For some years I have taught students An Inspector Calls and when we disucss Eric’s behaviour in Act 3, I suggest that we can assume rape as a result of Priestley’s description of his entry to Eva’s rooms: ‘I was in that state when a chap easilty turns nasty’ ‘I threatended to make a row’. Later they meet again -not ‘ by appointment’ (Goole’s coy reference to her prostitution) but in the Palace Bar – Brumley’s brothel salon. We can assume that Eric has been wishing to see her and knows where to find her. The nature of the business transaction is not disucssed. They ‘walk and talk’ and the ‘made love again’ – but Eric is clear that he was not ‘in love… or anything like that’. There is something utterly distasteful about his comment that she was a ‘pretty good sport’ which implies an entitled attitude to the fact that she gave consent – a ‘good sport’ might go along with things even when they do not really wish so to do. They meet again at least twice more before she announces her pregnancy. The time scale is not clear beyond the first fortnight between meetings one and two.
Eric is used to portray Lust and Gluttony (drink) in the moral presentation of the play and his alcohol fueled aggressive passion is clear for all to see and is admitted in his own words. The issue is how much further we can read into the words and what Priestley was trying to do here.
If we take Eric’s words at plain face value we see this:
1: He attended the bar with some friends while a bit squiffy – a lads’ night out for the well-off Brumley boys
2: Eva has a Madame – the mysterious woman who wishes her to attend the bar, but she may not yet be under her control: they return to her ‘lodgings’. We can assume this to be a brothel or rooms under the control of the Madame, but Priestley is not explicit.
3: He is not clear about his actions: he is drunk. He may be telling the truth or he may not. He is never pushed on this idea.
4: The punctuation around ‘And I didn’t even remember – … How stupid it all is!’ is certainly suggestive of a very troubled mind.
5: He avoids her for a fortnight and then returns to the bar where she is because? Possibly because he likes her… possibly because he desires her
6: He slept with her and justifies it on his single status (a dig both at Arthur and Gerald) and the ‘fat old tarts’ to which group Eva evidently did not belong. He also repeats the allegation about the hypocrisy of the town’s ruling class regarding such matters. This has run in the text since Alderman Meggarty was mentioned in Act 1.
7: She tells him she is pregnant and he does ‘the decent thing’ (in his eyes) which she refuses. Her reasons: he does not love her. Eric is upset that she treats him ‘as if I were a kid’ and returns to the theme of his immaturity which has been seen throughout the play.
8: He stole money ‘to keep her going’. £50 is around £3400 in 2018 or around a year’s average wage in a factory – not an insignificant sum. Is this kindness or guilt? Who knows?
We can spend much time hypothesising about the nature of the meeting and the baby – why should we assume it to be Eric’s? The question is not raised, but in the time frame, he is unlikely to be her only client, if she is working as a prostitute. Is this another reason for her to refuse his money and/or another aspect of his naivety?
Obviously we can read more into any of these statements. The Inspector asks ‘and she let you in’ (to the rooms) and we can take this as a reference to consent for sexual activity; we can read lodgings as meaning residential brothel; we can assume Eric is lying or being self-serving when he seems upset or concerned about Eva (though her positive impact – his clear and unavowed views about the strike and his father’s intransigence suggest tha this social attitudes are more of Goole’s party than of his father’s).
My concern is this: Whatever we feel, we need to base disucssion on exploration of the text. We can write off Birling’s obsession with recovering the £50 as evidence of his obsession with profit: placing money above the morality of ‘girls of that sort’. It is harder to write off the utter lack of questioning about the rape by Goole and Sheila.
In a post #metoo and #ibelieveher classroom, the issue of whether this is rape is clear – the majority of young readers assume it is. At this point the contexts of creation and reception diverge.
Reception in 2018 suggests rape and moves Eric to the highest position in the ‘bad birling’ list. Deservedly.
Creation may be different. It is doubtful whether any member of the audience would see this as rape of a prostitute, who has been paid, especially given the relative explosion both in sexual licence and also sexual abuse by soldiery during two world wars. This is particularly true of Soviet Russia, which was turning, and still turns in some official quarters, a blind eye to monstrous sexual cruelty by its army in Germany in 1945. It is possible that Eric’s behaviour would be seen as a minor misdemeanour of a drunken young fool, rather than anything as sinister as rape. We can’t ignore this context and focus solely on the recent when we are teaching or writing about this play.
Priestley chose not to make this rape utterly beyond doubt. And having introduced the event, he drops it almost as swiftly. The revelation opens act 3 – a long act – and is never referred to again thoughout the act, despite ample opportunity. Indeed the structure of this act is carefully planned to ensure that the focus is on the debate within the family, rather than on the actual deeds done. One might expect Sheila, certainly to show some horror at this event and introduce the rape as her trump card in the debate about avoiding blame, but there is none. The issue is the baby(briefly) and then the money – not the rape. Outcome, not process. How very Birling!
Priestley is writing a political polemic to present socialism as a positive. Eric is vital in this disucssion since he is the youngest and has been seen from the beginning of the play to representy socialist views in a positive light. He does not wish to taint his young socilaist with the stain of rape – the naive errors of a guilt-ridden young fool who offers compensation for his actions suit his narrative so much better. His play is direct and offers a straightforward message to the audience. He does not go for deeply hidden figurative meaning and uses Goole to bring out his message at all moments. He does not do so here. He moves the plot on briskly towards Goole’s closing speech and the ‘fire, blood and anguish’. He does not want to muddy the waters of socialism with this appalling action. As the act closes, he introduces Gerald as the vioce of Capitalism seeking to find a loophole to avoid any need ot take responsibility for their actions and leaves Eric and Sheila united against them.
Sadly, it seems that Priestley shares the view of ‘girls of that sort’ or at least does so enough to suggest the worst abuse of her possible, before letting it drop without clarity or comment. It gets in the way of his political message and so is never pursued.
Does Eric rape Eva? I believe so. Does Priestley give us proof ? I do not think the proof would convict in court. Does Priestley wish us to focus on this to the exclusion of his political message? I do not think he does.
Does this render the play as unsuitable in the 21st Century? Possibly. The context of reception may well have overtaken the contexts of creation.