Mrs Birling, Sheila and Eva

Mrs Birling

  • Mrs Birling is a typical upper-middle class woman, who is a prominent member of society.  Her hypocrisy is seen as she runs a local women's charity (Brumley Women's Charity Organisation) and yet is cold-hearted, controlling and conceited, looking down on all those below her in society. Essentially, she uses charity to appear to be a good Christian, rather than to actually help people.  Most simply she represents the way in which society pretends to care about other people and yet ultimately turns them away.

  • She is full of social pretensions, correcting the language of other characters.

  • Moreover, she treats Eric and Sheila as though they were children, ignoring her son's drinking problem ('No, of course not. He's only a boy.') As with her guilt about Eva's death she refuses to see her son's problem, defending him even when it is at his own expense. By refusing to admit he has a drinking problem, she denies him the help that he needs.  This symbolizes her moral and societal blindness, which is self-imposed. She also treats Sheila as a young child and resents her modern ideas (e.g. when she uses the word 'squiffy'). 'What an expression, Sheila! Really the things you girls pick up these days!' Thus, she clearly looks down on modern society and has very snobbish opinions.

  • As a 'rather cold woman' Mrs Birling has no sympathy for Eva, who she calls 'a girl of that sort.' She is further unwilling to believe that a lower class girl would refuse to take stolen money or marry a man who got her pregnant, showing her low opinion of the working classes.  Ironically, however, the working classes are often seen to have stricter scruples than Mrs Birling.

  • This is seen when Eva comes to the local women's charity (Brumley Women's Charity Organisation), and Mrs Birling turns her away and refuses her money, telling her to go back to the man who got her pregnant and ask him for money instead. She sees the lower classes as morally inferior, which Priestly particularly hated, and exposes therefore Mrs Birling's own moral inferiority.

  • While she is unable to accept her own role in Eva's death, she is very willing to put all the blame on the father of the child. This is an example of dramatic irony, as the father is her own son Eric. When this is revealed she is briefly staggered by the revelation, but quickly reverts to her former prejudice, showing her willingness to blame others but never herself.

  • She also reveals the role parents have to play in perpetuating this society, which young people must strive to break free from.

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Sheila

  • Sheila Birling is the daughter of Mr and Mrs Birling, they belong to an upper-middle class family with a great deal of social privilege.

  • At the start of the play she is childish and immature, she uses informal language to Eric and calls her father 'Daddy' (I'm sorry Daddy actually I was listening'). This quote shows that she is very indecisive and afraid of doing something wrong, not being a worldly character. It's apparent that she values good behaviour and doesn't want to step out of line.  This seems to be encouraged by her parents, particularly Mrs Birling, who infantilizes Sheila.

  • The dinner party itself is due to Sheila's engagement to Gerald, which is considered a good match by the family. At the time the play was written, women's status was largely due to social class, specifically their husbands who represented them in society. A young lady like Sheila would have enormous pressure upon her to marry well for the good of the family. We might see Eva and Sheila's positions directly contrasted in this - Sheila is engaged to Gerald, whereas Eva has an affair, Sheila has social status due to her birth and lack of job, Eva relies on a job for money and has no social standing.

  • As the play develops, Sheila comes to know that Eva died due to drinking disinfectant and is horrified by this - consequently she becomes much more assertive and a more independent thinker. She comes to realise that she herself played a part in Eva's death by complaining about her to the shop manager out of pride, who then fires Eva. Unlike many of the other characters, she comes to terms with this, and so gains sympathy from the audience. Sheila also admits that she was responsible for Eva's death and that she was jealous of Eva's looks, showing her maturation from the shallowly attractive character we saw earlier in the play.

  • Throughout the play we also see that Sheila is intelligent - she knows that Eric drinks a lot (which Mrs Birling ignores) and she is also suspicious about Gerald having lied about where he was last summer. (It was during this time that Gerald sought out prostitutes, and had an affair with Eva).  Her intuition then turns into a social understanding of the characters' responsibility for Eva's death. She also recognises how hard it is to accept that - 'Yes, of course it is. That's what I meant when I talked about building up a wall that's sure to be knocked flat. It makes it all harder to bear.' She reveals that she understands what the Inspector is doing, and if they try to hide anything from him it will make it more difficult to accept what they have done.

  • Unlike other characters she believes in the Inspector - 'I tell you -whoever that inspector was, it was anything but a joke.' Her language here has become more assertive, using bold statements like 'I tell you' and recognising her own knowledge and importance.

  • She changes the most of all the characters, by the end of the play she recognises the social responsibility they all share and berates her family's lack of understanding of this. Sheila provides a hopeful voice that change is possible and changes can be made going forwards. Although she is not as anti-capitalist as the Inspector, she is well on the road to a more Socialist view of social structures.

  • At the end of the play she is even ready to forsake her engagement, and yet also to forgive Gerald, as she realises he genuinely cared for Eva.

 

Eva

  • Eva is not really shown in the play, her lack of a voice showing how the lower classes also do not have a voice in this society.

  • Her role is simply to suffer due to other characters, so that their sins can be revealed.

  • By exploring the character of Eva and how she is exploited, we can see how this shows the lack of responsibility and way in which the poor are abused in society.

  • Eva Smith is penniless woman without the benefits of union support or any lifeline when she finds herself in a terrible position. Initially in the play, Mr Birling refuses his workers more money, leading to Eva Smith being sacked when the workers go on strike. "If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth." This hyperbolic phrase which shows ironically how Mr Birling feels it is his responsibility to keep the poor in their place. 'These people' shows his opinion that the poor are outsiders, barely worth naming, showing his contempt for them. Eva then goes to work in a shop which Sheila frequents, and Sheila's jealousy eventually makes her get Eva fired again, showing the vanity and thoughtlessness of the upper classes who don't think of the consequences of their actions and how they could affect others. Eventually, she meets Gerald with whom she has an affair, and who to some degree cares for her but ultimately exploits her - showing her dual disadvantage, being both working class and a woman, who can be dropped whenever Gerald feels like it. After Gerald leaves her, she meets Eric, who also takes advantage her and she becomes pregnant, showing the literal exploitation of her body, from which Eric can simply run away. A Marxist interpretation may see Eva as a commodity exploited by the upper classes, both due to her working class status and due to her femininity, which allows her to be sexually exploited.  The chain of events which causes Eva's death shows bleakly the role that all wealthy people play in exploiting those beneath them. To some degree this is overt in certain characters, e.g. "As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!" showing that Mrs Birling believes the poor to be inherently immoral. For other characters, this comes from naivety, and their ignorance of the real world, e.g. Sheila and Eric.

  • She shows the group (mutual) responsibility people have for others in society and the terrible consequences of ignoring this.

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