‘An Inspector Calls’: Eva Smith

Character profile and Revision Notes

Eva Smith does not appear on stage.  What are the dramatic benefits of this and how does it help Priestley develop his themes?

The words of other characters reveal Eva’s her noble qualities.  For instance,. Eric comments on how she would not accept the stolen money and would not marry him despite his willingness; Gerald describes how she goes away to nurse her loss of him.  There is a sense that Eva has Christian qualities.  Absence allows Eva to become a symbol more saintly, more noble, more unassuming etc than ordinary mortals with all their faults; Eva on stage would focus the audience on the character instead of Priestley’s intended messages on the theme of the need for responsibility to replace the self-interest of the privileged.  She is also a representative of the working classes and, as such, is faceless to the middle classes; it is therefore highly symbolic that we do not see her on stage because she, and others like her, are not seen in real life.  Birling hardly remembers her, Sheila does not know her name and there is considerable confusion surrounding her name (think of examples).  The uncertainty of identity allows Priestley to show, through Gerald, Mrs Birling and Mr Birling, how individuals avoid responsibility for others.  This also highlights the differences between the generations: for instance Birling thinks that they have been the butt of a joke.  However, as Sheila notes, the Inspector’s message goes beyond whether Eva/Daisy is one woman or not.

Callousness, which is partly based on conceptions of class, particularly in the case of Mrs Birling, and to some extent Sheila, is revealed.  Priestley also satirises modern industrialists who seek to maximise profits at the expense of their employees, young men-about-town who force themselves on women and wealthy businessmen who take mistresses.  The middle classes are seen to be exploiting the working classes through liberties taken in employment, in love, in sexual matters, through money, status etc.  One example of the latter is Mrs Birling using her influential position to ensure that Eva gets no help.  We are informed that ‘there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths’ and this, along with the common name ‘Smith’ and her not appearing on stage, helps to show the audience the high number of people who need support.

The audience constructs what Eva’s feelings might have been – the inspector’s words help here, referring to her unemployment, hopes, diary etc.    The loss of the grandchild moves the audience to pity and Eva’s absence allows feelings of regret to become more poignant e.g. Sheila’s lament, that she cannot help her now, is very moving.  We learn about Eva piece-meal; dramatic tension is raised as the audience begins to realise the catalogue of selfish actions that lead inexorably to her death.  The Inspector has no intention of forgiving the suffering caused – Priestley raises the tension by using the Inspector as an avenging angel.  As we learn the whole story, we become critical of all the characters.  Remember that Priestley’s purpose is to persuade his audience that selfish behaviour is to be castigated (good word!).  The uncertainty, about Eva’s death, gives the play tension up to the final dramatic dénouement of the telephone call about a suicide; at this final point the audience’s desire/clamour for justice is satisfied because an inspector is about to obtain a full and (one hopes) an unretractable confession of guilt.

Final Note:

‘An Inspector Calls’ is a play that has audiences – not readers!   You must discuss its dramatic impact, use of contrast and other dramatic devices.  Also, answer the exact question!


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