An Inspector Calls

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Morality and Legality Theme Analysis

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.
Morality and Legality Theme Icon

The play interrogates the way that people construct, construe, and apply their moral values, especially in relation to legality and illegality. Do actions have moral consequence in themselves, or in relation to their effects on other people; or can we only measure morality in relation to legal rulings? When the legal consequences of the truths revealed by the Inspector’s questioning have been removed (through the revelation that the Inspector is not, in fact, an inspector), there remains a question about what significance and moral weight the uncovered truths hold. The status of their significance changes at each level of revelation: that the Inspector wasn’t an inspector, that the girl wasn’t all the same girl, that the girl didn’t commit suicide.

After the discovery that the Inspector wasn’t an inspector, Eric declares, “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.” After the discovery that there was no suicide, Mr. Birling declares, “But the whole thing’s different now… And the artful devil knew all the time nobody had died and the whole story was bunkum”; at the same time, Sheila insists, “Everything we said had happened really had happened. If it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us. But it might have done.” The final turn—the police’s phone call reporting a suicide—confirms Sheila’s view that, given the facts revealed by the Inspector, it was only a matter of luck that something tragic didn’t ensue that time—as something tragic did, in fact, ensue shortly after.

While Mr. and Mrs. Birling feel wholly relieved of their guilt by the final revelation, Sheila and Eric insist at each level that the truths uncovered by the Inspector about the family’s actions still remain significant and entail moral consequences. The play’s conclusion suggests the playwright’s sympathy with Sheila and Eric’s view.

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Morality and Legality ThemeTracker

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

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

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.


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Act 3 Quotes

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.