Compare the reactions of the different generations of Birling’s to the revelations of the Inspector
We can see from the start that there is a difference in the way that Mr and Ms Birling react to the news of the girl’s death to that in the way Sheila and Eric react. When they are first told what has happened, Eric seems genuinely shocked by the news. His reaction is spontaneous and comes from the heart, showing that he a genuine concern unlike Birling. He is very dismissive when he hears the news and appears not to want to talk about it. The general attitude that he conveys is that he thinks it has nothing to do with him and so why should he be bothered at all.
When Birling learns of the girl’s name, his first interest is himself; he wants to know where he comes in to the matter. This is demonstrated in the way that Birling responds to the inspectors questioning. ‘No-I seem to remember hearing that name- Eva Smith- somewhere. But it doesn’t convey anything to me and I don’t see where I come in to this. ‘ This response conveys the message that Birling really doesn’t care about anything else other than himself. When Birling realises the link between himself and Eva Smith, he refuses to accept the fact that his actions may have had an impact on Eva Smiths decision to take her own life.
He strongly believes that ‘a man has to make his own way’. He does not consider the harm he may cause to other people because of his attitude. He doesn’t want to listen to any of the moral principles that are involved, and would rather cling to his business world. However, Eric doesn’t seem to agree with what Birling thinks and is clearly trying to rebel. He takes the opportunity to argue with his father, and at times incriminate him. Sheila’s reaction is very much like Eric’s. She is obviously upset and distressed by the news the inspector has, even before she realises that she and her family are involved.
When she does find out she is involved, she straightaway realised the implications of her actions, unlike Birling who tries to distance himself from responsibility. Sheila is showing a lot of regret for her behaviour, whereas Birling shows no signs of remorse. She is genuinely distressed by news of the girl’s suicide and thinks her fathers behaviour was unacceptable. She readily agrees that she behaved badly. Unlike Birling’s reaction to the news, she is not only prepared to admit her faults but is keen and anxious to change her behaviour in the future. She learns her responsibilities to others less fortunate than herself.
Her readiness to learn from the experience is in great contrast to her parents. When Mrs Birling enters the scene, she immediately detaches herself from the situation. She adopts the same attitude as Birling, that the world she lives in is different to that of the lower classes. She appears unable to face up to the moral issues that have been raised. Mrs Birling is picking up on all the trivial things of the situation and entirely missing the point. We see towards the end of the book that the older generations of Birling’s follow their attitudes and are unable to accept that they may be wrong.
Mrs Birling thinks that Eva Smith is a low class girl with no moral scruples, again showing us how she thinks. We soon realise that Mr and Mrs Birling have learnt nothing from the inspectors visit. Mrs Birling thinks that she has nothing to do with the world about her. Sheila has realised that this isn’t true; you can’t put up barriers like this between yourself and others. You cannot judge an issue from afar and assume that you have nothing to do with it. Mrs Birling forms judgements on people, creating a detachment between herself and them. Their complacent attitudes are obvious to the reader.
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