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GCSE English Literature: An Overview of 'An Inspector Calls'

Updated: Jun 15


Black and white interpretation of "Inspector Goole" from "An Inspector Calls."

"An Inspector Calls" has been one of the GCSE English Literature set texts for many years and remains highly relevant to students today due to its timeless themes of social responsibility, class and morality.


Its engaging narrative and dramatic tension keep students interested and encourages a deeper understanding of both the historical context and its enduring significance.


The play's central message that we are all interconnected and must care for one another is particularly pertinent in today's globalised society and is one of the reasons why "An Inspector Calls" remains an important part of the GCSE English Literature curriculum.


Plot


Set in 1912, the play centres around the affluent Birling family, whose celebratory dinner is interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Goole. The Inspector's probing questions unravel the facade of the Birlings' respectability, revealing their complicity in the tragic fate of a young woman named Eva Smith.


Throughout the play, each member of the Birling family is interrogated by the Inspector, who slowly unravels the web of lies and deceit. The Inspector's questioning exposes the dark secrets of the family, including Mr. Birling's sacking of Eva from his factory for asking for higher wages, Mrs. Birling's refusal to help Eva when she was pregnant and in desperate need of support…and their future son in law’s affair with Eva.


As the Inspector's investigation progresses, the characters become increasingly defensive, leading to a tense and dramatic atmosphere and the audience engaged and guessing until the very end.

Main Characters

Mr Arthur Birling: A successful businessman and the patriarch of the family.


Obsessed with status and wealth, Mr Birling represents the upper-class elite of the Edwardian era, embodying traditional values and a strong belief in self-interest.

Edwardian couple standing together to represent Mr and Mrs Birling from An Inspector Calls.

Throughout the play, he is shown to be a selfish, arrogant and callous character who is more concerned with protecting his own reputation than taking responsibility for his actions and is dismissive of the idea that his actions could have consequences.


Mrs Sybil Birling: Wife of Arthur Birling and a prominent member of the Brumley Women's Charity Organisation.


A woman of high society, Mrs. Birling shines a light on the traditional gender roles and social conventions of the era. She is presented as a cold, aloof and unsympathetic character who, like her husband, is dismissive of the idea that her family are responsible for the death of Eva Smith and is more concerned with maintaining her social status than helping others.


Despite her position as a prominent member of a charitable organisation, she demonstrates a worrying lack of empathy and compassion and seems convinced that the lower classes are responsible for their own problems and undeserving of her sympathy and support.


Sheila Birling: Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Birling.


Initially portrayed as a young, naive, frivolous and sheltered girl, Sheila undergoes a dramatic transformation throughout this play as she gradually awakens to the impact that her jealousy and spiteful actions had on Eva’s life.

Unlike her parents, Sheila demonstrates empathy and a willingness to take responsibility for and learn from her mistakes and this challenge to society’s norms serves as a symbol of hope for personal growth and change.

Young lady and gentleman in Edwardian clothes, representing Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft from An Inspector Calls.

Gerald Croft: Sheila's fiancé.


Gerald is engaged to Sheila Birling and appears to be a well-mannered, charming, confident and articulate member of the upper class who, initially, seems likeable and trustworthy. However, the revelation of his affair with Eva Smith / Daisy Renton makes Sheila and the audience doubt his honesty and loyalty to Sheila and adds a layer of complexity to his character.


At first, Gerald appears more sympathetic and compassionate than the other characters and appears to align himself with Sheila and the Inspector, expressing remorse for his actions.

However, as the play develops, we witness his true allegiance to his social class and his desire to preserve his reputation at all costs raises questions about his sincerity.


Eric Birling: Son of Mr and Mrs Birling.


Eric Birling, the younger son of the family, is characterised as a rebellious and troubled young man, struggling with alcoholism. depression and the conflict between his own desires and the expectations of his family.


Eric’s flaws and mistakes serve as a cautionary tale, shedding light on the detrimental effects of secrecy but, later in the play, he takes responsibility for his actions towards Eva, shows genuine remorse and is deeply affected by the Inspector's message.


Inspector Goole: an enigmatic and all-knowing character.


The Inspector serves as the catalyst for change in the play and assumes an authoritative role in investigating the death of Eva Smith.


Beneath his calm attitude lies a deep conviction for justice and social equality and, with his commanding presence and relentless pursuit of the truth, the Inspector challenges the deeply rooted beliefs and conscience of the other characters. He is considered to be the "mouthpiece" of J.B Priestley as he encourages the Birling family and the audience to question the status quo of their own society.


Three men and one lady in Edwardian clothes and hats, to represent social inequality in Edwardian England.

Themes


Class Inequality


The Birling family represent the upper-middle-class while other characters, like Eva Smith, come from the working class. J.B. Priestley uses this contrast to expose the inequalities and prejudices that exist in society whilst encouraging his audience to question class distinctions and reflect on issues of fairness and equality.


Social Responsibility


“An Inspector Calls" highlights the idea that everyone is connected in society and our actions have an impact on others. Each character is confronted with their role in Eva Smith's tragic fate, forcing them to confront their actions and acknowledge their responsibilities towards one another rather than focusing on their own, personal interests.


Priestley's message is that ignoring our guilt and failing to take responsibility for our actions can have dire consequences and conveys the importance of empathy and compassion in their own society.


Societal Change


By choosing to set the play in 1912, just before the outbreak of the First World War, Priestley is emphasising the need for societal progress and change. In addition, he uses the character of the Inspector to force the Birlings to reflect on their individual actions, confront their flaws and, in the case of Sybil and Eric, to help them understand that they must be more considerate of others in the future.


Context


First World War soldier with a bayonet rifle with his back turned to the camera and two military planes overhead, with a black and white background.

World War


'An Inspector Calls' was published in 1945 when Britain was in the midst of the Second World War but Priestley's decision to set the play a couple of years before the outbreak of the First World could be seen as a message.


His audiences in 1945 would have first hand experience of the First and Second World Wars and audiences today know the catastrophic events that would soon unfold so this play could be seen as an appeal for collective responsibility and unity during a time of crisis.


Edwardian England


In the Edwardian era, a strict social hierarchy was deeply ingrained, with distinct divisions between the upper and lower classes. The privileged upper class enjoyed extravagant lifestyles, while the working-class faced harsh living conditions and economic struggles.

This play exposes the elitist attitudes and lack of empathy found in the upper-class characters, while also emphasising the struggles and hardships faced by the working classes.


However, major societal changes were underway and this socio-economic climate forms the foundation for the play.


The Rise of Socialism


During the early 20th century, Britain witnessed the rise of socialism, a political ideology advocating for a fairer distribution of wealth and social equality.


Priestley was an avid socialist and conveyed his criticism of the prevailing capitalist system by using the character of the Inspector as a symbolic figure to highlight the stark contrast between the privileged Birling family and the downtrodden Eva Smith and question the morality of the privileged class.


Black and white photo of J.B Priestley, author of "An Inspector Calls", smoking a pipe.

The Playwright

 

Born in Bradford in 1894, J.B Priestley was a renowned British author and social commentator who became one of the most widely read and respected authors and playwrights of his time.


A staunch socialist, Priestley was an outspoken critic of social inequality and injustice and his plays and novels highlighted the issues of class, gender and the role of the individual in society.


Despite his success as a writer, Priestley was also a controversial figure and his work was often criticised by more conservative critics and politicians.

However, his legacy as one of the most important writers of the 20th century remains secure and his influence can still be felt today.



If you'd like to find out more about this play, you might like the "EHS Masterclass: An Inspector Calls" GCSE revision guide.


This 18-page ebook includes more information on the plot, characters, themes and context of the play PLUS a selection of key quotations, exam questions and suggested answers.



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