An Inspector Calls is one of the most popular modern texts to study for GCSE English Literature, so you’re certainly not alone in studying it. It’s also one of the most interesting options to study, so you are lucky to be studying it for your GCSE English exams! In this revision guide we provide everything you need to know about An Inspector Calls themes. We’ve included advice on how to revise An Inspector Calls and how to approach the exam questions. Follow our GCSE English revision guides to reach your potential in your exams. 

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How to revise for An Inspector Calls GCSE exam

As you look through practice exam questions, you will quickly notice that the questions are either on a character or a theme from the play. It’s not rocket science then – when it comes to revision, you should focus on: 

  • learning the details and key quotations for each theme;  
  • learning the details and key quotations for each character
  • building your understanding of the context – think about Priestley’s views and how he presents them in the play; and
  • doing plenty of practice exam questions

We’ve linked above to our guides on characters and to AQA’s practice exam questions. We explain the context at key points in this guide and in our characters guide. 

Now carry on and read through this revision guide on the main themes of the play. We’ve provided you with everything you need for each theme: the key details, context and quotations. Learn this stuff and you’ll ace An Inspector Calls themes at GCSE. 

Class

When Priestley was writing in 1945 class still divided British society. The divisions between the social classes were especially strong before the two World Wars. The play is set in this period, in 1912. The upper classes controlled the wealth, land, factories and power. The lower classes worked hard at difficult manual jobs for long hours and for minimal pay. The Second World War – and the political and social changes it triggered – had lessened this inequality, but Priestley was highlighting that class inequality was still a major problem. He was encouraging his audience to understand the issue and try to change things for the better. Priestley was a Socialist, so he believed society should be more equal and wealth should be distributed more equally. 

Priestley’s Presentation of Class

  • Priestley quickly shows us his views on the class system. He shows us that the upper classes look down on the lower classes and treat them very badly. Birling is consistently dismissive of what he is told about Eva. Initially he denies he even knew her, then he makes out that she was a troublemaker, finally he makes every attempt to justify his harsh treatment of her. Look at a lot of the language he uses when talking about Eva. The words he uses de-personalise Eva and even de-humanise her and others from her social class. 
  • Priestley cleverly ensures his audience do not take Birling’s statements on social class as the truth. Early in the play, Birling talks about the unsinkable Titanic and that there will be no war. Of course the audience in 1946 knows that the Titanic did sink and there were two World Wars in the next 30 years.
  • Likewise, Mrs Birling shows her complete contempt for anyone from the lower classes. She has pre-conceived ideas about Eva and generalises all women from Eva’s background as lacking morals and even trying to steal. 
  • Gerald clearly sides with the Birlings’ in his views of the lower classes. He agrees with Birling’s treatment of his factory workers; he suggests all poorer people are poor due to their own mismanagement of money; and he takes advantage of his social position in his relationship with Eva. 
  • Priestley shows a different perspective through the Inspector and later through Sheila and Eric. The Inspector does not behave with the deference that the Birlings expect from someone of his position. He challenges them and is clearly in control from the moment he comes on stage. Look at some of the stage directions describing the Inspector’s manner and appearance. The inspector seems to be above the class system and provides Priestley’s own critique of the problems of inequality. 
  • Through the Inspector’s influence, Sheila and Eric start to do the same. They challenge their parents and Gerald’s views on social class. The message here is that the younger generation need to push for more equality. 
  • Mr and Mrs Birling, however, do not change their views on class. They are extremely happy when they think the Inspector’s questioning was all a hoax. They just want to avoid a public scandal and have no intention of doing anything to help other people in Eva Smith’s position.

Key Quotations

  • Birling: ‘now you’ve brought us together, and perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together – for lower costs and higher prices.’ 
  • Birling: “We employers at last are coming together to see that our interests – and the interests of Capital – are properly protected. And we’re in for a time of steadily increasing prosperity.’ 
  • Birling: ‘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.’ 
  • Birling: ‘this new liner… the Titanic – she sails next week… New York in five days – and every luxury – and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable. That’s what you’ve got to keep you eye on, facts like that’s progress like that’ 
  • Birling: ‘In twenty or thirty years’ time – let’s say 1940 – you may be giving a little party like this… and I tell you by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares. There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’
  • Birling: ‘Don’t blame her. She comes from an old county family – landed people and so forth – and so it’s only natural.’ 
  • 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.
  • Birling: ‘Well, it’s my duty to keep labour costs down, and if I’d agreed to this demand for a new rate we’d have added about twelve per cent to our labour costs… So I refused… We were paying the usual rates and if they didn’t like those rates, they could go and work somewhere else. It’s a free country’ 
  • Eric: ‘It isn’t if you can’t go and work somewhere else.’ 
  • Eric: ‘Why shouldn’t they try for higher wages? We try for the highest possible prices.’ 
  • 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.’ 
  • Sheila: ‘But these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people.’ 
  • Inspector: ‘ 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. 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.’ 
  • Birling: ‘That fellow obviously didn’t like us. He was prejudiced from the start. Probably a Socialist or some sort of crank – he talked like one… You ought to have stood up to him.’ 

Responsibility

The theme of responsibility links closely to that of social class. In 1946, when An Inspector Calls was first performed, Britain was recovering from the difficulties of the Second World War and facing major social and economic changes. Many people were struggling in poverty and there was little official support available for the poor. Priestley was trying to address this issue in the play. He believed that everyone in society should have some responsibility for their actions and for looking after others in society. He thought too many people from the upper-classes took little or no responsibility for the wider society – further entrenching inequality. Through the play he wanted to persuade his audience to agree with him and to take action to change society for the better. 

Priestley’s Presentation of Responsibility

  • In the opening scene of the play we hear Mr Birling telling his family about his views on responsibility. He says that people need to focus on looking after themselves, their business and their family. The implication is that wealthy people like him have no responsibility for the wider society. Birling thinks everyone should just look out for themselves. 
  • When the Inspector arrives, he quickly challenges Birling’s view. The Inspector aims to teach the Birlings – and the audience – a clear lesson on their responsibilities.  Look at some of the language he uses. He explicitly says everyone is responsible for their actions and for looking after others in society. He explains how the wealthy have increased responsibilities, given their increased power and influence. Again, this is like Priestley’s own voice providing the audience with his views. 
  • Mr and Mrs Birling clearly do not accept any real responsibility for their actions – even following the Inspector’s challenges. They claim they did the right things in their interactions with Eva. The implication is that Eva was solely responsible for what happened to her. 
  • In contrast, Sheila and Eric accept responsibility for their actions and then they look to try and change things for the better in future. Both characters are clearly upset when they realise the importance of their actions in what happened to Eva. This emotion is a catalyst for change and by the end of the play Sheila and Eric talk in similar ways to the inspector. They challenge their parents’ views and become more assertive. The audience can see that they’re committed to acting more responsibly in future.  
  • Towards the end of the play the differences in reactions to the Inspector lead to a heated debate between Mr and Mrs Birling and Sheila and Eric over responsibility. 
  • (Major spoiler alert!) The shock ending of the play leaves the audience sure that the Birlings will ultimately be made to face some responsibility for their actions. The ‘real’ police are on their way to question the Birlings. The mysterious character of the Inspector was Priestley’s mouthpiece on class and responsibility, trying to teach the family some clear lessons, seemingly before the actual police arrive.  

Key Quotations

  • Birling: ‘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. But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive – community and all that nonsense.’ 
  • Birling: ‘it happened more than eighteen months ago – nearly two years ago – obviously it has nothing whatever to do with the wretched girl’s suicide. Eh, Insepctor?’
  • Inspector: ‘No, sir. I can’t agree with you there.’
  • Inspector: ‘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.’ 
  • Birling: ‘…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?’ 
  • Inspector: ‘Very awkward.’ 
  • Eric: ‘By Jove, yes. And as you were saying, Dad, a man has to look after himself – ‘
  • Birling: ‘She’d had a lot to say – far too much – she had to go.’ 
  • Gerald: ‘You couldn’t have done anything else.’ 
  • Eric: ‘He could. he could have kept her on instead of throwing her out. I call it tough luck.’ 
  • Inspector: ‘… 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.’ 
  • Sheila [miserably]: ‘So I’m really responsible?’ 
  • Sheila: ‘No, not really. It was my own fault. [Suddenly, to Gerald] All right, Gerald, you needn’t look at me like that. At least, I’m trying to tell the truth. I expect you’ve done things you’re ashamed of too.’ 
  • Gerald: ‘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.’ 
  • Inspector: ‘Public men, Mr Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges.’ 
  • Mrs Birling: ‘I’m very sorry. But I think she had only herself to blame.’ 
  • Inspector: ‘I think you did something terribly wrong – and that you’re going to spend the rest of your life regretting it. I wish you’d been with me tonight in the Infirmary.’ 
  • (When asked who is to blame) Mrs Birling: ‘First, the girl herself…. Secondly, I blame the young man who was the father of the child she was going to have. If, as she said, he didn’t belong to her class, and was some drunken young idler, then that’s all the more reason why he shouldn’t escape. He should be made an example of. If the girl’s death is due to anybody, then it’s due to him.’ 
  • Inspector: ‘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. Remember what you did, Mrs Birling.’ 
  • Mrs Birling: ‘And I must say, Gerald, you’ve argued this very cleverly, and I’m most grateful.’ 

Gender

Following the Second World War there were some significant changes to perceptions of, and opportunities for, women in society. Some jobs previously dominated by men became open to women while men were away fighting. Many women looked to continue this new found freedom of work and earning their own living into peacetime. Inevitably some men did not view these changes positively and looked to maintain what they saw as traditional gender roles. Priestley explores these ideas throughout the play. 

Priestley’s Presentation of Gender

  • Inequality between men and women is shown right at the beginning of the play. Mrs Birling’s advice to Sheila is essentially to put up with anything your husband does and to expect them to keep secrets. The family’s interactions with one another in the opening scene displays sexist, outdated attitudes. 
  • Birling is quite dismissive of Mrs Birling and Sheila (even though we hear Mrs Birling is his social superior). Neither are allowed to have anything to do with the family business. Birling also patronises Sheila and talks to her as if she were a child. 
  • Gerald has similarly sexist views of women. His treatment of Sheila and Eva does not suggest he sees them as his equals. Even after the truth has been revealed of his affair with Eva, Gerald still assumes Sheila will go ahead and marry him.  He also often makes sexist comments about the women working for Mr Birling and the women he meets in bars. 
  • Birling tries to stop the Inspector talking to Mrs Birling and Sheila. He feels this is a conversation for men alone. 
  • In contrast the Inspector questions both genders with equal vigour and tries to get everyone to accept responsibility for their actions. 
  • Mrs Birling has views entrenched in the unequal gender roles she has lived with her whole life. She doesn’t feel any solidarity with Eva as a woman. She sees her as inferior and untrustworthy because she is from the lower classes. 
  • Eva personifies the difficulties faced by young independent women in this time. The attitudes they had to overcome and how society could treat them. 
  • With the Inspector’s influence Sheila is shown to have more modern attitudes towards gender. By the end of the play she understands Eva’s struggles and will no longer be patronised by her father or Gerald.  

Key Quotations

  • Sheila: ‘except for all last summer, when you never cam near me, and I wondered what had happened to you.’ 
  • Gerald: ‘And I’ve told you – I was awfully busy at the works all that time.’ 
  • Mrs Birling: ‘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.‘ 
  • Sheila: ‘I don’t believe I will’ 
  • Birling: ‘She was a lively good-looking girl – country bred, I fancy’
  • Inspector: ‘… 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.’ 
  • Inspector: ‘And you think young women ought to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things?’
  • Gerald: ‘I hate those hard-eyed dough-faced women. But then I noticed a girl who looked quite different. She was very pretty -‘ 
  • Gerald: ‘ I want you to 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.’ 
  • Gerald: ‘I became at once the most important person in her life’ 
  • Sheila: ‘You were the wonderful Fairy Prince. You must have adored it, Gerald.’ 
  • Inspector (to Mrs Birling): ‘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.’ 
  • 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.’ 

Age and Generational Change

Age and generational change link in closely with the other themes discussed above. Priestley shows the audience hope that the younger generation was more likely to learn, change their behaviour and even promote positive change in society. The younger generation accept responsibility for their actions, learn form the Inspector and begin to challenge the status quo. The older characters, however, remain stubborn. They refuse to accept responsibility for what they have done, or to learn from the Inspector. Gerald provides an interesting anomaly to suggest that some younger people will still refuse to accept positive changes. 

Priestley’s Presentation of Age and Generational Change

  • There is a big divide shown between the generations in their attitudes towards all three other major themes. The influence of the Inspector widens this divide considerably as the young take on his lessons and the older generation look to ignore them. Priestley invites the audience to look at what Eric and Sheila’s generation managed to do. He now wants the contemporary young generation to run with that and progress things even further. 
  • The younger generation (Sheila and Eric) is more easily influenced by the inspector (and therefore Priestley). Sheila and Eric accept responsibility for their mistakes and offer the possibility of a brighter future. 
  • Sheila directly challenges Gerald early in the play. Eric makes several remarks about the unfairness of society and the tough choices faced by people in Eva’s situation. Even before the Inspector begins his work, the audience can see that Sheila and Eric are more supportive of equality and fairness between the classes and the genders. 
  • Sheila and Eric’s response to Eva’s death provides an obvious contrast with the responses of Birling and Mrs Birling. Sheila and Eric are genuinely shocked by the news of Eva’s horrific death. They show a human response to a human tragedy. Mr and Mrs Birling are not very interested. They don’t feel any sympathy or remorse following Eva’s death.  
  • Birling shows little respect to the younger generation, certainly none for Eva and he even tries to ignore and patronise his own children. He constantly dismisses and belittles Eric and he talks to Sheila as if she is a child. 
  • Sheila and Eric begin to stand up to their parents when they see Mr and Mrs Birling will not accept responsibility for their actions. They challenge their old views and won’t ignore things as they had done at the beginning of the play. 
  • Mr and Mrs Birling quickly jump on Gerald’s idea that the Inspector is an imposter. Sheila and Eric understand that it’s irrelevant – they still all did what they did and are responsible for the impact on Eva. 

Key Quotations

  • Sheila: ‘I’m sorry, Daddy. Actually I was listening’ 
  • Eric: [involuntarily]: ‘My God!’
  • Birling: [rather impatiently]: Yes, yes. Horrible business. But I don’t understand why you should come here, Inspector -‘
  • Eric: ‘It isn’t if you can’t go and work somewhere else.’ 
  • Sheila: ‘Oh – how horrible! Was it an accident?’
  • Sheila: [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. Oh I wish you hadn’t told me. What was she like? Quite young?’ 
  • Mrs Birling: ‘You seem to have made a great impression on this child, Inspector.’ 
  • Inspector: ‘We often do on the young ones. They’re more impressionable.’ 
  • Eric: ‘Because you’re not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble’ 
  • Eric: ‘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 -‘ 
  • Eric: ‘ Oh – for God’s sake! What does it matter now whether they give you a knighthood or not?’ 
  • Sheila: ‘The point is, you don’t seem to have learnt anything.’ 
  • Mrs Birling: ‘Really, from the way you children talk, you might be wanting to help him instead of us.’ 
  • Sheila: [bitterly]: ‘ I suppose we’re all nice people now.’ 
  • Eric: ‘What’s the use of talking about behaving sensibly? 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? 
  • Eric: ‘ The money’s not the important thing. It’s what happened to the girl and what we all did to her that matters. And I still feel the same about it, and that’s why I don’t feel like sitting down and having a nice cosy talk.’ 
  • Sheila: ‘I want to get out of this. It frightens me the way you talk.’ 
  • Sheila: ‘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.’ 
  • Birling: ‘Now look at the pair of them – the famous younger generation who know it all. And they can’t even take a joke -‘ 

There you have it – An Inspector Calls themes explained with key quotations for you to learn. Once you’ve revised this content you should have a go at completing our An Inspector Calls themes worksheet from our learn online page. You should be able to complete this in your own words and find some of your own important quotations for each theme. Make sure you also keep doing plenty of exam questions to complete your revision.

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An Inspector Calls Themes

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