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An Inspector Calls

J. B. Priestley


Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Arthur, Sybil, Sheila, Eric, and Gerald must come to terms with their guilt, leading to Eva/Daisy’s demise. The Inspector wants the family to accept the pain it has caused Eva/Daisy. In this way, guilt plays an important role in the Inspector’s politics. Although he does not describe his politics explicitly, he appears to be a socialist, and for him, socialism demands that human beings look out for one another, do their absolute best to avoid harming each other. When people do wrong, they must then explain, to themselves and others, the wrongness of their actions.

Sheila is the most willing to see that she has erred, in having Eva/Daisy removed from her job at Milward’s. Gerald, too, understands that his relationship with Eva/Daisy has caused her pain, and that that pain might have brought her to suicide. Arthur and Sybil, however, are far less willing to accept their guilt. Arthur is more concerned with the family’s good name, and Sybil believes that in denying Eva/Daisy charity, she did what any person in her position should have done. Eric feels some version of Sheila’s guilt, but his drunkenness shades his emotions somewhat. He is disturbed to know, however, that there are parts of his relationship with the girl he does not even remember, on account of steady inebriation.

The play’s final, perplexing scene, in which Arthur learns that a girl really has committed suicide, again raises the question of culpability among the characters. By the end of Act Three, Gerald and Arthur, for their own reasons, have convinced themselves and the other Birlings that the Inspector has fooled them completely. They think that, though they have done wrong individually, these wrongs have not added up to cause one person’s death. But if, the playwright implies, the dead person at the close of the play is the same person with whom each character has interacted, then their guilt is no longer individual, but instead collective, although only Sheila seems to understand this fully. Priestley leaves this question open as the play ends.


The act of killing oneself, or of losing oneself entirely, is central to the play’s events. The play’s predicament is the supposed death of a girl named Eva Smith, or Daisy Renton. Eva/Daisy has killed herself, the Inspector argues, because all society has abandoned her. Her only remaining choice was to end her life. The Inspector sees suicide as the response to a culture of selfishness, which he believes to permeate capitalist society. No one was willing to lend Eva/Daisy a hand, and the Birlings discarded her when she was no longer compliant or useful to them. She had no friends or family to fall back on.

There is a larger “suicidal” idea in the play, not in the literal sense of one person’s death, but on the social plane. The Inspector implies that if men and women continue to behave callously to one another in the industrialized countries of the West, then those countries, as entities, will “commit suicide.” That is, the Inspector’s warning to the Birlings foreshadows the cataclysms of the World Wars One and Two, which the audience in 1946 would understand to follow quickly upon the events of the play.

Learning, Forgetting, and “Inspection”

Throughout his questioning, the Inspector takes on the role of a professor or guide. He interrogates the Birlings and Gerald, and he wants them to admit culpability for Eva/Daisy’s death. Further, he wants them to learn what they have done wrong, and to change. His “inspection,” as Sheila realizes in Act Three, is designed to encourage them to interrogate themselves, to consider when in their lives they have behaved immorally, and how they might improve as family members, friends, and citizens.

Sheila, Gerald, and Eric have a different relationship to the lessons they’ve learned. Gerald admits that he was wrong to have an affair, but on further inspection realizes that he does not exactly regret his relationship with Eva/Daisy. Sheila knows that she was wrong to have Eva/Daisy dismissed, but will consider forgiving Gerald, or at least forgetting his actions, and to think about ways their relationship might be reborn. Eric’s drunkenness causes him to forget much of what he does, even as he’s doing it. But the shock of the Inspector’s visit does cause him and his family to admit that his drinking has overshadowed his life.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Calls, in-person and over the phone, announce important events in the novel. The Inspector, of course, “calls” on the family, and he does so in person, allowing the story of Eva’s death to unfold over many hours. As a bookend to the Inspector’s call, Arthur receives a phone call at the close of the play, informing him that a girl really has committed suicide, and that an Inspector will be coming to the house to ask questions. The audience does not know who this Inspector will be, and whether this girl is Eva/Daisy, thus making this last call the play’s most troubling.

Arthur uses the phone, for his part, to verify information. He calls the police precinct in Act Three, to find out if there really is an Inspector named Goole on the force. There is not. He also calls the hospital to learn if a girl was brought in recently, as a suicide. The hospital has no record of it. Thus, when Arthur makes a phone call, the information he receives tends to verify what he hopes to be true. But when Arthur and the Birlings receive calls and phone calls, the lessons they learn are neither easy nor pleasant.

Alcohol consumption

The play begins with a party for Sheila and Gerald. Arthur offers everyone port, and they drink. Eric, accustomed to heavy drinking, has more than his fair share, and throughout the play the subject of his possible alcoholism arises. But every character has had at least something to drink by the time the Inspector arrives—except for the Inspector himself, who refuses because he is “on duty.”

Eric’s and Gerald’s relationships with Eva/Daisy begin with alcohol consumption, and when questioned by the Inspector, Eric asks whether he might have another drink to steel his nerves. At the play’s end, Arthur might be reaching for the port once more if it weren’t for the final phone call informing the family of a suicide. Alcohol marks events of social importance in the family, and moments the family might rather forget. It is a means for the Birlings to interact with one another, and to feign intimacy when, as the audience learns, each family member has been leading his or her own life separately.

Rudeness, or “impertinence”

Sybil believes that the Inspector has rudely barged in on the family’s celebration, and Arthur, too, wonders if the Inspector is obeying the rules of decorum the police department sets for its officers. To the Birlings, the Inspector’s behavior is the height of rudeness, because it upends the social norms on which the family operates. The Inspector asks questions the family would rather not answer, and he does not stop his questioning once he has begun. The rules that govern polite conversation do not govern the Inspector.

But the Inspector demonstrates that the Birlings, who are so aware of social norms, violate social conventions on their own time, and in more serious ways. Arthur, Sybil, and Sheila are defiantly uncharitable to Eva/Daisy, even in her time of need. And Eric and Gerald alternately treat Eva/Daisy kindly and dismissively, eventually leaving her to fend for herself. The Inspector thus shows that “rudeness” is itself a construct, and that apparent politeness can be a mask for total lack of concern or morality.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The engagement ring

In Act One, Gerald gives Sheila an engagement ring as a symbol of their love and impending marriage. But after Gerald reveals his affair in Act Two, Sheila returns the ring to him and says they will need to start their relationship from the beginning, after the night’s events are over, to see if they can forge a life together.

The engagement ring thus marks not only Sheila and Gerald’s relationship but the idea of romantic love in the play more generally. Apart from Arthur and Sybil, whose marriage appears both strong and romantically cold, the other love-relationships in the play are illicit, involving people who are not married. Thus the engagement ring follows only those relationships receiving general social sanction. Relationships that could bring on “public scandal” receive no ring at all, and are only revealed on the Inspector’s questioning.


The Inspector reports that Eva/Daisy has killed herself by drinking “disinfectant,” which has ravaged the inside of her body. This disinfectant should, symbolically, make her “clean,” but it destroys her. In the same way, the Inspector’s questions should “make clean” the family, by bringing people’s secrets into the light of day. But these secrets nearly tear the family apart, too. Even after Gerald and Arthur question the Inspector’s legitimacy, the last phone call and the renewed presence of disinfectant again bring up the idea that there is dirt that must be cleaned away by the asking of questions.

The bar

As a counterpart to the room in which the play takes place, “the bar” is a scene in the novel of secret activity, often relating to illicit romantic love. Both Gerald and Eric meet Eva/Daisy in the bar, and Eric reports that other men in the community stalk those same bars to pick up women, some of them prostitutes. Even when characters who do not normally drink heavily, like Gerald, frequent the bar, they become embroiled in events they will need later to explain or perhaps forget.

Incorrect Questions

by MrRetno, May 25, 2017

Question 20: Arthur calls the Hospital, but receives a call from the police.
Question 25: Guilt is most definitely a theme in the play; business loans are not.


5 out of 8 people found this helpful

essay help

by LeonMcMillen, July 31, 2017

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by qwerty1234lol, October 27, 2017

you missed out Sybil birling even though she is an important character
here is some stuff

Mrs Birling is being very arrogant, it is clear that she thinks that she is right "Secondly, I blame the young man" shows that she also has a very ignorant point of view. She brings class into her argument, suggesting that because 'he didn’t belong to her class' then 'that's all the more reason why he shouldn't escape'. Here she suggests that just because the boy might be from a higher class than the pregnant Eva Smith, then the pregnancy... Read more


17 out of 18 people found this helpful

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