He is shown by J B Priestley to be a pompous, selfish, complacent man, ex-Lord Mayor, potential Knighthood. Certainly an influential figure within the community, a man that conveys respect. By setting the play in 1912, J B Priestley uses complacent irony to show how self-righteous Birling is, examples of this are abundant throughout the play, “The Germans don’t want war”, and “The Titanic i?? s absolutely unsinkable”, are such examples. When the inspector begins to question him, Birling denies any knowledge of the girl, although when presented with a photograph, remembers, “She was one of my employees and then I discharged her”.
For reasons for which later become apparent, “She had a lot to say, too much, she had to go”, apparently Eva Smith had particular involvement in a strike at his factory. The strike was caused due to poor pay and long hours, although he refuses to accept any responsibility for her death and shows this by saying “If we were all responsible for everything that had happened to everybody it would be very awkward”.
Arthur Birling actually has a fair point here and it could be argued that he was just acting as a businessman, as many others would do. Mr.Birling is shown to be a ruthless man as Eva Smith was striking with a group of other employees as they felt that the money Birling and Company were paying them was not enough. When the strike ended the other striking employees were allowed to go back to work, however, Arthur Birling felt justified in sacking the ‘ring-leaders’ of the strike, including Eva Smith.
Arthur Birling is shown to be one of the unchanging characters throughout the play as he, at no point, takes responsibility for having a part in Eva Smith’s death. He shows this when he says, “… obviously it [the sacking of Eva Smith]…
nearly two years ago… has nothing to do with the wretched girl’s suicide? ” However, Here Mr. Birling shows that he is slightly nervous about having altercations with the law, as he believes that this could effect the likelihood of him receiving a knighthood (as he believes that he is in line for one in the not-so-distant future). The main reason that we can see that Mr. Birling is nervous about that is because he is asking a question of the inspector with that statement, what is almost like asking the inspector whether it looks as if he had been involved in the girl’s death.
Arthur Birling also shows that he is slightly irritated with the inspectors questioning when he say’s, “wretched girl”, which shows his anger at the inspector more than Eva Smith even though he is referring to Eva as being ‘wretched’. This quote also shows that the lower classes are not thought much of by the upper and middle classes; this is also shown throughout the play and is a definite underlying theme. Arthur Birling’s part in the plot of this play is not as substantial as is required of a character to say that they are responsible for the death of Eva Smith.
I would be true to say that Arthur Birling’s actions in ‘releasing’ Eva from his works may have forced her into prostitution and may have contributed to the events that followed, but I cannot draw a conclusion that Mr. Birling is directly responsible for the girl’s death. The second character to be questioned by Inspector Goole was Arthur Birling’s daughter Sheila. Sheila is then told by the inspector that after being dismissed from her father’s works, Eva Smith then found employment in a department shop called Milwards, which just so happens to be a shop at which the Birling’s have an account with.
After a bit more explanation from the Inspector, Sheila realises that Eva Smith was the girl that she had sacked from Milwards because Sheila believed Eva to be mocking her when she had tried on a dress and it did not suit her, however Eva held the dress up to herself and it ‘just suited her’. Sheila Birling, Arthur’s daughter, has a very different set of characteristics. Upon recognising the photograph she immediately runs out the room, as if in disgust of her previous actions, a complete contradiction to her father’s views.
She later returns, guiltily, saying, “You knew it was me all along didn’t you? ” Immediately her character is shown to be sympathetic because of this guilt. Sheila goes on to explain how she was entirely responsible for Eva Smith loosing her job at Milwards, by saying, “I went to the manager at Milwards and I told him that if they didn’t get rid of that girl I’d never go near the place again and I’d persuade mother to close our account with them”. This shows that Sheila, like her father, abused her position as a wealthy member of the community, who could influence others due to her relations.
Sheila does however, feel great guilt for the actions that she committed, she agrees with the Inspector when he says, “You used the power you had to punish the girl”. Unlike her father, Sheila is full of sorrow and remorse for what she did, the inspector supports her when stating, “At least she feels responsible” Sheila does in fact, say, “I know I’m to blame and I’m desperately sorry”. Sheila is also the first to realise that the inspector has a strange type of power, when Mrs Birling is arguing with him, Sheila warns her, “You mustn’t try to build up a kind of wall…
The inspector will just break it down, and it’ll be all the worse when he does”. This later becomes even more apparent as the plot evolves. Sheila’s character is totally unlike that of her fathers, where she accepts responsibility; Arthur Birling completely refuses to accept liability. It is obvious from what Sheila says that she believes she is entirely to blame and feels great guilt, for which she will be forever affected. It is also clear that her character and views have been altered by the event and the impact of the inspector.
Sheila shows that she recognises that she has wronged Eva Smith and she does this by saying that the whole Milwards affair was completely her own fault, and she shows that she regrets what she has done by saying, “It was my own fault… [To Gerald] I expect that you’ve done things you’re ashamed of too”. This shows not only that she it showing remorse from her actions towards Eva Smith, but she is also guessing that Gerald has also done things that he does not wish to re-live, perhaps relating to Eva Smith, as by the time in the play, I think that Sheila believes that the Inspector is planning to target Gerald later on.
She may have drawn this conclusion from when the inspector said, “All in good time” when Gerald asked whether he could see the photograph of Eva Smith. And even though Sheila was outside the room by this time, she may have still overheard this as she had only just left, and even if she hadn’t, I think that she believed that the Inspector was there it target every person that was in the Birling’s house at the time. Gerald Croft, the only person who is not a direct relation to the Birling family, but is engaged to Sheila, also has significant involvement with the death of Eva Smith.
Gerald recognises the name Daisy Renton as soon as he hears the inspector say it. After at first trying to make Sheila leave the room, for reasons that become more apparent later, he tells the story of how he met Eva Smith, or as he knew her Daisy Renton. He describes her as, “very pretty with soft brown hair and big dark eyes”, which could show that he thought that she was different to the other girls in the Palace bar, and suggests a kind of infatuation with her.
Gerald claims to have rescued her from “horrible old Meggarty”, in the Palace bar and set her up in a friend’s set of rooms, where she later, inevitably, became his mistress. He is clearly upset by what has happened by what has happened to her, “she knew it couldn’t last. She didn’t blame me at all. I wish to god she had now. Perhaps I’d feel better about it”. Gerald makes out as if he was merely trying to help Eva Smith and only later started a relationship with her, whether or not this is true is not known. After the explanation, he makes an excuse and leaves.
Gerald’s involvement with Eva Smith is perhaps the least significant, for Eva Smith anyway, perhaps more for Sheila and Gerald. What is a fact is that Gerald did attempt to help Eva Smith, unlike all the others, who were simply punishing her out of spite. Or maybe Gerald was simply using her as his mistress for when he desired and he was as guilty as the others in terms of responsibility. Even if Gerald had not been responsible for the death of Eva Smith, his actions certainly have a consequence as he is engaged to Sheila, who now knows that Gerald was actively having another relationship while they were together.
This puts their relationship into doubt, something that Mr. Birling would no doubt be displeased about. Mrs Birling shows characteristics in some ways to be very similar to her husband, and denies any responsibility herself, instead choosing to blame others, which later becomes a very bad decision. Mrs Birling treats the inspector in a patronising, threatening way, this is shown when she says, “I realise you may have to conduct some kind of enquiry, but I must say you seem to be conducting it in a rather peculiar and offensive manner.
You know of course that my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago”. This shows how highly she thinks of herself and that she is ready to abuse her position, like other members of the family. As a member of the Brumley Women’s Charity Organization Mrs Birling is the last member of the family to have had contact with Eva Smith, having rejected Eva because she had used the Birling family name to claim to the organisation, Mrs Birling ironically tells Eva Smith, to ‘look for the father of the child.
It’s his responsibility’. Mrs Birling refuses to acknowledge any guilt over Eva’s death, even though the girl had been trying to protect the father of the child because “he had been giving her stolen money”, and that he was “a youngster, silly and wild and drinking too much”. She does not realise of course, that she is describing her own son Eric, Mrs Birling even suggests “He ought to be dealt with very severely”. Mrs Birling only later realises the truth at the end of Act Two, where she becomes shocked and upset.
As Mrs Birling is the last to have been in contact with Eva Smith and had the opportunity to offer help, her case is not good and shows what a selfish character she is. It seems that like her husband, Mrs Birling has only her own prospects in thought and is distinctly uninterested by the needs of others, no regret is felt and it seems that she is totally ‘unmoved’ by the whole incident, only caring when she discovers that her own son is involved.
Eric Birling returns to the play in Act Three and under questioning from the inspector reveals the extent of his drinking, his relationship with Eva Smith and the fact that he was embezzling money from his father’s business in order to support her because she was pregnant. Although Eric is young, and immature, he feels genuine guilt and remorse about what he has done. When he discovers that his mother had turned Eva away, his guilt and remorse turn to anger, this is displayed when he says, “Then you killed her.
She came to you to protect me and my child, your grandchild and you killed them both, damn you, damn you”. It is also shown that Eric and his father have no relationship, “You’re not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble”. It is true that Eric has played a part in the death of Eva Smith, although this can be put down to his naivety and youth, whereas the others should have known better. Eric did try to help Eva Smith after she became pregnant, albeit with money stolen from his father.
By the time that the inspector has left, it is quite clear that each member of the Birling family has contributed to Eva Smith’s death, one by one the inspector confronts them and deals a final blow, “Mrs Birling, you turned her away when she most needed help. You refused her even the pitiable little bit of organised charity you had in your power to grant her”, and “Eric, You just used her for the end of a stupid, drunken evening, as if she was an animal, a thing, not a person”. With each confrontation, the intent was to inflict guilt.
The inspector then leaves and the family are left feeling great guilt. Using Gerald Croft as the ‘dramatic device’, J B Priestley then shows that Inspector Goole does not exist. The reactions of the family then change to that of relief for Mr and Mrs Birling, whilst Gerald, Eric and Sheila still feel guilty and regret what they have done. It seems that the elder generation are unmoved by the experience, while Sheila and Eric are completely at odds with their parents. Eric then says, “I agree with Sheila.
It frightens me too. It’s still the same rotten story whether it’s been told to a police inspector or not”. The phone then rings with news that an inspector is being sent over in connection with the death of a young woman and the scenario starts again. Mr and Mrs Birling seem more concerned about their reputation than with the death, while Eric, Sheila and Gerald are still in shock. In conclusion it would be unfair to blame a single person, as each character contributed to the death of Eva Smith.
It may be more wise to blame society and they way in which they lived, as it is Eva Smith’s class and time that set her apart, no real crime has been committed (in my opinion) and it is more a case if social conscience, consequently a moral responsibility should be shared by the family and their future actions affected to help others and not just themselves. The play is not so much about the Birling family themselves, but about society in general, this is shrewdly written by J B Priestley as he manipulates the effect of using characters within the play to get his message across.
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