Character Study: Sheila
Sheila's character develops drastically during the play. She starts off as a spoilt and irresponsible character, but later understands the consequences of her actions and is able to make mature decisions, like breaking off her engagement with Gerald.
In the beginning of the play, Sheila was presented as spoilt and superficial. When she's informed of Eva Smith's death, she says 'Oh, I wish you hadn't told me.' She obviously didn't want to know about such a horrible event and she implies that it's because she has been 'so happy tonight' that she didn't want to hear. She seems to regret finding out only because it has ruined her mood, not because she feels much sympathy for Eva Smith. This shows how spoilt she is because she seems to live in her own, protected bubble that doesn't allow her to understand the harsh parts of life, for example suicide. She seems to be more affected by her engagement dinner being interrupted than by this girl's suicide. She is also superficial because she asks the inspector if Eva was 'Pretty?' This also implies that she cares about appearances since she decided to ask the inspector about how Eva looked. This links back to how spoilt she is because she was raised to care about appearances. Priestley also builds her up to be a hypocrite because she blames her father for her death when she says 'perhaps that spoilt everything for her', when ironically, that's what the same thing Sheila does. Priestly tries to show how much Sheila doesn't pay any attention to the consequences of her actions (at this point in the play) because she criticizes her father for firing Eva when she is the reason Eva gets fired from her second job. Priestley also builds up Sheila to look like a hypocrite by having her say that 'these girls aren't cheap labour-they're people' because Sheila treats Eva as a disposable worker, just as her father did. The reader's opinion of her is very low because she is built up as a selfish spoilt girl, and then appears to be a hypocrite when her story is revealed, so the reader has no sympathy or respect for her because she didn't think to understand the consequences of her actions. This shows how Sheila's character started in the play and Priestley deliberately portrays her as a stereotype of a high class woman that is selfish so that the reader understands the change she goes through in the play when she evolves and is able to understand her actions.
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At the end of the play, Sheila evolves and seems to understand that what she did was wrong. When she says 'I'll never, never do it again to anybody', she shows signs that she has finally understood what she did was wrong, after trying to tell the Inspector that if she could help her now, she would. She obviously gained some perspective by the Inspector and Eric's responses to her story because she seems to be genuinely upset and regretful about what she did. Even though her regret won't bring Eva back, it shows that Sheila was truly affected by her part in Eva's death and she seems to be more affected than her father or Gerald. This sign of character development seems too fast to be true, and this is re-enforced by her asking 'Why did this have to happen?' after she mentions that she can't go back to Milwards. This implies that she is still the spoilt girl in the beginning of the play because she seems to also be greatly affected by the fact that she can't visit her favorite store anymore. This makes the character more plausible because it's not conceivable for a character to change so drastically over a small period of time. This also reminds the reader of her character in the beginning of the play. Sheila also seems to be more mature by the time Gerald has finished his story because she 'hands him her ring' when he leaves to go for a walk. This shows that she has matured enough that she is capable of making her own decisions and she doesn't allow her parents to talk her out of breaking off the engagement. When she is explaining to Gerald why, she says 'at least you've been honest' which shows that she understands honesty is an important quality and she respects Gerald for telling the truth, showing that she has changed enough to be able to appreciate such things. She also shows more maturity by saying 'and it was my fault really that she was so desperate', again highlighting the change in her character because she accepts that she is partly to blame, but she isn't naïve or stupid enough to blame the entire affair on herself because she understands that it was also Gerald's fault. The main way Priestley shows that Sheila has changed is when she says 'you and I aren't the same people who sat down to dinner here'. This shows that she understands that she has changed since the beginning of the evening due to her comprehension of her wrong actions. The fact that she outwardly states that she has changed shows how significant her evolution is because it was the reason she broke off the engagement, which is a significant part of her evolution. The reader's opinion of her gets better and they respect her more because she seems to have broken out of the 'spoilt rich girl' attitude and to mature to the degree that she understands the consequences to her actions, so the reader feels more sympathy for her when Gerald leaves.
In conclusion, Sheila's character has evolved greatly from the beginning of the play until the end because she starts of as an ignorant, naïve girl who lives in a bubble, and then she ends as a mature, responsible woman who takes responsibility for her actions. The reader at first seems to dislike Sheila because she seems to be a whiny, superficial brat who only cares about herself. The reader's opinion changes as the truth begins to unfold and they feel sympathy for her because Gerald had an affair, but they also gain respect for her because she was mature and responsible enough to tell him the truth and take her own actions, instead of just forgiving him like her parents easily did.