An inspector calls is a play set in 1912 Britain, whereas it was written in 1945 and produced in 1946, after WW2. During An inspector calls, one evening’s events (an interrogation of her family after Eva Smith’s suicide), affect Sheila Birling most compared to her family. She undergoes a change in attitude, her way of thinking and personality. Before the inspector arrives, J.B Priestley presents Sheila to be a naïve, materialistic, privileged young girl and at the end of the play, she learns social responsibility, matures, acquires more self-knowledge and develops a conscience.
At the beginning of the play, Sheila Birling is celebrating her engagement to Gerald Croft. She is described as “a pretty girl, in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited”. This is most probably the cause of being wrapped in a bubble of upper class that her parents have put her in, with a ‘rose-tinted glasses’ view of the world represented by the stage directions; “(lighting should be pink and intimate)”, shielded away from reality and the harshness and bitterness that the lower-class experience.
The audience are introduced to inconspicuous yet nonetheless significant, cracks in Sheila and Gerald’s relationship when Sheila; “(half serious- half playful)” brings up “except for all last summer, when you never came near me, and I wondered what happened to you” The use of the quantifier ‘all’ emphasises the unusually long period of time Gerald was away from Sheila. Given that Sheila says it half playfully demonstrates that it is something that is bothering her and she’s suspicious about where Gerald had been, yet she can’t actually do anything about it even if Gerald was being unfaithful. In the early 1900’s, when this play is set, it was normal for men to be disloyal to their partners and women were expected to sit back, make no protest or turn a blind eye. A wife or daughter would never argue or answer back to the husband or the eldest son. Gerald replies with an excuse of being busy a work, and the fact that Sheila responds with “Yes, that’s what you say” an emphasis due to the italicised ‘you’, shows the audience it is a conversation they keep on having and it seems Sheila cannot let this go. This displays that Sheila doesn’t want to be held down by patriarchy or tied down to social expectations of woman in early 20th century. She further challenges these gender stereotypes after her mother tells her that she must get used to the fact that men have to “spend nearly all their time and energy on their business” by retorting “I don’t believe I will. (Half playful, half serious, to Gerald) So you be careful”. The stage directions again repeat ‘half playful, half serious’ and it is directed at Gerald, so the audience can take interpret this as Sheila not wanting to be subservient as she was expected to be as she directed a warning conveyed by her imperative sentence to her fiancé which was very unconventional for women to do at the time. Through Sheila Birling challenging social conventions, Priestley exposes the restrictive nature of expectations that were placed on women in this time and aims to challenge the requirement of women to be submissive. As this play is showcased to an audience just coming out of Two World Wars, the audience members are aware in the significant role shift of women (e.g. working in factories and contributing greatly to war effort). Priestley tries to encourage his audience to also challenge this gender discrimination.
Furthermore, when Sheila is presented with a ring by Gerald she exclaims “Oh – it’s wonderful! Look – Mummy – isn’t it a beauty? Oh – darling – (she kisses Gerald hastily)” the broken-up speech as a result of the dashes emphasises her excitement and joy at receiving the ring. Consequently, her giddiness and use of ‘mummy’, a juvenile word, displays a childish and naïve, perhaps immature, nature of Sheila to the audience. In addition, instead of commenting on the meaning behind it, she focuses on its appearance ‘isn’t it a beauty’ which brings the audience’s attention to her materialistic nature. As she ‘(kisses Gerald hastily)’ it’s almost as if she’s kisses him out of expectation and as a second priority to the ring. This rushed and unromantic action along with when Sheila “(who has put the ring on admiringly)” says “I think it’s’ perfect. Now I really feel engaged”, make it seem like a very superficial relationship as a moment ago, they were on the brink of a dispute and now all is forgotten because of the jewellery. It doesn’t suggest a relationship based on love and care, but a relationship based on money, class and social climbing. Priestley explores the correlation of being wealthy and materialistic. As Sheila Birling has been shielded in a bubble of wealth, her materialistic nature in inevitable as her whole life she has had things handed to her. Her attraction towards beautiful objects and superficial items reflects her upbringing in a wealthy, money-oriented family. Subsequently, right before her interrogation, Sheila asks the inspector “What do you mean by saying that? You talk as if we were responsible-” The use of an interrogative tone highlights that Sheila is becoming defensive about the subject and at this part of the play, is confused as to why the inspector accuses her family of being responsible.
Upon hearing about Eva’s death, Sheila’s response contrasts greatly with her father’s, who merely distances himself and is very emotionally detached. Sheila’s response is far more emphatic; “oh-how horrible! Was it an accident?” Her exclamative statement indicated by the use of an exclamation mark, conveys her shock and disturbance at the news of someone’s suicide. Also, “(rather distressed)”, Sheila’s next response is “Sorry! It’s just I can’t stop thinking about this girl- destroying herself so horribly- and I’ve been so happy tonight” The stage direction ‘(rather distressed)’ illustrates to the audience that she’s remorseful and upset about Eva’s suicide and this emotional connection of sympathy shows Sheila doesn’t only think about herself. After being told her father looks for cheap labour to make profits, Sheila counters “But these girls aren’t cheap labour- they’re people” the emphasis on ‘people’ as a consequence of italics highlights that Sheila doesn’t view them as solely a workforce that her father does, but as individuals and humans like herself. The contrast of views reflects Priestley’s rebuke for capitalism. In the Victorian Era, the industrial revolution led to rapid urbanisation, and led to fewer jobs being available. Since many people were desperate for work, the workers were paid very low wages and could treat the workers however they wanted. For example, Eva tried to take a stand against the pay but found herself out of a job, as there were plenty of people to replace her. With the Capitalists in control, there was and there were no unions or laws that helped and protected people at work. Being a socialist, Priestley critiques Arthur Birling’s capitalist views by contrasting Sheila and Arthur Birling. Priestley makes Mr Birling a selfish character that the audience will dislike and uses dramatic irony, to also encourage the audience to feel that Mr Birling’s views are foolish, as he voices his opinion on the impossibility of a war occurring, because the audience watching have just experienced two world wars. This then undermines Arthur Birling’s opinions and advocates the audience to disagree with his capitalist views. Through contradicting Sheila and Mr Birling’s views, Sheila embodies Priestley’s view on Socialism and the importance of public responsibility and Priestley exemplifies the self-interest and avaricious, selfish behaviour corresponding with capitalism and explores how these qualities are inevitably connected to a lack of social responsibility.
After realising her involvement in Eva’s death, Sheila explains “I felt rotten about it at the time and now I feel a lot worse” Sheila’s use of adjective ‘rotten’ portrays her remorse to the audience. Using the comparative ‘worse’ exhibits that even when the event occurred, Sheila knew it was wrong and is now admitting her guilt and feeling of responsibility towards the situation. She goes on to further ask “(miserably) So I’m really responsible?” Another stage direction here further emphasises Sheila’s repentance guilt and sorrow for how her actions affected Eva. The word ‘responsible’ is key in this play and her use of it shows her understanding and ownership of her mistake and the effect of her actions on other people. Once she has recalled and relayed the events of the day at Milward’s, stating that she had Eva fired out of pure jealousy and contempt using her power, she expresses “If she’d been some miserable plain little creature, I don’t suppose I’d have done it. But she was very pretty and looked as if she could take care of herself. I couldn’t be sorry for her” The adjective ‘pretty’ again refers to Sheila’s materialistic and shallow ideas about outer beauty, that she portrayed at the beginning of the play that lead to her being jealous and in a bad temper. Her use of ‘creature’, a word that almost dehumanises Eva, could suggest Sheila’s lack of concern about Eva at the time. She goes on to say “And if I could help her now, I would-” The use of Sheila’s modal verb ‘could’ imply that Sheila has learned her lesson and will make a change in her actions since she has accepted guilt and responsibility and feels shame for her actions. However, the abrupt end to her dialogue perhaps demonstrates how it’s too late for her to do anything now as Sheila is already dead or the fact that her life ended abruptly. When Sheila outlines that she’ll “never, never do it again to anybody” her repetition suggests to the audience the extent of her guilt and regret and her changed attitude compared to the day at Milward’s until she exclaims “I feel now I can never go there again. Oh- why had this to happen?” This gives a sense that Sheila Is overdramatising the situation as she is worried about something as trivial as her reputation at the shop and her humiliation which connotes again to selfishness getting in the way and her self-centred traits making a reappearance. The inspector then “(sternly)” reminds her that this is about Eva Smith and draws her back to the conversation at hand. This shows the audience that although Sheila’s change is gradual with her back tracking to previous traits here and then, she is still slowly but surely changing which encapsulates the idea that Sheila, being of younger generation, is willing to change, unlike their parents, the older generation, who are stubborn and resistant to social change. In essence, Priestley explores the connection the younger generation is with being open to new ideas – be politically and socially progressive- and can potentially adopt socialist values and challenge gender discrimination. Sheila and Eric symbolise hope for the future and perhaps hope for Eva Smith and Priestley hopes this play will help the audience to adopt, and hopes the future is immersed in, socialist values.