At the engagement party, she is unobtrusively in control – dealing with the servants (p.2), smoothing over a moment of awkwardness when Sheila does not answer Gerald (p.3), prompting Birling to propose the toast (p.3) and reminding him not to talk shop with Gerald (p.4), and with drawing to allow Birling and Gerald a moment alone together (p.7). She next appears in Act Two, the last of the family to greet the Inspector. (She is later the slowest and most reluctant to admit her guilt in the girl’s death.) Throughout the rest of the play, she is portrayed as determined but narrow-minded, out of touch with what really matters. She is interested in manners, not people.
She dominates those around her – she calls Sheila a ‘child’ (p.30) and tells off the Inspector for being ‘a trifle impertinent’ (p.30). Her lack of understanding of how other people live is shown in her snobbish comments about ‘girls of that class’ (p.30), and in her unwillingness to believe the girl’s reasons for refusing to take the stolen money or marry the foolish young man responsible for her pregnancy. Her lack of understanding even extends to her own family and friends as she has been quite unaware of her own son’s heavy drinking or of Alderman Meggarty’s womanising. She pronounces Gerald’s behaviour towards the girl ‘disgusting’ (p.38), even though – as the Inspector says – he was the only one to make her happy.
She remains untouched by the Inspector’s questioning, and refuses to see how her actions could have been responsible for the girl’s death, even though the audience can clearly see that her refusal to help the girl could easily have led to her suicide. It is only when she realises that Eric was the child’s father that she shows any signs of weakening, but the speed with which she recovers after the Inspector’s departure emphasises how cold and unsympathetic a character she is.
She can be seen as hypocritical because: She claims to be shocked by Eric’s drinking and the talk of immoral relationships with the girl, yet she cannot bear not to hear Eric’s confession and ‘had to know what’s happening’ (p.53). She is quite content to lay all the blame on the father of the child, until Eric’s involvement is revealed. But at this point, it takes Sheila to remind her of what she had been arguing, for she is unwilling to admit it herself.
She condemns Gerald’s affair with the girl as morally ‘disgusting’, but when Gerald reveals that Goole is not a policeman and therefore poses no threat to them, she eats her words and tells him she is ‘most grateful’ (p.70). Reputation is evidently more important to her than moral rights and wrongs. The glowing praise she heaps on Gerald for the clever way he appears to have settled things reflects her desire to remain untouched by outside events and to maintain the appearance of respectability.
Gerald Priestley describes Gerald in the opening stage directions as ‘very much the easy well-bred young man-about-town’. He has the world at his feet: his father is a successful businessman, his mother comes from ‘an old country family’ (p.8), and he has finally become engaged to Sheila after having been ‘trying long enough’ (p.3). He behaves respectfully and like a proper gentleman in front of his father-in-law, but it is clear that there is unresolved tension between him and Sheila over what he was doing ‘all last summer’ (p.3) – the time when, as the play later reveals, he was seeing the girl.
He loyally supports Birling when he is questioned by the Inspector (pp.15, 17), claiming that ‘I know we’d have done the same thing’ (p.17) even though it upsets Sheila – another example of the fact that, beneath the surface, their relationship is far from perfect- and is taken aback when he hears of her behaviour towards the girl (p.23). He seems chivalrous, like Birling, in trying to protect Sheila from the details of the case – but this is hypocritical in two ways: it represents his double standards: he is willing to protect Sheila but, as the Inspector says, ‘we know one woman who wasn’t, don’t we?’ (p.28); and it actually allows him to conceal his guilty affair from her.
By the time Mrs Birling enters, breaking the tension, he and Sheila are openly quarrelling. This quarrel is Priestley’s way of exposing the family, in which Birling and Mrs Birling place such importance, as a flimsy institution; it also shows both Gerald and Sheila in an unfavourable, petty light as individuals. He is naive in imagining that his involvement with the girl ‘was all over and done with last summer’ (p.26), but generally comes to recognise that his actions have had lasting consequences. He finally responds with the same ‘My God!’ (p.35), as her death sinks in, that Eric used straight away (p.11), and from this point on, Priestley shows us Gerald in a different, more sympathetic light…
He shows a sympathy for the girl’s situation, and his willingness at the County Hotel to hear her story shows he thought of her as an individual, unlike Birling or Mrs Birling. He feeds her, listens to her, and gives her money, without asking for ‘anything in return’ (p.37). It is ambiguous whether she ended up as his mistress out of obligation or out of love, however; it is certain, though, that – as the Inspector says – ‘he at least had some affection for her and made her happy for a time’ (p.56). Gerald is admirably honest in admitting the girl’s feelings were stronger than his (p.38) and is now ‘troubled’ by his behaviour (p.39) and asks to be on his own. By this point in the play, both he and Sheila – who have each admitted their guilt to others and to themselves – ‘aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here’ (p.40). The engagement has been broken off but, in view of the tensions in the relationship already hinted at, this is evidently a good thing, and Sheila speaks of a new ‘respect’ for his honesty (p.40).
Gerald’s final service in the play is to reveal that Goole was not a real Inspector. He also carefully proves that Goole may not have shown everyone the same photograph, and it is he who takes the initiative in phoning the Infirmary to check whether a girl has actually died. His reaction is not ‘triumphant’ (which is Birling’s), but he is described as ‘smiling’ (p.70), and he says that ‘everything’s all right now’ (p.71). He fails to understand that, whether or not he has actually driven a girl to suicide, he is just as guilty of selfishness and hypocrisy. Sheila’s refusal to take back his ring suggests that, despite the Inspector’s relatively lenient judgement of him, he is far from exonerated, in her eyes and in ours.