At the beginning of the play, she definitely shows that she is spoilt and is used to her own way. She doesn’t want her father talking business instead of celebrating her engagement, as she wants all the attention on her, showing she is spoilt and an attention-seeker. Sheila also shows that she is spoilt when Gerald presents the ring to her – the first thing she asks is ‘is it the one you wanted me to have?’, she is not just merely happy that it is an engagement ring and she is getting married – everything has to perfect for her. The incident about the ring also shows that Sheila is very materialistic at the beginning of the play – she wants the perfect and probably most expensive ring.
She is playful when she makes a joke about not wanting Gerald to know all about Port – ‘like one of those purple-faced old men’, and when she makes a joke about Gerald’s absence during the summer. Sheila is bossy because she wants to make sure that everything goes her way, telling her mother that she ‘must’ drink to her and Gerald’s health. She is childish when she asks her mother, ‘When do I drink?’ as she knows that it is not considered polite to drink to oneself, so it is in a childlike way that she asks her mother this question. She is confident when she accidentally walks in on a conversation between her father, Gerald and the Inspector.
Most people would apologise and quietly walk out of the room, but she is not afraid to join in with the conversation instead. Because she has no idea what is going on and why the Inspector is inquiring at her house, she asks many questions, showing she is curious and wants to be included. Sheila shows she is emotional when Inspector Goole produces the photograph of Eva Smith, and she sobs and runs out of the room so that no one can see her crying. She also proves that she is intelligent when she notices Gerald’s reaction to hearing that Eva Smith changed her name to Daisy Renton. She realises that the Inspector knows the Gerald knew her too, and tries to tell Gerald this. He of course denies it, saying that they can keep the information from him.
When Mr. Birling fired Eva from his works, she eventually found a job at a clothes shop, Milwards. Sheila regularly shops there, and one day she saw this dress that she really liked. Against her mother’s and the assistant’s wish, she tried it on, after hearing their comments about the dress not suiting her. When she saw herself, Sheila knew that they had her mother and the assistant been right about the dress not suiting her. When the dress was passed to Eva so that she could show Sheila something, Sheila noticed how much the dress suited Eva, and she became angry, spiteful, jealous and impulsive and complained to the manager so that Eva would get fired.
The Inspector’s accusations have a big impact on Sheila. When the Inspector is interrogating her, she begins to realise that her actions were wrong and feels ashamed and guilty about how she behaved and also upset. She feels deeply sorry for what she has done and realises that she has got to change from being spoilt, short-tempered, vain, impulsive and spiteful. She feels disappointed in both her father’s and her behaviour. Sheila thinks that she is entirely responsible and is distressed that she had anything at all to do with someone committing such a dreadful act. She desperately wants to do something good to help her feel better about herself, and thinks ‘If I could help her now…’, but she can’t change the past. She feels that she needs to know Eva’s whole story – right up to when she committed suicide so she won’t feel entirely responsible for it.
Sheila feels that she can relate to Eva, as she was a similar age to her. She feels sorry and sympathetic towards Eva, as she suffered so much and felt that suicide was the only way out. She blames her father too, believing that firing Eva is what began her troubles and it ‘spoilt everything for her’. Sheila grows and matures a lot during Act Two. She breaks off the engagement with Gerald, and gives him back the ring, after she hears about his involvement with Eva Smith. Although she calls off the engagement with Gerald, she actually mentions that she respects him more than ever before.
This is because Gerald rescued Eva from Joe Meggarty, when most people in the middle class would have simply ignored her. Also, Gerald gave Eva money and a place to stay simply out of the kindness of his heart – he never had the set idea of making Eva his ‘mistress’. Gerald gave Eva some hope and happiness, which Sheila believes may have helped her get over her sacking a little, and making Sheila feel slightly better about herself and Eva. Sheila feels that she and Gerald will have to get to know each other again, starting their relationship from scratch, because they ‘are not the same people who sat down to dinner here’. This is the reason she is calling off the engagement. She handles the whole situation very calmly, showing she has matured and she is ready to forgive Gerald as she did something just as bad to Eva, as well.
Sheila is appalled by her mother’s callousness and heartless attitude. Mrs. Birling is talking about Eva like she is a worthless, insignificant person, using phrases such as, ‘a girl of that sort’, indicating that Eva is below her and does not matter. Mrs. Birling openly admits that she was prejudiced against Eva’s case because Eva called herself Mrs. Birling. Even though she was the last of the Birling family to see Eva, she still believes that she had nothing to do with Eva committing suicide.
Sheila is very angry with her mother for how she handled Eva’s case and the fact that Mrs. Birling seems unchanged after hearing the Inspector’s accusations. Mrs. Birling shows no remorse, even after hearing that now, because of her, Eva is lying with ‘ a burnt-out inside on a slab’ – she is just freely blaming someone else and is determined not to feel guilty, believing that she did nothing wrong.
Sheila shows more intelligence in the second Act, too. She realises that her mother is, without knowing it, putting all the blame on Eric, as the ‘irresponsible father’. She is becoming fully aware, at this point, of the Inspector’s role in the story and where the inquest is leading. As Mrs. Birling is telling her story to the Inspector, she fits the pieces of the puzzle of Eva’s story together, and realises that Eric was the drunken man who took advantage of Eva and got her pregnant.
Sheila has conflicting emotions in this Act, too. Her emotional turmoil is due to her weighing up her priorities. She realises that her family are not as respectable as she thought. They all did terrible things to Eva Smith and Sheila feels guilty, both for herself and the rest of her family for what they did. She is ashamed of her parents, as they believe that they did nothing wrong – supposedly what anybody else in their position would have done. They simply blame other people for Eva’s suicide. She feels hurt, upset, angry, disappointed and betrayed by her family because of what they did to Eva and how they are handling the responsibility and guilt (if they have any).
At times, Sheila becomes hysterical because of her conflicting emotions. This is because she feels that she must be loyal to the rest of her family, and not think ill of them, but at the same time she believes that her parents, in particular, are behaving in the wrong way, not acting guilty or ashamed of what they have done. She wants the truth to come out, but when Sheila realises that her mother is incriminating Eric, she wonders what she must do – make her mother lie, or let the truth be uncovered, which leads to hysteria sometimes.
Sheila wishes to stay in the dining room so that she can hear Eva’s entire story, so she doesn’t feel entirely guilty and responsible for Eva’s suicide. She genuinely feels ashamed of her behaviour at Milwards, when she first met Eva. She is mentally stronger than her parents and Gerald, as she is ready to accept the responsibility and suffer the consequences of her actions that led to Eva’s suicide. However, her parents and Gerald are weak, as they try to worm out of any responsibility of Eva’s suicide, and are quick to blame someone else. At one point, Mrs. Birling completely blames her husband for firing Eva from his works, rather than take any blame herself! Mrs. Birling also completely blames the ‘irresponsible father’, before she discovers that he is actually Eric, and says that he should make a public confession, which would not do any good to the family’s reputation.
As well as showing further intelligence in this Act, Sheila also becomes more aware of their whole situation – in particular the Inspector’s role in the play. She begins to suspect that he is not a real inspector, because of his attitude and how he knows so much about the family’s involvement with Eva Smith. He is there to show the Birlings that their idea of a man just making his own way and looking after himself, is immoral, and to uncover the truth about them, to prove that they need to change their attitude towards life. In the process, the Inspector also tries to make them feel ashamed and guilty for what they did to Eva.
In the third Act, Sheila’s change in attitude is complete. She becomes a dramatic device for Priestley to convey his socialist ideals across to the audience. She tells her family that it doesn’t matter whether the Inspector was real or not – they still did what they did to Eva Smith, or someone else – if Eva wasn’t real. What they did to the girl was still wrong, and ‘if it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us. But it might have done.’
Sheila has learned from her mistakes, but her parents and Gerald simply take it for granted that no one but the people in the room know about their involvement, so they are unchanged by the experience and carry on with life as normal. She realises the theme the Inspector was trying to portray to the family – that you have to be careful about what you do, as what you do affects everyone else. After all, getting Eva fired seemed like an insignificant thing at the time to Sheila, but now she realises that it (and other incidents) led to her eventually committing suicide.
I have now picked out a few of Sheila’s key lines, to give you hints and tips on how you could possibly read them. In my view, the line that reads: ‘It’s queer – very queer – ‘, could be read as if Sheila is in deep thought, talking to herself and with the ‘very’ emphasised. Also, I think that there could be a pause between the ‘queer’ and the ‘very’. I feel that the line ‘It doesn’t much matter now, of course – but was he really a police inspector?’ could start off by being said normally with a slight hint of regret, because she mentions that it doesn’t matter then and she is sorry for what she did. The last part of the speech is a question, open for the rest of her family to answer, so it could be said in an inquiring tone.