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
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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