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Though responsibility itself is a central theme of the play, the last act of the play provides a fascinating portrait of the way that people can let themselves off the hook. If one message of the play is that we must all care more thoroughly about the general welfare, it is clear that the message is not shared by all. By contrasting the older Birlings and Gerald with Sheila and Eric, Priestley explicitly draws out the difference between those who have accepted their responsibility and those who have not.
In Act III, The interrogation of Eric, is the last in a chain of interrogations which have structured the play since the Inspector’s arrival (in order: Birling, Sheila, Gerald, Mrs. Birling, Eric). Each of the Birlings has played a part in Eva Smith’s death, and each of them must take part of the responsibility for what happened to her and for her final, sad choice. This motif, as well as the structure of the play and of Eva Smith’s life (though, to get the order of events right, Mrs. Birling was the last, not the penultimate, character to affect Eva in reality), points to two of Priestley’s key themes: the interrelationship of cause and effect and, more generally, the nature of time.
Priestley makes a fascinating psychological point regarding the ways people react to guilt and responsibility in this last act. The heady, breathless glee with which Mr. and Mrs. Birling react is incredibly well-observed. As more and more pieces of evidence fall into place, Birling, in particular, is so overjoyed and relieved that he even dares to imitate the Inspector’s final speech. The point, clearly, is that some people are always unwilling to accept responsibility, no matter how clearly it is explained to them. In their own heads, they will find ways out of it. Here, all it takes is to know that they are not going to be held legally responsible in order to stop worrying about their moral responsibility. It will, as the Inspector warns the Birlings at the end, take more than simply being told; they will need to be taught the moral lessons at issue here.