The audience, having already experienced the first and second world wars, and the tragedy of the Titanic, would realise how wrong he is and think of him as a fool. It is possible for Priestley to do this because of the chosen time frame of the play. Mr Birling typifies the attitudes of large company employers and how they often abuse their power as he shows in his involvement with Eva Smith when he ‘told the girl to clear out, and she went. ‘ He is only interested in the profit that he makes so he sees the lower class workforce as ‘cheap labour’.
Mr Birling is not willing to take any responsibility for his actions when the Inspector questions him, as he believes that he did his ‘duty’ and what any other employer would have done: ‘Still, I can’t accept any responsibility. ‘ Mrs Birling is firmly rooted in the ways of the upper class and how women of the upper class can behave with the power they possess. She is very prejudiced against people of the lower class and believes that class determines moral behaviour and values, which she proves to the audience, does not: ‘She was giving herself ridiculous airs.
She was claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position. ‘ This is about how, when Eva asked for help from the Brumley Women’s Charity Organization, Mrs Birling thought that she was making the story up but, later on in the play, this is proved to be wrong. This suggests that she believes that the lower class doesn’t have the same feelings as those of the upper class. Her involvement with Eva Smith shows that she abuses her power when working with charity by ‘using her influence to have the girl’s claim refused.
‘ Similar to Mr Birling, she is not willing to accept any responsibility for her actions and claims that it is ‘natural’ for the upper class to be prejudiced against the lower class. Sheila Birling demonstrates the attitudes of someone who has been brought up in the upper class. She is very spoilt due to the conditions of her upbringing as she reveals in her involvement with Eva Smith. When things don’t go her way she proves to be quite bad tempered and doesn’t seem to think about the consequences of her actions.
She shows this when Eva Smith, someone of a lower class, showed her up by looking better than her in a dress and because of this she told the manager of the shop to ‘get rid of that girl’ or she would ‘never go near the place again, and persuade her mother to close their account. ‘ However, when the Inspector questions Sheila she differs from the attitudes of her parents and regrets having played a part in the suicide of Eva Smith: ‘I’ll never, never do it again to anybody. ‘
She accepts responsibility proving that she has learnt a lesson and will change her behaviour. Sheila is about 20 years old and the same age as Eva. Priestley intentionally does this to let the audience know how much difference there is between the lives of the upper and lower classes. Eric Birling is used mainly by Priestley to demonstrate that people who are brought up in the upper class have easy lives with no real focus. Eric proves that he is irresponsible and reckless in his treatment of Eva:
‘I wasn’t in love with her or anything – but I liked her – she was pretty and a good sport -‘ His response to the Inspector’s questions are similar to Sheila’s, he takes responsibility and is going to change his behaviour. Gerald Croft’s treatment of Eva Smith differs from all of the Birling’s as it seems that he is kinder and more hospitable at first when taking her in and providing for her. However he did not have the right intentions underneath and obviously knew that what had started innocently would turn into something less innocent in the end.
When questioned by the Inspector about his involvement with Eva, Gerald seems to regret it but, when he works out that the Inspector was a hoax he forgets what he seemed to have learned and thinks everything can go back to the way it was before: ‘Everything’s all right now, Sheila. (Holds up the ring. ) What about this ring? ‘ Gerald and Eric are used by Priestley, along with ‘a lot of other young men’ and Alderman Meggarty, to uncover the hypocrisy of the upper class. Unknown to people of the lower class the upper class have two sides: a respectable front and their behaviour when away from the public.
Alderman Meggarty especially has a very bad reputation among people of the same class: ‘He’s a notorious womanizer as well as being one of the worst sots and rogues in Brumley -. ‘ This shows that Gerald and Eric are not alone in the behaviour they demonstrate in their involvement with Eva Smith. All of the Birlings and Gerald Croft are used by Priestley to show the audience how people of the upper class regularly abuse their power and how class certainly doesn’t determine moral behaviour.