Mrs. Birling is ‘her husband’s social superior’ and this is reflected in her speech and her movements. She disapproves of anything that can destroy her social status. Near the beginning of the play she reproachfully says to Mr. Birling that he is ‘not supposed to say such things-‘ following his compliment of the dinner and he has asked his wife to tell the cook that it was ‘very nice. ‘ This implies that Mrs. Birling feels that it is wrong to praise the lower class and is an example of her prejudice towards the lower classes.
The extreme example of her prejudice is shown when Eva Smith comes to her ‘charitable organisation’ asking for help. Mrs. Birling abuses her power to ensure that the girl’s case is dismissed and this is the trigger cause for her suicide. Mrs. Birling justifies her actions by saying that the girl was ‘claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position. ‘ Here is another example of her prejudice towards a lower class and is strengthened by the existing class system. More importantly, she has no concept of morality, as the ‘scruples’ she is referring to are actually examples of morality.
Eva Smith must have had morals as she refused to accept stolen money. Furthermore, she clearly has no social conscience, like her husband. Mrs. Birling is also a hypocrite as she is part of a ‘charitable organisation’ yet she refuses to help a poor girl who needed help and was carrying a child. Neither parent carries any guilt of what they have done and refuse accept that between them they ‘helped to kill her’. However, they do feel ashamed of what they and their family have done and ‘accept no blame for it’, but not because they drove a girl to suicide.
Instead, they are ashamed because there could be ‘a public scandal’ and Mr. Birling would be deprived of his chance of a knighthood. When they find out that the Inspector is not a real police inspector, they are delighted as they feel it makes ‘all the difference’ and it proves to them that they are good people. However, it does not prove this to the audience and we remain unconvinced as do Sheila and Eric. Another example of attitudes changing after a fact comes to light is when Mrs. Birling is condemning the father if the child Eva Smith was carrying.
Before Eric’s entrance at the very end of Act Two, she says that the father ‘ought to be dealt with very severely’ and should make a ‘public confession of responsibility’. By shifting the blame to someone else, Mrs. Birling feels that she is no longer involved in the matter. However, when she discovers that the father of the child was Eric, she is shocked and she knows that she cannot change what she has just said. Gerald has been brought up in what we can assume to be a similar environment as Sheila and Eric. He agrees with Mr.
Birling’s speeches and comments that he makes and this implies that he is also a Capitalist. ‘I believe you’re right, sir. ‘ However, it is possible that he could be agreeing with Mr. Birling as he wants to make a good impression on his father-in-law to be, but it is quite unlikely as he is constantly agreeing with him. To agree with the extreme statements that Mr. Birling is making while not believing them would be an insult to oneself. We cannot blame Gerald entirely for his Capitalist nature as he has been brought up in a Capitalist environment.
When asked by the Inspector whether or not Gerald feels that young women ought to be protected from ‘unpleasant and disturbing things’, he replies, ‘If possible, yes. ‘ This is a Capitalist view and is morally wrong and shows that he has been influenced, as the younger generation are generally more impressionable. There is evidence that Gerald does mature, as he says to Mrs. Birling, ‘And I don’t think it’s a very good idea to remind him,’ following her mention of Mr. Birling’s social status. He shows some awareness of the Inspector’s true identity and this is an example of his maturity, but it is not nearly as noticeable as Sheila’s.
However, he seems reluctant to change as he would be putting his reputation at stake and his job would be jeopardised. Although changing would be better for society, Gerald appears to be intimidated by capitalists like Mr. Birling and Mr. Croft and appears to be generally content with his way of life. When talking about his relationship with Daisy Renton, he tells the story without being prompted or forced into telling the truth. This shows that although he is sorry for what he did, he does not really have any regrets of the affair as he enjoyed the role he played in her life.
‘All right – I did [enjoy it] for a time. Nearly any man would have done. ‘ His honesty is a quality worth noting, and like Eric and Sheila, when he confesses, he feels partially responsible for her death. This shows that although he may be considered as a Capitalist, he does have a social conscience and is not afraid to show this to a certain extent. Men in this society are not allowed to show their emotions. This is why Gerald leaves the house as he has been through a harsh ordeal and wants to be alone.
He asks if he may return and this is because he still loves Sheila and would like to marry her but he understands when she says that they ‘aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner’. As he understands this, he is mature. Sheila’s relationship with Gerald does not appear to be based entirely on love, as they do not seem very affectionate towards each other. It is very likely that the two have been nudged together by their fathers to benefit the businesses. ‘We may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birling are no longer competing but are working together.
‘ This may be another reason for Sheila handing back the ring to Eric. At the beginning of the play she is very immature and childish; she does not really have any concept of the world, as she has been protected by her father. However, after the Inspector’s arrival, she becomes more aware of the world and of the things that happen in it. Perhaps this is a reason for her reaction towards the girl’s death; she has been so protected that she does not realise that things like this happen, so it comes as a tremendous shock to her when she realises that they do.
She accepts responsibility for Eva Smith’s death but understands that other people are also to blame. Sheila’s maturity increases rapidly and this is reflected throughout the play. The Inspector talks about ‘cheap labour’ and Sheila is horrified as she cannot understand how girls are cheap labour, as far as she is concerned ‘they’re people’. This demonstrates her compassion for other people regardless of their class. We can also tell that she has matured by looking at the change in her character from when she went to Milwards the previous year to when she is narrating the story.
The girl who went to Milwards was indeed a ‘selfish, vindictive creature’ as she abused her power and did not think about what could happen to the girl after she was dismissed. However, the Sheila we know for the majority of the play stands up to her parents and Capitalist views and is genuinely very sorry for her actions in the past.. She says that she’ll ‘never, never do it again to anybody’ and we believe her as through her speech and the way in which she speaks, we can see that she is being very truthful. Her speech after Gerald’s confession is very calm and reflective and this is an excellent example of her development.