An Inspector Calls, a Play by J. B. Priestley: Sheila’s Ideology and Language
By the end of An Inspector Calls, Sheila Birling has developed significantly as a character, certainly in comparison with her parents.” Discuss this view of the play, paying specific attention to Sheila’s ideology and language.
In Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls which is set in 1912, Sheila Birling is portrayed as self-centred and spoilt who, over the years has become the product of the environment in which she lives in. She is a wealthy young woman who emanates from a middle class family.
At first, Priestly starts to portray Sheila as a self-centred and spoilt character in the audience’s eyes. She’s depicted as a playful young girl, the apple of her Daddy’s eye, who is ‘pleased at life’ and a ‘pretty girl in her twenties’ which elucidates to the fact that she is expected of nothing more than to be a pretty face. This advocates to the audience what kind of patriarchal society that Priestly was trying to illustrate which also has deeper meaning of what his judgement of it was at the time. Sheila’s infancy is presented in a childish quotation, when she addresses her father, saying, ‘I’m sorry Daddy.’ The word ‘Daddy’ is typically seen as what children would say to address their parent but people of her age should typically adopt a more mature characteristic. In addition to this Sheila’s ignorant traits are shown in her remark of ‘you talk as if we’re responsible,’ which leaves her to believe that the social level that her family possesses is better or more superior than everyone else due to having no experience with the outside world. The main reason why she acts this way is because of her parents’ infantilastion of her and sugar-coating of the world. Preceding this introduction of the Inspector’s interrogation, the audience can tell by the language of Sheila, that she owns unsophisticated and adolescent characteristics. These characteristics generate disgusted emotions from the audience to Sheila. In addition to this there is a bigger picture, the melodramatic irony of when the play is set, and then of when the play was written. The writer had fought in WW1 and lived through WW2, he understands that the war had torn Europe to pieces which is foreshadowing what may happen in the future to the Birling family as Sheila develops.
In act two, Sheila’s nature evolves progressively, this is revealed when she realises the responsibility and affect that she had on Eva Smith’s death, this start of her enlightenment is due to the hard truths which the inspector throws upon her about playing a part in it. This different trait of Sheila’s character is much preferred by the audience but she still has traces of her naivety and self-centredness. This is revealed when Sheila complains to Gerald “except for all last summer when you never came near me” this shows that the type of language and tone which Sheila used is that of a child and shows her single minded thoughts when all Sheila cares about is being with her partner, due to her parents’ infantilisation towards her. Mrs Birling opposes this comment with “you’ll have to get used to that, just like I have.” This shows that like her mother, women are seen as lower people in society and must make themselves occupied until they are needed and must not complain if they are not required. Sheila shows a concern for someone other than herself when she says ‘oh how horrible, was it an accident,’ the fact that she requests for an insight further into what happened, tells the audience that her character is gradually changing. ‘I can’t help thinking about this girl,’ due to her having the tiniest thought of Eva Smith shows that she believes that she holds partial responsibility for her death. In arrears to this chain of actions this further supports the idea of her development due to the realisation that her action have serious consequences and repercussions and how Sheila is shifting into a better person.
Steadily, Sheila’s character changes and the audience discover a more sympathetic and appealing side to her. Sheila’s manner and composure during the Inspector’s interrogation shows her in a much better light. As the inspector is introduced, we see a change in Sheila, which also reflects what change Priestley, wants in society. She begins to become enlightened and develops into a ‘beacon’ for a generation which rejects old manners and ways (of her parents) who have been living in a ‘bubble’ and have not been aware of the outside world. Evidence of this is when she shows a sincere concern for someone other than herself ‘was that her name, Eva Smith?’ which shows how much Sheila has taken responsibility and realised her place in the whole situation. It also demonstrates how much Sheila can mature being under slight pressure. This climax allows the audience to prefer Sheila’s new individualities than to the ones she had at the start of the play, Priestly does this by using her antithetical nature between her relationships with her parents. They begin to tolerate her further as well as side with her against the old traditions and her capitalist parents.
In the third act, she is presented as a less foolish and naïve character as opposed to when we were first introduced. She is enlightened and now appears to be an honest, compassionate lady who is not afraid to admit guilt when it comes down to it. After realising the hard truths, she is now focused on convincing her parents to realise their capitalist patriarchal actions which led up to the death of Eva Smith. Sheila had taken time to think when she said ‘and now… and I believe… and it was,’ the fact that she took time to think about what she was going to say supports the remorse that she possesses. Her language has shown her rejection to the patriarchal world she lives in, within her conversation with Gerald. As he explains to her that, he had a relationship with Eva Smith, she doesn’t react angrily at first as her first character would do. This tells the audience that she is morally superior than she was before and can overcome old characteristics. Priestly uses an imperative in the quotation, ‘Daisy Renton then,’ Sheila’s tone of voice suggests that she is agitated and distressed.
Sheila’s manner continues to grow openly in the audience’s eyes, as we progress into the final acts of the play. She seems to have understood the Inspector’s purpose in making her realise her actions, she steadily begins to adopt an independent characteristic, which is leaching her away from societal norms. She behaves this way because her social conscience has been awakened and finally realised her and everyone else’s equality in the harsh patriarchal world that she lives in. Sheila is a much more appealing character as opposed to when we were first familiarised with her, she’s acquired more self-knowledge and developed a social conscience. She continuously opposes her parents showing her independence. Her apprehension is shown when she says, ‘I know, I know,’ advocates to the audience that she is remorseful and shows sincere guilt. The repetition exaggerates her remorse and tells us that she is distressed. The enlightenment of Sheila’s character is again, shown in her language when she opposes her parents, in the quotation ‘don’t interfere,’ we can see that she doesn’t run to her parents every time she is in trouble anymore, which demonstrates her independence.
Towards the end of the play, Sheila’s character has most been affected by the melodramatic series of events leading up to the solution of Eva Smith’s death that the Inspector has brought upon her. The radicalness about Priestley’s portrayal of Sheila here, is the sudden change in character from her; she has taken upon qualities of responsibility and independence. ‘I behaved badly too.’ Sheila has acknowledged the significance and seriousness that her actions can do, this tells us that she is feeling rather remorseful. ‘The point is… you haven’t learnt anything,’ this quotation tells the audience that Sheila is taking a stand for herself by opposing her parents.
On page 59 of the play, Sheila moves further along the road to independence: she shares her parents’ suspicions about the Inspector’s identity but, unlike them, she doesn’t take this opportunity to absolve herself of the blame. The fact that she doesn’t put any effort in trying to rid herself of the partial censure of Eva’s death represents a great deal of independence and maturity. It would be much easier for her to deny everything that happened (following her parents’ views) but she doesn’t because her social conscience has been awakened and she finally realizes that it’s wrong. The quotation ‘I’m going anyhow’ shows that she is not a child anymore – again showing independence. ‘Trying not to face the facts’ – At this point Sheila has reached a point where she has gotten extremely agitated and then starts to take out the anger on Mrs. Birling. This action of opposing her mother indicates to the audience that Sheila will not turn a blind eye to her parents’ wrongdoings. It helps us understand the concept of duality within her character because Sheila can be nice, caring and empathic but also has a clever side to her which is indicated through her protection of Eric who is still susceptible to being dragged into the old traditions. When Sheila says ‘I suppose we’re all nice people now,’ her tone of voice indicates that she is being sarcastic and has effectively given up on reforming her parents into better people. By opposing Mr. and Mrs. Birling it shows the audience that a younger, more compassionate generation is coming through, to lead society to equality and out of the patriarchal world. Sheila wants them to see the bigger picture and make them acknowledge what they did, take responsibility and apologize.
To conclude, Priestley presents Sheila at the start of the play as a single-minded girl with no ambition except to follow her parents’ way of life and remain uneducated. But as the play progressed she gradually changed when the Inspector is introduced to the family, which brings out the individualistic side to her character. The play is ridden with animosity and bitterness which reflects the time which it was set in (1912) which was just before WW1. This idea correlates with the main ideas stated above as Priestly had written the play in 1945 knowing that WW1 would come. The writer effectively suggests that the old traditions of the patriarchal and capitalist way of living played large part towards the commence of WW1.
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