Analyse the character of Sheila Birling and Inspector Goole
J.B Priestley wrote ‘An Inspector Calls’ in 1945. The play is set in 1912, in an Edwardian dining room, before the World Wars, when social class was more important in England. We went to see a modern production at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre. It is a morality play that focuses on how a person’s actions over time affect others; I will be focusing on Sheila Birling and Inspector Goole. There are many other themes in the play including the role of conscience and the class divide and I agree that it is a well-made play. The version we saw at the Belgrade Theatre, although very different to the original stage directions, really made the whole play interesting.
In the play text, the play is set in “the dining room of a fairly large suburban house” and remains there all the way through. The production we saw, though, was very different. On the stage was the front of a house, which swung out so the inside of the dining room could be seen. There were homeless children out on the streets with the Birlings’ maid Edna. Most of the production was set outside of the house when each person was being interrogated by the Inspector, which gave the impression that they were on the same level as him and the homeless children. It was a melodramatic production, with nearly everything being very over exaggerated right up to the end, when Edna served them tea outside the tipped-up house. The characters were as written in the play text originally but with more bounce and over the top. The play text involves the audience very much and makes them feel as though they are in the room with the family. However, the production made clear the audience were like the Inspector – only on-lookers on the family watching them.
The Inspector is a very strong character within the production. He changes some members of the family, yet shows the true colours of others. He has a “strong physical presence” and gets straight to the point as soon as he enters the house. He gets everything out of each member of the family through methods of interrogation. In general, the younger members of the family take responsibility for their actions immediately and learn from their mistakes. The slightly older members of the household are more stuck in their ways. The Inspector does make them think about what they have done, and also make them believe that it is was not right. But these feelings did not last very long, because as soon as they found out the Inspector was a fraud, they then felt totally relieved and went back to their old, stubborn ways. They felt that it was perfectly acceptable to have done those terrible things to the “young woman” who “died in the infirmary” as soon as the pressure was off them to admit they were in the wrong.
Sheila Birling is a prominent character in the production and the girl who played her made Sheila extremely sensationalised in her ways and speech. She reacts unhesitatingly at the Inspector’s news of Eva Smith. She is a pretty girl but gets angry in “Millwards” when the shop assistant, Eva Smith, was caught “smiling at Miss Francis” whist Sheila was trying on a dress at the shop. She is very emotional and cries as soon as she knows what she has done. She was engaged to Gerald Croft, owner with his father of a big company at he time.
Inspector Goole was the man who got all the information out of every one of the characters. Firstly, he creates a morbid impression with the characters by telling them “a young woman died in the infirmary” and that “she was in great agony”. The family are totally shocked by this news, and confused because they do not see how this is relevant to a visit from a police inspector. He only deals with “one line of inquiry at a time” and shows each person a photograph of this girl to try to jog their memories.
Mr Birling is the first person to be interrogated, and when shown the picture, Inspector Goole almost puts words into his mouth by saying “I think you remember Eva Smith, now”. He is never content with what the characters tell him at first and repeatedly asks them “Why?” This is one of his interrogation techniques as he is very persistent and never seems to give up until he is sure that he has all the information he wants. When the Inspector is asked why he asks so many questions, he replies, “It’s my duty to ask questions”. I think this makes him seem arrogant and pig-headed to the other characters but also lets them know who is the boss.
Inspector Goole rarely gives any clarified answers, which keep him in the clear from the other characters finding out anything about him, and maybe finding out he is a fake. No-one wonders why the inspector gives no certain answers because he moves on so quickly and they do not really have chance to think about it. Even so, it could make the audience and reader think that he may not know the answers as he only knows vague details. We know that he probably knows each person’s story already as he tells Gerald “I’d prefer you to stay” when he tries to leave. He tells them that Eva Smith “had been pretty – very pretty” which makes Sheila and Mr Birling, who he had already interrogated, feel even worse.
The Inspector makes the characters fall out and argue a lot from what he asks them and the way he links all their actions. This makes them not help each other and so the inspector has an advantage when he is interrogating them, as he knows he will get the truth. Each time he goes to change the character he is investigating he lets them know by either using one of the girl’s names or showing them a picture.
When he interrogates Birling, he is trying to tell him that he is discriminating against the lower class workers when he fires them for wanting a bit more money. When he moves onto Sheila, he plays with her conscience and she knows immediately that she is in the wrong and takes responsibility for her actions. She changes that night, and her and Eric are the only people to take on board what the Inspector says. This is because they are younger and more forgiving. They are not stuck in their ways and are still quite fickle personalities.
Gerald only realises he is involved when Inspector Goole mentions the name “Daisy Renton”. The Inspector worries Gerald and makes him tell his story of the affair in front of his fiancï¿½e. He knows what he did was wrong but did not want to take responsibility for his actions by having the courtesy to tell Sheila what he had been doing behind her back. He breaks down and tells the story after a lot of questioning and cleverly disguised interrogation techniques and learns, although only for a short while, that he had added to the girls “suicide”.
Mrs Birling was so stuck in her ways she instantly refused to comply with Inspector Goole’s wishes. She then gets broken down by the inspector and pours her heart out to him. This has some very serious consequences. His mother then told the inspector about Eric and she didn’t realise it. Her story was just without the name “Eric” but still everyone knew it was he who was the next criminal. Eric knows that everybody else is now aware of his part in things. He is cross with Sheila because it was her that told the others about his drinking problem, but she tells him he is “being unfair” and could have told everyone months ago. The only reason she spoke now was that it was obvious everything was coming out into the open. Mrs Birling is distressed and Mr Birling feels that Sheila had betrayed the whole family, which is fairly obtrusive when he tells Sheila to “Be quiet!”
Inspector Goole brings responsibility into the play very often. The point of him visiting the family was to force them to take responsibility for their actions. The Inspector says to Mrs Birling “Public confession of responsibility?” when she doesn’t realise Eric was responsible for Eva Smith’s condition and wants the man who impregnated her to be publicly humiliated. When he is giving the family a talk about Eva Smith, he says again about responsibility, “We are responsible for each other.” This connects to another theme in the play, which is the effect of individuals’ actions over time.
Sheila Birling is one outcome of the Inspectors interrogations. She is a girl who is willing to change compared to Mr and Mrs Birling. To Inspector Goole, she is probably a perfect target for him, as she did not need much questioning for her to crack. She is Mr Birling’s favourite child as she refers to him as “Daddy” throughout the play. She becomes paranoid that the Inspector had known all along that “it was she.” She just added to the problems, though. She was very pushy towards the other characters for them to tell the truth and to take responsibility for what they had done. She knew straight away that what she had done was wrong and was very upset about it, as it said in the stage directions that “with a little cry, runs out” of the dining room.
At the end of the play they find out that the Inspector had been a fake. Everyone apart from Sheila and Eric felt that they could now go on as normal without a care in the world about what they had done. Sheila and Eric, however, felt very guilty about what she had done and were angry that their mum and dad and Sheila’s fiancï¿½e were willing to ignore the inspector, fake or not. She had said to her father “The point is, you don’t seem to have learnt anything.” In the production, the curtain at the end falls behind Sheila and Eric but in front of Gerald and Mr and Mrs Birling. This was to show the division between the two groups of people. Behind the curtain were the family members who were prepared to forget about what had happened that night and in front were the people prepared to understand and take responsibility for what they had done.
The Inspector had a huge impact on the younger family members. He had caused them to think twice about what they do from now on. Sheila is a different person by the end of the play. She has learnt from the inspector and continues his role after he leaves. She questions and judges her family, knowing more secrets about her family that ever before. We do not know what or who the inspector is, but to Sheila that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that her family have all done awful things to a girl and they should take this point and discover new things about themselves by thinking more about what they have done.
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