Eerily, just as Mr. Birling finishes his long speech, ‘we hear the sharp ring of a front door bell’. This is the Inspector. At first he seems like a typical inspector; he is polite yet frank, straightforward and purposeful, which arouses interest in the audience: what information has he come to pick up? The Inspector changes the mood of the play from the start: the stage directions require the lighting to be ‘pink and intimate until the Inspector arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder’.
This insinuates that the Birlings are no longer in their safe, closed-up, cosy home, but are ‘seeing the light’ and being exposed to the real world. The Inspector himself ‘creates at once an impression of massiveness and solidity’ – the sense of omniscience about him suggests that he is the voice that can never be wrong; the voice of morality, and of the silent, oppressed masses. He ‘has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking’ – he does not hurry, in order to give the Birlings (and audience) time to examine their consciences.
Birling is shown to be not only pompous and arrogant, but also selfish and greedy when he states that ‘they [the workers in his factory including Eva Smith, who the Inspector says has committed suicide that night] were averaging about twenty-two and six… they wanted the rates raised… I refused, of course. ‘ He refuses to pay his workers more than ‘is paid generally in our industry’ because he is working for ‘lower costs and higher prices’.
It is ironic that he uses these terms, because the audience infers that ‘lower costs’ (for the ruling class) and ‘higher prices’ (for the working class) is not merely referring to money, and ultimately this attitude will contribute towards a depression, with too many people earning too little. He also attempts to treat the Inspector as if he is simply someone of a lower social status than his that can be ordered around; ‘Perhaps I ought to warn you that [Chief Constable Colonel Roberts] is an old friend of mine’, suggests that he is trying to put the Inspector ‘in his place’ and make him defer to them.
The Inspector then interrogates Sheila Birling, who is instantly horrified at the news of Eva Smith’s death. The Inspector makes an impression on Sheila very easily; ‘But these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people. ‘, she cries. Sheila ‘went to the manager at Milwards [the clothes shop where Eva was working] and I told him that if they didn’t get rid of that girl, I’d never go near the place again… I caught sight of her smiling at the assistant, and I was furious with her.
‘ Although Sheila’s action – having Eva Smith turned out of her job because she was jealous of her attractiveness – was devastating to Eva, Sheila instantly repents for it and makes no attempt to defend herself. The audience have more sympathy with her because of her honesty and contrition; we have all done things that we are ashamed of. After Sheila finds out about her part in Eva’s demise, she becomes the Inspector’s accomplice, helping to extract the truth from the remaining members of her family, and voicing many points in the minds of the audience: ‘You mustn’t try to build up a wall between us and that girl.
If you do, then the Inspector will just break it down’; ‘Go on, Gerald. Don’t mind mother’; ‘But don’t you see – ‘. It could be argued that Sheila is not only the voice of the audience, but also the voice of humanity. She has made a grave mistake, and is imperfect, but is ashamed of this, and learns – quite strikingly – from it. We as an audience have mixed reactions to Gerald, who kept Eva Smith as his mistress. There are elements of positive and negative, old and young, about him. He is polite and respectful to Mr. Birling, not asserting his class; for example, he ‘doesn’t pretend to know much about port’.
He is kind and romantic towards Sheila; he wants to ‘make her as happy as she deserves to be’ (This is ambiguous: how much happiness does Sheila ‘deserve’? ). He also helps Eva/Daisy, in giving her accommodation and money for a while. However, like Mr. Birling, he has no remorse about exploiting the workers in his factory. ‘I know we’d have done the same thing’, he says when it is revealed that Mr. Birling sacked Eva Smith for wanting a pay rise. It could also be argued that he exploits Eva/Daisy. From the start, he clearly knew he would not marry a working class girl and that nothing would come of it.