The scene is set in the dining- room of a house that belongs to a fairly wealthy manufacturer. The house is described as nice, solid, with good furniture, and an ornate floor lamp. It is “comfortable” but not “cozy.”
The appearance and quality of the Birlings’ dining- room suggests that they are a family of wealth and class.
The curtain lifts to reveal a family—the Birlings—and one non-family member, Gerald, sitting at the dining-room table. Edna, the maid, is cleaning the bare table of stray champagne glasses and dessert plates. The family begins to drink port, and everyone is wearing appropriate “evening dress.” Arthur Birling, the father, is characterized as a large man with provincial speech; his wife is cold and her husband’s “social superior.” Sheila, the daughter, is in her early twenties and appears to be excited about life. Gerald Croft is an attractive thirty-year old man-about-town. Eric is in his mid-twenties and appears a little uneasy. The family is celebrating a special occasion.
The presence of a maid and of good quality port reinforces the image of the Birlings as a well-off family. They are all dressed for a special occasion. Mr. and Mrs. Birling are described in terms of their status markers—their speech, their social positions—which indicates, from the start, the play’s concern with class and status. Also note the different ages of the characters: the established older parents comfortable and proud of their position; the successful thirty-year old; the two twenty-somethings who seem less set in their places, making one more excited by life and the other uncomfortable.
Mr. Birling opens the play by thanking Edna for the port she has brought out of the sideboard, and offering it to Gerald, with a promise that it is the same port that Gerald’s father customarily purchases. When Gerald qualifies that he doesn’t know much about port himself, Sheila expresses relief that her fiancé is not one of those “purple-faced old men” who are knowledgeable in such matters.
The fact that Mr. Birling knows the port to be the same port that Mr. Croft purchases suggests that the Birlings and the Crofts belong to a similar social and economic circle, but also that Mr. Birling may aspire to be like Mr. Croft.
Birling encourages his wife to drink, reminding her that it is a special occasion. Edna takes her leave and Birling remarks how nice the evening is. Mrs. Birling reproaches her husband for having made such a comment, but he responds that he was only treating Gerald like a family member.
In chastising her husband for a rather harmless remark, Mrs. Birling betrays her concern for the family’s conduct and social manners; she clearly wants to make a good impression on Gerald Croft.
Sheila mentions, as an instance in which Gerald had seemingly opted out of membership in the family, that he had largely ignored her the summer before. He defensively cites how busy he was at the works and Mrs. Birling chimes in that once Sheila is married she’ll realize that men with important work sometimes have to spend all their time and energy on business. Sheila says that she will be unable to get used to that, and warns Gerald to be careful.
Sheila is resistant to the gender roles typical of the period—the man busy with work, and the woman left alone in the house— and is uncomfortable with her mother’s suggestion that marriage will create this role division. Sheila’s resistance suggests that she is more socially progressive than her mother, not surprising given her younger age.
Eric begins to laugh uncontrollably and rises from his chair. Sheila inquires what he is laughing about, and he replies that he just felt the need to laugh; Sheila calls him “squiffy.” Eric provokes Sheila, and she calls him an ass, at which point Mrs. Birling tells the two of them to stop it. To change the subject, she asks Arthur to give his “famous toast.”
Eric is acting strangely, for reasons that we do not yet know but will become clearer as the play progresses. The dynamic of the nuclear family is fairly standard: Eric and Sheila tease each other in typical sibling manner, and their mother attempts to put an end to their bickering.
Birling rises to deliver the promised toast. He prefaces the speech by regretting that Gerald’s parents could not join in on the celebrations because they’re abroad, but then expressing his gladness that they are having such an intimate gathering. He names the night one of the happiest of his life, and tells Gerald that his engagement to Sheila means a “tremendous lot” to him. He mentions that he and Gerald’s father are business rivals—though Gerald’s father’s business, Crofts Limited, is older and bigger—and relishes in the possibility of a future partnership between the Crofts and Birlings. Gerald seconds his desire for this prospect.
It becomes clear that Mr. Birling is excited about his daughter’s marriage not only for her own happiness but also for his own more self-interested business and social prospects. He is always looking to move further up in the world, and an "alliance" with the even more well-off Crofts will help him do that.
Mrs. Birling and Sheila object to Arthur’s discussing business on such a night, so Arthur raises his glass. They all raise their glasses, and Sheila drinks to Gerald. Gerald rises and drinks to Sheila, and then brings out a ring. Sheila asks if it’s the one he wanted her to have, he affirms, and she exclaims that it’s wonderful, shows it to her mother, and slips it onto her finger.
Again, Mrs. Birling monitors her husband’s contributions to the conversation, in an attempt to keep him in line with the tone of the evening. Sheila’s pleasure with the engagement ring because it's the one Gerald wants her to have suggests she's not as progressive as she thinks. She likes it because he likes it.
Birling mentions that there’s been a lot of “silly talk” around lately, but he encourages Gerald and Sheila to ignore all the pessimism and to rest assured that the notion that war is inevitable is “fiddlesticks.” He promises Eric, Gerald, and Sheila that in twenty or thirty years everyone will have forgotten about the “Capital versus Labor agitations” that currently seem so prominent.
Mr. Birling briefly indicates the political atmosphere of the time—the frightening prospect of war, and heightened political conflict between those who care most for the prosperity of their own business and those who care more for the rights and fair wages of the businesses’ laborers. Birling believes in the current status quo, which places him on top, and dismisses any change to that order as ridiculous.
Mrs. Birling leaves with Sheila and Eric, who is whistling “Rule Britannia,” and Birling sits down with Gerald. Birling tells Gerald, in a confidential manner, that he recognizes that Mrs. Croft may have wanted her daughter to marry someone in a better social position; he lets Gerald know, as a concession for this, that he might be granted a knighthood in the near future. Gerald congratulates him.
Mr. Birling demonstrates his preoccupation with his social status and class position, and assumes that others—such as the Crofts—are likewise preoccupied. He considers his prospective knighthood to be very important for his advancement, both in his eyes and in the eyes of the Crofts.
Eric re-enters the room, sits down and pours himself a glass of port. He reports, dismissively, that he has left his mother and sister talking about clothes. Birling informs him that clothes mean more to women, because they function as a sign of self-respect.
Birling reinforces a traditional gender stereotype that women care more about their appearance and clothing than men.
Birling begins in again on his lecture. He tells Eric and Gerald that a man has to “make his own way,” and not listen to those people who preach about everybody needing to look after everybody else. He concludes his speech with another glass of port.
Birling speaks out for the “Capital” side of the conflict that he laid out earlier, by arguing for the priority of business and self-interest over communal interest.
Edna enters and announces that a police inspector by the name of Goole has called on an important matter. Birling instructs her to let him in, and jokes with Gerald that Eric has probably gotten himself into trouble. Eric appears uneasy at the suggestion. The Inspector enters and makes an “impression of massiveness, solidity, and purposefulness.” Birling identifies that he must be a new inspector, as he does not recognize him, despite having been an alderman for years and knowing most of the police officers well.
Eric’s uneasiness at Gerald and Arthur’s suggestion that he has gotten into trouble foretells guilt that will be confirmed later on in the play. Birling demonstrates his familiarity with the local police officers as a sign of power. This is the sort of "soft" power—of connection and influence—that the rich display almost without knowing it. Birling's unfamiliarity with Inspector Goole will also prove significant as the play progresses.
When Birling presses the Inspector on the reason for his appearance, he explains that he is investigating the suicide of a young woman who recently swallowed disinfectant and died in the Infirmary. The Inspector says that he has been to the dead girl’s room, where he found a letter and diary. She used more than one name, he says, but her real name was Eva Smith. Birling appears to recognize the name, and the Inspector informs him that she had been employed in his works. When Birling claims to know no more, the Inspector pulls out a picture to show him.
The Inspector’s introduction of the girl’s suicide establishes the main premise of the play and sends a sudden shock through the comfortable world of the Birling's. Birling's claim not to know the girl despite the fact that she worked for him is an attempt to insulate himself from her suicide, to assert to no connection to her or her death, almost to deny that he knew her as a human being. She was just a name on his payroll, he seems to be saying.
Gerald and Eric attempt to look at the photograph as well, but the Inspector does not allow them, preferring to work on only one line of inquiry at a time.
The Inspector's strict procedural protocol of only showing the picture to one person at a time will become very significant later in the play.
At the Inspector’s prying, Birling admits that he does remember Eva Smith, and that he had discharged her from his factory. Eric wonders aloud whether it was because of Birling’s discharging her that she killed herself. Gerald asks if Birling would prefer that he left, and Birling say that he doesn’t mind, and then lets the Inspector know that Gerald is the son of Sir George Croft. With this piece of information, the Inspector explicitly asks Gerald to stay.
Birling is forced to admit that he does know and remember the girl, and that he took an active role in her firing.In asking whether his father should be deemed responsible for the girl’s suicide, Eric takes a stance against his father's position that no person owes any responsibility to anyone else. This is the first of many such attributions of guilt that will be made throughout the play. Birling seeks to overawe the Inspector by revealing Gerald's importance. The Inspector's response that Gerald should stay suggests he too is somehow involved.
Birling contests that he had nothing to do with the girl’s suicide, because her time at his business long preceded her death, but the Inspector disagrees, explaining that what happened to her at the business might have determined what happened afterwards, leading up to the suicide. Birling concedes his point, but still denies responsibility, saying that it would be very “awkward” if we were all responsible for everything that happened to anyone we’d had anything to do with.
The Inspector theorizes about the nature of responsibility: in some sense, he proposes, we are responsible even for events very distant from the immediate consequences of our actions, because our actions precipitate others, which precipitate others, and so on and so forth. Birling sees sense in the Inspector’s point, but still denies it as a usable way of living one's life as it would create "awkwardness." The implication of the play is that "awkwardness" is not suitable grounds to dismiss one's own responsibility.
Eric chimes in with a reference to his father’s previous pep talk, and Birling explains to the Inspector that he had recently been giving Gerald and Eric some good advice. Then Birling describes Eva Smith as a lively, attractive girl, who was up for promotion, but who became the ring- leader of a group of girls who went on a strike for a raise—25-shillings per week instead of 23. He refused the girls’ request in order to keep labor costs down, and instructed them that if they didn’t like their current rates, they could go and work somewhere else, given it was “a free country.” Eric retorts that the country isn’t so free if you can’t find work somewhere else. Birling quiets him, but Eric continues to contest his father’s decision, and Gerald defends Birling’s side.
Eric puts the Inspector’s notion of responsibility into contrast with Birling’s previous lecture about the sole necessity of looking after oneself and not concerning oneself with the well- being of others. Eric sees that the "free" world that Birling sees is not so free, in actuality, for the poor. That in some sense Birling's position is based on an illusory and self-serving view of the world. It's noteworthy that the older more successful Gerald takes Birling's side.
After the Inspector expresses allegiance with Eric’s disapproval, Birling inquires how well the Inspector knows Chief Constable. The Inspector replies that he doesn’t see him often, and Birling warns him that he is a good friend of the Chief.
As Birling begins to feel more vulnerable, he increases the social pressure he brings against the Inspector. He seeks to use his connections to control or limit this investigation.
Eric continues to ask his father why the girls shouldn’t have demanded higher wages, and adds that in the same position, he would have let them stay. Birling chastises Eric, then asks the Inspector what happened to the girl after he let her go. Sheila enters the room; when her father tells her to run along, the Inspector holds her back for questioning. He tells her what’s happened, and Sheila is very upset by the news of the suicide.
Eric again displays his growing allegiance with the laborers’ side of the conflict, in defending their right to higher wages. The investigation is beginning to introduce conflict into the family. Birling seeks to shield her daughter from the investigation, for the simple reason that she's a woman.
When Birling and Gerald chime in that there’s nothing more to be revealed, the Inspector asks if they’re sure they don’t know what happened to the girl afterward, suggesting that one of the remaining Birlings does. The Inspector reveals that he hasn’t come to the house to see Mr. Birling alone.
Up until this point, it has seemed as though the Inspector came for the sole purpose of interrogating Mr. Birling, but it comes out now that he has come to question others of the Birling family as well—that he sees multiple people in the family as possibly connected to this suicide.
The Inspector reminds the family that Eva Smith used more than one name, and then tells them that, for the months following her dismissal from Birling’s, the girl was unemployed and downtrodden. He reminds the family that many young women are similarly suffering in their underpaid labor positions. Sheila objects that the working girls are people rather than cheap labor, and the Inspector agrees. He then continues to recount the tale of Eva Smith: she was hired at a shop, Milward’s, but was fired after a couple of months because of a customer’s complaint. When the Inspector says this last bit, he looks at Sheila, who now appears agitated.
As at other moments throughout the investigation, the Inspector universalizes Eva Smith’s situation, by comparing her to the countless other girls in her position as an underpaid, downtrodden laborer. Sheila seems, like her brother (and unlike the older members of the family), to be growing sympathetic with the laboring class., seeing them as people and not just resources.
Sheila asks what the girl looked like, and then sobs and leaves the room when the Inspector shows her the girl’s photograph. Birling scolds the Inspector for upsetting his daughter and their celebratory evening.
Sheila acts suspiciously and as though guilty when she sees the girl’s picture.
Gerald asks the Inspector if he can look at the photograph, but the Inspector reiterates his preference for maintaining one line of inquiry at a time. Eric exasperatedly interjects that he’s had enough and makes to leave, but the Inspector insists that he stay. He adds that sometimes there isn’t as much difference as it seems between respectable citizens and dangerous criminals.
The Inspector reminds the family of his peculiar procedural preferences, and contributes yet another pointed theoretical statement inspired by the case, regarding the thin line between criminality and innocence, which seems to suggest that even those acting within the law can be responsible for great harm.
Sheila re-enters and asks the Inspector if he knew all the time that she was guilty. The Inspector says that he had an idea she might have been, on the basis of the girl’s diaries. Sheila asks the Inspector if she’s really responsible, and he says not entirely, but partly.
Sheila admits to her participation in the girl’s firing from Milward’s; her recognition of her own guilt makes her feel even worse about Eva Smith’s fate.
Sheila explains that she had told the manager of Milward’s to fire the girl, threatening that if they didn’t fire her, Mrs. Birling would close the family’s account there. Sheila admits that she was acting out of a bad temper, which was provoked by seeing the girl smile at a salesgirl while Sheila was looking at the mirror trying on something that didn’t suit her and had looked better on the girl. When Sheila effusively expresses her remorse, the Inspector harshly responds that it’s too late.
Sheila’s reasons for demanding that Eva Smith be fired from Milward’s were petty and thoughtless. Because of her family’s prominence and high economic position, Sheila was able to have a significant influence on the life of another person—to satisfy her own vanity by having another woman fired. The hurt Sheila caused was much greater than what she endured.
The Inspector continues on with his narrative of the dead girl’s difficult travails, now adding that after she was fired at Milward’s, she changed her name to Daisy Renton. At the mention of the name, Gerald looks startled and pours himself a drink. The Inspector and Eric depart, leaving Gerald and Sheila alone; Sheila questions Gerald about his startling at Daisy’s name, and he admits that he knew her. She asks if it was Miss Renton that he was seeing during the spring and summer that he was so busy, and he grants that it was and apologizes.
The inspection begins to incite various personal conflicts within the family; here, it provokes Gerald to expose his unfaithfulness to Sheila, thus weakening their formerly strong engagement.
Gerald pleads with Sheila to not mention that he knew Daisy Renton, and Sheila laughs and insists that the Inspector surely already knows. “You’ll see. You’ll see,” she says triumphantly.
Sheila has caught on to the logic and rigor of the Inspector’s investigation, and is confident that it will be exhaustive.