Set at the close of the Edwardian Era, J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” is a detective story like no other. Premiered in 1945, the play explores the class divide and social hierarchy of early 20th Century Britain, warns of the evils of Capitalism and expresses Priestley’s own Socialist message. As a rich, middle-class family celebrate an engagement, their idyllic world is shattered by the arrival of a police Inspector, investigating the death of a young girl. As the play progresses in real time, each character realises that they are in part responsible for the girl’s demise, and it is their attitudes to this revelation which highlight the social divide between the members of the family.
The key character, unsurprisingly, is the Inspector, who drives the narrative and makes the play morph from a simple detective story into a morality play, with the theme of responsibility being crucial to this. Towards the end however, the line dividing truth and fantasy begins to blur, and supernatural elements appear within the play, all relating to the Inspector. It is the intention of this essay to answer the question posed by students and professors of literature alike – what is the role and function of the Inspector?
Firstly, in a literal sense, the Inspector is a vindicator for justice, fighting for truth and pursuing those responsible for Eva Smith’s death through his interrogation. Cleverly exploiting emotion and conscience, he compels his subjects to reveal their innermost secrets, their darkest thoughts. The Inspector’s role as an interrogator can be gleaned from the stage directions regarding his entrance:
The INSPECTOR need not be a big man but he creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness... He speaks carefully, weightily, and has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking.
The impression that the Inspector creates suggests that he is a commanding figure who draws respect from the people around him. His habit of “looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking” also adds to his air of authority, as though his eyes can pierce the person’s body and see straight through their soul. Additionally, the Inspector’s role as an interrogator is confirmed through the change in lighting, which “should be pink and intimate until the Inspector arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder”. This seemingly minor variation is actually rather important, as it completely changes the atmosphere of the room from a nice, cosy one into something much more sinister and foreboding.
The second role of the Inspector, also on a realistic level, is that he decimates the links tying the family together, and, more importantly, attempts to bring them back together again as better people. Initially ruthless in his approach, he uses the system of Divide and Conquer to dominate each individual, coercing them to confess their sins and turning the others against them. This is shown in the first instance when Eric begins to condemn his father’s selfish attitude:
Birling: And this girl, Eva Smith, was one of them [the ringleaders of the strike]. She’d had a lot to say – far too much – so she had to go. Gerald: You couldn’t have done anything else.
Eric: He could. He could have kept her on instead of throwing her out. I call it tough luck.
Eric’s contemptuous response to his father’s deeds, apart from showing his opposition to this capitalist regime, highlights the difference in attitudes between the younger and the older generation of the time. During that period of economic growth, Birling was a fully fledged Capitalist, thinking of nothing or no one apart from himself and his own wealth. However, his children have completely different views, disregarding the arrogant beliefs of their parents and moving towards a more socialist perspective. These views are thrown into sharp...