Mythological Allusions in JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls

Heroes and Monsters

A Spartan helmet

I’ve been revising An Inspector Calls with my Year 11 class recently, as well as teaching it to my Year 10s, leading to me to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the play.

One of the challenges I find when analysing modern drama is that, unlike Shakespeare, its meaningful images are few and far between. It’s for this reason that students are commonly steered towards Inspector Goole’s parting speech; it finally provides something students can get their teeth stuck into: the ‘millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths’ and his warning of ‘fire and blood and anguish’ – powerful and accessible images the majority of students can write about at length.

But recently we were reading Mr Birling’s speech in Act One in which he advises the younger men, Gerald and Eric, to ‘make their own way in the world’. I’ve often found it hard to know what to say about that much beyond it presenting Mr Birling as a character advocating individualism.

For the first time, though, this line struck me as rather heroic in tone, bringing to mind a solitary individual embarking on a journey down a road – the ‘way’ – their gaze fixed on the horizon: an image perhaps of Joseph Campbell’s so-called ‘monomyth’, the ‘hero’s journey’.

Mr Birling, then, is arguably boasting about what he perceives to be his own heroism, how his successful journey to seek out wealth and status was actually a hero’s search for treasure.

The Odyssey

Homer’s The Odyssey features the Cyclopes, a giant with one eye

But Mr Birling, of course, is no hero. He exhibits a partial blindness to his environment: the suffering of his workers and the ‘blood, fire and anguish’ of the immediate future. Not so much a hero, then, but a monster: the Cyclopes, whose sole central eye provides a short-sighted, blinkered view of the world.

In Book 9 of The Odyssey, Homer describes the Cyclopes as:

‘an overweening and lawless folk, who, trusting in the immortal gods, plant nothing with their hands nor plough; but all these things spring up for them without sowing or ploughing, wheat, and barley, and vines, which bear the rich clusters of wine, and the rain of Zeus gives them increase.

Neither assemblies for council have they, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves.’

If this isn’t a description of the Edwardian Capital class, I don’t know what is: the immortal gods are the upper class, who Mr Birling worships, because they provide for him. He produces nothing himself, and yet textiles pour out of his factory thanks to the efforts of the working class, allowing him to enjoy the port wine (‘Giving us  the port, Edna?’).

Mr Birling enjoys the ‘heavily comfortable’ privileges of his position (the lofty mountains), yet he resides in a home that is ‘not cosy and homelike’ (the hollow cave).

It made me wonder whether there was any further mileage in considering heroism and mythology in the play.

Spurred on by my sceptical Year 11s (‘I don’t think Priestley meant that, Sir!’), I’ve recently taken a look at Priestley’s catalogue to see whether this may have been intentional. It turns out that Priestley wrote the libretto to an opera, first performed in 1949, titled The Olympians.

Set in France in 1836, the opera presents the story of the Gods of Olympus who become a group of strolling players when men cease to believe in them. At midsummer they find themselves again to have divine powers.

Priestley, it seems, was thinking about Greek mythology around the time he wrote An Inspector Calls.

So, what other mythological allusions can be drawn? Here are three more I’ve found:

Titanomachy

The War of the Titans (Titanomachy) was fought to decide which generation of gods would have dominion over the universe

Mr Birling enthuses over his friend’s upcoming journey on ‘this new liner – The Titanic’, a name derived from the Titans of Greek mythology. In this ancient myth, the Titans are a tribe of giant gods. Their parents were the earth and sky and they were the first race on earth to have human form. They possessed gigantic force: brute strength. But they were in conflict with a new race called the Olympians, who had intelligence, beauty and skill. Despite their massive strength the Titans go under.

The myth is a warning against what the Greeks called hubris – the dangers of overconfidence – and it is no coincidence that this is also what An Inspector Calls is about. The Edwardian upper class, who ruled with great strength, brutalised the working class (women particularly), but were consequently doomed, like the mythological Titans, to fall to a new (more Socialist) order that valued kindness, intellect, and skill. Historically, this was true: workers went on strike, women demanded the vote, and Clement Atlee was elected prime minister.

The exciting benefit of using this myth as a ‘lens’ through which to view the play is that it creates new meaning that may have not been previously perceived. The upper class in the play appear human, but they are not fully – they are humanoid, and like the Titans, rather primitive in comparison to the new order Olympians.

Further to this, we can also look to epic poetry to make meaning in An Inspector Calls. Like the Titan myth, these are an ancient set of texts that are heroic in tone. They depict the building of civilization by heroism and the domestication of the savage legacy in our human nature, marking the birth of community; a nation.

Beowulf

Beowulf (right) fighting the monster Grendal

Beowulf is an English epic poem probably composed in the 8th Century.

The hero, a warrior called Beowulf, slays the monsters (Grendal and his mother) who emerge from a lake at night to eat any human they can find.

By defeating Grendal, Beowulf saves human civilization from destruction by monsters; a civilization no longer being brutalised by monsters goes on to flourish – it becomes us.

When looking through the lens of this epic poem, the Birling family and Gerald Croft are representative of such monsters at the beginning of the play. Like Grendal and his mother in Beowulf they use people to sustain their monstrous selves through brutal exploitation. In Gerald’s case, especially, he describes the ‘Eva’ he had an affair with as being ‘young and fresh’, that last adjective being reminiscent of food. The other women at the Palace Theatre bar are likewise ‘dough-faced […] tarts’.

Beowulf, the hero, is represented by Sheila and Eric.

Sheila bravely turns on Gerald, breaking off their engagement; no small act, given the seismic consequence it has for Mr Birling’s intended business affairs.

Eric, initially timid, finds his voice and confronts his father head on. No longer a figure of foolishness, Eric adopts a tone of kindness and intellect, recognising that ‘we all helped kill her’.  

With a new generation behaving more heroically by the play’s close, the future of the nation as a community appears to be in safe hands, and in true epic fashion, a greater Britain can be established – precisely what Priestly wanted.

The present is indebted to the heroism of the past, fostering a sense of national pride.

The Iliad

Homer’s The Iliad – the peace offering of a wooden horse; skilful Greek Spartans hidden within

Another epic poem to read alongside An Inspector Calls is Homer’s The Iliad. In this story a beautiful Greek woman, Helen, elopes with a foreign prince, Paris, who then takes her home to Troy.

Helen, however, is already married which causes a clash between Greece and Troy.

For our purposes, I would posit that Ancient Greece (itself a coalition, significantly) could represent Socialism; and Troy, Edwardian Capitalism.

Rather than attack them head-on, the Greek’s cleverly construct a beautiful wooden horse which they leave at the gates of Troy, but not before hiding some of their most elite Spartan soldiers inside. The Trojans assume victory, presume the horse a peace-offering, and take it inside their walls.

Inspector Goole (not a real police inspector, but in the guise of one) infiltrates the conscience of the Birling family much like the wooden horse infiltrates the walls of Troy. And when Mr Birling, Mrs Birling and Gerald Croft mistakenly think they have been victorious, discovering there is no Inspector Goole, they celebrate (‘Have a drink, Gerald’), only to be stung in the play’s closing lines.

Likewise, Troy, seeing the Greek ships depart and the peace offering of a wooden horse, lay down their arms to celebrate, only to be murdered by the skilful Spartans awaiting within.  

Troy took what did not rightfully belong to it: Helen, a wife of Greece. The Birlings, too, took what was not theirs: more than their fair share.

Troy is eventually burnt to the ground and from those ashes, Ancient Greece rises up to define world history – democracy and our way of life in the west.


Reading texts, like An Inspector Calls, through the lens of mythological allusion is a fascinating way of unearthing deeper, richer and more nuanced meaning.

Helpful, especially when analysing a text that is as heavy-handed as Priestley’s play sometimes is.

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