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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Calls, in-person and over the phone, announce important events in the novel. The Inspector, of course, “calls” on the family, and he does so in person, allowing the story of Eva’s death to unfold over many hours. As a bookend to the Inspector’s call, Arthur receives a phone call at the close of the play, informing him that a girl really has committed suicide, and that an Inspector will be coming to the house to ask questions. The audience does not know who this Inspector will be, and whether this girl is Eva/Daisy, thus making this last call the play’s most troubling.
Arthur uses the phone, for his part, to verify information. He calls the police precinct in Act Three, to find out if there really is an Inspector named Goole on the force. There is not. He also calls the hospital to learn if a girl was brought in recently, as a suicide. The hospital has no record of it. Thus, when Arthur makes a phone call, the information he receives tends to verify what he hopes to be true. But when Arthur and the Birlings receive calls and phone calls, the lessons they learn are neither easy nor pleasant.
The play begins with a party for Sheila and Gerald. Arthur offers everyone port, and they drink. Eric, accustomed to heavy drinking, has more than his fair share, and throughout the play the subject of his possible alcoholism arises. But every character has had at least something to drink by the time the Inspector arrives—except for the Inspector himself, who refuses because he is “on duty.”
Eric’s and Gerald’s relationships with Eva/Daisy begin with alcohol consumption, and when questioned by the Inspector, Eric asks whether he might have another drink to steel his nerves. At the play’s end, Arthur might be reaching for the port once more if it weren’t for the final phone call informing the family of a suicide. Alcohol marks events of social importance in the family, and moments the family might rather forget. It is a means for the Birlings to interact with one another, and to feign intimacy when, as the audience learns, each family member has been leading his or her own life separately.
Sybil believes that the Inspector has rudely barged in on the family’s celebration, and Arthur, too, wonders if the Inspector is obeying the rules of decorum the police department sets for its officers. To the Birlings, the Inspector’s behavior is the height of rudeness, because it upends the social norms on which the family operates. The Inspector asks questions the family would rather not answer, and he does not stop his questioning once he has begun. The rules that govern polite conversation do not govern the Inspector.
But the Inspector demonstrates that the Birlings, who are so aware of social norms, violate social conventions on their own time, and in more serious ways. Arthur, Sybil, and Sheila are defiantly uncharitable to Eva/Daisy, even in her time of need. And Eric and Gerald alternately treat Eva/Daisy kindly and dismissively, eventually leaving her to fend for herself. The Inspector thus shows that “rudeness” is itself a construct, and that apparent politeness can be a mask for total lack of concern or morality.
Read about the related theme of the hypocrisy of society in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.