Birling is a snob and a social climber, very aware of his position in society, especially as his wife is higher up the social scale than him, as are the Crofts, Gerald’s parents. He tries to impress and intimidate the inspector by mentioning having been mayor, emphasising his connections to the Crofts and his friendship with the Chief Constable. Birling is pompous and makes speeches revealing a selfish and arrogant attitude towards others. His proclamations about the Titanic, the state of the nation and the impossibility of war are all designed to make him look foolish in the eyes of the audience who would have the benefit of hindsight. Birling believes that each person is responsible only for himself and his family and denies any collective or social responsibility. More worried about scandal and his reputation than other people’s feelings, Birling shows a callous and unsympathetic attitude towards Eva Smith. He is very impressed by Gerald and is indulgent towards his affair with Eva Smith even though it is his own daughter who has been betrayed.
An even bigger snob than her husband, Mrs Birling is described in the opening stage directions as a ‘cold woman, and her husband’s social superior’. She is narrow-minded and judgmental about the ‘lower classes’ without really understanding how other people live. She has no insight and is genuinely unaware that her son is a heavy drinker. Her life is governed by her notion of correctness and whilst her daughter is behaving in an appropriate way, she seems to get on with her but when Sheila expresses opinions she doesn’t approve of she reprimands her. Her arrogant and patronising attitude towards the inspector means that she falls a victim to his questioning despite Sheila’s warnings. Although she chairs the committee of a charitable organisation, Sybil Birling is not a charitable person; she is smug and self-satisfied and only serves on the committee out of a sense of duty rather than a genuine desire to help those less fortunate than herself. Because she only hears what she wants to, she is easily offended. It is because Eva Smith had the impertinence to use the Birling name that Mrs Birling refused to help her. She is delighted when it seems that the inspector is a fraud because she feels that she was the only one who didn’t give in to him. She does not change her attitude, has no sense of empathy and shows no remorse for her role in Eva Smith’s death.
At the beginning of the play, Sheila is presented as rather pleased with herself but also rather shallow. She makes inconsequential remarks and speaks in a rather childish way: she calls her mother ‘mummy’ and uses words like ‘squiffy’ and ‘jolly well’. However, she is the only one to immediately accept responsibility for her role in Eva Smith’s death and she is, therefore, probably the most sympathetic character in the play. She is genuinely remorseful for her actions and is very affected by details of the girl’s terrible death. She shows perception in her attitude towards the inspector, realising that he already knows much of what he is asking them and showing intuition about what his questioning is leading to. She is the first to realise that Eric is the father of Eva’s baby and tries to stop her mother from making it worse for Eric. This intuition is also evident in the fact that before information about Gerald’s affair came out, she was suspicious about his behaviour when she speaks to him ‘half serious, half playfully’ about it. Although she acted out of spite and jealousy in getting Eva sacked, she has more of a conscience than any of the other characters and we believe her when she says that she will never do anything like it again. She has more empathy for Eva, recognising her as a person not just as a worker. She is therefore very different from her father and mother and nearer to the inspector in terms of her social conscience. Of all the characters, Sheila is most changed by the inspector’s visit. She is more honest and outspoken than at the beginning of the play, often shocking her mother with her remarks. Sheila represents hope that people can change.
Eric is rather awkward and ill at ease with himself and others. He is described as ‘half shy, half assertive’ immature and weak. He is presented as a drunk who does not stand up for himself against his father. Neither of his parents know him well or understand him and he seems to be lacking their regard and affection. Birling makes it clear that Gerald is the type of son he would have chosen for himself. His liaison with Eva Smith was possibly as a result of his parents’ lack of understanding but he did not treat her well at the time and the revelations that he is a thief compound our view of him as a weak and spoilt young man. He is, however, genuinely sorry about Eva and horrified by the revelations that his mother had turned her away. The audience feels a certain sympathy for him, particularly because he does redeem himself towards the end of the play when he seems to have learnt his lesson.
Gerald is the upper class fiancé of Sheila Birling; unlike Eric, he is at ease with himself and others and has the self-confidence of a young man of his class and upbringing. He is more like Mr Birling in his views and outlook on life than he is Sheila or Eric to whom he is nearer in age. He agrees with the way Mr Birling handles the sacking of Eva Smith and when questioned by the inspector, like Mr and Mrs Birling, his first impulse is to deny everything. However, unlike them, he shows remorse for his actions when he realises what has happened to the girl. He tries to protect Sheila from the revelations about his affair with Eva and once he has begun his confession, he admits what he did. However, he is the one who acts on his suspicions about the inspector and begins the chain of events which result in the revelation that the inspector is a fraud or impostor. Once he realises this, like the Birlings, he reverts to a light-hearted attitude which shows that he has not learned anything from the events of the evening.
The inspector is described as creating ‘an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness’. As each of the characters part in the death of Eva Smith is revealed, he remains constant and unmoving. Although he is described variously as speaking ‘calmly’ and ‘steadily’, he also speaks ‘sternly’ and ‘grimly’. There are several references to his taking control and intervening. The inspector could be said to be a mouth-piece for Priestley’s own opinions and as a contrast with the views of Birling; he has also been called merely a dramatic device to move the plot along. Certainly it is the inspector who makes things happen and takes control of how and when the revelations occur. He decides the order in which each character is questioned. The fact that he is quite ordinary in appearance underlines the fact that he is not ordinary in the way he asks questions and his attitude towards the other characters. He is direct and takes charge on a number of occasions. Both Birling and Mrs Birling remark on his rudeness. He is very single-minded and seems very certain of himself and his facts. He also seems to be omniscient [all-knowing] and Sheila is the one who recognises this most.
He is a catalyst who seems able to get characters to reveal their involvement with Eva Smith because he seems to already know what they are going to say. Some critics have argued that he is like a confessor figure with the characters revealing their sins to him just as they might to a priest. He does not make things easy for them and he does pass judgment on them aloud, unlike a real police inspector although unlike a priest, he neither forgives them nor punishes them. Goole seems to be working to a very tight time-scaleand makes a number of remarks about being in a hurry.
Priestley shows the attitudes of the different characters towards responsibility:
- Mr Birling does not have a sense of responsibility to his workers, just to making a profit and towards his family.
- Mrs Birling has a sense of responsibility to do good deeds by being on the Brumley Women’s Charity Organisation but feels no sense of responsibility for what happened to Eva Smith after she turned her away.
- Gerald seems to show a responsible attitude when he rescued the girl from the attentions of Alderman Meggarty but then used her for his own purposes, discarding her once she was of no further use to him.
- Eric shows little responsibility for his own actions, forcing himself upon Eva when he was in a drunken state and even when he tried to help her, he did it by stealing from his own father.
- Sheila does show a sense of responsibility somewhat belatedly, realising that her actions in Milwards had a devastating consequence for one young woman’s life.
The Inspector wanted each member of the family to share the responsibility of Eva's death: he tells them, "each of you helped to kill her."However, his final speech is aimed not only at the characters on stage, but at the audience too:
'One Eva Smith has gone - but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do'.
- The Palace Variety Theatre was a music hall. It was not seen as quite 'respectable' entertainment - probably not somewhere where Sheila would have gone. The stalls bar of the Palace Variety Theatre, where Eva Smith met both Gerald and Eric, was the bar for the lower classes and a favourite haunt of prostitutes. We could ask what Gerald and Eric were there in the first place! Alderman Meggarty, a local dignitary, also went there a lot.
Priestley is trying to show that the upper classes are unaware that the easy lives they lead rest upon hard work of the lower classes.
- Mr Birling is dismissive of the several hundred women in his factory: "We were paying the usual rates and if they didn't like those rates, they could go and work somewhere else."
- Gerald saw Eva as "young and fresh and charming" - in other words, someone vulnerable he could amuse himself by helping.
- Mrs Birling couldn't believe that "a girl of that sort would ever refuse money." Her charitable committee was a sham: a small amount of money was given to a small amount of women, hardly scratching the surface of the problem.
Because Eva was a woman - in the days before women were valued by society and had not yet been awarded the right to vote - she was in an even worse position than a lower class man. Even upper class women had few choices. For most, the best they could hope for was to impress a rich man and marry well - which could explain why Sheila spent so long in Milwards.
For working class women, a job was crucial. There was no social security at that time, so without a job they had no money. There were very few options open to women in that situation: many saw no alternative but to turn to prostitution.
The older generation and the younger generation take the Inspector's message in different ways. While Sheila and Eric accept their part in Eva's death and feel huge guilt about it, their parents are unable to admit that they did anything wrong.
The Old (Mr and Mrs Birling):
- The old are set in their ways. They are utterly confident that they are right and they see the young as foolish.
- The old will do anything to protect themselves: Mrs Birling lies to the Inspector when he first shows her the photograph; Mr Birling wants to cover up a potential scandal.
- They have never been forced to examine their consciences before and find they cannot do it now - as the saying goes, 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks.'
- Mr and Mrs Birling have much to fear from the visit of the 'real' inspector because they know they will lose everything.
The Young (Sheila and Eric)
- The young are open to new ideas. This is first seen early in Act 1 when both Eric and Sheila express sympathy for the strikers - an idea which horrifies Birling, who can only think of production costs and ignores the human side of the issue.
- The young are honest and admit their faults. Eric refuses to try to cover his part up, saying, "the fact remains that I did what I did."
- Sheila and Eric see the human side of Eva's story and are very troubled by their part in it. They do examine their consciences.
- Sheila and Eric have nothing to fear from the visit of the 'real' inspector because they have already admitted what they have done wrong, and will change.
Gerald Croft is caught in the middle, being neither very young nor old. In the end he sides with the older generation, perhaps because his aristocratic roots influence him to want to keep the status quo and protect his own interests.
Ultimately, we can be optimistic that the young - those who will shape future society - are able to take on board the Inspector's message.
Setting and Subtle Hints
The Setting and Lighting are very important. Priestley describes the scene in detail at the opening of Act 1, so that the audience has the immediate impression of a "heavily comfortable house." The setting is constant (all action happens in the same place). Priestley says that the lighting should be "pink and intimate" before the Inspector arrives - a rose-tinted glow - when it becomes"brighter and harder." The lighting reflects the mood of the play.
'The dining room of a fairly large suburban house, belonging to a prosperous manufacturer. It has good solid furniture of the period. At the moment they have all had a good dinner, are celebrating a special occasion, and are pleased with themselves'.
There are subtle hints that not is all as it seems. For example, early on we wonder whether the happy atmosphere is slightly forced. Sheila wonders where Gerald was last summer, Eric is nervous about something, Lord and Lady Croft did not attend the engagement dinner. This arouses interest in the audience - we want to find out what is going on!
The Inspector himself adds drama:
- He controls the pace and tension by dealing with one line of enquiry at a time. Slowly the story of Eva's life is unravelled, like in a 'whodunnit'.
- He is in command at the end of Act I and the start of Act 2, and the end of Act 2 and the start of Act 3. He is a brooding, inescapable presence, very much in control.
- He is very mysterious and seems to know what is going to happen before it does.
Dramatic Irony and Tone
There is dramatic irony. For instance, the audience knows how wrong Mr Birling is when he makes confident predictions about there not being a war and is excited about the sailing of The Titanic: famously, the ship sank on her maiden voyage. This puts the audience at an advantage over the characters and makes us more involved.
There is a lot of tension as each member of the family is found to have played a part in Eva's death. New pieces of information contribute to the story being constructed. The audience is interested in how each character reacts to the revelations.
Tension and Timing
There are numerous changes in tone. For instance, Mr Birling's confidence is soon replaced - first by self-justification as he tries to explain his part in Eva's death, and then by anxiety.
Timing of entrances and exits is crucial. For example, the Inspector arrives immediately after Birling has told Gerald about his impending knighthood and about how "a man has to look after himself and his own."
The ending leaves the audience on a cliff-hanger. In Act 3 the Birlings believed themselves to be off the hook when it is discovered that the Inspector wasn't real and that no girl had died in the infirmary. This releases some of the tension - but the final telephone call, announcing that a real inspector is on his way to ask questions about the suicide of a young girl, suddenly restores the tension very dramatically. It is an unexpected final twist.
Priestley was a socialist. During the Second World War he broadcast a massively popular weekly radio programme which was attacked by the Conservatives as being too left-wing. The programme was eventually cancelled by the BBC for being too critical of the Government.
Priestley deliberately set his play in 1912 because the date represented an era when all was very different from the time he was writing. In 1912, rigid class and gender boundaries seemed to ensure that nothing would change. Yet by 1945, most of those class and gender divisions had been breached. Priestley wanted to make the most of these changes. Through this play, he encourages people to seize the opportunity the end of the war had given them to build a better, more caring society.