When Inspector Goole stands centre stage in Act 3, it is clear that he is about to say something of great significance. The speech encapsulates Priestley’s purpose as Goole becomes the playwright’s mouthpiece and articulates his socialist vision to the audience:
“But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and a chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.”J.B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls
The choice Priestley presents here is stark: either live in an equal society, or face intense suffering and destruction. Through the repetition of “millions”, Priestley seems to open up the play from the limited scope of one family’s dining room to a global concern, whilst the Biblical language suggests that this is a question with both earthly and eternal significance. The intention is to impress the audience with the importance of this message, and thus to prompt individuals to enact social change as they return to their daily lives. As Priestley wrote in 1949, “I have tried to make myself – and other people – aware of the harsh economic realities of our time”.
In order to persuade the audience, Priestley uses the age-old rhetorical strategies of ethos (credibility), logos (logic/evidence), and pathos (appeal to the emotions). By this late stage in the play, Priestley has established the Inspector’s credibility. His physical presence on stage (his “massiveness” and “solidity” suggest an immovable, powerful force), his gender, middle-class appearance, and his assertion of dominance over the Birling family all contribute to this and emphasise the appearance of respectability at a time when these qualities would be expected of a politician or spokesperson. The fact that the Inspector seems to become a god-like figure whose omniscience has enabled him to know Eva’s story only serves to add to this effect. The logic of his argument is demonstrated through the case-study of Eva’s life, and the supporting evidence comes through each character’s confession of their self-interested reasons for preying on her vulnerability.
Yet, the most potent aspect of the speech is Priestley’s evocation of pathos. The use of anaphora (“their lives…”), emotive diction (“hopes and fears”), inclusive pronouns (“we”), and the triples are designed to make the speech both more memorable and more affecting. Similarly, the joint allusion to the Biblical apocalypse and the world wars in the phrase “fire and blood and anguish” would speak to an audience just emerging from the very real horrors of the Blitz and the front lines. The short sentence “we don’t live alone” resonates due to its simplicity, and also because it is an expression of a fear that lies close to the heart of many individuals who are struggling to find their sense of purpose in a chaotic and increasingly fragmented world.
The Inspector’s abrupt departure at the end of this speech indicates that there is no room for discussion as the situation is clear-cut – the audience should now go and help others, and play their role in moving society towards a socialist ideal. However, a more nuanced reading of the final speech reveals elements which are perhaps unsettling. Despite the Inspector’s insistence that “we” are “members of one body”, he repeatedly uses the pronouns “their” to designate the working-classes. Similarly, in a broader sense the play never gives Eva (or Edna, for that matter) a voice. This indication of a paternalistic approach to supporting the working-classes is patronising and unlikely to lead to any approximation of true equality, as inherent in the use of the pronoun is the assumption of middle- and upper-class superiority. Similarly, whilst the Inspector’s use of the word “intertwined” is a direct rebuttal of Mr Birling’s dismissal of “bees in a hive” in Act 1, the fact that both men adopt a dogmatic and didactic approach is troubling. The Inspector’s assertion of linguistic power belies the collaborative approach suggested in his metaphor of the body. For me, Priestley’s failure to truly challenge these hierarchical distinctions of class and gender mean that whilst the play may make some good points about society, the conversation is far from finished.