The transformation of Sheila as illustrated in An inspector’s call
Sheila’s character changes massively throughout J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, often in a manner that registers increasing maturity. At first, Sheila is presented through stage directions as a ‘pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited’; she is pictured as a ‘childish,’ young girl who ‘bickers’ with her brother, calling him ‘squiffy’ and acting in a manner that does not quite suit a young adult. However, as an evolving woman, Sheila matures and becomes more independent towards the end of the play, thus reflecting some of Priestley’s ideas on social equality between genders.
When Gerald first presents Sheila with an engagement ring, she exclaims, ‘Look Mummy- isn’t it a beauty’; this statement presents her character as still childish, since she is whimsical with her mother and is still ‘half playful.’ Her character begins to evolve when she gives her own opinion about Mr Birling’s way of running his business. As she states, ‘but these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people.’ In 1912, women’s views were thought irrelevant in such matters, as is evident earlier in the play where ‘she (Mrs Birling) and Sheila go out’ and Mr Birling speaks alone to the men. Mr Birling also highlights ‘we business men’ in his speech, and by doing so he indicates how women do not fit in the business category; however, in her remarks on labor, Sheila is giving her own view on the matter and is actually contradicting a man’s way of running his business. This scenario reflects Priestley’s ideas on social equality of genders, as he begins to present Sheila as the woman who will lead women to the right to vote and to the same status enjoyed by men. It also shows two contrasting women, one who is dependent on her husband and parents and one who is breaking free and is becoming more independent.
We know that Sheila’s actions leading to Eva Smith’s second dis-employment were carried out because she was in ‘a furious temper’ and because the item of clothing she was trying ‘suited her (Eva Smith)’ better instead. This chain of events suggests that Sheila’s spoiled upbringing has resulted in her jealousy towards ‘pretty’ women like Eva Smith and implies that she abused her power as ‘the daughter of a good customer and also of a man well known in the town’ to sack Eva because she felt she was ‘better’ than another woman. Sheila thus reveals a childish attitude that led to serious consequences, demonstrating her negatively young character as she was not able to look ahead of her or act more maturely. However, her use of dramatic language in the statement, ‘we killed her,’ shows her definite acceptance of her guilt and collective responsibility. She becomes more independent as the play progresses as towards the end; everyone is ‘triumphant’ and ‘pleased’ with knowing that the Inspector was a fake and that perhaps a collective image is saved. Nonetheless, Sheila replies with, ‘(bitterly) I suppose we’re all good people now,’ and shows her sarcasm as she continues, ‘So nothing’s happened, so there’s nothing to be sorry for, nothing to learn.” Her words show how she has become a woman, contradicting all members of the family as she realizes that honesty and truth are more important than keeping the family name. Sheila shows how she has learned from her experience and, unlike the others who turn back to normal by ‘pretending as if nothing has happened,’ she seems to be the most mature character in the play. She is more open to change than the other characters, especially those of the older generation.
Eventually, Sheila begins to realize the difference between right and wrong. Priestley presents how Sheila has changed towards the end from a girl ‘pleased with life,’ self-centered and attractive, and how she develops a conscience and feeling of regret over her dealings with Eva Smith. Priestley’s idea of social equality of genders has also been articulated clearly as Sheila’s status has been elevated; she now stands against her parents and for herself. Her declaration that ‘I am not a child’ shows how a woman has been made of her and how Sheila is no longer below Gerald or her father in status. She is after all the only one who had developed mostly as a young girl, accepting her responsibility and reminding the members of the family of the Inspector’s message that men ‘will be taught in fire, blood and anguish’ if their actions are not changed. She reflects Priestley’s view on responsibility as she has now accepted her guilt and is now becoming like the Inspector, asking questions and getting to the bottom of the truth.
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