Welcome to another GCSE English revision guide from Tutor In. Here we look at An Inspector Calls characters for your GCSE English Literature exam. Your exam question will be about either a character or theme from the play, so that’s where you should focus your revision. All of the details on character presentation and development are provided in this guide, as well as important context and key quotations. Check out our guide to the themes in An Inspector Calls for all you need to know on that part of the course, as well as some details on how best to revise for the exams. Use the themes guide alongside this one. A lot of the information covered on themes is important when analysing the characters as well – so make good use of both guides together. 

Once you’ve been through this guide carefully and learnt the key quotations, you should have a go at filling in our An Inspector Calls Characters worksheet from our learn online page. Complete the worksheet in your own words and find your own quotations to develop your knowledge further.

For even more help preparing for your GCSE English exams sign up for our FREE GCSE English revision club to get helpful tips and extra resources to help you ace your exams. Simply email us at info@tutor-in.co.uk or send us a message here to start receiving your free support, resources and advice.

Mr Birling

How Birling is presented

  • Priestley quickly provides a clear example of the people in society that he is trying to criticise – Mr Birling.
  • He is an upper class business man who owns a factory, is wealthy and has a lot of power and influence in the town of Brumley.
  • Birling sees his priorities to be looking after his money, his status and his reputation. 
  • He accepts no responsibility for anyone else in society and certainly not Eva Smith. 
  • Birling hates socialists and their ideas of equality and community. He references them a couple of times in the play and calls their ideas ‘nonsense’.  
  • Priestley shows Birling to be completely naïve and ignorant in his views. Birling predicts the Titanic will be unsinkable and that there will not be a war with Germany. The audience, therefore, won’t believe a word he says for the rest of the play. 
  • Birling is used to being in control and is thrown completely off guard by the inspector who takes over control of the situation when he arrives on stage. 
  • Even then he refuses to accept any real responsibility for what’s happened to Eva. He just tries hopelessly to stop the Inspector.
  • Towards the end of the play, after the inspector has left, Birling becomes smug and overconfident. He thinks the whole thing was a scam and believes his reputation will be protected, which is clearly all that matters to him. 
  • (Major spoiler alert!) There is one final shock for Birling when he receives a call about the police coming to question him. The audience learns a final lesson on responsibility. 

Key Quotations

  • Arthur Birling is a heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties with fairly easy manners but rather provincial in his speech.’ 
  • ‘There’s a good deal of silly talk about these days – but – and I speak as a hard-headed business man… I say, you can ignore all this silly pessimistic talk’ 
  • ‘We employers at last are coming together to see that our interests – and the interests of Capital – are properly protected.’
  • ‘And to that I say – fiddlesticks! The Germans don’t want war.’ 
  • ‘Just let me finish Eric. You’ve a lot to learn yet. And I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business. And I say there isn’t a chance of war.’ 
  • ‘This new liner… the Titanic… unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable. That’s what you’ve got to keep your eye on, facts like that’ 
  • ‘Let’s say 1940… there’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’
  • ‘a man has to make his own way… But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else… community and all that nonsense.’ 
  • [rather impatiently]: ‘Yes, yes. Horrible business. ‘
  • ‘…Still, I can’t accept any responsibility. If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?’ 
  • ‘She was a lively good-looking girl – country bred, I fancy… A good worker too’
  • ‘Well, it’s my duty to keep labour costs down’
  • ‘She’d had a lot to say – far too much – she had to go.’
  • ‘There’s every excuse for what both your mother and I did – it turned out unfortunately, that’s all -‘ 
  • ‘Now look at the pair ofthem – the famous younger generation who know it all. And they can’t even take a joke -‘ 
  • ‘That was the police. A girl has just died – on her way to the infirmary – after swallowing some disinfectant. And a police inspector is on his way here-‘ 

Mrs Birling

How Mrs Birling is presented

  • Mrs Birling is ‘her husband’s social superior’ and yet she lacks the same status and power due to gender inequality in society. 
  • She encourages Sheila to just put up with the sexism they have to deal with in 1912, with no thought to change things for the better. 
  • Linking to her social class, Mrs Birling expects her status – and Mr Birling’s authority and wealth – to solve all problems. 
  • Mrs Birling is one of the last of the family to meet, and be interrogated by, the Inspector. She completely refuses to take any responsibility for what happened to Eva and judges her for being poor, unmarried and getting into a difficult situation. 
  • Mrs Birling simply cannot understand how the Inspector can talk to the Birlings as he does. She is used to being treated very differently and to simply not talking about issues within the family (such as Eric’s drinking).
  • Along with a lack of awareness of issues of social class, Mrs Birling demonstrates no understanding for another woman in a difficult position. She has no awareness of gender inequalities in society, even though she is affected negatively by them herself. 
  • Mrs Birling shows her lack of knowledge and awareness again by falling into the Inspector’s trap and suggesting that whoever got Eva Smith pregnant is really responsible for her death. She isn’t able to understand that it’s Eric whom she’s placing in trouble. 
  • Ultimately Mrs Birling shows no change in attitude once the Inspector leaves. She is happy with Gerald’s theory that it was all a scam and thinks their reputation will remain intact. 
  • Priestley presents Mrs Birling as a reactionary character who stands in the way of change and equality. She doesn’t want more equality between the classes because she’s at the top of that system; and she can’t imagine a world with more gender equality. Priestley suggests that people like Mrs Birling have to be overcome in order to change society for the better.

Key Quotations

  • ‘His wife is about fifty, a rather cold woman and her husband’s social superior.’ 
  • ‘Now, Sheila… When you’re married you’ll realise that men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business. You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had.’ 
  • ‘You seem to have made a great impression on this child, inspector.’ 
  • ‘I don’t suppose for a moment that we can understand why the girl committed suicide. Girls of that class -‘
  • On Eva calling herself Mrs Birling – Mrs Birling: ‘Yes. I think it was simply a piece of gross impertinence – quite deliberate – and naturally that was one of the things that prejudiced me against her case.’ 
  • ‘I’m very sorry. But I think she had only herself to blame.’ 
  • ‘so I used my influence to have it refused.And in spite of what’s happened to the girl since, I consider I did my duty.’
  • ‘I’ll tell you what I told her. Go and look for the father of the child. It’s his responsibility.’ 
  • ‘I’m sorry she should have come to such a horrible end. But I accept no blame for it at all.’ 
  • ‘Then he’d be entirely responsible – because the girl wouldn’t have come to us, and have been refused assistance, if it hadn’t been for him -‘
  • ‘You’re behaving like an hysterical child tonight.’
  • ‘Really, from the way you children talk, you might be wanting to help him instead of us.’ 
  • ‘But, feeling so worried, when he suddenly turned on me with those questions, I answered more or less as he wanted me to answer.’ 
  • ‘And I must say, Gerald, you’ve argued this very cleverly, and I’m most grateful.’

Sheila

How Sheila is presented

  • Sheila is presented as quite naïve and childish initially. She seems ignorant of the wider society and the language she uses is quite childish. 
  • Nevertheless, she still manages to stand up to Gerald a little even before the Inspector arrives. This proves she has potential to be a character driving change. 
  • Sheila displays a very human reaction to the news of Eva’s suicide. She’s shocked, horrified and feels guilty once she knows what she’s done to contribute. 
  • The first character to be quickly and easily influenced by the Inspector. She accepts responsibility for her actions straight away (unlike her parents) and tries to get the others to do the same. 
  • After her admission of guilt, Sheila begins to talk like the Inspector, and to challenge Gerald and later her parents. 
  • Sheila has matured as a character by the end of the play. She has accepted responsibility and will look to improve her actions and the wider society going forward. 
  • Sheila also challenges gender inequalities in the play. She stands up to her father in taking on his views and not accepting his conclusions. Moreover, Sheila pushes Gerald into confessing his affair with Eva. She respects him more for his honesty, but isn’t just going to take him back (as Gerald expects).
  • She understands that it doesn’t matter whether the Inspector was ‘real’ or not. The family all did what they’ve admitted and they’re all guilty in some way. Sheila recognises that they all need to change.
  • This all represents a completely different reactions to that of her parents. Sheila is shown as a member of the positive younger generation, which Priestley believes will drive change and progress. 

Key Quotations

  • Priestley’s description – ‘Sheila is a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited.’
  • Sheila: ‘Except for all last summer, when you never came near me, and I wondered what had happened to you.’ 
  • ‘I’m sorry, Daddy. Actually I was listening’ 
  • ‘Oh – how horrible! Was it an accident?’
  • [rather distressed] ‘Sorry! It’s just that I can’t help thinking about this girl – destroying herself so horribly – and I’ve been so happy tonight.’ 
  • ‘But these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people.’ 
  • [miserably]: ‘So I’m really responsible?’ 
  • ‘Why – you fool – he knows. Of course he knows. And I hate to think how much he knows’ 
  • ‘We all started like that – so confident, so pleased with ourselves until he began asking us questions.’
  • ‘You mustn’t try to build up a kind of wall between us and that girl. If you do, then the Inspector will just break it down. And it’ll be all the worse when he does.’ 
  • Mrs Birling says to Sheila: ‘But it’s you – and not the inspector here who’s doing it -‘ 
  • ‘The point is, you don’t seem to have learnt anything.’ 
  • [bitterly]: ‘ I suppose we’re all nice people now.’ 
  •  ‘Well, he inspected us all right. And don’t let’s start dodging and pretending now. Between us we drove that girl to commit suicide.’
  • ‘But you’re forgetting one thing I still can’t forget. Everything we said had happened really had happened. If it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us. But it might have done.’ 
  • ‘It was anything but a joke. You knew it then. You began to learn something. And now you’ve stopped. You’re ready to go on in the same old way.’

Eric

How Eric is presented

  • Priestley initially shows Eric to be a drunk and to be fed up with life. It’s as if he knows some major things are wrong in the world and with himself, but he’s not sure what yet, or how to try to make things better.   
  • Birling doesn’t respect Eric at all and Eric doesn’t really have anything productive to do with his life as his father has refused to allow him any responsibilities in the business. 
  • Eric does try to challenge his father’s views, even before the Inspector arrives. He is, however, immediately put down and belittled by Mr Birling. 
  • Eva’s tragic death evokes a very human reaction from Eric. He is clearly shocked and appalled just as Sheila is. 
  • Eric leaves the stage quickly when he realises who the Inspector is talking about. At first he’s not ready to admit to what he’s done and take responsibility, presumably because of the shock. 
  • When he returns he admits what he did to Eva and accepts responsibility for his actions. 
  • Eric has treated Eva terribly. He admits that he met her when very drunk and essentially forced himself on her and used her. The fact Eric’s actions lead to a pregnancy, further exacerbates Eva’s problems in the terrible circumstances she’s found herself in thanks to the Birlings.
  • The audience hears how Eric’s only attempt to help Eva was to steal money from Birling’s business. Eva, to her enormous credit, is the one who refuses to take the money when she hears how Eric got it.
  • Despite the terrible things he did to Eva, Eric does go on to change following the Inspector’s influence. He begins by challenging his mother strongly for her role in Eva’s downfall. 
  • In the final exchanges of the play Eric then sides with Sheila in challenging their parents and trying to get them to accept responsibility for their actions. 
  • He and Sheila are examples of the younger generation Priestley is relying on to change society.  

Key Quotations

  • Priestley’s description – ‘Eric is in his early twenties, not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive’
  • ‘What about War?’
  • Birling: ‘Just let me finish Eric. You’ve a lot to learn yet’
  • [involuntarily]: ‘My God!’
  • ‘By Jove, yes. And as you were saying, Dad, a man has to look after himself -‘
  • ‘It isn’t if you can’t go and work somewhere else.’ 
  • ‘He could. he could have kept her on instead of throwing her out. I call it tough luck.’
  • ‘Why shouldn’t they try for higher wages? We try for the highest possible prices. And I don’t see why she should have been sacked just because she’d a bit more spirit than the others. You said yourself she was a good worker. I’d have let her stay.’ 
  • ‘Yes, I insisted – it seems. I’m not very clear about it, but afterwards she told me she didn’t want me to go in but that – well, I was in that state when a chap easily turns nasty – and I threatened to make a row.’ 
  • ‘Because you’re not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble’ 
  • ‘Then – you killed her. She came to you to protect me – and you turned her away – yes, and you killed her – and the child she’d have had too – my child – your own grandchild – you killed them both – damn you, damn you‘
  • Inspector (to Eric): ‘Just used her for the end of a stupid drunken evening, as if she was an animal, a thing, not a person. No, you won’t forget.’ 
  • ‘Oh – for God’s sake! What does it matter now whether they give you a knighthood or not?’  
  • ‘He was our police inspector all right.’ 
  • ‘You’re beginning to pretend now that nothing’s really happened at all. And I can’t see it like that. This girl’s still dead, isn’t she? Nobody’s brought her to life, have they? 
  • ‘The money’s not the important thing. It’s what happened to the girl and what we all did to her that matters.’ 

Gerald

How Gerald is presented

  • Gerald is quite a complex character in some ways.
  • He’s slightly older than Sheila and Eric, but much younger than the Birlings. He sides with the Birlings when it comes to class and wealth. 
  • Gerald is also content to lie to Sheila consistently and expects her to put up with him hiding things. 
  • He does, however, admit what he did to Eva (or Daisy as he knew her). In trying to explain his actions he comes across as more of an ignorant person than anything more serious. 
  • Gerald doesn’t understand the unfairness of his relationship with Eva. She is totally reliant on him for survival at that time. When he abruptly calls off the relationship she has little choice and her life becomes very difficult again. 
  • However, Gerald would argue that he did try to help her initially before their romantic relationship began and that they both knew it couldn’t last forever. That fact obviously had more implications for Eva’s life though. 
  • His character is further undermined in the audience’s view because he still expects Sheila marry him after the truth has come out. He also develops the theory that the Inspector wasn’t real and the whole thing was a scam. The belief that this in some way changes the outcome of what they’ve all done shows him to be a barrier to responsibility and change. 
  • Priestley shows the audience that some people within the younger generation will try to keep things unequal because it benefits them. They have to be overcome for positive change.  

Key Quotations

  • ‘And I’ve told you – I was awfully busy at the works all that time.’ 
  • ‘Not if it was just after the holidays. They’d be all broke – if I know them.’ 
  • Birling: ‘She’d had a lot to say – far too much – she had to go.’ Gerald: ‘You couldn’t have done anything else.’ 
  • Inspector says to Gerald: ‘And you think young women ought to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things?’
  • ‘I hate those hard-eyed dough-faced women. But then I noticed a girl who looked quite different. She was very pretty -‘ 
  • ‘What she did let slip – though she didn’t mean to – was that she was desperately hard up and at that moment was actually hungry. I made the people at the County find some food for her.’ 
  • ‘understand that I didn’t install her there so that I could make love to her. I made her go to Morgan Terrace because I was sorry for her, and didn’t like the idea of her going back to the Palace bar. I didn’t ask for anything in return.’ 
  • ‘I became at once the most important person in her life’ 
  • Sheila: ‘You were the wonderful Fairy Prince. You must have adored it, Gerald.’
  • ‘I insisted on a parting gift of enough money – though it wasn’t so very much – to see her through to the end of the year.’
  • ‘Look at it. A man comes here pretending to be a police officer. It’s a hoax of some kind. Now what does he do? Very artfully, working on bits of information he’s picked up here and there, he bluffs us into confessing that we’ve all been mixed up in this girl’s life in one way or another.’ 
  • But how do you know it’s the same girl?’ 

The Inspector

How The Inspector is presented

  • The Inspector is presented as an enigmatic, mysterious character. He surprises the Birlings and the audience with his assertiveness on stage. He controls things as soon as he is on stage. 
  • The first stage directions of the Inspector are important. They describe the Inspector’s appearance, persona and actions. He’s clearly confident and even his way of looking at the other characters is disconcerting and enough to make them start talking. 
  • The Inspector provides a mouthpiece in the play for Priestley. He says things that we know Priestley believed as a socialist. He talks in plain and simple language, getting straight to the point. This contrasts in particular with Birling’s speeches. 
  • Look also at Priestley’s use of props, entrances and exits with the Inspector. He cleverly uses the photograph as a method of control and to create a sense of mystery which leads Gerald to think it’s all a hoax (only to heighten their shock at the end of the play). The Inspector then knows the influence he’s had over Sheila, so he briefly leaves her to begin the questioning of Gerald. He knows she’ll have the most impact and ensure Gerald tells all. 
  • The Inspector transcends the class system, allowing him to easily criticise it. He wears a plain dark suit and certainly doesn’t appear to the Birlings as someone from the upper classes. However, he doesn’t let Birling or Mrs Birling get away with their excuses. He talks to the Birlings in a way that they’re clearly not used to. He challenges them openly, cuts across their speeches where needed and completely controls the line of questioning. 
  • There is considerable ambiguity around his character for the audience. We’re left wondering who is the Inspector, why is he there and how does he know everything? Is he an angry friend of Eva’s? Could he be someone who’s been badly treated by Birling before and looking for revenge? Or is he a ghost or some sort of supernatural being there to teach the Birlings a lesson? That interpretation is up to you. 
  • Finally, the Inspector leaves at the right moment to allow the other characters to show their true colours in their reaction to the revelations before the real police has contacted them. This space at the end of the play shows the audience exactly which characters have learnt a lesson and who has not.

Key Quotations

  • Priestley’s description: ‘The Inspector need not be a big man but he creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefullness. He is a man in his fifties, dressed in a plain darkish suit of the period. He speaks carefully, weightily, and has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking.’ 
  • [cutting through massively]: ‘…Like a lot of these young women who get into various kinds of trouble, she’d used more than one name. But her original name – her real name – was Eva Smith.’
  • [Inspector takes a photograph, about postcard size, out of his pocket and goes to Birling. Both Gerald and Eric rise to have a look at the photograph but the inspector interposes himself between them and the photograph.]
  • ‘No, sir. I can’t agree with you there.’
  • ‘what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide. A chain of events.’ 
  • ‘But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.’ 
  • ‘There are a lot of young women living that sort of existence in every city and big town in this country, Miss Birling. If there weren’t, the factories and warehouses wouldn’t know where to look for cheap labour. Ask your father.’
  • ‘In fact, I’ve thought that it would do us all a bit of good if sometimes we tried to put ourselves in the place of these young women counting their pennies in their dingy little back bedrooms.’  
  • ‘Public men, Mr Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges.’ 
  • ‘I think you did something terribly wrong – and that you’re going to spend the rest of your life regretting it.’ 
  • ‘Because she’d been turned out and turned down too many times. This was the end.’ 
  • ‘That doesn’t make it any the less yours. She came to you for help, at a time when no woman could have needed it more. And you not only refused it yourself but saw to it that the others refused it too. She was here alone, friendless, almost penniless, desperate. She needed not only money, but advice, sympathy, friendliness. You’ve had children. You must have known what she was feeling. And you slammed the door in her face.’ 
  • ‘[As Birling tries to protest, turns on him] Don’t stammer and yammer at me again, man. I’m losing all patience with you people.’ 
  • This girl killed herself – and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her. Remember that. Never forget it. But then I don’t think you ever will.’ 
  • ‘Well, Eva Smith’s gone. You can’t do her any more harm. And you can’t do her any good now, either. You can’t even say “I’m sorry, Eva Smith.”’ 
  • ‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do… 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. Good night.’ 

A note on Eva Smith

How Eva Smith is presented

  • We don’t see Eva on stage, we only hear about the Birlings’ interaction with her and her subsequent downfall and suicide. 
  • Eva is, however, a crucial part of the play. She is the only working class person featuring in the play (other than the maid – Edna). Her role is important in personalising the difficulties faced by thousands of other working class people in a similar position to her. 
  • Priestley makes his arguments about class and responsibility much more effective by personalising the issues. Eva’s tragic death shocks and appalls the audience. The personal tragedy ensures we are going to agree with Priestley.
  • The Birling’s, Gerald and the Inspector all describe Eva at different points as a nice, hard working, intelligent and good-natured person. She’s all the things the Birlings aren’t and yet they’ve had the power over her life because of their status in the class system. The fact she’s ended up in such a terrible way despite her qualities, just emphasises the unfairness in the system and forces the audience to think about change and responsibility. 
  • Look at how the other characters referred to her and the language they use when talking about Eva.
  • Birling and Mrs Birling use very dehumanising and patronising language to distance themselves from her. Gerald does the same before he realises who she is. Sheila and the Inspector use more personal, human language showing a level of respect and sympathy for Eva.

Key Quotations

  • Birling: ‘She was a lively good-looking girl – country bred, I fancy… A good worker too’
  • Birling: ‘She’d had a lot to say – far too much – she had to go.’
  • Mrs Birling: ‘I don’t suppose for a moment that we can understand why the girl committed suicide. Girls of that class -‘
  • On Eva calling herself Mrs Birling – Mrs Birling: ‘Yes. I think it was simply a piece of gross impertinence – quite deliberate – and naturally that was one of the things that prejudiced me against her case.’ 
  • Mrs Birling: ‘I’m very sorry. But I think she had only herself to blame.’ 
  • [rather distresses] ‘Sorry! It’s just that I can’t help thinking about this girl – destroying herself so horribly – and I’ve been so happy tonight.’ 
  • Sheila: ‘But these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people.’ 
  • Gerald: ‘I became at once the most important person in her life’ 
  • Inspector: ‘There are a lot of young women living that sort of existence in every city and big town in this country, Miss Birling. If there weren’t, the factories and warehouses wouldn’t know where to look for cheap labour. Ask your father.’
  • Inspector: ‘Well, Eva Smith’s gone. You can’t do her any more harm. And you can’t do her any good now, either. You can’t even say “I’m sorry, Eva Smith.”’ 
An Inspector Calls Characters

So there you go. That’s everything you need to know about An Inspector Calls characters for your GCSE English exams. You may notice how many of the quotations in this guide apply for more than one character. The key quotations for characters often appear in our themes guide as well. We’ve done this deliberately to help you – it limits the number of quotations you need to learn and focuses on what you need to know for success in the exams.

Now you need to learn this content, including the quotations, and perfect your own knowledge and interpretation by completing our An Inspector Calls Characters worksheet from our resources page. You should also practice plenty of past exam papers. Find AQA’s past exam papers here.

For extra help getting ready for your GCSE English exams sign up for our free GCSE English revision club to get helpful tips and extra resources to help you ace your exams. Simply email us at info@tutor-in.co.uk or send us a message here to start receiving your free support and advice.

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