An Inspector Calls

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dramatists Play Service, Inc. edition of An Inspector Calls published in 1998.
Act 1 Quotes

There’s a good deal of silly talk about these days—but—and I speak as a hard-headed business man, who has to take risks and know what he’s about—I say, you can ignore all this silly pessimistic talk. When you marry, you’ll be marrying at a very good time.

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker), Sheila, Gerald Croft
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Arthur Birling, the patriarch of the Birling family, gives a toast in which he welcomes Gerald Croft into the family. (The speech is important because it provides all the expository information we need for the moment--Sheila and Gerald are getting engaged.) Birling is described as a successful businessman, and his tone is casual yet emotional as he congratulates his daughter and future son-in-law.

There are a couple things to notice here. First, Arthur defines himself as a "hard-headed business man," even in the middle of his engagement toast. Indeed, Arthur is so focused on business and the capitalistic mindset that he thinks of his daughter's marriage in business terms--he later describes it as a "merger" between the Birling and the Croft family businesses. Furthermore, Birling claims that now is the "best of times" for marriage. He ignores the harsh realities of the time: as we know, World War I is about to begin. Birling's ignorance of the real world makes him seem small-minded and petty; by the same token, it allows the audience, with the benefit of hindsight, to feel a little superior to Birling and Birling's family--the Birlings don't know what's about to happen to their country, but we do.


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I tell you, by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labor agitations and all these silly little war scares. There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere.

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

As Arthur Birling proceeds with his toast, it becomes clearer and clearer that he's a businessman first and a father second. Birling's advice to his daughter Sheila and his new son-in-law, Gerald, could be interpreted as fatherly and kind--he's telling them not to listen to cynics and doubters and focus on their own happiness. And yet Birling's speech isn't really about marriage at all: the "happy future" he mentions is a future in which capitalism has triumphed over its opponents, and businessmen like Birling have achieved massive success.

Birling's lofty vision of the future makes it clear that he defines himself in terms of his wealth and success as a businessman. And yet for all his emphasis on the future, Birling is clearly wrong--as we know very well, World War I is about to begin (not exactly a "silly little war scare"...), and class revolutions continue to take place around the world. So Birling tries to give the impression of being wise and fatherly, but when viewed from an outsider's perspective, he's greedy, selfish, and short-sighted.

A man has to make his own way—has to look after himself—and his family, too, of course, when he has one—and so long as he does that he won’t come to much harm. But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive.

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker)
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

During the period when the play is set, there was a lively debate in England over the future of the English economy. Should a small group of wealthy capitalists be allowed to continue owning their own factories and facilities, leaving their workers to toil for tiny wages? Or should the wealth be redistributed, so that society as whole could benefit from industrialization? Mr. Birling clearly takes the former point of view: as a successful businessmen and capitalist, he looks out for his own interests, not those of his workers.

Birling's speech is important because although he frames it in strictly economic terms, we'll come to see that it has serious moral implications. Birling thinks that he can go through life never caring about other people; his philosophy is that everybody should "take care of themselves," contrary to what socialist "cranks" believe. The play will show the moral limitations of such a philosophy--Birling will cause enormous misery to other people, then turn his back on them.

It’s the way I like to go to work. One person and one line of inquiry at a time. Otherwise, there’s a muddle.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Inspector Goole has now come to the Birling home and begun his inquiry. Goole begins by speaking to Mr. Birling about his relationship with Eva Smith, a former employee of his. Birling examines a photograph that Goole gives him, but when Birling's relatives want to look at the photograph as well, Goole prevents them from doing so. He explains that he wants to work with Birling, then proceed to the other family members.

Goole's explanation isn't entirely convincing, but it's designed to justify the slow, theatrical structure of the play itself. One by one, Goole will move from Mr. Birling to Sheila to Gerald, etc.--with each new character, we will learn more about the moral limitations of the Birling family. Of course, Goole's decision to show the photograph to only one person at a time is also practical--as we'll see, Goole is fooling the Birling family into thinking that they've wronged the same person; if Goole were to show the same photograph to two people, his illusion would be dispelled.

If we are all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

The Inspector continues to talk about Eva Smith with Arthur Birling. Birling admits that he knew Eva Smith when she worked for him, but angrily denies that he had anything to do with her death. Birling doesn't deny that he had a major influence on the course of her life; his point is that people can't be held accountable for every single person they influence.

The key word in this passage is "awkward." Birling isn't denying that he influenced Smith, or even that he ruined her life--his point is simply that acknowledging his own guilt would be publicly and privately embarrassing to him. Birling is shown to be obsessed with his social status; thus, he conceals (even to himself) the true nature of his crimes. Birling's statement could be considered the "capitalist's abili"--unchecked capitalism, we can see, is an ideology that ruins lives and drives people to immoral actions. And yet the powerful businessmen who cause suffering to other people claim deniability; they're not "truly" responsible for their fired employees.

Birling: It’s a free country, I told them.
Eric: It isn’t if you can’t go and work somewhere else.

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker), Eric (speaker), Eva Smith
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Arthur Birling proceeds to tell the Inspector more about his relationship with Eva Smith. Smith, we learn, was something of a union organizer; she wanted to mobilize the people who worked for Birling to ensure that they'd get better wages and fairer hours. When Smith demanded that Birling pay his employees more, Birling responded in classic capitalist fashion: he told Birling that she was "free" to work somewhere else if she didn't like her wages.

Birling's response to Eva Smith illustrates the flaws in the free market. It's all very well for someone like Birling to preach sanctimoniously about freedom to run one's own business--but at the end of the day, his "philosophy" is just an excuse for his own greediness. As Eric points out, a country isn't truly free if people like Eva can't find a good place to work. Birling's smug definition of freedom, then, is sorely lacking in substance.

I can’t help thinking about this girl—destroying herself so horribly—and I’ve been so happy tonight.

Related Characters: Sheila (speaker), Eva Smith
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In the second major section of Act I, we focus on Sheila. At first, Sheila seems far more sympathetic to Eva Smith's fate than her father; unlike Arthur, she believes that workers should be treated well and paid fairly. Moreover, Sheila feels guilty about being so happy with her own life, at a time when millions of people like Eva Smith are suffering.

While Sheila's sympathy for Eva seems sincere, she's not necessarily a better person than her father. One could describe Sheila's sympathy for Eva as a case of "bad faith"--the state of mind in which one says one thing and yet believes another, lying to oneself in the process. Thus, Sheila makes a show of supporting Eva--and may even believe her own lies--but at the end of the day she doesn't really care about workers like Eva Smith at all. Sheila's show of sympathy for Eva is designed to make herself feel better--not Eva.

Inspector: There are a lot of young women living that sort of existence, Miss Birling, in every city and big town in this country.
Sheila: But these girls aren’t cheap labor. They’re people.

Related Characters: Sheila (speaker), Inspector Goole (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheila continues to voice her support for Eva Smith and Eva's fellow workers. Unlike her father, who considers all his workers mere "objects," to be manipulated and changed as he sees fit, Sheila thinks that workers are human beings, too.

The passage is significant because Inspector Goole hints at the scale of the tragedy involved in Eva's suicide. Eva is just one woman, but she's indicative of a much broader trend in European society. In a country where there's lots of money concentrated in a few people's pockets, millions like Eva are forced to live hard lives, sometimes even ending with suicide. Although the play focuses on only one such worker, Goole makes it clear that "Eva Smith" could refer to any number of different people--a point that will come back to haunt the Birling family in Act III of the play.

Gerald: We’re respectable citizens and not dangerous criminals.
Inspector: Sometimes there isn’t as much difference as you think.

Related Characters: Gerald Croft (speaker), Inspector Goole (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gerald Croft angrily tells Inspector Goole that Goole shouldn't be harrassing the Birling family. He claims that the Birlings are a respectable group--they're not criminals. Goole coolly replies that criminality and respectability aren't so different, deep down. Goole's statement could serve as a kind of thesis statement for the play itself: although the Birlings, and plenty of other families like them, are seen as normal and respectable in their capitalistic society, their money and good manners conceal a secret deviousness and vindictiveness that causes misery to other people, usually without punishment. It seems to be Goole's goal to bring some punishment, or at least self-awareness, to the Birlings.

The passage further suggests the link between capitalism and misery. Birling professes to be a good man and a good businessmen, and yet he only ascends to become wealthy by treating his workers horribly. Perhaps it's impossible to be a great businessman and a moral human being at the same time: businessmen are rewarded for ignoring their workers' feelings and needs.

Act 2 Quotes

Miss Birling has just been made to understand what she did to this girl. She feels responsible. And if she leaves us now, and doesn’t hear any more, then she’ll feel she’s entirely to blame, she’ll be alone with her responsibility.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker), Sheila, Eva Smith
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gerald tries to get Sheila, his fiancé, to leave the room. Gerald pretends that he's doing so in order to "spare" Sheila from tragic information. But it's perfectly obvious that he's trying to get Sheila out of earshot so that she doesn't hear anything more about his marital infidelities. Inspector Goole calmly replies that the "right" thing to do would be to keep Sheila in the room--if she were to leave now, she'd get the wrong idea and assume that she was solely responsible for a woman's death.

This is one of the key passages in the play, because it says a lot about the Inspector's motives. In one sense, Inspector Goole seems to be trying to cause the Birling family as much pain as possible--although he frames his response to Gerald in moral terms, his real motive is punishment, not kindness. And yet Goole does make a fair point: the  Birlings are all equally guilty of Eva Smith's death (it's not just Sheila's fault). By now, it's pretty clear that Goole already knows that the other Birlings played a part in Eva's suicide--the only remaining mystery is how. By staying in the room, Sheila mitigates her sense of guilt, but also comes to see how immoral her supposedly respectable family really is.

If there’s nothing else, we’ll have to share our guilt.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker)
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Inspector Goole isn't like any police officer the Birlings have ever seen before (an early sign that he's not, in fact, a police officer at all!). He's fond of theorizing and moralizing at the most inappropriate times. Here, he suggests that as the Birling family becomes increasingly aware of its role in Eva Smith's suicide, they'll have to share their guilt. In a way, sharing guilt is what families are meant to do: instead of punishing just one person with the blame, the family dilutes blame by spreading it around and supporting each other.

Goole's statement raises another important question--who is truly responsible for Eva Smith's suicide? By now, it's pretty clear that no single person pushed Eva to suicide; instead, everybody was a little bit responsible, a fact that allows for convincing deniability. (For example, Arthur Birling claims that many other factors must have caused Eva's suicide.) It's as if the Birling family itself (and unrestricted capitalism, which it represents) is one single, evil character--a character that clearly caused Eva's death. 

You know, of course, that my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago and that he’s still a magistrate?

Related Characters: Mrs. Birling (speaker), Arthur Birling
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Mrs. Birling's hypocrisy is clear. She insists that Inspector Goole should leave as soon as possible, sparing the family any further consternation. Her reasons for insisting so are fascinating: she claims that good, respectable people like her family members have nothing of substance to learn from the life of a poor girl like Eva Smith. Even worse, Mrs. Birling cites the fact that her husband used to be a Lord Mayor, and still works as a magistrate. Such information, we're left to assume, is supposed to mean that Mr. Birling is above all moral suspicion. High-ranking people can't possibly be bad!

The statement could also be interpreted as an implied threat: it's as if Mrs. Birling is reminding Inspector Goole that he's playing with fire by inquiring into the lives of powerful people. If Goole isn't careful, Arthur Birling could ruin Goole's entire career. Mrs. Birling is one of the most openly hypocritical characters in the play; simultaneously threatening her guest to close the investigation and claiming that her husband is above all suspicion.

I don’t dislike you as I did half an hour ago, Gerald. In fact, in some odd way, I rather respect you more than I’ve ever done before.

Related Characters: Sheila (speaker), Gerald Croft
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheila tells Gerald that they're not going to get married; she returns his engagement ring. Sheila's explanation for not wanting to marry Gerald is simple enough: Gerald has had an affair with another woman, and lied about it. The fact that Gerald didn't tell Sheila about his affair is bad enough--but he also tried to keep her from finding out about it when Inspector Goole called.

The passage is interesting because Sheila doesn't seem particularly angry with Gerald anymore. In a way, she claims, she respects him more than she ever has before: they've finally been forced to be honest with each other. The passage raises an interesting point--perhaps Goole's visit to the Birlings isn't as destructive as it seemed. Goole is dismantling the Birling's pretensions of goodness, but he's also allowing them to live more honest lives. Sheila, perhaps the most moral of the Birlings, seems to genuinely want to be an honest, good person, and so allows these public revelations to influence her private life and morality.

We’ve no excuse now for putting on airs.

Related Characters: Sheila (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Inspector Goole now turns to Mrs. Birling. Mrs. Birling continues her claims that she shouldn't have to sit through Inspector Goole's tiresome investigation: she's from a good family, and therefore can't be guilty of any crimes. And yet Sheila interjects, telling her mother that it's time to stop pretending to be good and "putting on airs." The Birlings are a wealthy family, it's true, but just because they're wealthy doesn't mean they're inherently good; if anything, their wealth has allowed them to commit more crimes and get away with them scot-free.

Sheila isn't an entirely "good" character, but she seems to differ from her family in wanting to make genuine moral progress. Similarly, she's tired of her parents for pretending to be good at all times, simply because of their wealth. It seems perfectly obvious to Sheila that wealthy people shouldn't be held immune from all guilt or punishment--just the opposite is true.

You’ve had children. You must have known what she was feeling. And you slammed the door in her face.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker), Mrs. Birling, Eva Smith
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the Inspector's questions to Mrs. Birling become considerably more pointed and accusatory. It has come out that Mrs. Birling used her influenced position in a charity to deny care and comfort to Eva Smith (now possibly named Daisy Renton) when she came for help. Smith was pregnant, it's revealed: she wanted charity from Mrs. Birling, but Mrs. Birling gave her none.

Inspector Goole's accusations suggest that Mrs. Birling has committed a grave sin: she refused help, not only to a grown woman but also to a child. Mrs. Birling claims that the woman should have known better, but such an explanation simply isn't satisfactory. While Mrs. Birling objects to Eva Smith for having gotten pregnant without being married, her refusal to help Eva Smith punishes an innocent child for its parents' supposed mistakes. Goole phrases his indictment of Mrs. Birling in highly gendered language: it's particularly bad for Mrs. Birling to deny Eva help, he claims, because Mrs. Birling herself has been a mother. Mrs. Birling refused to listen to one of the most basic instincts in her body--a mother's instinct to help other mothers--because of her narrow morality and her petty emphasis on appearances and class.

Act 3 Quotes

There’ll be plenty of time, when I’ve gone, for you all to adjust your family relationships.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker), Arthur Birling, Mrs. Birling, Sheila, Gerald Croft, Eric
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Birling family has descended into arguing. A once-happy betrothed couple has split up, and everyone else is shouting at one another. The Birlings have learned that they're all greedy, drunk, disloyal, and even complicit in a woman's death. Goole listens to the Birlings arguing, and tells them that they'll have to work out their new "relationships" later--for now, they need to focus on Eva Smith.

Goole's statement can be taken in any number of senses. First, it's a sign that the Birlings, in spite of the new information they've received, are still making a big mistake: they're focusing too exclusively on each other's private faults, instead of showing real compassion for the deceased, or accepting the larger social ramifications of their actions (the fact that because they are so wealthy and powerful, they have undue influence over others). Second, Goole's statement reminds us that his investigation has permanently changed the Birling family. It's possible that the family will be permanently disgraced, or fall apart from within. Yet it's also possible that the Birlings--particularly Sheila--will learn from the experience and try to become better people.

This girl killed herself—and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her. Remember that. Never forget it. But then I don’t think you ever will.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker), Arthur Birling, Mrs. Birling, Sheila, Gerald Croft, Eric, Eva Smith
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

The Inspector comes to the conclusion he's been anticipating this entire time. He's shown the Birling family that they caused the death of Eva Smith: in various ways, each Birling (and Gerald) has ruined Smith's life and pushed her to kill herself. Goole predicts that the Birlings will never be able to forget their sins.

Why, exactly, did Goole come to visit the Birlings? His visit seems far different from that of a typical police officer: he seems more philosophical, and more concerned with morality than with solving a crime. It's as if Goole just wants to teach the Birlings a lesson about the importance of personal responsibility. While Arthur Birling wants to believe that it's "every man for himself," Goole has endeavored to prove the opposite point of view.

There are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker), Eva Smith
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Inspector proceeds with his indictment of the Birling family, he gives a kind of "moral" for the investigation. The Birlings have tried to pretend that they're all alone in the world, responsible for each other, but nobody else. The truth, Goole insists, is that all people are responsible for other people. The only way to lead a moral life, then, is to care about strangers, and to treat all people with respect. This relatively personal lesson is then a clear analogy to the class politics Priestley has been alluding to throughout--in pure capitalism, the wealthy only look out for themselves at the expense of all others, while in socialism (the ideology Priestley espoused) everyone supports everyone else.

The passage is also critical because it shows that Goole's motives for visiting the Birling family weren't just moral or criminal punishment. Instead of ruining the Birlings' reputations, he wanted to teach them to be better people. While certain members of the Birling family seem not to have understood Goole's point (Arthur Birling, for example), others, such as Sheila, seem to have gotten the message--perhaps Sheila will try to be a better person from now on.

If all that’s come out tonight is true, then it doesn’t much matter who it was who made us confess.

Related Characters: Sheila (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

After Inspector Goole leaves, Gerald reenters with a shocking revelation--Inspector Goole wasn't a policeman at all. The Birling parents are delighted by this news, but Sheila maintains that it doesn't matter whether or not the Inspector was real. Unlike Arthur Birling, who insists that, if the Inspector was a fake, all their problems have been solved, Sheila takes the point of view that they're guilty either way. Arthur Birling is most concerned with the social repercussions of his crimes, while Sheila cares more about her own sense of guilt. Inspector Goole might not put her family in prison, but he's still exposed the family's complicity in a horrible crime and an unjust society, which is far worse.

Whoever that chap was, the fact remains that I did what I did. And Mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her. It’s still the same rotten story whether it’s been told to a police inspector or to somebody else.

Related Characters: Eric (speaker), Mrs. Birling, Inspector Goole
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheila isn't the only one who's learned a valuable lesson from Inspector Goole. Eric, Sheila's sister, agrees that it doesn't matter whether or not Inspector Goole was a "real" police officer or not. Goole's credentials don't change the fact that Eric did what Goole said he did: he impregnated an unmarried woman and then abandoned her.

The passage reinforces the possibility that some of the characters will choose to learn from their mistakes. Eric probably won't face any actual punishment from society for his actions, and yet it seems that he'll try to be more morally upright in the future, never again hypocritically claiming to be a "good" man when he's not.

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