Social position

The inspector arrives at the Birling’s house in the evening, during a family get-together to celebrate the engagement of their daughter to Gerald Croft. The inspector questions every member of the family individually, starting with Mr. Birling. Mr ; Mrs Birling who do not like the way the inspector is interrogating them, get angry with him, and accuse him of being rude. However Sheila, Mr ; Mrs Birling’s daughter, and Gerald are honest, and can face their mistakes. This is one of the reasons why I like Sheila and Gerald, and dislike Mr & Mrs Birling.

Sheila is a young and pretty girl, who is honest and likes it when other people are truthful. We know this because when the Inspector shows her the photograph of Eva Smith, she says, “You knew it was me all the time, didn’t you?” Here she admits straightaway that she had a part to play in the death of Eva Smith. Unlike Mr & Mrs Birling who put up excuses every time the Inspector catches them out. As I have said before she also likes it when other people are sincere.

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We know this because when the Inspector is questioning Gerald about his affair with Eva Smith he asks him if he was in love with her. At first Gerald hesitates to come out with the truth but when he gets persuaded by Sheila to tell the truth he says, “All right-I did for a time. Nearly every man would have done.” Sheila’s reply to that is “That’s probably about the best thing you’ve said tonight. At least it’s honest.”

Sheila objects to her parents attempts to protect her from unpleasant truths; ‘…I’m not a child, don’t forget. I’ve a right to know.’ At the end of the play she feels that, whilst for a time it had seemed as though her parents had learnt something about themselves and their society, once they saw a ‘way out’, they simply returned to how they were at the beginning. Sheila has an attractive and essentially honest character, and lacks the cold-blooded attitude of her parents.

Her unpleasant complaint against Eva is probably the most helpless action of all. The only positive feature is that Sheila felt bad about it at the time, regretted it deeply later, and is honest enough to admit her share of the responsibility for Eva’s suicide. When she finds out that she had a part to play in her death she becomes sympathetic and says, ‘…if I could help her now, I would.’ This shows her condolence for the girl.

Gerald is the second character I like in the play; he is also young and truthful. Gerald’s first desire is to cover up his involvement with Eva, when the Inspector asks him about the girl Gerald says, ‘Where did you get the idea that I knew her?’ here Gerald tries to hide his relationship with Eva Smith, but its no use and he has to admit it in the end. However unlike Mr and Mrs Birling, he shows genuine sorrow when the news of her death finally sinks in. When Eva’s death hits him properly he becomes shocked and says, ‘ …I’ve suddenly realised-taken it in properly-that she’s dead.’ Moreover, it becomes clear that Gerald helped Eva out of true sympathy for her situation and did not take advantage of her. After the inspector has finished questioning him, Gerald goes out of the house. He is distressed and so wants to be alone for a while.

While he is strolling on his own he meets up with a policeman he knows and asks the policeman about the Inspector. The policeman is pretty sure that there is no Inspector Goole in Brumley. This news confuses Gerald but he is also relieved and pleased that the Inspector is a hoax. When he comes back to the Birling’s house he excitedly tells everyone that the Inspector was a hoax, he says, ‘That man wasn’t a police officer.’ Mr & Mrs Birling are delighted at this news, Sheila and Eric are still not convinced and Gerald has mixed feelings. Gerald does not celebrate at this news like Mr & Mrs Birling do, but he his pleased and I think he has understood what the Inspector had to say.

Mr & Mrs Birling are totally different people, compared to Gerald and Sheila. Mr Birling is proud of having made a success of his life. He regards himself as “a hard-headed business man” who has “learnt in the good hard school of experience.” He believes that “a man has to mind his own business.” He has no time for “community and all that nonsense.” This is in stark contrast to the Inspector who, later in the play, expresses a very different view. The inspector say’s “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.” The whole play could be said to point on these two opposing philosophies of life. Another reason I don’t like Mr. Birling is that he is very conceited and believes his experience has made him wise. He feels entitled to give Eric and Gerald advice. Birling is very sure of himself.

He believes that a man’s essential responsibility is to “look after himself and his own.” Mr. and Mrs. Birling see themselves as upholders of all the ‘right’ values and as guardians of proper conduct. They begin by trying to put the Inspector in his place, through emphasising their own position in society. Mrs. Birling says to the Inspector, ‘You know of course that my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago and that he’s still a magistrate.’ Here she shows off her husband’s position in society, but the tactic does not work. Both try to hide from uncomfortable truths, but the Inspector still manages to get the truth from them.

It is plain that Birling’s intentions are to protect himself from a social scandal. To do this, he is prepared to twist or ignore the truth. Just before the end of the play, when it is found out that the Inspector was a hoax, he happily argues that ‘the whole thing’s different now’, and congratulates himself on having avoided a public scandal. Provided their public reputation is safe, people like Mr ; Mrs Birling will never change.

Mrs. Birling is even more hard-faced and arrogant than her husband. She is extremely snobbish, and expects others to show her respect. She hates being contradicted, even when caught out telling outright lies by the Inspector. When subject to criticism, Mrs. Birling retreats behind words like ‘respectable’, ‘duty’, and ‘deserving’. She seems to feel that she is qualified to judge what such words mean. She thinks that people from the ‘lower classes’ have different feelings from her own: they are almost a different species. Eva Smith’s pleas for help offend Mrs. Birling, because the girl was ‘giving herself ridiculous airs’ and ‘claiming elaborate fine feelings’.

Mrs. Birling tries to use her husband’s social position to threaten the Inspector, she says to him, ‘You know of course that my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago and that he’s still a magistrate,’ the Inspector already knows this and Mrs. Birling is confused when this tactic fails. When the Inspector has left, Mrs. Birling forcefully criticises the others for not standing firm against someone who is their social inferior. She argues that if she had been present when the Inspector first arrived, she would have dealt with his cheekiness severely. It is difficult to decide whether, at the end of the play, Mrs. Birling has learned to behave in a compassionate or caring way in the future. Perhaps the Inspector’s call has only served to harden her attitudes.