‘An Inspector Calls’: Tension


‘An Inspector Calls’ has been said to rely on Priestley’s use of tension.  Consider the different ways he creates this, referring to specific moments.


Use of Mystery:

We are unsure about what the inspector is. His name is Inspector (reminding us of spectre) Goole (which sounds like ghoul).  Note the Inspector’s uncanny arrival, at that particular moment where Birling propounds his philosophy that a man ‘has to look after himself and his own’.  Remember the way the Inspector seems to know everything, i.e. his omniscience, his slow entrances etc.

We are also unsure about the purpose of investigation for some time – has a crime been committed?  Has a girl died?  How did the inspector know if she hadn’t already died?  Have they broken a moral law or a legal one?  Is it the photo of the same girl or different ones?

Character issues:

The Inspector is abrupt, interjects ‘massively’, cuts in, brings the family back to the issue, dismisses squabbles.  He is assured, self-possessed and clearly focussed on important issues unlike all other characters who show hysteria, self-doubt, being thunderstruck, needing a drink etc. Birling’s complacency exposed through dramatic irony.  Mrs Birling’s isolation and lack of compassion is revealed through her dismissing ‘girls of that sort’ and ‘the father’ – this attitude leads to death of her grandchild, which is highly ironical.

Use of time:
Tension built by two years being condensed into one continuous evening of ‘real time where one Act leads directly to the next and where they ‘don’t have much time’.   Consider the final phone call (its ‘sharp’ ring and its ‘panic-stricken’ result) – is this the real police or are we in a nightmarish loop of time which will repeat itself ad infinitum?

Celebration, death of the innocent, selfishness of the wealthy and powerful, consideration for others, love, pride, humility etc.  Divisions in the family and differing attitudes between generations are exposed.  Sheila’s warnings to the family.   Highlighted through contrasts, warnings (e.g. Inspector’s speech and Sheila’s ‘You’ll see’), pomposity, guilt, avoiding the issues.

The Inspector’s Powerful final speech:

Identifies Priestley’s purpose with emotional, religious and moral intensity.  Followed by his sudden departure that leaves the family ‘subdued’. Pauses and silences are invaluable in the raising of tension.


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