Arthur Birling is upper-middle class, a successful factory owner, ex-Lord Mayor of Brumley and a local magistrate. He regards himself as reasonable, paying his employees no more nor less than the going rate. He feels it is his duty to keep the costs down.
He has little/no imagination and seems blind to both his own actions and to events in the larger world. He makes predictions about the future - the unsinkability of The Titanic; the impossibility of war; the promise of technology - which would have been believed by many in 1912, but which would have seemed laughably optimistic and shortsighted to audiences in 1945, who knew what happened. Birling, in many ways, is a stereotype for his time. He is the caricature of the callous heartlessness of a capitalistic businessman.
Birling is self-centred and proud of his status. The possibility of losing his knighthood upsets him more than anything else at the end of the play. It is plain in Act 3 that his motives are to save himself from public scandal rather than protect his son, Eric. He is blind to this hypocrisy and is indifferent when it is pointed out. Just before the end of the play, he happily argues that 'the whole thing's different now' and congratulates himself on having avoided a scandal.
Sybil Birling is even more hard-faced and arrogant than her husband. She is his social superior and her manner indicates that she is very conscious of social position, especially her own. She is extremely snobbish and expects respect. She resents being contradicted, even when caught telling outright lies by the Inspector.
She is genuinely shocked to hear about her son's drinking problem and her concern of Sheila being exposed to 'unpleasant' things suggests that she regards her daughter as a child. It is unclear whether she is genuinely unaware or deliberately blind to the goings-on around her.
If her own status is not being suitably acknowledged, she takes offence at the 'impertinence'. She thinks that people of the lower-classes are almost of a different species. She is offended by Eva's pleas for help as the girl was 'giving herself ridiculous airs and claiming elaborate fine feelings'. Her vindictive attitude towards the father of the baby dramatically changes when she learns that he is Eric, clearly demonstrating her extreme hypocrisy. Mrs Birling does not allow herself to learn anything at the end of the play that would cause her to act caring or compassionate in the future.
Sheila Birling is impressionable and is deeply affected by the Inspector's revelations. She and Eric are the only characters who give cause for any optimism in the play. She is honest and attractive, not cold-blooded like her parents.
She seems at times almost to be an accomplice of the Insepector, taking up his criticism of the other characters and acting as his mouth piece when he has left the stage. She realises that there is no point in concealing the truth - it is time to abandon all pretences. She objects to her parents' attempts to protect her from unpleasant things. Until the Inspector's arrival, she is comfortable with the socially acceptable hypocrisy of such things but the revelations of her family are a learning experience for her.
She is more sensitive than the others, seeing through attempts to cover the truth and realising first what the Inspector is driving at with his enquiries. She is first to wonder who he really is.
Her spiteful complaint about Eva is perhaps the most indefensible action of all as it was based merely on her wounded vanity. However, she felt bad about it at the time, regrets it later on and is honest enough to admit her share of responsibility for the death.
She represents the younger generation that Priestly hopes is still open-minded enough to accept responsibility for others.
Gerald Croft is the upper class fiancé of Sheila. Although he is only around 30, his outlook on life is similar to that of Arthur Birling. He agrees with the way he handled Eva's dismissal.
His first impulse is to conceal his involvement with Eva but, unlike Mr and Mrs Birling, he shows genuine remorse when the news of her death finally sinks in. It is clear that he helped Eva out of genuine sympathy and did not take advantage of her as Eric did. He made her happy for a time and, in many ways, is least to blame for her death. He was in control of the events with Eva, but makes it clear that they both understood that the relationship was to be a short-term affair.
He shows the clearest head at the end of the play in thinking about the Inspector's identity and is first to begin devising a way out. He shows initiative in telephoning the infirmary to check for a dead girl. He seems to have abandoned all remorse by the end and expects Sheila to accept the engagement ring again. He asserts that all is well.
Eric Birling is also in his twenties but probably younger than Sheila, judging by his less mature attitude. He is exposed as a drunkard, the father of an illegitimate unborn child, a liar and a thief. During the first two acts, he functions mainly as an irritant to Mr Birling - continually asking questions that his father regards as silly. Mr Birling clearly thinks that he has not benefited from his obviously expensive education.
He arouses curiosity with his sudden guffaw in Act 1. This is possibly an indication that he knows something of Gerald's affair. Curiosity about him turns to suspicion when he breaks off mid-comment as if he has something to conceal.
He is hostile towards his parents - he finds his father unapproachable and unloving. Eva may have treated him as a 'kid' because she had recognised his need for affection, which she herself shared.
Although a weak and lonely figure, he is capable of real feeling for others, and at the end of the play is on the verge of physically attacking his mother in fury at her lack of charity. In his eyes, his mother 'murdered' his child and its mother, however his responsibility for Eva's suicide is very great. He learns from the evenings revelations and may now be more than a 'silly boy'.
Inspector Goole is an enigmatic figure. He neither changes nor develops, but frequently repeats 'I haven't much time', as if he is working to a pre-arranged schedule. His name is an obvious pun on 'ghoul', a malevolent spirit of ghost. He could be seen as some kind of spirit, sent on behalf of the dead girl to torment the consciences of the characters, or as a sort of cosmic policeman conducting an inquiry as a preliminary to the Day of Judgement, or simply as a forewarning of things to come. Priestly certainly did not seem to want to promote a single interpretation of who the Inspector really is. The character's dramatic power lies in this (to have revealed his identity of a hoaxer or some kind of 'spirit' would have spoilt the unresolved tension that is so effective at the end of the play).
Stage directions for the Inspector stress his purposefulness and deliberate manner of addressing people. There is an air of menace about him and, unlike all the other characters, he does not deviate from his moral position. He is single-minded in pursuing his chosen line of investigation. He alone is certain of his facts. These facts are questioned by the other characters only after he has left.
Goole makes judgements about characters which they feel are unusual or inappropriate in a police inspector. He undermines their complacent assumptions that they are respectful citizens and they find this a shattering experience.
Those characters who resist telling the Inspector the truth suffer more than those who are
more open. The Inspector says to Gerald 'if you're easy with me, I'm easy with you'. Notice that he makes no judgement upon Gerald and tries to stop Sheila from blaming herself too much. However, he begins to lose pateince with Mr Birling. Mrs Birling resists the truth the most and the Inspector is accordingly hashest with her. He persuades characters to reveal things that they would rather were not known. Sheila points out that there is something about the Inspector which makes them tell him things, because they feel that he already knows.
The Inspector has several functions in the play. He acts as the storyteller, linking separate incidents into one coherent life-story (Eva's). He often supplies dates or fills in background information. He also behaves like a father confessor to each character, encouraging them to acknowledge their guilt and to repent. He neither forgives nor punishes. Each character is made to find the courage to judge themselves and if they do not, they will not have learnt enough to be able to change.
He sometimes behaves as the voice of social conscience. Social responsibility becomes greater as privileges increase. He plays the traditional role of a policeman in a 'whodunnit' story, slowly uncovering the truth through careful questioning, placing together evidence with shrewd insight, although not one character has done something to Eva Smith that a court of law would consider a crime.
Post-war audiences of 1945 would have appreciated the Inspector's prophecy of a lesson that 'will be taught... in fire and blood and anguish'.
Eva Smith dominates the action invisibly. By the end of the play, she is as familiar as the other characters. She is presented in an idealised way: she was very pretty, with large, dark eyes and soft, brown hair. She was lively, intelligent and warm-hearted.
Eva is depicted as the innocent victim of selfishness. She was a good worker, but was sacked because of victimisation. She was abandoned by Gerald when she became inconvenient. She was a compliant outlet for Eric's sexual needs and loneliness, but she was also made an accomplice to theft and pregnant by him. She was discarded as unworthy of help when she did not ponder to Mrs Birling's self-importance.
Each incident illustrates that Eva is easy prey for 'respectable' society. She shows kindness and sensitivity, particularly towards Eric, regardless of how she has been treated. She is the complete opposite to most of the other characters. If Sheila had not been given a privileged position in society, she may have had the same fate as Eva as they are the same age.
She represents ordinary people who can be destroyed by indifference when society fails to grant them the right of basic human dignity. The audience is made to understand that complacency, selfishness and thoughtlessness can destroy others.