An Inspector Calls: characters

A discussion of the characters in the play An Inspector Calls by J.B.Priestley and their role and importance in the play

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Mr Arthur Birling

  • Represents wealthy industrialists and capitalists in Edwardian society
  • His 'heavy looking' and 'rather portentous' exterior coincides with the solidity of his entrenched views regarding society and politics
  • Provides the opposite of the Inspector's political view for contrast
  • Is pretentious, condescending, avaricious, unempathetic and selfish
  • Supports the view that 'a man has to look after himself'
  • Calls himself 'hard-headed' and 'practical'- is unsentimental
  • Wants to 'keep labour costs down' and compete for 'higher prices'- he is obsessed with money and has gained social standing with his wealth
  • He would 'give thousands' for the events of the play not to have happened but is 'offering the money at the wrong time'- he thinks money solves all
  • Tries to intimidate and bribe the Inspector with his social standing: 'I know the Brumley police officers pretty well'-this shows his power abuse
  • His credibility is ridiculed by his comments on the future that create dramatic irony for a post-1945 audience- i.e. that the Titanic is 'absolutely unsinkable' and 'there isn't a chance of war', whilst claiming that 'we know'
  • He is self important and lectures the young men: 'I'd been giving these young men a little good advice'
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Mrs Sybil Birling

  • Represents upper classes and is 'her husband's social superior'
  • Is haughty, snobbish, unrepentant and prejudiced
  • She is 'rather cold' and is condescending to the Inspector, considering him 'a trifle impertinent', thinking of him as inferior
  • She never shows any regret or accepts responsibility for any of her actions: 'I'm very sorry. But I think she had only herself to blame'
  • She is a prominent member of her charity which gives her the opportunity to abuse her power; she represents those who have the means to help others but refuse them help if they find that their case is not 'deserving'
  • She freely admits her prejudice in the case and does not feel embarrassed or sorry: 'That was one of the things that prejudiced me against her case'
  • She has snobbish views of working class: 'a girl of that sort', 'claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position'- does not recognise Eva's integrity in not taking stolen money
  • Represents hypocrisy: finds Gerald's affair 'disgusting' but still wants him to marry Sheila, and her feelings are different when her own son Eric is to blame- she is also unhappy that Eva lied to her, but happily lies to Inspector
  • Knows little of her children; does no recognise that Eric is an alcoholic
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Sheila Birling

  • Sheila changes dramatically in the play; at the start she is frivolous, spiteful, childish and insincere, but very quickly she becomes genuinely sorry, accepting of her responsibility and willing to change: 'I'll never, never do it again to anybody.'
  • She is initially concerned with trivial matters: 'pretty?' 'quite young?'
  • She represents those who abuse their power to harm others as a result of jealousy: 'jealous of her', 'so you used the power you had [...] to punish'
  • She is 'impressionable' and understands that the Inspector 'knows' and that they 'mustn't try to build up a wall' or he'll 'just break it down'
  • She realises that they 'all helped to kill her' and shows genuine regret
  • She has a good relationship with Eric and knows he's an alcoholic
  • She respects Gerald for telling the truth but needs time to think
  • She realises that it doesn't matter if the Inspector was a hoax: 'he inspected us all right' and is 'frightened' by the others' rapid return to normality
  • She represents that the yonger generation can reform and that there is hope for the future.
  • She is still treated like a child by her mother and father.
  • She 'can't believe it's simply my fault [...] that would be too awful'
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Eric Birling

  • Born into a wealthy family but 'not quite at ease'- 'half-shy, half-assertive'
  • Bad relationship with parents- likes to challenge Birling's authority: 'I'd have let her stay'- also sympathetic with the workers- not 'hard-headed' like Mr B.
  • Eric has secrets: 'checks himself', 'suddenly guffaws'
  • Eric is an alcoholic and shows 'familiarity with quick, heavy drinking'
  • Has a reputation around town for drinking: 'I have gathered...'
  • He runs away from the house when he realises that the Inspector knows
  • Eric can use childish language: 'You told her, why you little sneak'
  • Represents irresponsibility- Eva treated him 'as if I were a kid, though I was nearly as old as she was'
  • Doesn't try to cover up affair- 'You know, don't you?'
  • Shows rage at mother: 'You killed her [...] damn you, damn you!'
  • Is ready to repent for his actions and doesn't care who the Inspector was: 'the fact remains that I did what I did'
  • Knows that 'we all helped to kill her' and is angry with parents for not admitting it: '(shouting)'
  • Sides with Sheila at the end of the play, his outlook changing.
  • He too represents hope for the future generations.
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Gerald Croft

  • Caught between the younger an older generations: he feels guilt and responsibility but is quick to dismiss his role when there is the possibility of a hoax: 'Everything's all right now, Sheila'
  • Is marrying below himself, like Mrs B, and forming business connections- that's why he's 'just the sort of son in law [Birling...] always wanted'
  • Represents a member of the aristocracy who abused his power and status to gain control over a young woman
  • He is 'confident', a 'man about town' and 'self-assured'- contrasts Eric
  • He agrees with Mr B: 'I do believe you're right sir' about political issues
  • Gerald is insensitive and sensitive at the same time- he tries not to show it
  • He attempts to deny involvement with Daisy: 'We can keep it from him'
  • He wants to become re-engaged to Sheila when it's 'over'
  • He is class conscious and pleased about Mr B's 'knighthood'
  • Wants the be the 'fairy prince'-  he 'must have adored' the attention
  • He was initially motivated by sympathy in his affair
  • He shows initiative and logical approach when discovering the Inspector's identity.
  • He is like a leader to the family in the final scene.
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Eva Smith/Daisy Renton

  • Represents the working class, especially working class women
  • Is a woman because in Edwardian times woman were less well off than men
  • She is a leader- one of the 'ring-leaders' in the strike at Birling and co.
  • She has good morals- she won't take stolen money
  • She is empathetic/understanding of Eric 'She didn't want me to marry her'
  • She is enduring- she suffers all of the hardships the Birlings impose on her
  • She was 'very pretty and looked as if she could take care of herself'- this is only her appearance and she has to face difficulties because of this
  • She is a 'good worker' and tries hard to do well
  • Her identity remains a mystery as she never appears on stage
  • She is symbolic of oppressed workers and those who are abused by the power of others
  • She is commanding over Eric: 'she treated me as if I were a kid' and is responsible and practical
  • She loved Gerald more than Gerald loved her and went away to 'make [...the memories] last'
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Inspector Goole

  • Represents the voice of J.B.Priestley/ message of socialism: 'we are members of one body', 'we are responsible for one another'
  • Goole is a homophone of 'ghoul'- tearing apart corpses -> dissecting characters and consciences of Birlings- could he be supernatural? 'never seemed like an ordinary police inspector'- could this suggest extraordinary?
  • Inspector could be voice of conscience, friend of Eva's, time traveller
  • He is dominant and self possessed: 'creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness'
  • Lighting turns from 'pink and intimate' to 'brighter and harder'- suggests interrogation. 'sharp' ring of door bell and 'sharp' ring of telephone
  • Arrives, punctuating Birling's speech about 'socialist cranks'
  • Interrogates in chronological order- prior knowledge of events- omniscient
  • Loses cool with Mrs B: 'I'm losing all patience with you people'
  • Ending is enigmatic, audience left wondering who Inspector was- leaves them considering moral of play
  • Understands Sheila- explains why she wants to stay
  • Commanding: 'Stop.', '(cutting in massively)'
  • Hard hitting final message of socialism: 'fire and blood and anguish'
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sarahish majid


thanks :)

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