The play is based on an upper middle class family the Birlings and the turn of events that are about to happen to them. The Birling family are spending a happy evening celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling to Gerald Croft – a marriage that will result in the merging of two successful local businesses. Yet, just when everything seems to be going so well, they receive a surprise visit from an Inspector Goole who is investigating the suicide of a young girl. The inspector goes round the family asking many questions and reveals how each character in turn has contributed to the unhappy circumstances that apparently drove this girl to a violent, horrible death.
In the play J.B. Priestley uses the characters and attitudes of the Birling family, especially Mr. Birling, to make the audience feel sympathy for Eva Smith. In the opening lines of the play, Mr Birling is found discussing port with Gerald, immediately giving the audience a sense of the family’s financial security When Mr. Birling tells Gerald and Eric that a man should “look after his own”, and not listen to the “cranks” who talk about “community and all that nonsense”, it becomes obvious that he has no interest in the welfare of people like Eva Smith.
By making Mr. Birling so big headed and snobbish, “JB Priestley renders his character deeply unattractive and encourages the reader to sympathize with his oppressed workforce”. When the inspector mysteriously appears in the dining area and asks if he can question Mr. Birling, Mr. Birling is not too quick to say yes as he doesn’t enjoy being questioned in his own home because he is having his authority questioned by someone and doesn’t feel in control of the situation.
Mr. Birling had sacked Eva as a factory worker because she wanted a raise from 22 shillings and 6 pence to 25 shillings and if the workers didn’t get it they frightened to go on strike and he did want to give her it back as he did think she was a hard worker but if he let one of them back he would look like a weakling and all of them would go on strike and demand more money. Mr. Birling didn’t remember her name at first but he changes his attitude when he sees the photo the inspector shows him and didn’t understand what sacking Eva had to do with the fact that she had committed suicide.
Sheila is described at the start as a “pretty girl in her early twenties who is quiet pleased with life and rather excited” but her feelings are changed when the inspector starts questioning her and Gerald. She is already suspicious about Gerald at the start of the play. I know this because in the dining room she says to Gerald “Yes, except for last summer, when you never came near me, and I wonder what had happened to you.” But as the inspector starts to unfold the story of how Eva/Daisy died. Especially when he starts to ask how Gerald meet Eva/Daisy and how well they got on. Coming up to the end of the play Sheila’s appearance has totally changed from the description J. B Priestley give the reader at the beginning.
She can not believe that her parents and Gerald are for trying to “pretend that nothing much has happened.” Sheila says “It frightens me the way you talk:” At the start Gerald is described as “an attractive chap about thirty, rather too manly to be a dandy but very much the easy well-bred young man-about town.” But his appearance changes when the inspector starts to unfold his secret life with Eva/Daisy. He did have some genuine feeling for Daisy Renton, however: he is very moved when he hears of her death. He tells Inspector Goole that he arranged for her to live in his friend’s flat “because I was sorry for her”; she became his mistress because “She was young and pretty and warm-hearted – and intensely grateful.”