Even before she learns of her involvement in the death, she says, ‘ I can’t help thinking about this girl destroying herself so horribly, and I’ve been so happy tonight’. This shows us the sympathetic side of Sheila’s character. When she learns about Eva Smith’s dismissal from Mr Birling’s factory Sheila is critical of her father. She is quick to point out that ‘ these girls aren’t cheap labour they’re people’ she defends the working girls rather than defend her own family, she does not try and protect her father who views girls like Eva as nothing more than ‘cheap labour’.
When shown the photo she reacts much more dramatically than her father. This tells us that she has already realised her behaviour towards the girl in Millwards had been inappropriate and unnecessary. When she finds out that Eva Smith had been made redundant, she is immediately sorry and obviously upset. She is very distressed about the consequences of her actions,’ It’s the only time I’ve done anything like that. I’ll never, never do it again’. Mr Birling’s reaction on the other hand is very different. When the inspector informs him of the girl’s death he shows no interest or concern.
He impatiently says ‘ Yes, yes. Horrible business but I don’t understand why you should come here’. It is only after some prompting from the inspector that he remembers who Eva Smith was. He recollects how he discharged her from his employment, but he sees no connection between his actions towards the girl and her suicide. As far as Arthur Birling was concerned he was acting just as any other hardheaded businessman would. The girl, in his mind, was a troublemaker, she was asking for more money, she had organised a strike.
‘ She’d had a lot to say- far to much – so she had to go’. This shows how expendable Mr Birling thinks his workers are. He uses his powers to do his ‘duty’ and get rid of the workers that cause trouble. His main aim is to keep running costs down at whatever price. He will not submit to pressure from his employees. He feels that they should be kept in their place, he says ‘ if you don’t come down sharply on these some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth’. He basically thinks that if you give in once to these people they’ll keep on demanding more rights.
Arthur Birling feels that his actions may have had a knock on effect but does not feel responsible in any way ‘ If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward’. By saying this it is quite clear that Mr Birling believes that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions. This view is in contrast to his daughter’s, who accepted responsibility for the consequences of her actions, ‘and7 I know I’m to blame-and I’m desperately sorry.
‘ She realises that she abused her power in much the same way as her father did when he dismissed Eva Smith from his factory. Sheila feels that between her and her father they deprived the girl of her lively hood. Mr Birling does not share this view. Sheila shows a lot of remorse, unlike her father who is unrepentant. He is not ready for one moment to admit even part blame; after all, he was only doing his job. Another noticeable contrast in the characters of Sheila and Mr Birling is the way they respond to the inspector. Sheila submits to the authority of the inspector and, at times, almost seems to be his accomplice.
In his absence she takes on his role. She warns the others against trying to hide facts from the inspector, as she believes he already knows everything. When questioned she readily confesses her part in the girl’s fate. She immediately expresses regret for what she did and makes only a minimal effort to excuse her behaviour. On the other hand, Mr Birling is seen to be agitated and impatient with the inspector. He takes exception to the inspector’s tone. He is very angry with the inspector for questioning his actions. He threatens him by talking to him about his friendship with the chief constable.
Here again Birling is drawing attention to his friendship with prominent people. This is to show that he is ‘a somebody’ in the local community. Constant reminders of his connections show that Arthur Birling is a very insecure man, lacking in confidence. Priestley uses Sheila to remind the reader of Eva horrible death he has created a character who is honest and open. She is able to express her feelings this is shown when she says ‘ I felt rotten at the time but now I feel even worse’. She is able to express her guilt freely, unlike the other characters.
The inspector was aware that Sheila, being a younger character, was most likely to admit her blame and except the consequences of her actions. He tries to make her feel a little better by reassuring her that she was only partly to blame. He encourages her to stay and listen to what he has to say. Mr Birling is not given the same encouragement. This is probably because the inspector feels that he is set in his ways and will not learn from the error of his ways. This is in contrast to Sheila who is young and impressionable. From the account above it can be seen that Sheila’s character changes from a young, nai??
ve, girlish character to a more mature, understanding character. She is very different from the spoilt rich girl that abused her powers to have a girl fired from her job. She shows a lot of guilt and remorse for her actions. She is so deeply affected by the events that have taken place that she vows to change her ways and views especially towards those that she might previously have considered ‘lower’ than herself. Mr Birling on the other hand at the end of act 1 still does not feel that he has done anything wrong; his character has stayed virtually the same.
He continues to ignore the shameful things that his family have done. His main concern is to protect himself from social scandal. He does not want anything to hinder his chances of a knighthood. Mr Birling has learnt nothing from the evening’s events, he has remained self-centred and heartless, a hardhearted businessman. The message that Priestley is trying to convey is that people should feel sympathy and care for each other and they should take responsibility for their actions. He wanted life after the war to be better he hoped that his writing would influence peoples ideas and influence society.
He was concerned about the living conditions of the lower classes (the Eva Smiths of the world) and how poorly they were treated by the upper classes. Priestley felt that people should help each other regardless of social standing. From the play he shows that changes are more likely to come from the young rather than the older generation of upper classes.