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An Inspector Calls Act Summaries

Get to know the ins and outs of An Inspector Calls by reading our act by at plot summary!

Act 1

In the spring of 1912 the Birling family meet to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila to Gerald Croft. Both the Crofts and the Birlings run successful businesses in Brumley, a fictional industrial city in the North Midlands. The surface of good humour is soon disturbed by hints about the role of women while “men (have) important work to do.” Mr Birling also welcomes the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together – for lower costs and higher prices.

Mr Birling specifically sneers at rumours of war, mentioning socialist thinkers like H. G. Wells with contempt. He praises the “unsinkable” Titanic and predicts prosperity for 1940. The audience is instantly aware of the inaccuracy of all these prophecies- the Titanic is sinking at the very moment Mr Birling is speaking, and Britain in 1940 was experiencing the first mass bombing in history during the Blitz. It is clear that the marriage has a social function as much as a romantic one, and that Mr Birling has a very good chance of a knighthood. At the exact moment when he refers to the concept of community as nonsense and “that a man has to mind his own business and look after himself...” the bell rings, announcing the arrival of the Inspector.

The Inspector has a photograph of a girl called Eva Smith who has killed herself by swallowing disinfectant two hours previously. The atmosphere of the dinner party changes dramatically. Mr Birling tries to assert authority over the Inspector (whose name Goole [ghoul] hints at his real identity), but the Inspector’s relentless questioning soon reveals the connections between the Birling family and Eva Smith. Mr Birling sacked her from his firm because she was a troublemaker who asked for higher wages; Sheila complained about her to the owners of Milwards, a fashionable shop, and Eva was dismissed. Through Sheila we see the truth emerging: she runs from the room, horrified at what she’s done. She soon realises that her fiancé, Gerald Croft, knew Eva very well, under a different name. Sheila is the first to understand how much the mysterious Inspector knows and how he exposes that “...what happened to her [Eva] then may have determined what happened to her afterwards...A chain of events.”

Act 2

The Inspector begins to uncover Gerald Croft’s relationship with Eva Smith a.k.a. Daisy Renton. He senses that Sheila is on his side, not one of those who “think young women ought to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things.” Sheila is immediately sympathetic with Eva’s plight. When the Inspector remarks, “we have to share something. If there’s nothing else, we’ll have to share our guilt,” she is again aware of the mystery of his appearance. Mrs Birling, by contrast, tries to apply a similar kind of social pressure to the Inspector as her husband failed to do. Sheila warns her mother against trying to build up a wall between them and Eva.

We learn the details of Gerald’s relationship with Eva. He met her at the theatre, a favourite haunt of women of the town, where she was being harassed by one of the town councillors, “a notorious womanizer.” These are the kind of details about male life from which women like Sheila and her mother would normally be excluded. The Inspector insists that they should hear them. Discovering that Eva (Daisy) was desperately “hard up”, Gerald makes her his mistress, despite his impending engagement to Sheila. He is attracted to her, but for reasons of class, Eva is not the kind of girl he would marry, as Eva realises. When the relationship reaches its inevitable end, Eva, with the money she’s saved, goes away to “some seaside place.” Gerald is clearly upset and leaves, but not before Sheila gives him back the engagement ring. She tells him: “You and I aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here.”

When the Inspector shows Eva’s photo to Mrs Birling, it is clear that she recognises it. We learn that Mrs Birling, in her role as a member of the Brumley Women’s Charity Organisation, turned down Eva’s request for help. By now Eva was pregnant, but had refused help from the father of her child because he had stolen money. Charity was all she had left but Mrs Birling turned her down. The Inspector tells her: “I think you did something terribly wrong – and that you’re going to spend the rest of your life regretting it.” At the end of Act Two when we understand that Eric was the father of Eva’s child, making he or she Mrs Birling’s grandchild, and we realise what the Inspector means.

Act 3

The return of Eric reinforces our view of the Inspector’s all-knowing nature. He also, unlike Mrs Birling, knows all about Eric’s drinking problem. Eric was so drunk when he had sex with Eva that he doesn’t even remember it. Soon Eva becomes pregnant, but she shows a greater maturity than Eric by refusing to marry him, even if he wanted to. Eric has stolen a considerable sum of money from his father’s office to help Eva. When Mrs Birling returns, Eric learns of her role in Eva’s death – “...you killed her – and the child she’d have had too – my child – your own grandchild...”

With all the family assembled on stage, the Inspector accuses each in turn of his or her involvement in Eva’s downfall and death. His final speech is climactic and prophetic: “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 it in fire and blood and anguish.”

Once the Inspector has departed, the two older Birlings soon forget his message, only concerned over what might damage their status and reputation. Once again Sheila is sensitive to the mystery of the Inspector’s arrival and that “we hardly ever told him anything he didn’t know.” When Gerald returns he brings the news that the Inspector “wasn’t a police officer.” When Mr Birling confirms this with a telephone call Sheila bitterly remarks, “I suppose we’re all nice people now.” Eric insists, “Whoever that chap was, the fact remains that I did what I did...And the rest of you did what you did to her.” Gerald, however, works out that it may not even have been the same girl and they don’t know if any girl killed herself. Once again a phone call, this time to the infirmary (hospital), seems to confirm that there has been no suicide. The older Birlings are convinced the whole thing was a hoax, and Gerald asks Sheila if she’ll take his ring back.

The final coup de theatre (a dramatic turn of events), is when the phone rings again and they learn that a police inspector is on his way. This confirms what we have long suspected: that the play should be seen symbolically, rather than as a realistic text.