An Inspector Calls Summary

J.B. Priestley

An Inspector Calls

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An Inspector Calls Summary

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An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley is a three-act play in which an inspector questions members of a wealthy family about the death of a girl who worked in a factory. It opens in April of 1912, at Arthur Birling’s home. The Birling family is celebrating because Arthur’s daughter, Sheila, has just become engaged to Gerald Croft. The Croft family is a business competitor of the Birling family’s. Arthur owns a mill; he is also a politician. Arthur’s wife, Sybil, is present as well, as is his son and Sheila’s brother, Eric. Eric is an alcoholic, but the whole family ignores this, especially in light of the fact that Arthur is soon to be granted a knighthood. He makes a speech about self-reliance.

When Goole, a man who claims to be an inspector, arrives the celebrations are put on hold. Goole informs the Birling family that Eva Smith drank a disinfectant that killed her; she left behind a diary that casts suspicion on the Birlings. Goole shows Arthur a picture of Eva;Arthur recognizes her. He tells Goole that Eva worked at his mill, but was dismissed a year and a half ago because she was involved in a strike. Arthur asserts that he had nothing to do with Eva’s demise.

Sheila recognizes Eva as well, but not from her father’s mill. She had met her at Milwards department store. Eva had waited on her there, but Sheila had been jealous of Eva—a working-class girl who possessed physical beauty. So, she came up with a scheme to get Eva fired, succeeding in convincing Eva’s employer that there had been some slight committed by Eva against Sheila. Sheila tells Inspector Goole all of this.

Goole then tells the Birlings and Gerald that Eva had a pseudonym—Daisy Renton. Gerald recognizes the name and admits that he had met Daisy Renton at a bar where he had given her money and arranged to see her again. When Goole tells them that Daisy, or Eva, had been Gerald’s mistress, Arthur and Sybil are shocked. Sheila commends Gerald for coming forward with the truth but hands Gerald her engagement ring, calling off the wedding. Gerald leaves in shame.

Eva’s story continues to unfold, revealing a more desperate situation. Goole determines that Sybil leads a women’s charity—the very charity that Eva sought help from when she became pregnant. Sybil denied her help by getting the committee to see Eva as a liar. Instead, Sybil declared that the man who had gotten Eva pregnant, a drunk man, should come forward and accept responsibility for Eva and the child. At this time, Goole turns his questions to Eric, who admits that while drunk, he raped Eva. He admits also that he met with her more than once after that, and stole fifty pounds from his father’s business to help her financially with the baby. Arthur and Sybil become even more upset.

Goole admonishes the family, telling them that they are all responsible for Eva’s suicide. He then references the coming war—World War I—by telling them that if they do not learn to live as a society, then they will learn it in violence and despair. He leaves the Birling family then. At this point, Gerald comes back to tell them that Inspector Goole may not be an inspector at all. Arthur discovers that there have been no recent reports of suicide, and the family rejoices. However, Eric and Sheila both decide to try to change for the better. Gerald still wants to marry Sheila, but she does not want to wed a man who had an affair.

At the end of the play, Arthur receives a phone call. The real police are on their way over because a local young woman has perished. The police suspect suicide by disinfectant. The Birlings know it must be Eva, and they also know that when the truth is revealed, their reputations will be ruined.

An Inspector Calls falls into a category of drama known as drawing room plays. These plays are so named because they are not only designed to be performed in a drawing room, but also take place entirely or almost entirely in a drawing room. A drawing room was a designated space for entertaining guests. While the play follows this convention by taking place in a drawing room, it is also considered a critique of hypocrisy. J.B. Priestley, known for his socialist political beliefs, uses Inspector Goole to call out those hypocrisies he identifies in Victorian and Edwardian society in England.

An Inspector Calls first premiered in Moscow in 1945 before showing in England. The play enjoyed adaptations for film, television, and radio, as well as an award-winning stage revival. Those awards included the 1993 Laurence Olivier Award, and in 1994, a Drama Desk Award and Tony Award.