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Cast of characters
Arthur Birling is a "heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties", husband of Sybil and father of Sheila and Eric Birling. He represents the capitalist ruling class, repeatedly describing himself with pride as a "hard-headed businessman", and the head of a patriarchal family structure, and is arguably the main subject of Priestley's social critique. Dominant, arrogant, self-centred and morally blind, he is insistent throughout about his lack of responsibility for Eva/Daisy's death and quotes his economic justification for firing her as being the importance of keeping his labour costs low and quelling dissent, which he says is standard business practice. Although he is authoritative and has risen to a position of economic and social prominence, he reveals his lower social rank to that of his wife, when he compliments the cook right at the start of the play, and by his continual need to assert his social importance. (His status as an alderman and former Lord Mayor of Brumley is repeated several times in the play, with increasing comic effect. Early in the play, he also makes a series of thoroughly explained and justified predictions about the future world which the audience know will not come true). He appears pleased at the economic and social cachet brought by his daughter's engagement to Gerald Croft, and resents Goole's intrusion on the family. He remains unaffected by the details of Eva/Daisy's death, and his own concerns appear to be retaining his social standing, avoiding public embarrassment by the leaking of a scandal, insisting that Eric accounts for and repays the stolen company money and that Sheila should reconsider her relationship with Gerald in order to maintain a promised Croft-Birling merger.
Sybil Birling is the wife of Arthur and mother of Sheila and Eric Birling. She is her husband's social superior and is keen to show him the correct etiquette. As the leader of a women's charitable organisation, she assumes a social and moral superiority over Inspector Goole, whose questioning style she frequently refers to as "impertinent" and "offensive". Like her husband, she refuses to accept responsibility for the death of Eva/Daisy, and seems more concerned with maintaining the family's reputation- even going so far as to lie and deny recognition of the photograph of the dead girl. She fearlessly expresses her prejudices against working class women like Eva/Daisy, whom she accuses of being immoral, dishonest and greedy. It is Eva's/Daisy's use of the assumed name "Birling" that makes Sybil turn her away from her charity and she doesn't see why she did this until it is too late. Also she seems detached from the rest of the family as she does not realise Eric's alcohol problem. She is described as a snob who doesn't care about working class people, only respecting the people of her class.
The Birlings' eldest child, described as a very pretty girl in her mid-twenties, 'very pleased and rather excited', and quite delighted about her engagement to Gerald. She starts out as a playful, self-centred girl who loves attention. Throughout the play, she becomes the most sympathetic family member, showing remorse and guilt on hearing the news of her part in the girl's downfall, and encouraging the family (mostly unsuccessfully) to accept responsibility for their part in Eva/Daisy’s death. She is revealed not to be as naive as originally thought, revealing her suspicions about her fiancé’s infidelity. Despite continual criticism from her father, she becomes more rebellious toward her parents, supporting her brother against them and assisting Goole in his interrogations. By the end of the play, she represents the younger generation's protests against the morality of the older generation and seems the most responsive to Goole’s Socialist views about moral responsibility towards others. Priestley uses Sheila to show that even though most wealthy people are snobbish and don't care about anybody but themselves there are exceptions: Sheila is one. At the end of the play, Sheila is much wiser. She can now judge her parents and Gerald from a new perspective, but the greatest change has been in herself: her social conscience has been awakened and she is aware of her responsibilities. The Sheila who had a girl dismissed from her job for a trivial reason has vanished forever. At the end of the play Sheila is also very optimistic and knows her responsibilities of what she has done and takes steps very carefully.
Eric Birling is the son of Arthur Birling and Sybil Birling. Eric is revealed to have made Eva Smith pregnant as well as stolen some money from his father's business to support Eva (although she refuses the money once she knows it is stolen). Eric is revealed to be an alcoholic in the play. His drinking habits were only unknown by his mother who is very naive and wants to think of her son as a child, and not accept that he is no-longer her innocent child but a grown man. When the Inspector is revealed to be a fake, he and Sheila are the only two who still feel guilty over Eva's death. In the beginning of the play, Eric is shown as a rebellious, full of himself young man, a true jack the lad, however towards the end of the play his true personality is revealed. By the end of the story he seems to have learnt his lesson and feels as guilty as Sheila does for his part in Eva Smith's death. He feels as if he cannot talk to his family about his problems, so he bottles it up inside himself.
The son of Sir George Croft of Crofts Limited, a competitor of Birling and Company, he is at the Birling residence to celebrate his recent engagement to Sheila Birling. Gerald is revealed to have secretly known Eva/Daisy and installed her as his mistress, becoming "the most important person in her life", before ending the relationship. After the revelation of his affair, he is not blamed as heavily as the other characters – Sheila commends him for his honesty and for initially showing Eva/Daisy compassion, even though he is shown as cowardly and thoughtless for taking advantage of a vulnerable woman. Gerald thinks that Goole is not a police inspector, that the family may not all be referring to the same woman and that there may not be a body. Initially he appears to be correct, and does not think the Birlings have anything to feel ashamed of or worry about. He seems excited at the prospect of discovering the 'fake' Inspector and seems almost desperate for others to believe him. He is caused to confess as soon as he shouts out in shock, and this is where the inspector gathers that Gerald had some kind of involvement in Eva/Daisy's life. He is quite a weak character and is willing to do the easy thing. He is unwilling to admit his part in the girl's death, which suggests he's more like Birling.
A mysterious interrogator who introduces himself as "Inspector Goole" (as in "ghoul"), claiming that he has seen the dead body of Eva/Daisy earlier that day after her slow and painful suicide by swallowing disinfectant, and that he has “a duty” to investigate the Birlings’ responsibility for her death. He makes a brief reference to a diary left by Eva/Daisy although this is never seen or explicitly referred to. Throughout the play, it is suggested that Goole knows everything about Eva/Daisy’s life and the Birlings’ involvement in her death, and is interrogating the family solely to reveal their guilt rather than to discover unknown information. Both during and after his interrogation of the family, the Birlings query whether he is actually a real inspector, and a phone call made by Gerald to the local police station reveals that there is no Inspector Goole in the local police force. Many critics and audiences have interpreted Goole’s role as an “avenging angel” or a supernatural being because of his unexplained foreknowledge of events, his prophetic final speech in which he says that humanity will learn its lesson in “fire and blood and anguish” (referring to the First World War, two years after the setting of the play 1912) and even because of his name, which plays on the word “ghoul” (meaning “ghost”). It is suggested in the final scene that Goole’s interrogation of the family will foreshadow a further interrogation to follow by the “real” police force, and that Goole’s purpose has been to warn the family in advance and encourage them to accept responsibility and repent for their bad behaviour, like TheGhost of Christmas Yet To Come. Goole also forces the characters to question their very own lives, and if the ones they were living were true. In addition he also feels a responsibility to make the Birling family feel guilt for their actions.
Eva Smith/Daisy Renton
The unseen working class woman who Goole claims has committed suicide whilst pregnant with Eric Birling's baby, and who has been mistreated by each member of the Birling family and by Gerald Croft. Through reports from other characters, she is described as “pretty” with soft brown hair and big dark eyes, and it is explained that she has no family and must work for her living. Her beauty is commented on by all the characters, though it appears to work against her. Her beauty attracts both Gerald and Eric to her, with Eric sexually exploiting her. Sheila comments disparagingly that Eva looked prettier when she wore a certain dress than Sheila did herself, and seems threatened by Eva’s beauty, confessing that if Eva had been plain she would have been unlikely to have had her fired. It is also suggested that Eva/Daisy is morally principled, as she refuses to accept stolen money from Eric, despite her dire financial situation. Eva/Daisy appears to be a victim of her class, and is judged by the (female) characters for not acting appropriately for her class. Sheila imagines that Eva laughed at her and did not act respectfully towards her and so “punishes” her by having her fired. Sybil also criticizes Eva for appearing proud and putting on airs and graces, and for being “impertinent” rather than being meek and grateful to her social superiors. The audience is invited to dwell on Eva/Daisy’s vulnerability and her suffering at the hands of an exploitative employer, her sexual abuse at the hands of Eric, her powerlessness caused by her gender, class and poverty, and her victimization on the basis of a sexual double standard.
Edna is the Birling's parlour maid and Edna does not have much to do in this play, although she is the only person we see in this play who has a similar background to Eva Smith. We see the Birlings ordering her around, and it is she who shows in the Inspector.
- Cast of characters
- Criticism and interpretation
- Royal National Theatre Revival
- 2011/12 UK tour
- Film, television and radio adaptations
- Awards and nominations
- Further reading