Arthur Birling represents the bourgeoisie - the capitalist class that controls the wealth and means of production and is more concerned with material gain and conventional attitudes. He is a wealthy factory owner in his mid 50s. He is overweight, overbearing, aggressive, sexist, arrogant, dim-witted, naïve and a bad father (according to Eric, "not the kind of father a chap could go to when he's in trouble").
Mrs Birling is a cold, dull and unsympathetic woman who represents the bourgeoise (female) upper class. More than any other character, she is adamant that she is blameless in Eva Smith's suicide. She also claims that she was the only one who wasn't intimidated by the Inspector, though in reality she, like everyone else, gave him the information he was seeking.
Sheila Birling is in her early twenties, bright, lively and optimistic. Unlike her parents and fiancée, she expresses deep regret for Eva Smith's suicide and her role in it.Sheila is sympathetic to the ideals of socialism: she thinks it was wrong of her father to sack Eva for trying to obtain higher wages; and she expresses horror that poor women like Eva are seen simply as "cheap labour" and not as people.Sheila also displays a free-thinking spiritedness that is characteristic of the suffragette (women's rights) movement of that period.
Eric Birling is of roughly the same age and of the same spirit as his sister. He is adolescent in his manner ("half shy, half assertive") and drinks too much, perhaps because he has not yet found a meaningful role in life.Eric shows the same level of regret and sympathy towards Eva Smith as Sheila does, though what he did to her was much worse and of much greater consequence. Having committed something close to sexual assault, Eric takes a huge risk in stealing money from his father's company to try to make amends. When he discovers that his mother turned Eva away and drove her to suicide, he becomes almost mad with rage, saying, "you killed her - and the child she'd have had too - my child - your own grandchild". This shows that, despite his initial brutishness towards Eva, he does have a tender and paternal side.
Gerald Croft represents the aristocracy - the highest class of society, comprised of rich land owners and people who inherit their wealth from their parents. His father, Sir George Croft, owns Crofts Limited, and his mother is called Lady Croft, which indicates that she holds a peerage.When he learns of Eva Smith's sacking from Mr Birling's factory, Gerald sides with Mr Birling. Unlike Mr Birling, though, Gerald does show some regret for his actions. The Inspector, during his closing speech, points out that Gerald displayed at least some affection towards Eva (in contrast to Eric, who used her "like an animal").Ultimately, though, when Eva's death turns out to be a hoax, Gerald is more relieved than repentant.
Inspector Goole is a mysterious figure. Though his name evokes the word 'ghoul', which means an evil spirit or phantom, he is deeply concerned by Eva Smith's suicide and the concept of society. He is, however, ghost-like in the sense that he doesn't officially exist.The Inspector represents the voice of socialism. This is apparent first in his appearance: he wears plain and ordinary clothes, in contrast to the expensive suits worn by Mr Birling and Gerald.It is symbolic that the Inspector rings the bell of the house just as Mr Birling is telling Eric and Gerald that people must look out solely for their own interests ("a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own - and - "): throughout his interrogation, the Inspector champions the very opposite idea - that "we are all responsible for each other."
Eva Smith is the most significant figure in the play, but, of course, we never see her. She represents the proletariat , or working class.Through the Inspector we learn that she was in her mid 20s, very pretty, had lost both her parents and had no relatives or friends she could turn to.From Mr Birling we learn that she was a good worker and passionate about helping her fellow employees get a higher wage.Gerald teaches us that Eva was kind, charming and headstrong. When Gerald broke off their relationship, Eva took it very well and refused his offers of more money.
Eva's encounter with Eric shows that although by that point emotionally weak, Eva was principled and honest enough to both let Eric escape his paternal responsibilities and reject his offer of stolen money.
The name Eva Smith is symbolic. 'Eva' is close to 'Eve', the name of Adam's wife in the Garden of Eden. According to the Book of Genesis, it is Eve who takes the first bite of the apple of the forbidden tree of knowledge, having been tricked into doing so by the serpent. When Yahweh (God) confronts Adam and Eve for having eaten the fruit, Adam points to Eve as the real offender. With her various stories of bad luck and betrayal, Eva is a lot like Eve.
The surname 'Smith' is the most common in the English language. Priestly chose it to show that, as the Inspector says, "there are millions" of men and women like Eva. As well as being common, the name Smith also has socialist connections: a smith is someone who works in metal, e.g., a blacksmith. Prior to the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, smiths were vital members of a community, but with the coming of machine manufacturing and the huge increase in available "cheap labour", their importance was greatly diminished.
The name Daisy Renton is also symbolic. A daisy is a small and pretty flower that can be easily trampled and crushed underfoot. 'Renton' sounds like rent, which can mean a large tear in a piece of fabric. Together, the names give a sad summary of Eva's life: she is figuratively trodden on and torn apart by the upper classes.