An Inspector Calls

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Wealth, Power, and Influence 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.
Wealth, Power, and Influence Theme Icon

The Birlings are a family of wealth and power, who take pride in their high social position. Mr. Birling is a successful businessman, and the family inhabits a nice home with a maid (and likely other servants). The play begins with the family celebrating and feeling generally pleased with themselves and their fortunate circumstance. Throughout the Inspector’s investigation, however, it comes out that several of the Birlings have used their power and influence immorally, in disempowering and worsening the position of a girl from a lower class: Mr. Birling used his high professional position to force Eva Smith out of his factory when she led a faction of workers in demanding a raise; Sheila, in a bad temper, used her social status and her family’s reputation to have the girl fired from Milward’s; Mrs. Birling used her influence in the Women’s Charity Organization to deny the girl monetary aid. Both Sheila and Mrs. Birling acted upon petty motivations in injuring the girl; Mr. Birling acted upon selfish, capitalist motivations.

Throughout the play, as these acts are revealed, the Birlings’ social status becomes a point of conflict amongst members of the family, as the children grow ashamed of their family’s ability to use their influence immorally and the parents remain proud of their social and economic position and do not understand their children’s concern.

The play demonstrates the corruption implicit within a capitalist economy in which wealth and influence are concentrated in a small portion of the population. The few wealthy people at the top maintain the social hierarchy in order to retain their high position, and have the power, on a petty whim, to push the powerless even further down the ladder. And, in the conflict at the end of the play between the younger and older members of the Birlings, it becomes clear that as the powerful settle into their power, they become blind to the possibility that they may be acting immorally, seeing themselves as naturally deserving of their positions and therefore of their actions as being natural and right (as opposed to selfish attempts to maintain the status quo that puts them at the top).

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Wealth, Power, and Influence ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in An Inspector Calls related to the theme of Wealth, Power, and Influence.
Act 1 Quotes

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.


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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

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.

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.