This video provides some background information on the playwright and studies the social and historical context of the play. It also suggests some brief interpretations for what the play means.
There is a light-hearted and celebratory atmosphere at dinner as the Birling family celebrate the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son and heir of Lord and Lady Croft (from ‘an old country family – landed people’).
There are, however, a few hints that not everything is as perfect as it initially seemed. Mr Birling, for example, is a bit too anxious to impress Gerald, Eric seems nervous and Sheila jokes with Gerald that he did not come near her the previous summer.
Mr Birling is in good spirits and makes a number of speeches. One of his main themes is that a man needs to look after himself and his own family and not worry about the wider community. As he is telling them this, the door bell rings. Inspector Goole enters.
Although Mr Birling tries to take control of the situation, the Inspector – an impressive character who no-one has heard of - announces that he has come to investigate the suicide of Eva Smith, a young working-class girl who died that afternoon in ‘the infirmary’.
Mr Birling recognises the girl from a photograph and admits that he discharged her from his factory when she became one of the ring-leaders of a strike asking for slightly higher wages. Birling does not feel guilty for sacking her; he justifies himself by saying that he cannot see that he has any responsibility for what happened to her afterwards.
The Inspector announces he would also like to question Sheila Birling. Mr Birling is annoyed that the Inspector wants to continue with his enquiries. Sheila is distressed as she hears more about the girl’s tragic story and the description of her suicide. When the Inspector reveals that Eva's next job was at a big shop called Milwards, but that she was sacked after a customer complained about her, Sheila becomes more distressed. When she too is shown a photograph of the girl, Sheila admits that it was her fault that Eva was sacked. She is horrified by what she did and feels guilty.
When the Inspector then tells the family that Eva went on to change her name to Daisy Renton, Gerald Croft's reaction reveals that he too knew the girl. When the act ends, the audience expects the Inspector to reveal more connections between the family and the mystery girl.
Act One Summary
Inspector Goole interrupts the Birling’s dinner party to tell the family about the death of Eva Smith. He seems to know everything about the family and their connections to the girl: Arthur Birling sacked her for demanding higher wages, Sheila Birling had the girl sacked from her job at a clothes shop. It seems that Gerald also knew her, by the name of Daisy Renton.
Gerald does not want Sheila to stay in the room to hear details of his involvement with the girl. She insists, and warns her mother not to try to deceive the Inspector. Gerald admits that he too had known Daisy Renton. He had met her in ‘the Palace Bar’, and let her stay in the flat of a friend of his when he discovered she was penniless. She became his mistress although Gerald broke off the relationship when he had to go away on business, giving her some money to see her through for a few months. Sheila is upset and disappointed; Gerald had told her he was busy at work when in fact he was having a relationship with this girl.
Inspector Goole then moves onto Mrs Birling, who is convinced that she has no connection with the girl. After showing her a photograph of the girl Mrs Birling has to grudgingly admit that she had seen the girl two weeks previously. The girl - now pregnant - had come to ask for financial assistance from the Charity Organisation where Mrs Birling was chairwoman. Mrs Birling had denied the girl any support, and refuses to feel any remorse . In fact, she is proud that she did her duty and blames the man who got Eva Smith pregnant.
Sheila urges her mother to stop talking, as she and the audience have realised at this point that Eric is involved. Just as Mrs Birling denounces the father of the baby, Eric re-enters the room.
Act Two Summary
Gerald initially tries to cover up his involvement with the girl but Sheila encourages him to tell the truth. He admits he had an affair with the girl. When Mrs Birling sees a photograph, she also admits that she knew the girl, having refused to support her when she asked Mrs Birling’s charitable committee for financial support as she was now pregnant. Eric enters the scene as Mrs Birling denounces the father of the child. The audience expect to hear more about Eric’s involvement with the girl.
The relationships in the family are beginning to break down. The Inspector interrupts the family argument to question Eric who then admits his relationship with the girl. He met her in the same place as Gerald and in his drunkenness, forced himself on her. Soon afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant. Eric offered to marry her, but she did not accept as she knew Eric did not love her. Eric admits he supported her with money stolen from his parents.
Mr Birling’s reaction shows that he is more concerned about covering up his involvement with the girls and avoiding scandal. The Inspector delivers a strong message observing each character’s individual guilt in the affair. He warns what will happen if people do not feel responsible for each other and then leaves.
The family gradually begin to wonder about the Inspector. Gerald explains that he has discovered that there is no Inspector Goole in the police force. When they telephone the infirmary, they realise that there hasn't been a suicide case for months.
Mr Birling is thrilled as he now thinks that they are relieved of any responsibility or guilt. Sheila and Eric, on the other hand, still feel guilty and insiste that nothing has changed - each of them still committed the acts that the Inspector had accused them of, even if they did turn out to be against five different girls.
At this point, the telephone rings. Mr Birling answers it and tells the family it was the police on the line: an inspector is on his way to ask questions about the suicide of a young girl...
Act Three Summary
When Eric realises that everyone knows, he admits that he made Eva pregnant and stole money from his father to support her. The Inspector makes a final speech about social responsibility and urges the Birlings to learn from their behaviour. The family are distressed and intrigued until they discover that Inspector Goole does not exist and no suicides have taken place that evening. The Birlings are Gerald are delighted and return to the play’s initial jolly good humour although Sheila and Eric continue to feel guilty.
The play ends as the telephone rings with the news that a girl has died in the infirmary and a police inspector is on his way to ask them some questions.
This video analyses the structure of the play, provides some useful points to make about the order of events and suggests some theories as to what it all means.