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.
Public versus Private Theme Icon

The Inspector, and the play at large, challenges the “privacy” of the private sphere, by revealing that actions that the family may have conceived of as private and personal really have an effect beyond themselves and their family. For example, Sheila’s revelation that Eric drinks more than his parents had thought—“he’s been steadily drinking too much for the last two years”— seems like private information but turns out to have a greater effect, insofar as it helps to identify (in the Inspector’s alleged story) Eric as the father of the girl’s child.

In addition, what begins as an inspection of truths that had real consequence on someone outside of the immediate Birling family, ends up also uncovering truths and drama that pertain more privately to the family. For example, the Inspector’s discovery of Gerald’s relationship with Daisy Renton results in the severing of his engagement to Sheila. The inspector has to remind the family to keep their private drama out of his investigation: “There’ll be plenty of time, when I’ve gone, for you all to adjust your family relationships.”

This blurring of the line between the public and the private reflects the play’s interest in class politics, in the conflict between those who want to maintain the privatization of wealth and production, and those who desire the communalization of the same. The Socialist perspective—as represented by the Inspector (and by J.B. Priestley)—challenges and seeks to erase the line between public and private, by de-privatizing the economy, but also by making those who are privileged to see that what they consider "private", by nature of their privilege, has an outside influence on the world from which they are insulated. In other words, the Inspector argues not just for a de-privatized economy but a de-privatized sensibility, a recognition that what seems private to the privileged are in fact strands of a public web of relationships and the moral obligations such relationships create.

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Public versus Private ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in An Inspector Calls related to the theme of Public versus Private.
Act 2 Quotes

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.


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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.