In An Inspector Calls, Mr Arthur Birling and Inspector Goole are diametrically opposite; they symbolise the incompatible political and moral standpoints that provide the play’s central conflict. Mr Birling is a capitalist, meaning that he represents a system of economics by which businessmen control and retain the profits produced by their industries. He is an individualist who cares only for himself, and whose desperation to ascend to the upper-class means he will contentedly use and misuse others along the way, whilst safeguarding his conscience by asserting the belief that “a man has to look after himself and his own” – responding to the needs of anyone outside of the family unit is simply “awkward”. In contrast, as Inspector Goole asserts that men must “learn their lesson” we realise that he symbolises socialism – a belief in sharing ownership and control of production amongst the community as a whole. His unsettling descriptions of Eva’s body “burnt out” on a “slab” remind us of the disastrous consequences of eschewing one’s responsibility to others.
Yes, if these characters are so different, why does Priestley present them as being so similar?
Mr Birling is described as “a heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle-fifties with fairly easy manners, but rather provincial in his speech”. Visually, he dominates the dinner scene, commanding the room with his booming tones and appearing to be a staunch, unmovable representation of patriarchal authority. As a man in his mid-fifties, he has the confidence and experience that comes with age. However, this façade is immediately undermined by his accent, which belies his more lowly origins; the audience finds themselves questioning Mr Birling’s background and how he could have come to marry Sybil. He is clearly new money and a social climber whose repeated callous comments on the working-classes are perhaps a means of distancing himself from his own origins. It is possible that the gentleman protests too much.
Similarly, Inspector Goole has considerable presence on the stage. He “creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness”. Like Mr Birling’s furniture (see my comments on the opening stage directions), Inspector Goole is “solid” – a stalwart force who is there to resolutely defend the rights of the working classes in the face of the industrialist’s scorn. Like Mr Birling, Priestley specifies that Inspector Goole is in his fifties and is dressed in a dark suit. Like Mr Birling, Inspector Goole gives a uncompromising speech articulating his political viewpoint (and these speeches bookend the central narrative of Eva’s life). Like Mr Birling, Inspector Goole commands Eric and Sheila. Like Mr Birling, Inspector Goole refuses to change his opinions. Like Mr Birling, Inspector Goole adopts a dismissive attitude towards women. Like Mr Birling, who divides and conquers his workforce, Inspector Goole only deals with “one line of enquiry at a time”. One might argue that by portraying these two men as being so similar Priestley allows their differences to be thrown into stark relief, and in doing so he guides the audience’s response as they are presented with a life-changing question at a pivotal point in history: do you choose to follow socialism or capitalism? The Inspector’s compassion and determination to help the working-classes also challenges the play’s generational divide; it is true that Priestley suggests that the greatest hope lies in the malleability of the younger generation, but the fact that Goole champions socialist values indicates that the older generation can also make a positive change.
Yet, for a modern audience, is there perhaps something unsettling in the similarities between these characters? Sheila finds herself moving from capitalism towards a greater understanding of the need for social and political equality – but, as she does so, she simply shifts from being dominated by one older man to following another. Similarly, Eva’s fate makes her into a martyr – but this arguably does little for the rights of women, as her story has to be brought to our attention by a male voice. In its portrayal of such paternalism, the play certainly reflects the gender dynamics of the time period; but does it critique or reinforce these?
Another question which recurs each time I read Act 3 is how attractive do audiences find the Inspector’s final speech? Yes, we might find ourselves agreeing with many of the sentiments – but is the uncompromising didacticism of Inspector Goole’s views a little too redolent of the pitfalls of communism? Certainly we see Orwell criticise the shift from hopeful socialism to totalitarianism in other texts of the period. Is Priestley hinting at the perils of unthinkingly following this newest voice of dogmatic authority, or (like another historical contemporary – the Irish writer John Hewitt) was he relatively ignorant of the slide towards dictatorships in communist countries?