Teaching | Who is Inspector Goole? Morals, the treatment of others and biblical allusion

The moralistic figure that opposes the Birlings, Inspector Goole represents compassion and concern for the masses, although the way in which he achieves it is somewhat lacking in morals sometimes. Hypocritical and direct in his approach, the Inspector lacks all empathy for Mr and Mrs Birling, warning that those that cannot own their mistakes should pay in ‘fire and blood and anguish.’ He echoes the days of reckoning to highlight that selfishness has a cost, both in the eyes of God but beyond this, our own sense of self. He argues that we are changed as a result of overlooking other human beings, and whilst Mr and Mrs Birling are too ignorant to see it, their children will never be the same again as a result of the knowledge they now have that they contributed towards the decision of a woman to take her own life.

How is the Inspector moralistic?

Refusing to take a drink, insisting that he decide the line of interrogation, and ignoring Mr Birling’s threats and bribes, the Inspector seems to have one sole purpose: to confirm the truth. Confirm as opposed to seek, as when he questions, it seems that he already knows the answers, but is interested in whether each character will be honest in their response. His warnings to the Birlings and Gerald (‘Public men, Mr Birling, have responsibilities as well as privileges,’ and, ‘it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it’) suggest that he wants to educate them in recognising their errors and flaws.

However… There is a finite tone to the Inspector’s warning, coupled with his repeated reference to time (‘that I haven’t much time’) indicates that the Inspector also has restrictions. Is it that he is a voice of judgement, aware that he can deliver a message but that his time on earth is short? Or is it that he knows he has manipulated time by visiting the Birlings ahead of events, and that he must deliver his message before they find out that a) he is not a police officer or b) a woman is on her way to the Infirmary. There is also the question: if he was truly a deliverer of a moral message, would we expect him to be deliberately cruel, or even inconsistent in his treatment of each character? He seems to form personal opinions of them as the evening progresses.

Mr Birling(cutting through, massively) (dryly)  The Inspector has little regard and patience for Mr Birling, both during his interrogation and later whenever Mr Birling interjects. This disrespect and indifference could be seen as ironic for a character that holds the belief that we have a mutual responsibility for one another.
Sheila(steadily) (harshly) (sternly)The Inspector handles Sheila’s interrogation as a lesson, allowing her to reach the conclusion that she has a great deal to feel guilty about. He is unforgiving and does not hold back or soften his words, which could be argued helps her to understand the extent of her role in Eva’s suicide.
Gerald(massively taking charge) (sharply)The Inspector seems to be more forgiving of Gerald, which seems interesting considering that he ignores social status and hierarchy with all the other characters. It could be because Gerald, as an unreliable narrator,
Mrs Birling(very deliberately) (grimly)Instead of the focus on tone here, the Inspector has to repeatedly ask the same question of Mrs Birling because she doesn’t provide an answer. When he asks what Eva said, she replies to state, ‘nonsense,’ which leaves a lack of clarity around what Eva actually said, but enforces and justifies her behaviour.
Eric(cutting in) And my trouble is – that I haven’t much time. (with calm authority)Considering the implication of sexual attack and a lack of consent from Eva, the Inspector is less stern and forceful with Eric. This could be because he recognises that Eric is a product of his parenting?

Biblical allusion and repentance:

To state that the Inspector echoes the bible is a little simplistic; his final speech (‘we are members of one body’) certainly makes reference to Corinthians, where through Jesus Christ, we are baptised into one body; we cannot exist without one another. This is beyond just being a Christian, but about us as human beings. We cannot be truly happy or satisfied without other people; we live for the approval of others, a sense of belonging, and identity through compassion for others. The Birlings have failed to achieve this other than their seek for approval, which leaves them lacking. They are not likeable characters, and the Inspector helps us to muster up sympathy for Eric and Sheila through repentance. Three times Ezekiel included God’s call to the people of Israel: “Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!” “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses”, “Turn! Turn from your evil ways”. Repentance requires true brokenness, and to some extent, the Inspector achieves this for a moment at least:

Sheila is still quietly crying. Mrs Birling has collapsed into a chair. Eric is brooding desperately. Birling, the only active one, hears the front door slam, moves hesitatingly towards the door, stops, looks gloomily at the other three, then pours himself out a drink, which he hastily swallows.

However, it is important to note that this does not last, and in the Inspector’s absence is replaced with blame, fear and a readiness to find an alternative theory. It is only a call to the hospital that is truly effective, which poses the additional question: did the Inspector have an impact upon these characters at all?

The quick, no-brainer of an answer: yes. Of course. However, whether he has the reaction he hoped to provoke is quite a different argument: the characters are changed, but perhaps not in the way that he would have liked. Or perhaps, as a more detached vessel of message as opposed to a human being with the tangible flaws of caring and compassion for people such as the Birlings, maybe he would not have cared either way. Maybe the entire motivator was the truth, and as an audience, we have that to roll around in our hands before choosing to do something with it.

There is a handout for students that follows this blog here: https://litdrive.org.uk/cmdownloads/who-is-inspector-goole

If you found this useful, this post may also be of use: https://saysmiss.wordpress.com/2019/03/12/whats-not-said-subtleties-in-an-inspector-calls/

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