Mr Birling: Why, a friend of mine went over this new liner last week – the Titanic – she sails next week – forty-six thousand eight hundred tons – forty-six thousand eight hundred tons – New York in five days – and every luxury – and unsinkable – absolutely unsinkable. (Act 1, page 7) Nobody contradicted him, and said that there was always the possibility that it might sink. This showed how wrong and gullible Mr Birling and the rest of his family could be. Yes, money could by a ticket for a liner, and luxury, but it could not by happiness, or love.
Although he Birlings were rich, what they did not understand, was the fact that they could not buy anything, that had any real meaning. This was all an example of the use of dramatic irony in the play. Mr Birling had been so sure of what he was saying, and as the audience know, he was completely wrong. He had two wars, and the titanic did sink! Dramatic irony was one of Priestley’s methods, of putting across his message of Community Responsibility.
Sheila did not think that anything could spoil her night, but her happiness was soon to be destroyed, as was her faith in her family.
When Sheila had returned from the other room, she got a surprise to see her father and fiancee, speaking to a Police Inspector. Growing up, Sheila had always been protected by her parents, and even now, in her twenties, her father is trying to stop her from getting involved.
Mr Birling: We shall be along in a minute now. Just finishing. (Act 1, page 17) Sheila: What’s all this about? (Act 1, page 17) Mr Birling: Nothing to do with you, Sheila. Run along. (Act 1, page 17) This really shows Mr Birling as the ‘head of the house’.
Sheila, being the Birlings’ only daughter, is still seen as a child at this point. She is actually very strong willed. She wants to be included in the discussions, and she will not leave. The Inspector tells Sheila to stay, and then tells her that a young girl, had died that night at the infirmary, from swallowing some disinfectant. Sheila: Oh – ho horrible! Was it an accident? (Act 1, page 17) This shows such innocence in Sheila. Most people’s thoughts would be ‘why did she kill herself’, because from what the Inspector had said, they would have assumed that it was deliberate.
However, Sheila has been so separated from the real world, and she was unable to see ‘why’ anyone would want to take their own life, as she has such a wonderful life, and she had never stopped to think that anybody else’s might be different. So, it does not even cross her mind that it may have been intentional. Sheila: I can’t stop thinking about this girl – destroying herself so horribly – and I’ve been so happy tonight. (Act 1, page 17) Suddenly, we see a totally different side to Sheila. She feels awful that while she had been having such a good time, somebody else had been having completely the opposite.
We can now see her as a caring and warm girl, but that is not to last. Sheila: Oh. I wish you hadn’t told me. (Act 1, page 17) She is swiftly thinking about herself again. We see her being selfish again. It’s almost as if the girl has ruined her evening! She has stopped thinking about the dead girl, and is now thinking about her having a good time. Even if it was just for a second, she should not have thought of herself at that time. If she had not been brought up the way she was – spoilt – that would not have crossed her mind. As the Inspector speak of the girl, and asks questions, one of the things that he says, is,
Inspector: The girl’s dead though. (Act 1, page 18) Sheila: What do you mean by saying that? You talk as if we were responsible. (Act 1, page 18) Sheila was annoyed that the Inspector was maybe accusing them of something. It just had not even crossed her mind, that she might actually have done something wrong. It was not even an issue – she just did not think, that maybe she was responsible for the girl’s death. When Sheila learns that her father dismissed the girl, she was distressed by the news, and thinks that her father’s behaviour was unacceptable.
Sheila: I think that was a mean thing to do. Perhaps that spoilt everything for her. (Act 1, page 19) This shows that although she is close to her family, she knows that her father was wrong, and she is ready to say so. The next thing that shows us that Sheila is at this point very caring towards the girl – warm and loving, is when the Inspector refers to working girls, as ‘cheap labour’. Sheila says, Sheila: But these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people. (Act 1, page 19) This shows such respect for Eva Smith, and Sheila did not hesitate to stand up for her.
When Sheila is shown the photograph of the girl, she recognises it, and gives a ‘half-stifled sob’ and then she runs out. This is the time that she realised it was her ho had been the customer who had got her the sack, and in an instant, she regrets what had happened. When she returns, the Inspector tells her that she is only partly responsible, and this shows a very caring side to the Inspector, because this is supposedly his job, and he deals with this kind of situation day in, day out, yet he still finds time to care about Sheila’s feelings. He does not want her to feel entirely guilty, as he knows that it is not all her fault.
Sheila readily agrees that she behaved very badly, and insists that she never meant the girl any harm. Sheila: It didn’t seem anything too terrible at the time. Don’t you understand? And if I could help her now, I would – (Act 1, page 24) Not only is Sheila prepared to admit her faults, but she also appears anxious and keen to change her behaviour in the future. Sheila: I’ll never, never do it again to anybody. (Act 1, page 24) However, even though we have seen this change in Sheila, she goes on to say, Sheila: I’ve noticed them giving me a sort of look sometimes at Milwards – I noticed it even this afternoon.
I suppose some of them remember it. I feel now I can never go there again. (Act 1, pages 24-25) This really brings Sheila’s selfish streak back out. Despite just realising that she is responsible for a young girl’s death, she is thinking about how she feels too embarrassed to shop at Milwards any longer. As we see when Gerald recognises the photograph of the girl, Sheila is sharp, because from his face, she can tell that he knows her. She is then curious about how he knows her, and she has a right to be. Sheila: You not only knew her but you knew her well.
Otherwise, you wouldn’t look so guilty. (Act 1, page 26) As we can see from the quotation above, Sheila is sad that not even her future husband can be true to her. She is beginning to realise that money cannot buy love or trust, and she now knows that her relationship with Gerald needs work. Through this time, she has become very assertive. Gerald: I don’t come into this suicide business. (Act 1, page 26) Sheila: I thought I didn’t, half an hour ago. (Act 1, page 26) Sheila now understands, that there is no point trying to hide any facts from the Inspector, as he already knows so much anyway.
She understands how Gerald is feeling, because just half an hour ago, she was in exactly the same position herself. She now understands that Gerald is involved, and considering she has just found out that her fianci?? knew another woman very well, she is relatively calm. Sheila: I hate to think how much he knows that we don’t know yet. (Act 1, page 26) Sheila is realising, that the Inspector knows more than he is letting on to her family. She knows that there is a lot more that her family is responsible for, than just giving her the sack twice, which is bad enough!
She and the Inspector seem to be on the same ‘wavelength’, and understand what the other is trying to say. When the Inspector has finished with Gerald, Sheila goes to talk to him. She returns the engagement ring to him, and says, Sheila: I don’t dislike you as I did half an hour ago, Gerald. In fact, in some odd way, I rather respect you more than I’ve ever done before. (Act 2, page 40) This shows great maturity in Sheila. She has really grown up, and she now knows that getting angry at Gerald, and taking out her guilt on him, will only make things worse.
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