The Function of the Inspector in the Play An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley
The Inspector is the backbone of the play and orchestrates the entire
storyline. He is described on his entrance as creating 'an impression
of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness.' symbolising the fact
that he is an unstoppable force within the play. His 'disconcerting
habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before speaking'
gives the impression that he sees through surface appearances to the
real person beneath. He is also a figure of authority, dealing with
each member of the family very firmly and several times he 'massively'
takes charge as arguments erupt between them. Many things about the
Inspector's manner and character make the realism of his character as
an inspector unbelievable.
The Inspector arrives just after Mr Birling has spoken about his views
on life, that every man must only look out for himself. The
Inspector's views, however, clearly contrast with these, and
throughout the play he demonstrates how people are responsible for the
future and lives of others. This is conveyed dramatically in his final
speech, when he says, 'we are members of one body. We are responsible
for each other'.
One rather mysterious characteristic of the Inspector is that he knows
a great deal about the history of Eva Smith and the Birlings
involvement in it, even before she is taken to the infirmary. He also
appears to know that things are going to happen, such as when he says
'I'm waiting...To do my duty', just before Eric's return, probably
indicating that he expected Eric to reappear at exactly that moment.
Another example of this is the great hurry he is in to conclude his
investigation towards the end of the play, probably showing that he
knows that news of Eva's death is going to reach the Birling household
soon. This can be seen in Act 3 on page 54, when he says, "And my
trouble is - that I haven't much time".
The Inspector is unreal in many other ways as well. His treatment of
the Birlings, especially Mr and Mrs Birling is extraordinary. On page
46, Act 2, for example, as Mr Birling tries to protest, he turns on
him saying, "Don't stammer and yammer at me again, man. I'm losing all
patience with you people". He is not at all impressed by their
influential friends or position and seems to control them through his
interrogation. It is highly unlikely that an Inspector at that time,
of a lower class than the Birlings, would ever dare to talk to them in
the way he does in the play. He is also more concerned with moral
issues rather than legal issues, and at times he grows extremely
emotional, which distinguishes him from an ordinary policeman.
Consequently, it is difficult to accept the Inspector as a real
character, although it is clear that he is Priestley's medium for