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.
Class Politics Theme Icon

Mr. Birling describes the politics of the day as revolving around “Capital versus Labor agitations.” Mr. Birling is a representative Capitalist, who cares only about his company’s profit. He speaks of himself as “a hard-headed, practical man of business,” and looks forward to the prospect of being knighted. The girls who lead a worker’s strike in his factor, meanwhile, represent the Labor side of the conflict in trying to improve the rights and wages of laborers and the lower classes.

Birling loosely articulates his understanding of the agitations in his speech to Eric and Gerald: “a man has to make his own way—has to look after himself…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—a man has to mind his own business and look after himself.” The Inspector speaks the voice of Socialism, of the Labor side of the conflict; he seeks to make the Birlings realize the implicit corruption of Capitalism by emphasizing how easy it was for them to cause pain for the lower class without even realizing at the time the significance of their own actions.

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Class Politics ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in An Inspector Calls related to the theme of Class Politics.
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.

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.

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.

Act 2 Quotes

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. 

Act 3 Quotes

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.