Who means what in ‘An Inspector Calls’

JB Priestley created ‘An Inspector Calls’ specifically to make a point. His point was effectively summed up by the Inspector: we do not live alone; we are members of one body. The idea behind the play was nicely summed up by John F Kennedy in his 1961 inauguration speech when he said “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Form and Structure are massively important with regards to ‘An Inspector Calls’; it’s critical to talk about them in any exam answer about the play. This is where the concept of the dramatic construct comes into play. All it means is ‘something that was specifically built for maximum dramatic effect’. Everything about ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a dramatic construct, and this blog will focus on how Form, Structure, Language AND the characters help Priestley get his point across.


Obviously the form of ‘AIC’ is a play, but there’s more to it than that. It’s also, by turns, a morality play, a cautionary tale, a murder mystery (although personally I don’t think it is), a three-act drama, and a play of unity. On its own, there’s not much else you can say about the form unless you contextualise it. For example, “it’s a play” doesn’t help you much, but the fact that a play is performed on a stage, and therefore entrances and exits are specifically created by the author will. The entrances and exits in the play are used for maximum effect. That build up where the audience suddenly realise that Eric is the father of Eva’s child is then crowned by Eric’s entrance – followed perfectly by the fall of the curtain. This dramatic impact can only be felt in a play, by an audience. But it’s not just that – there are other touches too. Look at how Priestley doesn’t let Sheila leave the stage as the Inspector puts Gerald through his paces. The way that Sheila reacts to Gerald’s story lets the audience see that she is growing up before our very eyes (more on that later). Think about what else a play gives us. It’s immediate – the impact is felt by a large number of people at the same time, and what’s more, the message can reach more than one class of people. Don’t forget that not everyone could read in 1946 – but people knew how to listen. On top of this, the fact that the audience can see the characters gives Priestley the chance to show us so much more through body language and action than we could get from, say, a radio broadcast (the kind of output for which he was best known). Priestley also uses this form to provide us with unity of time, place and action. The play takes place in real time, which adds suspense, tension and release as the characters experience the events of the play in conjunction with the audience. The final way that Priestley uses form, and specifically the three unities, is to escape a potential problem. Priestley hates Mr and Mrs Birling – and so throughout the play we see them behave as the horrendous people they are. However, Priestley likes, and needs his audience to like, Sheila – and so to avoid the visceral impact of seeing her act like a spoilt child in Milward’s, he simply has her relate the story, interspersed with her admissions of guilt and remorse, thus lessening the impact of her behaviour and showing the audience her instant sorrow for her actions.



Entrances and exits, while dependent on the medium being a play, and so technically a benefit of form, are also a key element of structure. So, in fact, are the three unities of theatre. There’s more, though. Priestley structures his play in a very specific way in order to achieve his intended goals. Mr Birling’s speech at the start of the play ensures that his character is undermined for the rest of the play; everything he says or does is greeted by disdain and mistrust by the audience. Sheila, meanwhile, is set up as the heroine. She’s young, and therefore has time to change and mature, her crime is committed through thoughtlessness, not malice, thus making her easy to forgive, and her instant responses to just about every situation are encouraging and ‘on message’. The fact that she speaks ‘warmly’ about people in Eva’s position tells us a lot, as in fact does Eric’s pithy but nevertheless accurate character description right at the start of the play. “She’s got a nasty temper sometimes, but she’s not bad really.” The Inspector doesn’t arrive until Mr Birling has established himself as the chief idiot of the play, and he doesn’t leave until he breaks Mrs Birling, and Sheila is ready to assume his mantle. Priestley shapes every aspect of his play to help his message hit home with the most forceful dramatic impact he can achieve.



This is really too big a topic to go into here, but look throughout at the way that Priestley makes his characters speak. Look at things beyond just the words themselves, for example Sheila speaking ‘warmly’ about Eva, or the fact that at the end of the play she ‘[flares] up’ when arguing back to her parents, showing that she has become her own person, standing her ground and thinking for herself, but also look at the words the characters use. Sheila calls Mrs Birling ‘Mummy’ at the start of the play, which is incredibly childish for someone in their early 20s, but by the end of the play she refers to her as ‘Mother’ – a much more grown-up term. Of course, it’s not just Sheila. When Mrs Birling dismissively says ‘Girls of that class…” there is a lot you can talk about here. The Inspector repeats the plural pronoun ‘we’ in his final speech, emphasising Priestley’s point that we are all in this together.


(not like that, silly Troy and Gabriela.) 

Anyway, back to Language. Look at Mr Birling’s dramatic irony when he talks about Titanic being unsinkable, and how it instantly paints him as an idiot in the eyes of the 1946 audience. The air of complacency at the start of the play just amplifies the Inspector’s impact on the family. This air of complacency is almost completely created through language. More than anything, remember that if your chosen form is a play, you really have to use the characters’ language to show their character, reveal their secrets or hammer home your message. Priestley was particularly keen that his language be delivered properly, as you can see when Sheila says, “But these girls aren’t just cheap labour – they’re people.” Her final word is not italicised by accident – write about this!


The Characters

It’s impossible to predict about whom you might be asked in the exam, and there are plenty of sites that will give you very detailed breakdowns of who is who, so here’s a very brief review – with a specific focus on how these characters help Priestley. In order to make sure you write analytically, you have to avoid the old ‘if only Sheila had done this or if only Mr Birling hadn’t said that’ trap. You need to remember that Priestley created this play specifically, and so it’s pointless to say things like ‘Eva’s death could have been avoided if Sheila hadn’t…’. In the context of the play, that might be true, and Priestley might be saying that to us, but in fact, Sheila HAD to act the way she acted, just as all the other characters HAD to act the way they did, because that’s what Priestley wanted.

Mr and Mrs Birling are the ‘older generation’. Priestley needs us to hate them. It’s important to distinguish here – we’re meant to dislike them from the outset, but by the end of the play he needs us to despise them. Therefore, their character arcs are structured to achieve that goal. Mr Birling starts out as a fool (not a charming one at that) and Mrs Birling starts as a snob. Her comment that Sheila will ‘have to get used to’ the fact that her husband will be away a lot demonstrates her detachment from reality and lack of individual initiative. Interestingly, Sheila instantly responds by saying ‘I don’t believe I will’, which sets her character up for the audience too. By the end of the play, however, Mr and Mrs Birling are not just dislikeable. He has shown himself to be pig-headed, unapologetic, arrogant and greedy and she has behaved in an almost inhuman manner and shown absolutely no remorse. Priestley couldn’t allow them even a glimmer of redemption if he was going to achieve his goal, and so it proves.

Gerald is often referred to as being somewhere between the younger and older generations. It’s hard to tell exactly what Priestley wanted us to think of him. On one hand, he is clearly affected by Eva’s death, and clearly feels sorry for what he’s done. On the other, it is he who leaves and investigates Inspector Goole. He doesn’t do this to try and help anyone except himself and his new in-laws. He displays equal amounts of snobbery, complacency, thoughtfulness and consideration and so is difficult to pigeonhole. In my opinion, Priestley is reaching out to the men in his position in the audience – they are still young enough to make a difference, and they are the ones running the companies who employ people like Eva. Perhaps by showing the two sides of Gerald’s character, he presents men in the audience with a choice. Bear in mind, though, that only one choice will ensure he gets the girl at the end – and of course we all admire and like Sheila immensely, and so the choice becomes easy.

Eric is, like his father, something of an idiot, but unlike his father, the stupid decisions he makes are excusable, to some degree at least. He is young, and has been brought up by two horrendous parents who clearly prefer Gerald to him as a son. He has had no guidance whatsoever and unlike Sheila, doesn’t even get any from the Inspector, as he’s largely absent in the first two acts of the play. His behaviour towards Eva may not be excused by his drinking, but at least it is explained by it. His eagerness to change his life, and his clear remorse for his actions also put us squarely on his side, and his willingness to seek guidance and support from his sister demonstrates his increasing maturity. His openness with the Inspector also endears us to him, to the point that most audiences seem willing to overlook the heavy implication that he forced himself sexually onto Eva against her wishes. At the very least, though, he clearly changes, clearly grows up a little, and is clearly willing to take responsibility and do whatever is needed to make things right.

Inspector Goole has been written about in great detail elsewhere, but the headline facts are that whether or not he is ‘real’ (and of course he is equally real and not real – we see him on stage, the characters interact with him, but it’s a play, so none of it is ‘real’ anyway!) he is clearly the voice of the author. There are no two ways about it, he is right. Priestley cannot afford for there to be any doubt in the minds of the audience that his views are the right ones. Therefore Goole is massively intelligent, imposing, authoritative, knowledgeable, articulate, fair and considerate. Some say he is the voice of God, or the characters’ consciences. Maybe, but at his core he is Priestley’s chance to speak to the upper-classes the way he has always wanted to. He is utterly unimpressed and unmoved by Mr and Mrs Birling, showing them absolutely no sympathy and very little respect beyond common courtesy. He is unthreatened by Birling’s veiled threats about his friendship with the Police Chief and of Mrs Birling’s gorgon-like wrath. Conversely, he is kind and encouraging to Sheila for the most part, although he also cruelly reminds her that she can’t help Eva. However, we remain impressed by this because of the change it effects in Sheila.

Sheila is the hero of the play. Everything about her character is specifically geared towards the audience leaving the theatre seeing her as the role-model, the ideal to which they should all aspire. She represents the young women in the audience, and with women’s rights on the increase in the 1940s, Priestley couldn’t have been unaware of the importance of women in society and the increasingly important role they were to play as the future progressed. Therefore, he has created in Sheila the perfect example to the rest of us. She begins as a likeable, if silly, girl, and through careful management of her entrances and exits, Priestley lets us see her grow up before our very eyes into a young woman we respect and admire. Crucially, she isn’t perfect. She’s naive and a bit irritating at the start of the play (her famous “except all last summer when you never came near me” is often cited as the moment we see her inner intelligence, but to me it always comes across as a pathetic ‘little-woman’ character who knows full well her other half is playing away but simply chooses not to do anything about it) and of course her behaviour towards Eva, while not criminal or violent, is unimpressively childish and petulant. This is critical – the audience have to know that it’s ok not to be perfect, but that what matters is how one reacts to one’s mistakes. Sheila provides us all with the blueprint for how to react to mistakes, and sets her up as a highly impressive young woman with an extremely bright future. Structurally, this goes right down to Sheila’s final line of the play. “I must think”. Priestley has chosen her as his shining light (a fact emphasised by how often she is presented in white – Stephen Daldry’s production is just one of many that have done this) and so her final line echoes through to the whole audience as the central premise of the whole play. We must think.

Hope this helps – all the best in your exam!


About PS

English teacher in Shanghai.
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4 Responses to Who means what in ‘An Inspector Calls’

  1. Sonia says:

    Thank you so much! It really helped 🙂

  2. sarahsunshine98 says:

    This is amazing sir! But could you break it up into bullet points so it is easier to digest 🙂 Thank you for the post though!

  3. ChristinaParry98 says:

    Thanks so much

  4. Pingback: An Inspector Calls – Checkmate | Mr Staveley's Blog

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