An Inspector Calls

by: J. B. Priestley

Act Three, continued

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.

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.

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.