An Inspector Calls: Channeling Morals in the Character of Eric Birling

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

The fictional play ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written by J.B. Priestly in 1945, and is based on morals that challenge the upper class in the Edwardian times. One of the key characters is the role of Sheila Birling, who is considered a typical rich woman. The play’s plot changes when Inspector Goole arrives and tells Sheila’s family about the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith, which alters the entire mood. All members of the family allegedly contribute to the reason for Eva’s suicide, but Sheila shows the greatest remorse in her guilty conscience, and seems to learn the most from the Inspectors visit. Through the progression of the play, Sheila clearly pushes the social boundaries of women in this era, becoming an embodiment for Priestley’s morals which are conveyed to the audience.

The relationship between Gerald and Sheila adjusts at many times in the play. At the beginning, the pair appear to be tremendously in love with each other, but Gerald is clearly the dominant and controlling half. For her age, Sheila is naïve and immature. For example, when Gerald buys and chooses the engagement ring for Sheila, she has no say, and accepts this, without much questioning. She queries ‘Is this the one you wanted me to have?’, showing the audience her willingness to be controlled, and allowing Gerald to ignore her personal preference. When the Inspector mentions Milwards, she says ‘We go there – in fact I was there this afternoon – for your benefit.’ Her adoration for Gerald is clear here, and it’s apparent that she will go wherever Gerald beckons her, just to please him. This portrays her vulnerability, and how weak she is. Sheila can not stand up for herself, as she feels that she will be overpowered by Gerald. Although Gerald dominates her, and Mr Birling forces her and Gerald’s relationship, Sheila seems content and unaware of it. This distresses the audience, as it’s clear that Sheila could easily stand up for herself, but she fears to. Priestley shows how harsh civilisation was on women in this era, and how men completely overpowered them, which makes the audience want to beg to change the society to a fairer, much equal one. This promotes Priestley’s aim, for a change in Britain’s capitalised nation to an equitable, socialist society.

It’s apparent that the relationship between Gerald and Sheila changes the most in act two. After the inspector reveals that Gerald had cheated on Sheila with Eva Smith (then Daisy Renton), Sheila seems to be less naïve, and becomes more aware of herself and her actions. Gerald tries to make Sheila leave the room when Inspector Goole reveals the affair; ‘I think Miss Birling ought to be excused from this questioning. She’s nothing more to tell you.’ but Sheila actually refuses to leave the room, wanting the Inspector to disclose more of Gerald’s wrong-doings. She starts to show mental strength in herself here, and proves that Gerald cannot undermine her. The couple find things out about each other that they’d have never known before, allowing them to judge each other from a new perspective. Sheila escapes the expectations that she is meant to abide by, and becomes the main voice of the lower class, as a woman in this era. The audience realise that Sheila now has the maturity to accept the fact that her relationship with Gerald will never be the same, she even offers the ring back to him. She understands that their relationship would only be able to continue with serious reconsideration, showing that she has lost all naïveté and can accept the situation, as a grown-up adult would. This links to the idea of Priestley promoting responsibility to the audience throughout the play, showing that if people take responsibility for their actions, as Sheila had, situations can eventually be settled.

The play is set in 1912, a time when society was strongly capitalist, upper and lower-class people were treated completely different, and wealth wasn’t shared equally. Patriarchy is a clear contender in this, and Priestly links the gender inequality in many scenes of the play. Sheila is a victim of this mistreatment, and the roles that she plays throughout are affected by it. For example, Mrs Birling tells Sheila to leave matters aside, regarding Gerald’s clear dishonesty as conventional for men. “Now, Sheila, don’t tease him. When you’re married you’ll realise that men with important work to do sometimes have to spend all their time and energy on their business. You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had.” Mrs. Birling’s views on society are very stereotypical and traditional. She wants Sheila to understand that men make their businesses take priority over their partners at home. She also tries to reflect her and Mr. Birling’s relationship onto Gerald and Sheila’s, by introducing traditional ideologies to the couple. It’s clear that Sheila is treated unfairly here, and it would’ve been very hard for her to stand up for herself in this ordeal. Priestley had quite strong views in responsibility, and was very politically minded. The quote portrays the vulnerability of women in this era, which evokes sympathy from the reader for Sheila. The reader comprehends Priestley’s interpretation of the injustice of women in this era, and understands that if responsibility was actually taken, Sheila and Gerald wouldn’t be put in this position.

Priestley includes the theme of social hierarchy through the play, contrasting gender and the upper/lower classes. “Lady Croft.…feels like you could have done better for yourself socially.” In this era, the higher a family’s social class, the more appealing the female in that family would have been. Gerald was from a much wealthier family than Sheila, therefore she had a lower social position. In many parts of the play, Sheila ignores Gerald’s actions and obeys him, which she would be expected to do, as a female who is in a much lower class than him. Priestley shows how insignificant lower class people are to the more wealthy people. Priestley was very concerned about the repercussions of social hierarchy, and wanted more equality in Britain. In 1942, himself and others created a new political party, the Common Wealth Party, which argued for land’s public ownership, a better democracy, and a new laws in politics. Priestley’s views on socialism provide the audience with an understanding of why he used social hierarchy in the play, and how he used it to create an impact on the audience. The audience also learn about the role of marriage in a woman’s status through this era. Men would usually be the breadwinners, so women would hope to impress and marry a rich man. Marriage was expected for women, so they would be more respected if they’d married off with a wealthy, rich man. It wasn’t really an act of love.

In conclusion, Sheila is clearly the character who dramatically changes the most, as Priestley uses her to convey his main messages. She is the only character who is really affected by the inspector, and becomes easily influenced by his ideas for the future society. Before the inspector enters the play, she is presented as the perfect future wife, regardless of her knowing that Gerald was dishonest during the past summer. Her character matures though, and she leaves the play as a strong woman, who’s ideas adapt to aim for a better, socialist society. She provides hope to the audience, that a change in civilisation is possible if people begin to take responsibility for their wrong-doings, and treat each other as equal human beings.


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