How J.B. Priestley Creates Sympathy for Eva Smith in “An Inspector Calls”

January 16, 2019 by Essay Writer

In “An Inspector Calls”, J.B. Priestley uses the characters and attitudes of the Birling family, especially Mr. Birling, to make the audience feel sympathy for Eva Smith. The family is “prosperous” and “comfortable”, and Mr. Birling’s ostentatious posturing emphasizes their good fortune. In the opening lines of the play, he is found discussing port with Gerald, immediately giving the audience a sense of the family’s financial security. When Mr. Birling tells Gerald and Eric that a man should “look after his own”, and not listen to the “cranks” who talk about “community and all that nonsense”, it becomes obvious that he has no interest in the welfare of people like Eva Smith. By making Mr. Birling so arrogant and pompous, JB Priestley renders his character deeply unattractive and encourages the reader to sympathize with his oppressed workforce.The entry of the Inspector causes a dramatic shift in the play’s atmosphere, drawing attention to his shocking news. He almost immediately announces that Eva Smith has “died in the infirmary” after swallowing “strong disinfectant” that “burnt her inside out”. This language provides a striking contrast to the family’s previous conversation, where things were implied, but never directly stated. The Inspector does not use euphemisms to shield the family from the unpleasant images, but says that Eva died in “great agony”. Especially in juxtaposition with the comfortable atmosphere and obvious wealth displayed earlier in the play, the Inspector’s vivid description of Eva Smith’s suffering captures the attention and pity of the audience.Mr. and Mrs. Birling’s uncooperative responses to the Inspector’s questioning increase both the audience’s feelings of distaste towards the Birlings and their sympathy for Eva Smith. Mr. Birling’s initial response to Eva’s death is an impatient “yes, yes. Horrid business”, and even that is said more out of social convention than any real dismay. He sees the Inspector’s questioning as a rude intrusion on his personal time, and is convinced that there is nothing “scandalous about this business”, as far as he “is concerned”. He seems to think that he is above the law, telling the Inspector that he “doesn’t like” his “tone”. He also repeatedly tells the Inspector that he doesn’t think these events are “any concern” of his. Mr. Birling tries to intimidate the Inspector by telling him about the “close” friendship he shares with the chief constable, and then to “settle it sensibly” – in other words, to try to solve the problem with money. Mrs. Birling also tries to intimidate the Inspector, albeit in a more subtle manner than her husband. Mrs. Birling calls his investigation “absurd”, and says that he is “conducting it in a rather peculiar and offensive manner”. She reminds him of her husband’s powerful position in society, as if this absolves the family from any need to cooperate with the Inspector. Mr and Mrs. Birling’s attitude towards the investigation only increases the audience’s sympathy for Eva Smith. It turns the play into a struggle between their viewpoint, and that of the Inspector. This conflict encourages the audience to side with Eva Smith, and with the working classes in general. The Birling family’s refusal to accept responsibility also gives the audience a glimpse of the abuse that Eva suffered at the hands of those in positions of power.The story of exactly what happened to Eva Smith unfolds throughout Act One, as the audience learns that each of the Birlings has hurt her in a different way. First, the audience learns that eighteen months before her suicide, Mr. Birling dismissed her from her job because she’d had “far too much” to say on the subject of her unfair wages. Later, it emerges that Sheila had her sacked from Milwards, mainly because she was in a “furious temper” and “jealous” of Eva. Eva is described as “a lively good-looking girl, country bred”, and “a good worker”, and by Sheila as someone who looked like she could “take care of herself”. These personal details show the audience that Eva’s death was a tragic waste. While questioning the Birlings, the Inspector repeatedly reminds them of her gruesome death, saying that “she wasn’t very pretty when I saw her today”. The contrast between the Birlings’ description of Eva and the Inspector’s account of “what was left” of her in the infirmary emphasizes how thoroughly the Birlings have destroyed her life.One detail in particular rouses the audience’s sympathy towards Eva Smith: the fact she had to change her name. The Birlings use their family name as well as Gerald Croft’s to try to intimidate the Inspector. To them, these names guarantee wealth, respect, and a place in upper-class society. Eva’s situation starkly contrasts with this: the fact that she can so easily change her name shows that she possesses nothing, and has nobody to help her. To people like the Birlings, she is just one of “so many girls” that “keep on changing”, and her name is irrelevant.Another way that Priestley reveals the misery of Eva Smith’s short life is by contrasting it with the happy, protected existence of Sheila Birling, who is about the same age as Eva. Sheila is shallow, childish, and naive. She calls her dad “mean” for sacking Eva Smith, and exclaims that girls like Eva are “people”, as if she has never really thought about such things before. These characteristics are intended to show what a sheltered life Sheila has led. While Sheila is poised to marry a rich and respected young “man about town” and will never be expected to work a day in her life, at the time of her death Eva had already been sacked from two jobs, and had fended for herself for several years. At several points throughout the play, Sheila’s parents try to send her away so that she will not be shocked by the details of the investigation. This only clarifies the double standard present in this situation: the Birlings expect working-class girls to experience things that they do not want their daughter to even hear about. By drawing attention to Sheila’s privileged lifestyle, Eva’s life is made to seem even more pitiful.

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