
When Gerald learns the woman changed her name to Daisy Renton, it is unveiled that Gerald also knew her. The first act ends with the inspector prompting the characters to see that many people share the responsibility for Eva’s death.
Gerald’s story unfolds as he reveals to the Inspector and the family that he had an affair with Daisy the previous year. Sheila is hurt and angry, even though she feels a little respect for his admission: she returns the engagement ring to him. Mrs Birling tries to intervene, using blame tactics and distraction. However, the Inspector’s inquiries are so logical and intense that the events continue.
Mrs Birling is condemned for her refusal to help Eva when she asks for charitable support. When she finds out that Eva was pregnant, Mrs Birling lays the blame on the father of the unborn child. Ironically, suspicions rise that the father of the unborn child was Eric.
Eric confesses, and in doing so admits that he stole money from his father’s firm to support Eva. Eric then blames his mother for the girl’s death for turning down the charity, and audiences begin to see a real divide between the younger and older generations.
The inspector delivers a profound speech to the family about the consequences of social negligence; his speech also references religion when he declares that people will reap the consequences in “fire and blood and anguish”. The inspector reiterates that each member of the family had a contribution to the outcomes.
Priestley wanted his audiences to side with socialism and spread wealth more equally. He wanted a fairer, less selfish society. Towards the end, the inspector leaves, and Eric and Sheila show true change. Meanwhile, Arthur and Sybil Birling disregard the inspector’s message. Gerald is more ambiguous, although he and Mr Birling make phone calls that establish the inspector is not a real one – the police force does not know the name. A further telephone call to the infirmary reveals that there was also no recent suicide.
The play ends with Mr Birling answering the phone: this time, someone tells him that a young girl has died en route to the infirmary, and that an inspector will be on his way to make inquiries with the family.