It makes sense for Priestley to form her into what can be considered a respectable character, as it’s believed he wants his viewers to consider her progression something to aspire to. And therefore be reluctant to pick up her discarded image. Again this is his way of encouraging socialism. Despite this minor epiphany she still maintains some self-indulgent attributes that are apparent from lines like; ‘so I’m really responsible? ‘ I think what she wants from the other characters is some kind of reassurance, but by victimising herself, they would be less inclined to offer it.
However, one could sympathise with her endeavour to receive the compassion from her family. So while the audience notices development in her, her transformation is not total. Throughout ‘An Inspector Calls’, the parents are far more reluctant to alter themselves according to J. B. Priestley’s philosophy, in comparison with their children, and with Sheila in particular, who laughs at Mrs Birling for trying to reprimand the Inspector. Sheila then explains she did it because of her mother’s use of the word ‘impertinent’.
It’s quite a patronising thing for Mrs Birling to say but because she’s a typical representation of an upper middle class woman, she’d think that because the Inspector was of a lower class than her, she should be able to treat him in a certain way, and have him to treat her in a different one. Shelia finds it funny because Mrs Birling is acting in the way the Inspector has just criticized and is apparently unaware of her actions. This demonstrates that while Sheila has readily absorbed the Inspector’s message, her mother hasn’t even considered it.
I think this is a representation of the idea that the younger generation are more able to adapt and alter themselves than the older generation. I think this is a reasonable observation, firstly because the older generation are simply more used to their way of life, but in most cases they also have a lot more to loose; Mr Birling has his business, and Mrs Birling has her place in society, whereas Sheila and Eric it seems haven’t achieved anything notable, at least in their parents eyes; ‘you don’t seem to care about anything’.
Typically the younger people of Sheila and Eric’s generation are also fairly raw, in the sense that they’re more impressionable and easily convinced because they aren’t used to the concept of handling political opinions; up till now they’ve had their parents’ opinions handed to them as fact – for instance Mr Birling’s prediction for the year of 1940; ‘there’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere’ this of course was a massive miscalculation, as 1940 marked the beginning of World War Two – this would be even more applicable to Sheila because of her gender. This is why she’s affective as a transitional character.
Priestley uses the character of Sheila Birling to reinforce the message of his play. She moves from a place of innocence to a one where she has an understanding of the ugly complexities of society. Though her transformation may not be total, the inspector has made her doubt the security of her middle class world. The harshness of a world that exists outside of her family set-up is revealed and her naivety dispersed. Sheila is probably the most accessible character in the play because she’s exposed to the inspector’s – or the writer’s – views on society at the same rate as the audience is.
I think she exhibits J. B. Priestley’s desired change within society; as though her modifications are what he wants to be applied to all that are like the person Sheila represents at the beginning of the play. As a higher class character, she’s a particularly good candidate for this because the upper classes of 1945 would be expected to identify with one of their own and as they had enough power to weaken the dominance of social barriers they were the appropriate choice to put Priestley’s political beliefs into practice.
This process had begun during the war, and the reason the play is set in 1912 is to show the impracticality of that era and make it seem like an unattractive system to return to. While I agree with the majority of what Priestley communicates through this play and think that using a transitional character like Sheila, has the potential to convince a range of different classes that socialism is beneficial, I find something slightly arrogant about manipulating a character into one that speaks you’re views and beliefs, and makes them appear superior – hypocritical, almost of someone preaching the need for equality.