Michael Thompson - 10/05/07
Character Of Sheila Birling In ‘An Inspector Calls’
Sheila Birling is the upper-middle class daughter of Arthur Birling, the successful businessman. Her character significantly changes and develops throughout the course of the play and it is these changes, as well as her overall character that I shall be looking at.
We are first introduced to Sheila during the conversation at the dinner table in the Birling mansion. She is extremely happy and full of zest for life. After all, she is in the middle of celebrating her engagement to a well-respected gentleman with whom she is madly in love. This is one of the highest points of her life. Her first interesting statement is, ‘yes – except for all last summer, when you never came near me’. She is talking about Gerald’s attempts to become ‘one of the family’. After which Gerald makes the excuse of ‘I was awfully busy at the works at that time’. She replies, ‘yes, that’s what you say’. Clearly she does not fully believe his story, as this statement is said in a somewhat sarcastic tone of voice which has emphasis on the, ‘you’. However, we later learn that it is during this period when Gerald is having an affair with Eva Smith. Thus we can see that Sheila is relatively sharp, at least where her husband-to-be is concerned. Throughout the play however this statement is reinforced, as we see that it is Sheila who is the first person to understand what the inspector is actually doing during his interrogations.
She first learns of Eva Smith’s suicide when she re-enters the dining room and finds the inspector talking to Eric, Gerald and Mr. Birling. Immediately she is horror stricken and distressed. She is probably the most distressed of all the family, because she would be of similar age to Eva Smith (and can thus associate herself with Eva more than the others in the family). She begins to change here because the atmosphere of the play is changing. Her happy engagement party has just been soured. She is surprised when the inspector implies that they were responsible but assumes that she is in the clear because she herself has ‘never known an Eva Smith’. Sheila is the only one who believes that Eva Smith, like many other working class girls, ‘are people’ (with the possible exception of Eric). The rest of the family see them as ‘cheap labour’ who should only mix with those of their own class. Clearly Sheila sees this as wrong and this is a characteristic that neither Mr. Or Mrs. Birling shows.
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We can see that Sheila is extremely spoilt. After all she goes to ‘Milwards’, which has a reputation for being a ‘good shop’, and was there ‘that afternoon’. Milwards is clearly an expensive department store and one which (when the play was set) very few people could afford, least of all young girls. Despite being spoilt however, Sheila does not show signs of being a brat, for she shows genuine sympathy for Eva Smith when she says, ‘it’s a rotten shame’. She is a truly sensitive person and this is expanded on more when she realises that she did in fact have a connection with Eva.
She first realises that she may have had a connection when the inspector tells her that Eva Smith was fired from her job at Milwards because ‘a customer complained’. It strikes Sheila that this could have been her, and this is confirmed when the inspector produces a photo of the girl and shows it to Sheila. She is easily upset and runs out of the room. Although Sheila is genuinely upset about her actions, her selfishness is not completely squashed, because is also annoyed that she will never be able to return to Milwards, ‘I feel now I can never go there again’. We know that Sheila is a fairly bright girl, as she is the first person of all the family to realise that the inspector knows everything that he is asking them about. He just wants to make them admit it themselves. Sheila herself admits to the complaint she made in Milwards and tells the audience exactly why she complained; it was not because she herself looked so awful in the dress, but more because the assistant, Eva Smith, looked so beautiful in it. Sheila is evidently a very jealous girls and she admits this to everyone.
In fact this is one of Sheila’s most interesting characteristics. She is very quick to judge herself and to admit to everything. Sheila and Eric are the only two of the five who take complete responsibility for their actions, Sheila especially. When she says, ‘so I’m really responsible’ and ‘it was my own fault’, she is miserable and is attacking herself. This is something that Sheila does continually throughout the course of the play. In fact this is where Sheila’s character changes, she is beginning to grow up and mature. Accepting responsibility is a key part of growing up. Sheila has taken so long to mature because she has been so spoilt throughout her life. Even now she is going to Milwards with her mother, so that she doesn’t have to get a job and pay herself. This has resulted in Sheila taking far longer to mature than the average working class girl and this is why Mr. Birling repeatedly talks to Eric and Sheila as children.
Having learnt how the inspector is working, Sheila desperately tries to stop her mother falling into the same trap. She says, ‘you mustn’t try to build up a kind of wall between us and that girl. If you do the Inspector will just break it down. And it’ll be all the worse when he does’. This is where we know that Sheila has cottoned on to what the inspector is doing. Again she warns Gerald of the inspectors power by saying ‘Of course he knows. And I hate to think how much he knows that we don’t know yet’.
Throughout the play Sheila gradually becomes more and more hysterical but at the same time she increases in humanity and her moral integrity grows. Sheila feels, of all of them, the most guilty and responsible. However when she tries to persuade her parents to accept part of the responsibility by saying, ‘between us we killed her’, she is told by her mother ‘not to talk such nonsense’. It is clear that it is only the younger generation that have learnt from their actions. It appears that as the inspector’s interrogation continues Mr. and Mrs. Birling begin to feel sorry and responsible for the death of Eva Smith. However as soon as they discover that the inspector was a hoax and that Eva Smith did not really die they revert to their old ways and forget everything they were beginning to learn. The parents want to carry on as if nothing has happened – they have leant nothing. Sheila and Eric are the only ones acting maturely, by taking responsibility for their actions.
Thus we can see that Sheila changes quite significantly during the play, starting from the inspector’s entrance. At the beginning Sheila is a spoilt, immature girl who is completely naïve about the ‘real’ world and reality. During the inspector’s interrogation however she develops into a very different character. She quickly learns about the inspector’s inquisitive technique although none of her family can see it. She becomes more like an adult as she begins to, and in the end does, take full responsibility for her actions. Her sensitiveness increases and so does her humanity. All of the guilt she is feeling helps her to learn from her actions and thus her moral integrity grows considerably during the play. This means that she has learnt to respect all people, whether they’re upper class or working class. The emotions that Sheila expresses during the play, and especially towards the end, are the emotions and feelings that the others should be expressing, i.e. sorrow, guilt and responsibility. She is acting as the role model, like the parents should be.
In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that Sheila is the nicest of all the characters. After all, she is the one who learns a lesson and takes something away from the experience. None of the others, apart from Eric, learn anything from their experience. Also Sheila changes so much during the play that her personality is completely different at the end to what it was at the beginning. She develops significantly and this is what makes Sheila such a diverse and interesting character.