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An Inspector Calls

J. B. Priestley


Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

... a man has to make his own way—has to look after himself—and his family, too, of course, when he has one—and so long as he does that he won’t come to much harm.

This quote is spoken by Arthur to Gerald and Eric just before the Inspector arrives in Act One. Arthur summarizes his economic and moral worldview for the two young men. His worldview is one of total individualism, where society is understood as a collection of persons and their families, each of which tries to maximize his or her own financial and social happiness. It is important to note Arthur’s beliefs are a radical form of capitalist thought. Arthur seems to have morphed a basic capitalist principle into a moral one, believing that hard work is sufficient enough to allow a person to “get ahead.” This disregards many of the advantages that Arthur and his family have enjoyed, and leads him to believe that everything he has is a direct consequence of his own power and achievement.

The Inspector does not merely view that as a problem in society. He thinks that Arthur’s attitude is the very undoing of society and is responsible for disagreements between people generally. This attitude is what probably contributes to war itself. For the Inspector, human beings must care about those beyond their immediate social circle, in part because it is altruistic and representative of a kinder, gentler instinct, but also because this kind of broader caring ensures that the world can function at all. The Inspector’s questions are designed to show the limitations of Arthur’s worldview, and the other ways in which a world might be organized to better serve the people living in it. Only in this way might countries and the people within them live peaceably among each other.

No, that’s no use. You not only knew her but you knew her very well. Otherwise, you wouldn’t look so guilty about it.

Sheila says this to Gerald at the end of Act One, in regards to Eva/Daisy. Sheila realizes, as soon as the Inspector says the name “Daisy Renton,” that Gerald has known her, and known her intimately. She encourages Gerald to come clean to the Inspector, because Sheila understands at this point in the play that the Inspector seems to know everything about the family already. The Inspector is not so much inspecting the family as he is confirming what he already seems to know, and making sure that the family realizes the consequences of their actions.

Sheila points out that Gerald already “looks guilty.” This means that, on top hurting Sheila with his illicit relationship, Gerald also might feel some amount of guilt regarding his treatment of Eva/Daisy. It is revealed that Gerald was, largely, kind to Eva/Daisy, although he breaks off the relationship without much explanation, then returns to Sheila and says nothing of what has transpired. Gerald, like Sheila, is willing to eventually accept that he is complicit in the events leading to Eva/Daisy’ death. Though at first Gerald believes the Inspector’s “unofficial” status with the police department might make the events of the evening a total hoax, Gerald does admit to Sheila in Act Three that his confession to the affair in Act Two is genuine. He reiterates that he realizes the consequences of having an affair, even if Eva/Daisy did not actually commit suicide. Sheila’s relationship with Gerald is perhaps the most functional and honest in the play. It is an example of what happens when two people speak to each other about their misdeeds, and then attempt afterward to reconcile. At the end of the play, Sheila and Gerald leave open the possibility that they might reunite as a couple, even after what they have learned about each other.

I don’t dislike you as I did half an hour ago, Gerald. In fact, in some odd way, I rather respect you more than I’ve ever done before.

Sheila says this to Gerald in Act Two, after the revelation of his affair with Eva/Daisy. Here, Sheila here acknowledges that, at the very least, Gerald has been honest with her and with himself over the course of the evening. His relationship with Eva/Daisy has caused both Eva/Daisy and Sheila great pain, but Gerald seems willing to accept this. He does not refute what transpired between him and Daisy, offering that someone in similar circumstances might have acted the same way he did. This impulse is ambiguous. On the one hand, Gerald could be trying to rationalize and normalize his behavior as a way of saving face in front of the family and his fiancee. But it could also be a forthright acknowledgment of what he has done, and what was motivating his actions while he was choosing to carry them out.

Sheila reserves her respect for Gerald’s admission here. She does not respect the other members of her family in nearly the same way, because these family members have not gone to Gerald’s lengths in attempting to make sense of what they have done, and to accept the culpability that arrives with that attempt. In particular, Sheila is aghast at the idea that Arthur might simply carry on as if nothing has happened. Sheila realizes that Arthur and Sybil’s primary concerns are their appearance and what might become of them in social circles. They do not care what they have learned about each other. For Sheila, this is genuinely shocking and seems only to give credence to what the Inspector is saying, that many people in contemporary society care only for their own personal advancement. In addressing Gerald, Sheila believes that perhaps there is more to him than this mere desire for money, adulation, and achievement.

If you think you can bring any pressure to bear on me, Inspector, you’re quite mistaken. Unlike the other three, I did nothing I’m ashamed of or that won’t bear investigation.

Sybil says this to the Inspector in Act Two as she discusses her charity. Sybil is, in this quote, a direct counterpoint to her daughter Sheila. Sybil refuses to believe that what she has done in denying money to the Eva/Daisy is wrong. Instead, Sybil believes that she upheld the procedures of the charity of which she was the head. This resembles the justification that Arthur gives for protecting his profits above the wellbeing of his workers. Both Arthur and Sybil argue that it is for the businessman to protect his interests, and for the keeper of a charity to protect the “good name” of that organization and its principles. Because Eva/Daisy appears to lie about her circumstances due to prejudices against unwed mothers at the time, Sybil thinks that it is acceptable to refuse her request. Sybil has no guilt about this and does not seem to change her mind, even after she learns that Eric is the father of Eva/Daisy’s child.

This revelation serves only to upset Sybil and to cause her to believe that the family’s good name has been irrevocably sullied. Sybil, like Arthur, thinks that the worst fate that can befall anyone is a loss of social standing, or of good grace in the community. This is the extent to which Arthur and Sybil think about a community at all. For them, a community is a collection of individuals who have very little by way of responsibility to one another, and who encounter one another only in limited ways. But the Inspector hopes to prove to the Birling family throughout the play that such a conception is not only fundamentally wrong, but deeply damaging to the very fabric of society in which all humans live.

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.

This is from the Inspector’s final speech to the family in Act Three, just before he leaves their house. It is the most obvious crystallization of his thinking, which he has developed throughout the course of the play, and which seems to have motivated his very presence in the household. The Inspector’s version of socialism is particularly utopian. It seems related to Marxist critique of capitalist labor practices, which argues that owners of capital are inherently unwilling to consider the plight of those who work for them. In the Inspector’s view, humans quite simply have an obligation to one another because it is right in the abstract to care for other people, and, more urgently, because a world that ignores the connections between people is not a stable world at all.

Thus the Inspector’s speech is the ultimate instance in the text of dramatic irony and foreshadowing. For the Inspector predicts that the clash between individual and collective interests will produce need for reckoning throughout Europe and the West. It will have to sort out what belongs to whom, and what people owe to one another. This reckoning, the Inspector says, will not be pleasant or easy. And perhaps it could be avoided altogether if people were more willing to consider those outside their immediate social or family circles. Thus the Inspector is both a hardheaded pragmatist who warns of what can happen to society, and a utopian idealist who wants people to improve because he fundamentally believes that it is possible and right for them to do so. This speech serves as the final word from the Inspector, and he leaves just after. The family, with the exception of Sheila, spends the rest of play not thinking about what the Inspector has said, but wondering about his legitimacy to say it.

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An Inspector Calls