The play begins in a nice dining room, with the prosperous Birling family joyously celebrating the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft. Everybody is in good spirits. Mr. Birling gives a toast, and Gerald gives Sheila her engagement ring, which she puts on her finger very excitedly. Mr. Birling encourages Gerald and Sheila to ignore the pessimistic “silly talk” going around these days, and claims that fear of an inevitable war is “fiddlesticks.”
A Police Inspector arrives, and reports that he is investigating the suicide of a young woman who recently swallowed disinfectant and died in the Infirmary. When he mentions that her name was Eva Smith, Mr. Birling identifies that she used to work at his factory, before he forced her to leave when she became the ring- leader of a strike for higher wages.
Sheila returns to the room, and is very upset to hear about the girl’s tragic suicide. The Inspector goes on to tell the family that Eva Smith, after Birling put her out, was hired at a shop—Milward’s—but was fired on the basis of a customer’s complaint. When the Inspector shows Sheila a picture of the girl, she begins to sob and runs out of the room. Upon re-entering, Sheila explains that, out of jealousy and in a bad temper, she had told the manager of Milward’s to fire the girl after seeing her smile at a salesgirl when Sheila tried on something unflattering.
The Inspector then recounts that, after Milward’s, the girl changed her name to Daisy Renton. Gerald appears startled by this. When they are left alone for a moment, Sheila discovers that Gerald had been having an affair with Daisy Renton all of the previous summer. When the Inspector returns, Gerald confesses to his acquaintance with Daisy Renton— he met her at the Palace Music Hall, and ended up inviting her to live in a set of rooms that belonged to a friend of his who was temporarily away. Gerald excuses himself to take a walk, and Sheila returns his engagement ring.
The Inspector now shows Mrs. Birling the girl’s photograph. The front door slams, and Mr. Birling discovers that his son, Eric, has stormed out of the house. Though she resists, Mrs. Birling finally admits that she had used her influence some weeks previous to deny the pictured girl aid from the Women’s Charity Organization, as she was prejudiced against the girl’s case. The Inspector contributes the additional fact that the girl was pregnant when she committed suicide, and that it was due to her pregnancy that she was asking the Charity Organization for help. Mrs. Birling confirms that the child’s father had given the girl money but that the girl refused it because she found out it was stolen. Mrs. Birling claims that the only people responsible for the girl’s downfall and suicide are the girl herself and the man that got her pregnant.
Eric re-enters the house, and admits to impregnating the girl and offering her stolen money. He divulges that he stole the money from his father’s office.
The Inspector leaves the Birlings brooding and guilty. Gerald returns to the room and announces that as he was walking he met a policeman and discovered that the supposed Inspector wasn’t really an inspector after all, and proposes his further hypotheses that there was no single girl that all of the Birlings offended, and no suicide that the Birlings precipitated. He and Mr. Birling prove these hypotheses to be correct after calls to the Police Department and to the Infirmary. The Birling parents celebrate these discoveries, as they feel they have escaped both scandal and guilt, but Sheila and Eric remain affected by the proceedings and cannot forget what’s been revealed.
The telephone rings. After Mr. Birling hangs up, he reports that it was the police, informing him that a girl just died on her way to the infirmary after swallowing some disinfectant, and that a Police Inspector is on his way to ask some questions. The Birlings stare “guiltily and dumbfounded.” As Sheila rises to stand, the curtain falls slowly.