A mysterious business man who introduces himself as "Inspector Goole", claiming that he has seen the dead body of Daisy Renton/Eva Smith earlier that day after her fast and painless suicide by swallowing, and that he has been given "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 Mr. Birling 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 omniscience, 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 is a homophone for the word "ghoul" (meaning "ghost") and is also the name of a seaside town (which could possibly be a reference to the time period in the play when Eva Smith stays in a seaside town with money that Gerald Croft had given her). 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 The Ghost 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 guilty for their actions. His identity remains ambiguous throughout the play.
Eva Smith/Daisy Renton
She is the unseen working-class woman whom Goole claims has taken her own life 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. 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 somewhat morally principled, as she refuses to accept stolen money from Eric, despite her dire financial situation, although about to become Gerald Croft's mistress before he abandoned her. Eva/Daisy appears to be a victim who is judged by the (female) characters for not acting in a manner appropriate for someone of her class. Sheila imagines that Eva laughed at her disparagingly and so "punishes" her by having her fired. Sybil also criticises 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 sex, class, and poverty and her victimisation on the basis of a sexual double standard.
At the end of the play, Gerald suggests that Eva Smith may not have been the same person but rather a collective personification of all the different working-class women that the family had exploited, invented by Goole to make the family feel guilty. Yet the final phone call, announcing that a police inspector is shortly to arrive at the Birlings' house to investigate the suicide of a young girl, leaves open the possibility that Eva Smith really did exist after all.
Arthur Birling is described as "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. He describes himself and his family as an upper-class family. Dominant, arrogant, self-centred, and morally blind, he is insistent throughout about his lack of responsibility for Eva'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 inadvertently reveals his social rank to be lower than that of his wife's 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, all of which the audience knows will not come true, such as describing the Titanic as "unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable" and saying that "the Germans don't want war". He also speaks to Gerald about his possible appearance on the next honors list, hoping to receive a knighthood. For this reason, he must avoid a scandal at all costs, in order to maintain a good public image. 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's death, and his own concerns appear to be retaining his social standing, avoiding public embarrassment by the leaking of such a scandal, insisting that Eric accounts for and repays the stolen company money and that Sheila should 're-consider' her relationship with Gerald in-order for him 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 that is expected from an upper-middle-class family. She is also described as "a rather cold woman" and "about fifty". 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 Smith, and seems more concerned with maintaining the family's reputation, even going so far as to lie and deny recognition of the photograph of Eva. She fearlessly expresses her prejudices against working-class women, like Eva, whom she accuses of being immoral, dishonest, and greedy. It is Eva'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 (either she's blind to it or fails to accept it and still insists on unsuccessfully covering it up around the Inspector). She is around 50 years old, as mentioned in the pre-play stage directions, highlighting she belongs to the older generation.
Sheila is the Birlings' youngest child. She is described as "pleased with life" and delighted about her engagement to Gerald Croft. She starts out as a naive, self-centred girl. She also knows of Erics' heavy drinking. Throughout the play, she becomes the most sympathetic family member, showing remorse upon hearing the news of her part in Eva Smiths' downfall, and attempting to encourage the family to accept responsibility for their part in Eva's death. She is shown to be not 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. 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 given way to one who acknowledges the wrongdoing of herself and her family. She represents the younger generation's break from the exploitative behaviour of her class.
He is the Birlings' younger child, often presented as awkward and embarrassed. Eric is revealed to have made Eva Smith pregnant as well as to have stolen some money from his father's business to support Eva (although she refuses the money once she knows it is stolen). An alcoholic, his drinking habits are known by everyone except his mother who wants to think of him as a child, and not accept that he is no longer her innocent child but a grown man. After the Inspector leaves, he and Sheila are the only two who feel guilty over Eva's death. At the beginning of the play, Eric is shown as a rebellious young man who is very full of himself; however, towards the end of the play, his true personality is revealed. By the end of the story, Eric has learned 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, especially his father, about his problems - "You are not the kind of father that a chap could go to when he's in trouble" - so he bottles them up inside himself. He is willing to take responsibility for Eva's death.
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 known Eva 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 compassion, even though he is shown as cowardly and thoughtless for taking advantage of a vulnerable woman). He is caused to confess as soon as he shouts out in shock at hearing the name he had known Eva by (Daisy Renton), allowing the Inspector to investigate Gerald's involvement in Eva's life. 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.
Edna is the maid at the Birling household. The character has limited contribution in the play; however, she is the only person in the play that can provide an insight into the life of Eva Smith, a character to whom Edna has a similar working-class background. It is she who opens the door to allow the Inspector into the Birling's lives, although she is often taken for granted and treated somewhat poorly at times, as if she were not actually there. This may imply that, since she is working class, the working class are often ignored and used at the higher classes’ will.