The acts continue as if no time has passed, so as the curtain rises, the Inspector is still standing at the door, having happened upon a conversation between Sheila and Gerald. Gerald attempts to have Sheila excused from any more questioning, and, when the Inspector agrees that she may leave, Sheila—on hearing that there is to be more questioning—decides to stay. Gerald, in encouraging her to leave, makes the suggestion, “You’ve been through it—and now you want to see somebody else put through it.” Sheila is angry that Gerald seems not to believe in her motive for staying; this is, she says “just the wrong time not to believe me.” A gap has opened between them.
The Inspector, not Gerald, is the one to put Sheila’s feeling into words; she needs to hear the whole story in order to come to terms with her part of the responsibility. “If there’s nothing else,” the Inspector concludes, “we’ll have to share our guilt.” Sheila wonders and comments that she doesn’t understand about the Inspector, but he merely replies, “there’s no reason why you should.”
Mrs. Birling enters, “briskly ... quite out of key with the little scene that has just passed,” and attempts to send Sheila to bed. Mrs. Birling says that she cannot see how they could understand why Eva Smith committed suicide. She is urgently interrupted by Sheila just as she generalizing about “Girls of that class.” Sheila tells her mother that she must not try to build up “a kind of wall” between the Birlings and the girl, for the Inspector will only break it down.
Mrs. Birling continues firmly forward, trying to establish control over the situation by being imperiously cold toward the Inspector, and reminding him that Birling “was Lord Mayor only two years ago and that he’s still a magistrate.” Sheila then reveals that Eric drinks far too much, in response to a question from the Inspector, which provokes Mrs. Birling’s surprise and reproof. Eric, Sheila explains, has been “steadily drinking too much for the last two years.” Birling enters, having tried and failed to persuade Eric to go to bed; the Inspector has told him to stay up. When Birling objects, the Inspector cuts in, “with authority,” to tell Birling that Eric “must wait his turn.”
The Inspector continues to explain what happened to Eva Smith. He repeats that she changed her name to Daisy Renton. He then asks a direct question: “Mr Croft, when did you first get to know her?”
To the horror of Mr. and Mrs. Birling, Gerald confesses that he met her in the music hall in Brumley. He had dropped in after a long day, since the bar at the music hall was “a favorite haunt of women of the town.” He describes Eva as being “very pretty—soft brown hair and big dark eyes.” She was trapped in a corner by Alderman Joe Meggarty, “half-drunk and goggle-eyed,” and Gerald rescued her from that conversation. At the mention of Meggarty’s name, the truth starts spilling out. Mrs. Birling is shocked to hear that Meggarty is “a notorious womanizer as well as ... one of the worst sots and rogues in Brumley.”
Gerald says he took Eva out of the bar, and she told him her story—though under the name Daisy Renton. She never mentioned the name “Eva Smith.” He bought her some dinner, since she was hungry and had no money to buy herself food. He also gave her the keys to some rooms he was keeping an eye on for a friend, and he gave her some money. “I want you to understand I didn’t install her there so that I could make love to her,” Gerald explains, though “Daisy Renton” indeed did become his mistress.
Mr. and Mrs. Birling interject, trying again to stop the Inspector’s questioning. Sheila asks Gerald directly whether he was in love with “Daisy.” He replies that “it’s hard to say,” but that she cared more for him than he did for her. It was Gerald himself who broke the affair off, early in September. The girl took it very well, he thought, and she did not blame him at all. He gave her enough money to see her through until the end of the year, as a parting gift.
The Inspector continues the story, revealing that Eva then went away to “some seaside place” for about two months, to reflect on what had happened between her and Gerald. She chose to “remember ‘just to make it last longer.’” Gerald asks to leave and go for a walk, and he promises he will come back. The Inspector allows this, but, as he leaves, Sheila gives him back the engagement ring she had been given in Act One. Sheila tells Gerald she does not dislike him, and she is relieved in a strange way to know the truth about what happened last summer. However, she tells him, “this has made a difference ... We’d have to start all over again.”
Gerald leaves, and Sheila remarks to the Inspector that he did not show Gerald the photograph of the dead girl. He replies that it was not necessary. Mrs. Birling then asks to see the photograph, and she claims not to recognize the girl. The Inspector tells Mrs. Birling that she is not telling the truth, which prompts Birling to angrily insist on an apology—he is a public man, he says. “Public men,” replies the Inspector, “have responsibilities as well as privileges.” The door slams, and Birling leaves to find out if Eric has just gone out.
The Inspector continues to interrogate Mrs. Birling. She, he says, is a prominent member of the Brumley Women’s Charity Organization, to which, it seems, Eva Smith turned for help only two weeks ago. The girl assumed the name “Mrs. Birling” at the meeting, to which Sybil Birling took immediate offense. The girl, who (the Inspector reveals) was pregnant, was desperate and asking the charity for help. Mrs. Birling used her influence over the committee, however, to have her appeal denied. “She came to you for help,” the Inspector continues, “at a time when no woman could have needed it more ... alone, friendless, almost penniless, desperate. She needed not only money, but advice, sympathy, friendliness ... And you slammed the door in her face.”
Mrs. Birling remains imperiously unmoved by the Inspector. “I’ll tell you what I told her,” she says. “Go and look for the father of the child. It’s his responsibility.” Tension builds as the Inspector continues to press, with increasing sternness, for information, and Mrs. Birling tries her best not to give it. Eva did not want to take more money from the father of her child, Mrs. Birling reveals, since Eva thought the money was stolen. Mrs. Birling then firmly restates that the father of the child must be held responsible for the girl’s death, and she tells the Inspector to do his duty.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Birling. I shall do my duty,” the Inspector replies, and looks at his watch. It gradually dawns on the family—Sheila, naturally, figures it out before her parents do—that Eric Birling was the father of the child. Mrs. Birling, unwittingly, has just pronounced a harsh sentence against her own son. The Inspector raises a hand to silence the clamor as Eric enters, “looking extremely pale and distressed,” and as the curtain falls.
The development of Sheila, one of the central characters of the second act, is very important to the play. She starts, in Act One, as “a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited,” and her excited reaction to Gerald’s engagement ring suggests she is comfortably settled in the economic and cultural traditions of her father. At the start of the play, she was suspicious of Gerald’s absence last summer, but showed no desire to investigate it further. Yet, by the end of the first act, she was openly mocking Gerald’s desire to keep his involvement in Eva’s life from the Inspector. We were prepared to see how her relationship with her fiancé was about to break down. Throughout the play, Sheila realizes faster than anyone else that it is better if the Inspector is directly told the truth. When she, much to her mother’s chagrin, reveals to the Inspector openly that Eric has been drinking heavily for two years, Priestley is showing us a girl becoming aware that integrity demands that she be honest and truthful. One owns up to one’s faults and takes responsibility.
Sheila clearly has begun to change. She is owning up to her responsibility for Eva’s death, maturing as she does so. Notably, she stands in stark contrast to her mother, who refuses to change at all and (so far) refuses to drop her mask of icy, upper-class politeness. Priestley is interested in the well-worn idea that the young have the capacity to change, accept new ideas and move forwards while their parents and the older generations often fail to do so.
Shortly before his exit, we see that Sheila similarly has the maturity to, without tears, accept that things are now different between her and Gerald, even unemotionally offering the symbolic gesture of the return of his ring. Maturely, she accepts her part of the responsibility for Eva’s death, noting that it is better that “at least [Gerald has] been honest.” Moreover, as she points out to him, “this has made a difference,” and the engagement will not be able to continue without serious reconsideration.
The moment when Sheila returns Gerald’s ring perhaps symbolizes the distance the play itself has come: its comfortable “engagement party” opening has been entirely turned on its head. In addition, the man who was assumed (by Birling) to be just a local, Brumley police inspector has turned out to be something quite different. Sheila has been the first to realize the strangeness of the Inspector. “I don’t understand about you,” she says to him, while Priestley’s double adverbs (in his stage direction) to direct the actor are “wonderingly and dubiously.” It is Sheila who first suggests, later in the play, that the Inspector might not have been an Inspector, and here she is already beginning to suspect that there is something unusual about him. Sheila, moreover, is aware of the fact that the Inspector is now going to control events until he leaves, regardless of what either of her parents tries to do to oppose him.
The Inspector himself is a fascinating character. As the title character, in many ways he is the most important character to any interpretation of the play. Priestley describes the Inspector on his first entrance as creating “at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness.” He is in his fifties and has “a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking.” The Inspector elliptically comments that he does not “see much of” the Chief Constable in Act One, which is unsurprising, given that he is not (as we find out in Act Three) actually a police officer. One of the key questions of the play is the precise nature of the Inspector’s identity.
It is possible, of course, that the Inspector is perfectly human and unremarkable, as Birling says: a clever hoaxer, making the most of some information from the girl’s diary. Yet, this would not explain the arrival of the police inspector at the end of the play! Moreover, the Inspector himself seems to run out of time as the play goes on, increasingly pressing the person he’s questioning to hurry up (note, particularly, that Eric’s interrogation is the shortest and the last).
Critics arguing for the supernatural power of the Inspector tend to focus on his name. “Goole,” of course, spelled another way, becomes “ghoul”: a haunting spirit closely associated with corpses and the dead. Is the Inspector some kind of ghostly incarnation of Eva Smith, determined to return to her killers to make them realize the error of their ways? Can the Inspector really be said to be a ghost who knows the future? At this point in the play, the Inspector’s role is hugely ambiguous, yet his power over the family is growing. He silences Birling on more than one occasion and even manages to break the composure of Mrs. Birling by allowing her to trap her own son. He seems to have known already that Gerald, Eric, and Mrs. Birling were also involved.
Some critics have argued that “Goole” is in fact a reference to a fishing village not far from Priestley’s native Bradford and that the Inspector is simply to be read as “fishing” for information and hooking in the Birlings. Whether a ghoul or simply Goole, the Inspector, by the end of the second act, has become a compellingly authoritative figure.
Priestley’s socialist message—that everyone must look out for each other—is extended further in the Inspector’s damning comment that the public people “have responsibilities as well as privileges.” Though the three younger characters, Gerald, Eric and Sheila, all are partly to blame in Eva’s death, it is with the two elder Birlings that the main point of blame rests. Birling, as a public man, had a responsibility to do the right thing, and (particularly as an ex-Lord Mayor) should have been aware of the plight of girls like Eva. Mrs. Birling, as the Inspector points out, even managed to avoid giving help and support to Eva while sitting as the chairperson of a committee expressly designed for that purpose. It is not simply a personal misdemeanor, but a public, professional one: both of them symbolize the usual indifference of social organizations toward people in Eva’s position.