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An Inspector Calls Character Analysis
Find out more about Priestley's characters in our detailed character analysis and related essays.
Mr Birling is described in the stage directions as a prosperous manufacturer. He dominates the early moments of the play and expects everyone to listen to his speeches. The party he’s holding is not only to celebrate the engagement of his daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft (of Crofts Limited), but also a business manoeuvre so that the two companies “are working together – for lower costs and higher prices”, at a time of considerable industrial unrest. It is Mr Birling who, in a series of wordy speeches, predicts “steadily increasing prosperity”, using the launch of Titanic as a symbol of the future. He also confidently states that there’ll be no war and mocks progressive thinkers like H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. He expects a knighthood for himself which will put him on a closer social scale to Sir George and Lady Croft. He is announcing his philosophy of individualism when the bell rings for the Inspector’s entry. We learn that it was his sacking of Eva Smith that started her downfall. By the end of the play he remains unchanged, greatly cheered by the prospect that it was all a hoax... Until the phone rings again.
Gerald, whose mother comes from an old country family is a prized son-in-law for the Birlings. He seems happy enough to be engaged to Sheila but the only strong feelings he shows are for Eva Smith, whom he knew as Daisy Renton. He makes her his mistress be he felt sorry for her – an arrangement not so unusual for rich young men of the time. He remains engaged to Sheila – it’s accepted on all sides that he would never marry a girl of Eva’s social class, and the relationship comes to an expected end. When the Inspector exposes Gerald’s role, he leaves, saying, “...I’m rather more - upset - by this business than I probably appear to be,” and the Inspector later acknowledges that Gerald at least had some affection for her. It is Gerald who begins the process whereby the Birlings convince themselves it was all a hoax. He tells Sheila that everything is alright now, and tries to get her to accept the ring again. This suggests that he has learnt little from the whole experience.
Sheila is a representative of the younger generation who learn and take heed of the Inspector’s message. Initially she is seen as vain and superficial- a selfish, vindictive creature, getting Eva sacked because Eva looked better in a dress than she did. As the play goes on she begins to grasp the Inspector’s power and mystery, and warns her mother not to underestimate him. Through the course of the play she becomes one of those young women who don’t need to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things. When the older characters rejoice on discovering that the Inspector wasn’t a police inspector she bitterly remarks: “I suppose we’re all nice people now.” She acts almost as the Inspector’s mouthpiece when she says, right at the end of the play: “You began to learn something. And now you’ve stopped. You’re ready to go on in the same old way.” She has learnt, which is why it’s too soon to accept Gerald’s ring. Sheila stands, therefore, for the possibility of a better society in the future.
Sheila’s brother, Eric, is her close ally, on the side of those who feel the impact of the Inspector’s message. This puts him, as the son and heir, into direct conflict with his father. He is clearly not on Mr Birling’s side when he hears how his father had Eva sacked. When Gerald observes that he couldn’t have done anything else, Eric retorts, “He could. He could have kept her on instead of throwing her out.” His heavy drinking is a sign of his unease within his family, and it leads him into his relationship with Eva Smith. The Inspector accuses him of using her “for the end of a stupid drunken evening, as if she was an animal; a thing, not a person,” but he admits that Eric won’t forget. Eric provides the clearest link between the Birlings and Eva Smith, because at the time of her terrible death she is carrying his child- the Birlings’ grandchild. His realisation that his own mother effectively killed her leads to a physical confrontation with his father. When Sheila states to the family “You’re pretending everything’s just as it was before,” Eric says emphatically, “I’m not!”
As soon as he appears, the Inspector dominates the play. Even when he has left the stage his influence is present. Priestley tells us that “he creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness.” He doesn’t just ask factual questions; he already seems to know the answers to these, but he also asks morally probing questions. This is seen when Mr Birling says he refused Eva’s request for a pay rise, he asks “Why?” Similarly, he makes comments which can be viewed as a mixture of the political and the philosophical, such as “... after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.” His name, Goole, reminds us of the word “ghoul”, suggesting something supernatural, but also implying that the Birlings find his interest in Eva “ghoulish”, though we may find it more understandable. He acts as the moral focus of the play, reminding Mr Birling massively, as the stage direction says, that “Public men...have responsibilities as well as privileges.”
His final, climactic speech in Act Three points an accusing finger at each of the other characters in turn, and then becomes a prophecy of Biblical intensity: “We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” The fact that it later seems that he is not a real inspector does not, as Sheila and Eric recognise, take away from his moral purpose. It in fact underlines his symbolic role, one which imagines a society where people are “intertwined” – like strands of the same rope. When Mrs Birling remarks that he has made a great impression on Sheila, he replies: “We often do on the young ones. They’re more impressionable.” The word “We” unites him with future generations, asking how the world came to be in such a state. This is precisely Priestley’s purpose in An Inspector Calls.