39 pages 1 hour read

J.B. Priestley

An Inspector Calls

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1945

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Summary and Study Guide


An Inspector Calls is a three-act play written by J. B. Priestley, first performed in 1947. In the play, an inspector questions a wealthy family about the death of a young woman who worked at the family’s factory. An Inspector Calls first premiered in Moscow in 1945 before showing in England. The play has been adapted for film, television, and radio, and a 1992 stage revival won a Laurence Olivier Award, a Drama Desk Award, and a Tony Award.

This guide is written using the 2000 Penguin Classics edition of Priestley’s collected plays.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide include references to death by suicide, addiction, and rape.

Plot Summary

The play opens in April 1912. The Birling family have gathered at their home to celebrate Sheila Birling’s engagement to Gerald Croft. For many years, Gerald was a business competitor of Sheila’s father, Arthur, who owns a mill and dabbles in politics. Also present are Sheila’s brother, Eric, and their mother, Sybil. Even though Eric has an alcohol addiction, the whole family has chosen to ignore it. Arthur is soon to be granted a knighthood and makes a speech about the importance of self-reliance.

The party is interrupted by the arrival of a man named Goole. He introduces himself as a police inspector; no one in the family has ever met him before. Goole explains that he has come to discuss a young working-class woman named Eva Smith. Earlier in the evening, Eva was found dead. She died by suicide by ingesting chemical disinfectant. Among the few possessions she left behind is a diary. The diary, Goole explains, implicates the Birling family in her death. When Goole produces a photograph of Eva, Arthur recognizes her. He says that she worked in the mill that he owns. However, she was fired almost 18 months ago because she was involved in an industrial strike. Arthur insists that his decision to fire Eva could in no way have been the cause of her death.

Arthur is not the only family member who recognizes the photograph. Sheila also met Eva. She explains that she recognizes Eva as a shop assistant at Milwards department store. She served Sheila some time ago and, during this interaction, Sheila became jealous of Eva’s natural good looks. She conspired to have Eva fired from the job by convincing the store manager that Eva had insulted Sheila.

After losing her job, Goole reveals, Eva adopted a new name. She went by the pseudonym Daisy Renton. The name gets Gerald’s attention. He admits that he met a woman named Daisy Renton at a bar. There, he gave her some money and arranged to meet her again. Goole reveals the truth: Gerald was having a relationship with Eva while believing that his mistress was actually named Daisy. Arthur and Sybil are shocked by this revelation. Sheila praises Gerald for telling the truth but she removes her engagement ring and hands it back to him. She says that she can no longer marry him. Shamed, Gerald leaves the Birling house.

Goole continues Eva’s story, saying she sought help from a women’s charity when she became pregnant. Sybil, one of the charity’s patrons, convinced the committee that Eva was a liar, and the charity turned her away. Sybil declares that the drunk man who impregnated Eva should come forward and accept responsibility for Eva and the pregnancy. At this time, Goole turns his questions to Eric, who admits that he raped Eva. He also admits that he met with her more than once after he assaulted her and that he stole £50 from his father’s business to help her financially.

Goole tells the family that they are all responsible for Eva’s death by suicide. He then references the coming war, telling them that if they do not learn to live as a society, then they face lives filled with violence and despair. He leaves the Birling family to reflect on their actions. Gerald then returns and tells them that Inspector Goole may not have been an inspector at all. Arthur discovers that there have been no recent reports of suicide and the family rejoices. In spite of this revelation, Eric and Sheila both decide to try to change for the better. Gerald still wants to marry Sheila but she cannot bring herself to marry a man who had an affair.

At the end of the play, Arthur receives a phone call. The police are on their way over because a local young woman has died. The police suspect death by suicide by disinfectant. The Birlings know it must be Eva and they also know that, when the truth is revealed, their reputations will be ruined.