An Inspector Calls

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Themes and Colors
Wealth, Power, and Influence Theme Icon
Blame and Responsibility Theme Icon
Public versus Private Theme Icon
Class Politics Theme Icon
Morality and Legality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in An Inspector Calls, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Blame and Responsibility Theme Icon

The question asked throughout the play is: who is responsible for the suicide of Eva Smith? Who is to blame? The arc of the play follows the gradual spreading of responsibility, from Mr. Birling, to Mr. Birling and Sheila, to Mr. Birling and Sheila and Gerald, and so on and so forth. Each of the characters has different opinions about which of them is most responsible for the girl’s suicide. Mrs. Birling, most extremely, ends up blaming her own son, by suggesting that the person most responsible is the man that impregnated the girl, before realizing that the person in question is Eric.

In the end, the Inspector universalizes the shared responsibility that the Birlings feel for the girl’s death, into a plea for something like Socialism: “We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” The lesson of the Inspector, and of the play at large, is that our actions have an influence beyond themselves and therefore that we are already responsible for each other so long as we are responsible for ourselves and our own actions. The play contends that Socialism simply recognizes and builds upon this truth, in de-privatizing wealth and power and thus building an economy and politics on the foundation of shared responsibility.

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Blame and Responsibility ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Blame and Responsibility appears in each act of An Inspector Calls. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Blame and Responsibility Quotes in An Inspector Calls

Below you will find the important quotes in An Inspector Calls related to the theme of Blame and Responsibility.
Act 1 Quotes

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.


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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 alibi"--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.

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:

This quote, made by Sheila, in Act I. Sheila is far more sympathetic about Eva Smith's fate than her father is. Unlike Arthur, Sheila 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.

However, while Sheila's sympathy for Eva seems sincere, she's not necessarily a better person than her father is. In fact, the quote subtly suggests that Sheila's sympathy for Eva at this point is a kind of "bad faith" -- the state of mind in which one says one thing and yet believes another, perhaps even lying to oneself in the process. First, Sheila displays a level of condescension toward Eva by referring to her as "this girl." Second, while Sheila pities Eva, she also describes Eva's situation as "destroying herself so horribly," which implies that despite her pity Sheila considers Eva's fate to be at least to some extent her own fault. Even Sheila's seeming shame at feeling so happy herself while Eva was suffering comes across as somewhat callous, as Sheila focuses on her own shame rather than Eva's more dreadful suffering. So while Sheila makes a show of supporting Eva -- and may even believe that she does support Eva -- she never actually does anything about it. She's all talk. And, ultimately, Sheila's show of sympathy for Eva seems more a way for Sheila to make herself feel better rather than anything meant to actually help Eva.

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, hisfiancé, 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.

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

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.