Summary – Priestley’s play encompasses the idea of guilt and justice, with the characters of the Birlings and Croft representing such guilt whilst Goole represents justice. The exploitation of class and social hierarchy is introduced whilst the more supernatural elements introduce the notions of divine retribution.
Themes – The Difference between the New and the Old Generations
We understand that it is the combined actions of Sheila, Eric, Gerald, Sybil, and Arthur that caused the character of Eva to commit suicide. It is clear that the sheer amount of ignorance and uncaring that stemmed from each character amassed into one whole behemoth of stress and suicidal fuel for Eva. However, despite the fact that is is arguable that it isn’t any one individual’s fault that Eva committed suicide, they must all face up to the combined guilt alone. We also see how each character reacts to their actions differently.
Gerald appears to accept the wrongs he has done, Sheila being similar. Eric does appear to face the brunt of the guilt but his alcoholism affords him a numbing shield. We can argue that these three serve to fill the role of the newer generation. Sybil and Arthur, however, fail to grasp the mistakes they have made and are willingly blind to the consequences of their actions. We can say that these represent the older generation. It is a common theme in literature, especially those written about the time of the early 20th century, to define these differences.
P.G. Wodehouse, for example, clearly portrays a stark contrast between the younger sorts and their elders, with aunts and uncles often being stuffy and stuck in their ways. This same idea resonates here. Sybil and Arthur cannot see how their actions fit into the scene. They don’t feel the guilt because they cannot see their mistakes. This argument that the older are more difficult to convince of their mistakes may be used by Priestley to highlight the idea that, as one continues in one’s life, one may become stuck in one’s ways.
Themes- Shared Culpability but Independent Guilt
It is clear to the reader that Eva’s suicide was motivated and caused by the combined actions of Sheila, Eric, Sybil, Arthur, and Gerald. It is wise, potentially indicated by Priestley, to realise that another person is not just a part of your life. They will always have a life of their own that will always have a handful of problems. The Inspector implies this by showing that all of the members at dinner caused her death together.
This is quite a socialist idea, which is something we can assume the Inspector supports, given his later comments regarding the millions of John Smiths and Eva Smiths. It is indicated that one should not be able to escape punishment because they are a simple step in the crime, a cog in the system. The Inspector argues that even though their independent actions are small, their combined treatment of Eva, done unknowingly, would not have resulted in the suicide if one had shown a semblance of kindness. Therefore, the Inspector both forces each person to wallow in their own guilt whilst arguing that it was their total effort that pushed Eva to her death.
Symbols – The Inspector
Goole may appear to be a character, but it is the later reading which offers us this rich symbolism. It is implied that the Inspector isn’t entirely real, evidenced by the fact that he is aware of practically everything, omniscient, yet is found out to not be an actual inspector. This is comedically aided by his name: Goole. Goole is very much similar to the word ‘ghoul’, which is often a synonym for a ghost or a spirit of some sort.
We are then induced to wonder, if not a member of the police, who is he? The only real and substantial conclusion is some sort of spirit tied to this idea of justice. Therefore, we can say that Goole is a symbol of karma and retribution, especially that which is fair and doesn’t stop at the upper classes.
Symbols- The Telephone
One of the most pivotal props in the play is the telephone, which often gives the characters access to the outside world. The telephone is the prop which provides us and the aforementioned characters with the confirmation that the inspector isn’t real. From these two ideas, we can say that the telephone is the bridge that joins the intimate and claustrophobic dining room scene with the more open and unknown outer world, an outer world that Birling uses often to make sure the information that the inspector is telling them is true.
The telephone also offers us the confirmation that the Inspector must have some sort of supernatural ability, being able to know of Eva’s suicide before it is confirmed. The phone is symbolic of many things, such as the already mentioned bridge to the factual world outside the scene and as a chiming bell of unwanted news.
It is a common technique in playwriting to utilise the lighting of a scene to match and mirror the emotions or tone therein. We see the same thing here. Before the inspector arrives and begins his investigation, the lighting is ‘pink’ and warm. All feels very inviting and intimate, somewhat cosy. This is obviously done to help make the dinner scene more homely and typical, with the warmth implying a sense of wealth. Instead of some dingy and grimy dining room, we have a rich and grand, yet snug, atmosphere. However, as soon as the inspector arrives, the lighting changes and becomes harsher and brighter.
The first thing many would think is that it makes the atmosphere, previously warm and comforting, cold and disconcerting. It is true that the Inspector also causes the same response in those he interacts with. What once may have been general merriment, if not interspersed with a few moments of coolness, has now turned to a cold and still clinic of sorts. The idea that the lighting brightens may imply that the Inspector is here to shine light upon the seedy deeds of the group.
The warmer lighting before effectively hid parts of the scene and kept everything fuzzy and dulled, whilst the harsher lights show everything in detail. All is visible. Furthermore, this concept of coldness carried by the Inspector may also exist to highlight his unusualness. When we learn that he may not even be human, this concept is enhanced to make us feel as if the colder lighting mirrors his colder blood, or lack of blood. If we assume he is a ghost, we can also assume that he possesses no pulse and therefore no blood, which is what tends to make humans feel warm.
Devices – Use of Language
Most of the importance found within the use of language is seen by examining Goole. To begin, we see him fit the role of your most stereotypical inspector. He comes off as very exact, logical, and unemotional. This perfectly fits the mould of the unbiased and disinterested investigator, who is only concerned with the truth. However, come the later acts of the play, we see that he becomes more and more emotionally infused, using language that incites emotion and imagery that is highly religious.
What once was a cold and unemotional ‘robot’, for lack of better words, is now akin to a sort of preacher, punishing those who do wrong by vividly detailing the consequences which will eventually catch up to the characters. This is rightly observed by the Birlings and Gerald as something a real inspector wouldn’t do. They realise this isn’t how he should act. This is one of the first hints we have that Goole is not really an inspector. However, one can also use the more visceral imagery employed by Goole in order to speculate who he really is.
He appears to talk as if he has knowledge of the world and perhaps even knowledge of what comes after, something no human can ever claim to be aware of. This pushes forth the concept that Goole is some sort of otherworldly being, perhaps an angel or even God himself. It also makes us wonder whether he actually serves to be an insert for Priestley himself, who is essentially god of the world he has created in the play.
At the Birlings’ home in the industrial town of Brumley, Arthur Birling – a wealthy factory owner and local politician – celebrates his daughter Sheila’s engagement to a rival magnate’s son, Gerald Croft. Also in attendance are Arthur’s wife Sybil and their son Eric (whose drinking problem the family discreetly ignores). Following dinner, Arthur lectures them on the importance of self-reliance and looking after one’s own, and talks of the bright future that awaits them (which, he hopes, will include a place for himself on the honours list).
The evening is interrupted by a man calling himself Inspector Goole, who is investigating the suicide of Eva Smith. Her diary, the Inspector explains, named members of the Birling family. Goole produces a photograph of Eva and shows it to Arthur, who acknowledges that she worked in one of his mills. He admits that he dismissed her from Birling and Co. some two years ago for her involvement in an abortive workers’ strike, but denies responsibility for her death.
After prompting from Goole, Sheila admits to recognising Eva too – she had contrived to have her fired from her job in a local department store over an imaginary slight. Her real motivation, Sheila ashamedly confesses, was the jealousy that she felt towards the younger, prettier woman.
At the mention of Eva’s alias ‘Daisy Renton’, Gerald starts. He admits to having met a woman by that name in the Palace Bar, and to having given her money and arranged to see her again. Goole reveals that Gerald then installed Eva as his mistress, becoming ‘the most important person in her life’, before abruptly cutting her off. Arthur and Sybil are horrified, and Sheila returns her engagement ring.
Goole comes to Sybil next, whom he identifies as the head of a women’s charity which the pregnant and destitute Eva turned to for help. Sybil, however, convinced the committee to deny her application for financial aid. Despite vigorous cross-examination from Goole, she denies any wrongdoing. Goole then plays his final card, making Sybil lay the blame at the feet of the ‘drunken young man’ who got Eva pregnant.
Eric then enters, and after brief questioning from Goole, breaks down and admits responsibility for the pregnancy, having forced himself on Eva after a drinking spree at the Palace Bar. He took funds from his father’s business in order to support her and the child, but she refused the stolen money. Arthur and Sybil are outraged by Eric’s actions, and the evening dissolves into angry recriminations. Goole’s questioning reveals that each member of the family had contributed to Eva’s despondency and suicide.
He reminds the Birlings that actions have consequences and that all people are intertwined in one society. As Goole leaves he warns that ‘If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish’ – an allusion to the impending war.
Gerald returns, telling the family that there may be no “Inspector Goole” on the police force. Arthur makes a call to the chief constable, who confirms this. Learning from a second call to the infirmary that no recent cases of suicide have been reported, the family surmise that the Inspector was a fraud and that his story was fictitious. Gerald and the elder Birlings celebrate, but the younger Birlings still realise the error of their ways, and promise to change. The play ends with a telephone call, taken by Arthur, who reports that a young woman has died (a suspected case of suicide), and that the police are on their way to question them. Goole’s true identity is left unexplained, but it is clear that the family’s confessions over the course of the evening have all been true, and that public disgrace will soon befall them.
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