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Note: Inspector’s departure to end of play
Arthur says that Eric is primarily at fault for the family’s situation. Arthur worries that there will be a “public scandal” made of the family’s relationship to Eva Smith’s death. Eric criticizes Arthur for worrying about his potential knighthood, considering that Eva/Daisy is dead. Sheila also criticizes Arthur and Sybil, and says that in thinking about their reputations, they are trying to move beyond Eva/Daisy’s suicide and pretend that nothing terrible happened. Eric reminds Arthur of the speech Arthur gave to Gerald and Eric, before the Inspector’s arrival, about how men should “look out for themselves first.” Sheila, upon hearing this and the Inspector’s parting words, wonders if he is a legitimate police inspector after all.
Eric and Sheila agree that, even if the Inspector was not really a public servant, he interrogated the family and found out their complex relationship to Eva’s death. Eric and Sheila agree that he did “inspect” them. But Arthur, realizing that perhaps Inspector Goole is not a genuine inspector, says that this difference is crucially important. For if the Inspector was not acting officially, the family’s collective guilt cannot be made into a “public scandal,” and there will be no impact on Arthur’s business reputation or on his knighthood. Arthur accuses Sybil, Eric, and Sheila of being susceptible to the Inspector’s bluffing, as the Inspector tricked them into revealing all they knew. Arthur believes that the Inspector is a “socialist” and a “crank.”
Edna, the maid, announces that Gerald is back, and he enters the room. Gerald says he has run into a police sergeant during his walk outside, and the sergeant tells him there is no officer in Brumley named Inspector Goole. Gerald concludes that the Inspector was a fraud, and Arthur agrees, saying that the family has been “hoaxed.” Arthur begins thinking through the damage done, and hastily concludes that, if the family can keep the night’s proceedings a secret, their reputations will not be harmed. Sheila and Eric dispute this. Sheila asks everyone in the family to consider his or her part in Eva/Daisy’s suicide, and she again castigates Arthur for pretending the events of the night were entirely unreal, even as the characters’ revelations of wrongdoing are authentic. Arthur phones the police force, confirming there is no Inspector Goole. Gerald admits that he really did have an affair, that he was not lying to the Inspector. Eric says he wants to leave the family and travel far away from them. But Arthur says that Eric must work for the family business to pay back the money he stole.
Gerald reasons that, because no characters saw Eva/Daisy’s photo simultaneously, and because of the frequent changes of her name, the family members might not actually be speaking about the same woman. Their actions each would have been true as reported, but the common link between them the Inspector might have faked. Arthur calls the local hospital and verifies that no suicide has been brought in for weeks. Arthur is now convinced that the Inspector has utterly tricked the family. He believes that since no one died, the family members’ actions are not so grave.
Sheila protests that Arthur is trying even more concertedly to cover up the revelations of the evening. Arthur says he has no interest in doing so, but Eva/Daisy’s “unreal” death changes everything. Sheila disagrees, saying that the family members each behaved uncharitably and that the actuality of Eva/Daisy’s death should have nothing to do with the calculation of the immorality of their actions. Sheila tells Arthur that he “began to learn something, but now [he’s] stopped.” The phone rings, and Arthur relays to the family that a girl has just been transported to the hospital, dead, “after swallowing some disinfectant.” As the curtain falls, Arthur announces that a police inspector is headed to the house to interrogate the family. All on stage are shocked.
The end of the play is a source of much productive disagreement. Arthur blames his son Eric as the primary cause of Eva/Daisy’s and the family’s misfortune. But Eric points out that all share the blame, and Sheila notes this, too. Sheila is the most willing to accept what she has done and becomes increasingly unmoored as she realizes that Arthur and Sybil want only to pretend that the night has not happened at all.
Read more about why Arthur believes Eric is to blame for the family’s misfortune.
Is Eva Smith/Daisy Renton a real person, and the same person? One whom each family member has harmed? And is she the same girl who is reported dead at the very end of the play? Is the Inspector who is said to arrive after the play’s action the same Inspector Goole who showed up before? And what are Goole’s motivations? Does he want to use the family as a kind of moral example for the consequences of selfishness? These questions might at first seem too perplexing or too open-ended. Some readers might find the play unsettling or even unsatisfying in the openness of its ending.
But Priestley has created a work of art that invites the critique of those who watch it. Sheila notes that if the girl who dies at the end of the play really is Eva/Daisy, or even if she is someone else entirely, it does not change the behaviors that have brought about her death. For Arthur, the distinction between public and private life is a crucial one, since private life allows for the hiding of mistakes. But for Sheila, this distinction is meaningless where moral matters are concerned. What is important to Sheila is the guilt the family must sort through and face.
Read more about how the play raises the question of culpability as a theme.
On the one hand, this means that the possibility of Eva/Daisy’s reality and the factual nature of her death would reinforce the characters’ conclusions. But this also means that the question of Eva/Daisy being real and actually dying might also be used to judge the immorality of their actions. This kind of judgment, where “all’s well that ends well” even if people’s motivations were selfish, impure, and criminal, is the judgment Priestley’s Inspector speaks out against. For the Inspector, immoral acts are immoral absolutely because they violate the fabric of social togetherness. It should not matter, then, whether or not Eva/Daisy is real. The suffering the family members have caused is real, and that must be addressed.
Although it seems not to be borne out in the text, it is useful to note that Edna disappears at the close of the play, and that no indication is given as to her whereabouts. The openness of the ending means that anyone, including Edna herself, might be Eva/Daisy. That is, any person in a working-class situation, who is dependent on a capitalist system of labor to survive, could potentially lose everything and be forced to the brink of death. In the world that Priestley paints of free capitalist enterprise, there are very few mechanisms in place to protect the poor, the enfeebled, or those who have lacked representation in the past.
Read more about the significance of the play ending abruptly with a suicide.
Indeed, what appears to upset the Inspector the most is not simply the family’s crimes, but the ease with which these crimes could have been avoided, or their consequences remedied. The Inspector does not so much criticize the family members for their misbehaviors as he does for their total ignorance of the impact of these misbehaviors on another person. The Inspector’s broadly socialist point, that individual actions have collective consequences, is most vividly illustrated in the case of Eva/Daisy, but it might be applied to many people in similar situations, the world over. This is the “universal” principle the Inspector supports, which is a direct contrast to the narrow worldview of Arthur and Sybil, who believe individuals should protect themselves and their families, but no one else.