How J.B. Priestley Creates Sympathy for Eva Smith in "An Inspector Calls"
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How J.B. Priestley Creates Sympathy for Eva Smith in "An Inspector Calls" by Stacey March 31st, 2005 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.
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.
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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