Again, no time has passed between acts. Eric stands looking at the assembled company as before. Before he starts his interrogation, Eric asks for a drink—a request to which the Inspector agrees—and which Birling denies. Eric’s heavy drinking is now no secret, and the Inspector explains to Birling that Eric “needs a drink now just to see him through.”
The Inspector, more quickly than before, sets about interrogating Eric. Eric reveals that he first met Eva Smith in the Palace bar last November. Eva was at the bar because “there was some woman who wanted her to go there.” Eric bought her a few drinks, took her back to her lodgings, made a ruckus (he was quite drunk), and made her let him in. Mrs. Birling is horrified to hear it, and Birling tells Sheila to take her to the drawing room. The two women exit.
The next time Eric met her, it was about a fortnight afterwards at the same bar. He bought her more drinks and took her home again. The two made love again, although this time they talked a little. It was not until the next time, however—or the time after that—that Eva revealed to Eric she was going to have a baby. Eva, Eric says, did not want him to marry her; she told him that he did not love her. Eric gave her money to keep her going—until she refused to take any more money.
The Inspector asks Eric how much he gave her, and he replies that it was about fifty pounds. Birling, startled, asks where it came from, and Eric reveals that he stole it from Birling’s office. Eric was working there at the time, and he asked for cash in payment for a few small accounts. Birling becomes furious and immediately asks for a list of the accounts: “I’ve got to cover this up as soon as I can.”
“Why didn’t you come to me ...?” Birling asks his son, only to receive the damning reply that he is “not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble.” The two are about to launch into an argument, but the Inspector cuts them off, reminding them he does not have much time.
The Inspector explains that the girl discovered that the money Eric was giving her was stolen, and she broke off the relationship. Eric is puzzled about how the Inspector could know this. “She told me nothing. I never spoke to her,” he replies. But Sheila drops the bombshell: “She told mother.” As Eric realizes what his mother did to the girl, he is “nearly at breaking point” and, with Eric moving towards his mother and Birling furiously threatening his son, it looks for a moment as if the Birlings are going to descend into outright anarchy.
Instead the Inspector silences them. He reminds them that they are all responsible for the girl’s death, and he tells them not to forget it. He addresses each member of the family in turn and reminds each one of their part in Eva Smith’s death. Birling, significantly, says he would give thousands, but he is cut off by the Inspector, who tells him he is offering the money “at the wrong time.” Then, in his famous final speech, the Inspector broadens his argument.
“One Eva Smith has gone—but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us ... 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.”
With those final words, the Inspector leaves. Sheila is crying, Mrs. Birling has collapsed into a chair, Eric is brooding, and Birling pours himself a drink. Birling tells Eric that he is to blame for everything, and he laments that he might not receive his knighthood. “There’s every excuse for what your mother and I did,” Birling says, before Sheila stops him, telling him he cannot begin to pretend that nothing much has happened. Birling counters that he will suffer the most from a public scandal, provoking Sheila to comment that he does not seem to have learned anything.
Eric bitterly reminds Birling of his “every man for himself” speech, which he was midway through as the Inspector arrived. Sheila is suddenly listening sharply, and she puts forward the suggestion that the Inspector might not really have been a police inspector at all. Mr. and Mrs. Birling are immediately enlivened by the idea despite Sheila’s protestations that “it doesn’t much matter.” The Inspector, she and Eric conclude, “was our police inspector all right,” even if not an actual police inspector.
Mr. and Mrs. Birling note that the Inspector’s manner was odd—particularly the way he talked to Birling. They start to piece together how a fake Inspector might have pulled off the interrogation. “He had a bit of information, left by the girl, and made a few smart guesses,” Birling suggests. Just as they are warming to their theme, the doorbell rings.
Gerald returns. Down the road he met a police sergeant he knew, and the man swore that there “wasn’t any Inspector Goole or anybody like him on the force here.” Birling immediately rings up the Chief Constable, Colonel Roberts. He describes the Inspector, spells his name, and is told by Roberts that there is no Inspector Goole on the police force. “We’ve been had,” he concludes, triumphantly, before adding that this “makes all the difference.”
“I suppose we’re all nice people now,” says Sheila, and Eric agrees. Their guilt and responsibility, though, are ignored by Birling, delighted to discover that “that fellow was a fraud.” Eric argues that everyone’s bad deeds are still the same, whether or not the Inspector was a police inspector. Birling begins to get annoyed, telling Eric he will have to pay back the money he stole. At that, Sheila interjects that it “won’t bring Eva Smith back to life,” and Eric adds that “we all helped to kill her,” quoting the Inspector.
Gerald, though, pushes the logic further, questioning whether there really was an Eva Smith who committed suicide. Though everyone has admitted something to do with a girl, Gerald goes on, there’s no evidence that it is the same girl in each instance. The Inspector could, Gerald continues, have shown everyone different photographs, and “Daisy Renton” and “Eva Smith” could be entirely separate people. Birling is hugely relieved, even mocking the Inspector’s voice (“A girl has just died in the Infirmary. She drank some strong disinfectant”)—feeling convinced that the whole thing was a hoax. To make the final proof, Gerald rings the Infirmary to check. They tell him that nobody was brought in after drinking disinfectant. “They haven’t had a suicide for months.”
Birling, Mrs. Birling and Gerald are triumphantly relieved, pouring drinks and patting each other on the back. Birling tells Sheila to ask for her ring back from Gerald. He is, as Sheila then points out, “pretending everything’s just as it was before.” The Inspector’s promise of “fire and blood and anguish” still scares Sheila, and she cannot just cast it aside.
In the morning, Mrs. Birling jovially comments, Sheila and Eric will be as amused as she and her husband are. Gerald holds up the ring for Sheila to take back. Sheila rejects it, saying that she must think. Birling is making another sweeping generalization about “the famous younger generation who ... can’t even take a joke” when the phone rings. Birling answers it, listens, and puts the phone down. Looking at the others, panic-stricken, he utters the play’s final lines:
“That was the police. A girl has just died—on her way to the Infirmary—after swallowing some disinfectant. And a police inspector is on his way here—to ask some—questions—”
With that, the curtain falls.
The interrogation of Eric, which begins this act, 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.
The “chain of events” that the Inspector outlined as leading to Eva Smith’s death in Act One is a key idea in the play. The chain of personal and social events is not simply a metaphor for the way the class system holds people like “Eva Smiths and John Smiths” firmly in their subservient positions in society, but it is also a neat encapsulation of the Inspector’s key moral: that everyone, contrary to what Birling explains, is indeed bound up with everyone else “like bees in a hive.” As much as we like to think of ourselves as individuals, we are also social beings.
The Birlings and Gerald Croft are chained together by Eva Smith’s death. Birling sets off the chain which makes possible Sheila’s bad deed against Eva, which in turn throws Eva into the path of Gerald and then Eric and, finally, in front of Mrs. Birling’s committee. Each deed is tied to the deed before it and the deed after it. The individual deeds, linked together, make Eva’s downfall so severe that she chooses suicide—effectively causing this choice. This is the “cause and effect” idea of succession that Priestley explores: the way in which time can indeed make us all responsible for each other.
Both of these themes are present elsewhere in Priestley’s work, particularly in Time and the Conways and [I Have Been Here Before]. Time and the Conways, in particular, is interested in the notion of time as a series of interlocking dimensions: a series of parallel universes. He famously quoted the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle: “if there were more heavens than one, the movement of any of them equally would be time, so that there would be many times at the same time.” Even if, therefore, the chain of events that led to Eva Smith’s death was not in fact a chain, but separate events all involving different girls, Priestley’s theory of time suggests that they might still be seen as part of the same whole.
Consider this passage from Priestley’s “Man and Time”: “We invent Time to explain change and succession. We try to account for it out there in the world we are observing, but soon run into trouble because it is not out there at all. It comes with the travelling searchlight, the moving slit.” Might we see the Inspector as just such a “moving slit,” a function of time who can send the searchlight through to each person’s experiences? Is his role, perhaps, to bring together a series of separate deeds so as to make the Birlings and Gerald Croft realize their collective and individual responsibilities? Perhaps: Priestley leaves the Inspector’s role open to such an interpretation. It is also fascinating to consider that (as is explored in the Stephen Daldry production) the Inspector might indeed come from the future. Is he the "Ghoul" of Eva Smith (or even of her dead baby, somehow) come back to haunt her murderers?
It is important to analyze the Inspector’s promise, later repeated by Sheila, of “fire and blood and anguish” if men will not learn that they are responsible for each other. It seems very likely that Priestley intends the resonance of not just the Second World War but also the First World War, a catastrophically major event in British history that significantly changed the social structure of the country—and led to horrors, particularly in trench warfare, the likes of which had never been seen in living memory. Moreover, to Priestley’s 1946 audience, it would have been an uncomfortably close reminder of the Second World War, which had just concluded.
Explaining Dunne’s theory of time, Priestley noted, “Each of us is a series of observers existing in a series of Times.” The Inspector, it seems, might be just such an observer, who can see beyond the play’s 1912 setting to its 1946 performance date—and who, perhaps, with the promised reappearance of a police inspector at the end of the play (we never learn whether this Inspector is indeed Goole again) can move through time. What are we to take from the play’s ending? The play is over after Birling announces his news, perhaps indicating that the play has gone back to the point at which the Inspector arrived, just to continue again once the curtain falls. Perhaps Eva Smith had not yet died and the Inspector was investigating an event which had not yet happened. However one chooses to interpret the play, one must face the play’s use of the concepts of time that so fascinated Priestley.
After the Inspector’s exit, the focus of the play shifts away from Eva Smith’s story, now complete, as the characters unpack and examine more closely what has just happened. What we see, for the first time, is how the Birlings (and Gerald) are going to, in the Inspector’s words, “adjust their family relationships.” Immediately, the key alliance is formed between Mr. and Mrs. Birling, who are keen to judge Eric as harshly as possible, while sweeping their own moral misdemeanors under the carpet. We also see, when Sheila steps in to defend Eric, that the two Birling siblings have formed another contrasting alliance in line with the Inspector’s message about responsibility and maturity.
Birling himself does not really seem to have changed at all since the first act. His offer of money (could “thousands” really make amends for a girl’s death?) is almost comically inappropriate. Almost as soon as the Inspector leaves, he is primarily considering the potential damage to his chances of getting a knighthood.
It is his wife, though, who seems to remain more ominously unchanged. She alone stands her ground in the face of the Inspector, icily dismissive of “girls of that class,” and though she is shocked by Eric’s behavior and the subsequent revelations, moments after the Inspector’s exit she “comes to life” to tell Eric how “absolutely ashamed” of him she is. Birling throughout is something of a comic buffoon, but it is Sybil Birling, perhaps, who genuinely embodies the disdain for the lower classes, the extreme self-centeredness which Priestley is primarily arguing against.
The other character who interestingly comes into focus in this final act is Gerald Croft. He is not a social equal of his fiancé, and we do not find out a great deal about him—other than, of course, his dealings with Eva. Eric’s naive comment about Eva in the Palace bar (which itself, Priestley makes quite clear, is a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients), about the “woman who wanted her to go there,” seems to suggest that Eva is so desperate that she is working as a prostitute and that this woman is the madam. Yet what is interesting is that Eric, despite his drinking problem, genuinely seems not to understand the implications of it. Gerald could easily have been at the Palace bar looking for a prostitute, and the fact he knows that it is a “favourite haunt of women of the town” proves that he is far more streetwise than Eric Birling. We know, too, from his encounter with Eva that he is quite happy to undertake a sexual relationship without being in love.
Yet we never suspect, when Gerald leaves, that part of his motivation for going might be some interrogation of his own; when he returns, that is precisely what he has been doing. Gerald is even absent from the Inspector’s final speech. We would not suspect, from his behavior at the beginning of the play, that he has been unfaithful to his fiancé. It is Gerald, moreover, who leads the way to unraveling the Inspector’s case and who, in the closing minutes of the play, directly phones the infirmary to find out whether a girl has committed suicide.
Birling, naturally, is delighted. He tells Gerald that the Inspector “didn’t keep you on the run as he did the rest of us.” Yet one can never quite trust Gerald Croft. Ominously, the way he casts aside his own responsibility in favor of trying to prove that the Inspector was a hoaxer actually suggests that he is another Arthur Birling (or worse) in the making.
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.
Priestley’s warning about responsibility has resonated through almost a century of constant international revival in the theatre. In any age it is performed, the apocalyptic, Revelation-style warning of “fire and blood and anguish” looks ominously forward to military conflict. The sociological point is this unusually portentous. If man will not learn to look out for his fellow man in small ways, Priestley seems to argue, then man will destroy man on battlefields, with bombs, with guns, with “fire and blood and anguish.”