Sheila Birling in J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’
An Inspector Calls is a play set in Spring 1912, just before the First World War, but written by J.B. Priestley just after the Second World War. In this time Britain had a capitalist ideal. Basically if you were well-off that was great, but the vast majority of people were poor and lived off tiny wages. Furthermore it was a sexist country, so women didn’t have the same rights as men. For example they were not permitted to vote until 1918, and even then they had to be over 30 until 1928 where the age was lowered to 21, equal to men. This is showed when Sheila and Sybil leave the room, so the men can talk business. Priestly may have written it at this time because he was trying to convey his socialistic views through the mouth of the Inspector, and the inclusion of dramatic irony referring to World War I – “a few German officers talking nonsense and a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing” and “these silly little war scares” – is proof that Priestley believes socialism is the best system.
The Birlings are described through very detailed stage directions. For example, the Birlings are subtly described as materialistic – “[their house] is substantial and heavily comfortable, but not cosy and homelike.” This portrays them as people who care more about appearances than comfort. The lighting is “pink and intimate”; this shows that they are enjoying the night and it might also suggest that they have something to hide. In the stage directions at the beginning of the play, Priestley presents Sheila, as “a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited”. Sheila doesn’t really contrast from the rest of the family at this stage, which would imply she is happy in this selfish, capitalist household.
It is immediately apparent that Sheila and Gerald’s relationship is not based on love; it is more arranged and convenient. For example, Sheila’s engagement to Gerald means a step up the social ladder for the Birlings as Gerald “might have done better for [himself] socially”. Furthermore, it appears that Birling is hoping for a business relationship between Crofts Limited and Birling and Company, “for lower costs and higher prices”. It shows that Birling thinks of this relationship as a means to make money, rather than to make his daughter happy. Furthermore the ring represents materialism and class, rather than love. This is shown because “Sheila kisses Gerald hastily” – indicating a lack of romance. While Sheila looks like she is a bit childish and naÃ¯ve – “Mummy, isn’t it beautiful?” – she is later seen to be quite suspicious and intelligent. For example, when she teases Gerald over his absence “all last summer”, she is “half serious, half playful”. She doesn’t seem convinced he was “awfully busy at the works”. Her suspicions aren’t fully explored because women at the time were expected not to question their husband, which is shown when Mrs. Birling says, “men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business. You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had.” Thus at the start of the play, Sheila seems happy to have a subordinate role.
When the Inspector appears the lighting changes to a “brighter and harder light” which gives the impression of exposure and the revelation of truth. This is significant as it shows that the Inspector will change the mood completely and it indicates secrets coming to light. The audience is enticed to trust the Inspector over Mr. Birling because Mr. Birling says a lot of things which we know not to be true – dramatic irony. For example, he says that the Titanic is, “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.” The audience knows that the Titanic, of course, crashes during its voyage but Mr. Birling doesn’t know this and the repetition of the word “unsinkable” suggests his misplaced certainty. In addition, the audience at this point believes the Inspector to be a real inspector, so they automatically think he is a trustworthy person. Something else that makes the audience more wary of Mr. Birling is when he says, “Now, Inspector, perhaps you and I had better go and talk this over quietly in a corner” which reinforces our opinion that he places money over morality. It looks like he is trying to bribe the Inspector. We also get a clear message that the Inspector is not impressed or intimidated by the social status of Mr. Birling, as many people would in that time. It is shown when Mr. Birling says, “Perhaps I ought to warn you that he’s an old friend of mine, and that I see him fairly frequently. We play golf together sometimes up at West Brumley” followed by the response from the Inspector, “(dryly) I don’t play golf.” This excerpt shows that people would commonly threaten people of a lower class than them using their social status and contacts, which we find out Sheila does to Eva later in the play. The Inspectors response, “I don’t play golf” is a metaphor for saying “I’m not threatened by you” and ultimately “I’m not a capitalist”. This extract also voices Priestley’s views on capitalism, saying how corrupt it is.
When the Inspector announces the death of Eva Smith, Eric is the first to say something – “(involuntarily) My God!” This shows that he is genuinely surprised/caring about the incident. This contrasts with what Mr. Birling says next, “(rather impatiently) Yes, yes. Horrid business. But I don’t understand why you should come here, Inspector.” This shows how selfish Mr. Birling actually is. He obviously doesn’t care about Eva, which is apparent from his impatience – he just wants to know why the Inspector has bothered him. Sheila also appears caring later on when she is shown the picture of Eva Smith, “She looks at it closely, recognizes it with a little cry, gives a half-stifled sob, and then runs out”. This response shows she has much more remorse and guilt than Mr. Birling, who was quick to dismiss any responsibility – “[Me sacking her] has nothing to do with the wretched girl’s suicide. Eh, Inspector?” We find out that Sheila is partly responsible for Eva Smith’s suicide because she complained to the shop Milwards about Eva’s behaviour, as she was jealous of her prettiness and was in a bad mood. We realise that Sheila can be shallow and childish at times, when she says, “When I tried the thing on an looked at myself and knew that it was all wrong, I caught sight of this girl smiling at Miss Francis – as if to say: ‘Doesn’t she look awful’ – and I was absolutely furious.” This extract also makes her look quite vain, because she assumed that Eva was smiling about her, as if there’s nothing else she could possibly be smiling about and that the world revolves around her. The childishness is also supported by the fact that she calls her parents “Mummy” and “Daddy” on numerous occasions. Overall she probably did what she did at Milwards because she “had been in a bad temper anyhow” and just wanted someone to blame, so she took it out on someone she considered lower than her and used her money and status to get what she wanted.
Sheila’s actions (and possibly her beliefs) change throughout the Inspector’s investigation. Upon discovering she is partly responsible for Eva’s death she manages to get a moment alone with Gerald, where she tries to find out his involvement before he is interrogated by the Inspector. Gerald gives himself away because he says, “(started) What?” as soon as the Inspector says the name Daisy Renton. It also looks like Sheila becomes more wary and independent after this, as she asks Gerald questions about Eva and guesses correctly Gerald’s involvement with her – “You not only knew her but you knew her very well.” She also realises that the Inspector knows everything already, “Why – you fool – he knows. Of course he knows. And I hate to think how much he knows that we don’t know yet. You’ll see. You’ll see.” The repetition of “You’ll see” is used to emphasise the fact that before the end of the evening, everyone will be proved guilty which shows that Sheila has superior insight to the rest of the family. Sheila also gets an insight into the way the Inspector works, which she displays when she uses the wall metaphor, “You mustn’t try to build up a kind of wall between us and that girl. If you do, then the Inspector will just break it down and it’ll be all the worse when he does.” In effect here she is saying there’s no point in trying to lie or avoid responsibility, because you will find out that you are in fact responsible. ‘The wall’ also represents the barriers the Birlings exact between the rich and the poor She is saying something similar with the rope metaphor – “He’s giving us the rope – so that we’ll hang ourselves”. This shows that the Inspector is here to make the Birlings admit to their mistakes, rather than just to arrest then because of course in reality they haven’t committed any legal crime towards Eva. Shelia is definitely more receptive to the Inspector’s message. This is further shown by the fact that she is trying to get the rest of the family to just tell the honest truth – “It’ crazy. Please, stop mother”. When Sheila gives the engagement ring back to Gerald this is actually very symbolic. Firstly it shows that Shelia has grown less materialistic and vain and that she values the truth much more, as the ring was the only thing keeping Gerald and her together. In addition it can also be thought of as Sheila’s switch from a capitalist to a socialist as she is turning her back on this symbol of materialism. This shows that she was particularly receptive to the Inspector. The fact that Mr. Birling tries to keep the two engaged, “Now, Sheila, I’m not defending him but you must understand that a lot of young menâ€¦” shows that he is still completely oblivious to the Inspector’s message and is still trying to hold on to the thing that will help him step up on the social ladder.
When the Birlings find out that the Inspector isn’t an actually police inspector, they all behave differently. Sheila and Eric don’t believe that it makes any difference because the Inspector opened their eyes to how selfish he family is, which is shown when Sheila says sarcastically, “I suppose we’re all nice people now.” So the Inspector leaves the biggest impression on the younger generation, which interestingly is mentioned earlier when the Inspector says, “We often [leave an impression] on the young ones. They’re most impressionable. This shows that the younger people have a chance to change their beliefs and do something about it, as they are the future. On the other hand, Mr. and Mrs. Birling seem to think that the Inspector’s fakeness makes all the difference. For example Mr. Birling says, “If that had been a police inspector and he’d heard you confessâ€¦” This shows that he cares more about appearances and how scandalous the ordeal would be rather than how much of an impact it should have had on his beliefs. Priestley’s message is quite complicated. Earlier on the Inspector gives a speech that covers the main themes of the whole play. He says, “One Eva Smith has gone, but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and what we do.” The “hopes and fears” is to emphasise the fact that these people are actual people, not “cheap labour” as Mr. Birling says. This whole speech is basically to say that it is not just one person; millions of people are suffering just for the rich to prosper. Afterwards he says, “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will come soon when, if men will no learn that lesson, then they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish. The term “Fire and blood and anguish” is dramatic irony as it is a reference to the World Wars. The fact that the audience knows that this will happen makes them think that socialism is the correct political system. The final part is open to interpretation, but in my opinion when the family gets the phone call to find out that a girl has actually committed suicide, the audience get the idea that the Inspector might actually be God as he appears omniscient, which tells us that God would prefer everyone to share the blame and understand their mistakes, which fits in with Socialist beliefs.
The Inspector’s role was to make the others admit their secrets and mistakes and make them see that what they did was wrong. Sheila has definitely changed with this, becoming less vain and materialistic. Eric has also changed, becoming more Socialist than Capitalist. The change in the younger generation shows that it is up to them to change the world and make it a better place (a Socialist place). This is because it is too late for the older, elitist more prejudiced generation and the audience knows that because of them the World Wars would be inevitable.