Eric is the younger child of Arthur and Sybil, described as “not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive”. His first utterance in the play is a loud “guffaw” when Gerald assures Sheila “I will, I will” (be careful not to let her find out about his affairs with Eva). This suggests that he knows about Gerald’s promiscuous behaviour, but because of his own, and the attitude that “it’s alright as long as no one finds out”, he will not tell Sheila even though she is his own sister.
Eric’s mood in the opening minutes is cheerful and indulgent, but he becomes uneasy when he thinks Birling and Gerald know something about him, responding to Gerald’s smooth assurance that they were having “a joke” with “Well, I don’t think it’s very funny”. This suggests that he has a guilty conscience, and is afraid of his misdemeanours being exposed.
Eric shows sympathy for Eva when he hears that she lost her job at Birling’s factory. While Gerald says that Birling “couldn’t have done anything else”, Eric bluntly says “He could. He could have kept her instead of throwing her out. I call it tough luck”. Soon afterwards he “bursts out” “Well I think it’s a dam shame” and shows understanding for Eva’s wish for higher wages and respect and admiration for her having “a bit more spirit than the others”. Birling reacts angrily, speaking contemptuously of “this public school and Varsity life” which has not instilled the same values of a “Practical, hard-headed man of business” in his son. Eric differs from his father, because where Mr. Birling had to work his way up the social adder, Eric was born into wealth and privilege, and so lacks the instinctive “self-made man” outlook of his father. In some ways this automatic access to wealth has made him turn into an irresponsible, careless young man; in others, it has at least saved him from the entrenched selfishness and arrogance which Birling has developed on his social ascent.
Ironically, it is his own mother who insists that “he ought to be dealt with very severely”. When Eric returns, she denies that Eric drinks, but Sheila reminds her that he does. Eric calls her “you little sneak”, suggesting that he still believes in “keeping things quiet” where convenient.
Eric and Eva
Eric is an alcoholic- “His whole manner of handling the decanter and then the drink shows his familiarity with heavy drinking” (P51). This reflects his weakness as a character. Eric meets Eva in the Palace bar- the same place as Gerald- and drunkenly seduces her. This makes him effectively a younger version of Alderman Meggarty. He “threatened to make a row” and so gained access to Eva’s room. When he heard that she was pregnant he was “in a hell of a state about it” though probably because he is afraid of a scandal. He says that Eva “treated me as if I were a kid”- which he is- immature and irresponsible.
Eric then admits to stealing money to support Eva- a redeeming act of kindness, although cowardly, because once again he wants to keep the problem a secret. When Birling furiously demands “Why didn’t you come to me?” Eric replies “you’re not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble”. This highlights the fissures in their relationship and the dysfunctional nature of the family. Eric almost loses control when he hears that Mrs Birling refused Eva help, and accuses her of killing her and “your own grandchild…damn you”. This outburst at least suggests that he is genuinely grief-stricken at the tragedy.
Eric and Sheila
Eric holds the same view as Sheila about Goole, agreeing that “it doesn’t make any real difference” whether Goole was a real policeman or not. He says that he is “ashamed” of his parents, which reflects his own having learned from Goole’s visit, while disgusted at the way his parents have not. He points out the stark contrast between what Birling was saying immediately prior to Goole’s arrival, and the message which Goole left them with (P58).
Eric is very similar to Sheila in that he is portrayed not as a thoroughy corrupt and insensitive person, but is rather a weak, foolish, immature and thoughtless youth whose crime was committed more out of these character flaws than out of wickedness. He, like Sheila, shows the power to learn and change of the younger generation- and at least he will never be like his father.
Eric refuses to dodge responsibility- “You’re beginning to pretend that nothing’s really happened at all. And I can’t see it like that. This girl’s still dead, isn’t she?”…”it’s what happened to the girl and what we al did to her that matters”. Eric and Sheila repeatedly try to get their parents and Gerald, who is proud of his discovering that Goole was in fact not a real policeman, to accept the reality of their collective guilt, but they are all determined to reject any responsibility. Even after Gerald’s theorizing that they could have been shown different photographs, not one, Eric says “You lot may be letting yourselves out nicely, but I can’t”. While the other 4 congratulate themselves, Eric admits that their complacent, arrogant attitude “frightens” him. E is honest and shows integrity. Even though he is weak, he shows a moral strength and courage which his bullying father completely lacks.
- Eric seems embarrassed and awkwardright from the start. The first mention of him in the script is "Eric suddenly guffaws," and then he is unable to explain his laughter, as if he is nervous about something. (It is not until the final act that we realise this must be because of his having stolen some money.) There is another awkward moment when Gerald, Birling and Eric are chatting about women's love of clothes before the Inspector arrives. Do you feel that there is tension in Eric's relationship with his father?
- It soon becomes clear to us (although it takes his parents longer) that he is ahardened drinker. Gerald admits, "I have gathered that he does drink pretty hard."
- When he hears how his father sacked Eva Smith, he supports the worker's cause, like Sheila. "Why shouldn't they try for higher wages?
He feels guilt and frustration with himself over his relationship with the girl. He cries, "Oh - my God! - how stupid it all is!" as he tells his story. He is horrified that his thoughtless actions had such consequences.
- He had some innate sense of responsibility, though, because although he got a woman pregnant, he was concerned enough to give her money. He was obviously less worried about stealing (or 'borrowing' from his father's office) than he was about the girl's future. So, was Eric, initially, the most socially aware member of the Birling family?
- He is appalled by his parents' inability to admit their own responsibility. He tells them forcefully, "I'm ashamed of you." When Birling tries to threaten him in Act III, Eric is aggressive in return: "I don't give a damn now." Do you think Eric has ever stood up to his father in this way before?
- At the end of the play, like Sheila, he is fully aware of his social responsibility. He is not interested in his parents' efforts to cover everything up: as far as he is concerned, the important thing is that a girl is dead. "We did her in all right.
- "Here, what do you mean?" Gerald and Mr Birling are merely sharing a joke, but Eric is uneasy because of recent events.
- "My God!" like Shiela and Gerald, Eric is genuinely upset by the death, even when he thinks he doesn't know the woman.
- "It isn't if you can't go and work somewhere else" Eric has sympathy with the workers.
- "I think I'd better turn in" he panics as he suspects who the girl may be.
- "You told her! Why, you little sneak" sounds a little like his father here- thinks nobody should have let on that he was guilty.
- "Oh my God! How stupid it all is" it distresses him greatly. He is kind at heart.
- "You killed her [...] and your own grandchild" he blames his mother for turning her away. Very angry, shows he cares.
- "What does it matter now whether you get a knighthood or not?" he thinks his father has the wrong priorities.
- "He was our police inspector all right" Eric feels that the Inspector was their inspector morally.
- "You're beginning to pretend now that nothing's really happened at all" he takes Sheila's view that they are still guilty people.
- "It's all the same whether it's been told to a police inspector or somebody else" he sees that they have all done bad things.