This section includes a character breakdown by act within An Inspector Calls.
Arthur Birling (‘a heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties’)
Mr Birling is concerned about his social standing – he wants to impress Gerald as he knows that the Crofts are from a higher class: ‘there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List. Just a knighthood of course.’
He has a narrow view of ‘collective responsibility’; he ridicules the idea that everyone might want to work towards the common good: ‘a man has to make his own way – has to look after himself ... But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive – community and all that nonsense... a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own – and – ‘
He is arrogant and then aggressive towards the Inspector; he doesn’t like to feel that someone else is in control: ‘rather impatiently’ ‘I don’t like the tone’. Later on, he tries to intimidate the Inspector with his social connections: ‘Perhaps I ought to warn you that [the Chief Constable’s] an old friend of mine, and that I see him fairly frequently ’and with his tone of voice: ‘Look here Inspector, I consider this uncalled-for and officious.’
He is proud to have put business and profit first: ‘it’s my duty to keep labour costs down, and if I’d agreed to this demand for a new rate we’d have added about twelve percent to our labour costs too.’ He does not view his employees as individuals, but as means to making money: ‘If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.’
Mr Birling tries to protect his daughter from the Inspector, and has to be reminded that she is also responsible: ‘Your daughter isn’t living on the moon. She’s here in Brumley too.’
Mr Birling has to be reminded that the Inspector has taken control of the situation:
INSPECTOR [cutting in, with authority]: He must wait his turn.
Mr Birling shows his preoccupation with status and reputation when he hears further confessions in this scene: ‘I must say, Sybil, that when this comes out at the inquest, it isn’t going to do us much good. The Press might easily take it up – ‘
Eric accuses his father of being uncaring and unsympathetic: ‘not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble’
Mr Birling is thrilled to realise that the Inspector was not a real policeman: [excitedly] By Jingo! A fake!
Birling is happy to forget his actions and uses the information from the Infirmary as ‘proof positive’ that the whole story is ‘just a load of moonshine’.
Mrs Birling (‘her husband’s social superior’)
She places a high value on things being done ‘properly’: ‘Arthur, you’re not supposed to say such things – ‘ ‘What an expression Sheila!’ Really, the things you girls pick up these days!’
Mrs Birling thinks she can use her social status to dismiss the Inspector: 'You know of course that my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago and that he’s still a magistrate’
She is ignorant of the world around her; she is shocked when Gerald describes ‘women of the town’ and is ‘staggered’ when she hears about Alderman Meggarty’s behaviour. She is also ignorant of the behaviour of her own son: her social position means that she is distanced from real life.
She is used to having her opinions accepted as right: ‘Please don’t contradict me like that’.
She unwittingly reveals her class prejudices by her language. She calls Eva Smith ‘the girl’ and implies that her social position separates her from a family like the Birlings: ‘girls of that class – ‘
She reveals that the reasons she did not support Eva Smith was because of the girl’s ‘gross impertinence’ in using the name ‘Birling.’ These words reveal that she believes Eva should have shown more respect. She also refuses to believe that someone from a lower social class could have any morals: ‘She was claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position’
She insists on her innocence: ‘Unlike the other three, I did nothing I’m ashamed of or that won’t bear investigation’. Her self-righteousness sets her up to fall further than the other characters.
She is unwilling to believe her son’s involvement with the girl and this distress is expressed as denial: ‘I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it.’
Mrs Birling has been the most resistant to the Inspector throughout the play, but in this act, she has to leave the room, showing that she has been unsettled by what she has heard.
However, like her husband, Mrs Birling feels vindicated when she discovers that Inspector Goole was not a real policeman: [triumphantly] Didn’t I tell you?
Her language to describe the Inspector continues her class prejudice – her proof that he was not a real police inspector is based on the fact he failed to show them the respect she expected and had been ‘rude – and assertive’. We realise she has not learnt through the experience.
She speaks as though the previous two acts were a game: ‘allowed yourselves to be bluffed’.
Sheila Birling (‘very pleased with life and rather excited’)
Initially, Sheila doesn’t want her evening to be ruined by hearing about suffering: ‘Oh I wish you hadn’t told me!’
When she first hears the story, she shows compassion and sympathy towards the girl, which means the audience warms to her; she isn’t simply a snob. ‘But these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people’
She is prepared to admit her mistakes quickly and shows a sense of remorse for her actions: ‘It was my own fault...At least I’m trying to tell the truth.’ She has to learn she cannot change the past: ‘And if I could help her now, I would – ‘ and then resolves to change: ‘I’ll never, never do it again to anybody.’
She is intelligent and can ‘read between the lines’ of other people’s behaviour. She quickly understands that Gerald’s involvement with the girl means that he was unfaithful to her: ‘Were you seeing her last spring and summer, during that time when you hardly came near me and said you were so busy? Were you? Yes of course you were.’
Unlike the rest of her family, Sheila quickly understands the Inspector’s power and the truth of his message. She initially questions the Inspector: ‘What do you mean by saying that? You talk as if we were responsible – ‘ but later urges Gerald to be honest: ‘Why – you fool – he knows. Of course he knows. And I hate to think how much he knows that we don’t know yet. You’ll see. You’ll see.’
Sheila knows there is not point in trying to pretend before the Inspector: ‘You mustn’t try to build up a kind of wall between us and that girl. If you do, then the Inspector will just break it down.’
Sheila’s ironic comments during Gerald’s confession show that she is hurt by what he is admitting: ‘Well we didn’t think you meant Buckingham Palace – ‘, ‘I’m supposed to be engaged to the hero of it. Go on Gerald...’
Sheila is concerned that her family haven’t taken the Inspector’s lessons seriously: ‘But you’re beginning all over again to pretend nothing much has happened.’
She is offended when her concerns are dismissed as childish: ‘If you want to know, it’s you two who are being childish – trying not to face the facts.’
Her language against her family grows stronger as she realises their determination to continue as though nothing has changed: ‘It frightens me the way you talk.’
Gerald Croft (‘the easy well-bred young man-about-town’)
Gerald begins the play as a confident young man who is keen to please his father in law:
GERALD [politely]: Absolutely first class
He shares Mr Birling’s ideas about profit in business: ‘Hear, hear! And I think my father would agree to that!’...‘You couldn’t have done anything else’
His involuntary reaction to Daisy Renton’s name gives away his guilt:
GERALD: [startled] what?
He thinks he can hide his involvement from the Inspector: ‘I don’t come into this suicide business...So – for God’s sake – don’t say anything to the Inspector.’
Gerald is ‘distressed’ when he finally realises his involvement with the situation. The fact that Gerald’s affair was not pre-meditated (I want you to understand that I didn’t install her there so that I could make love to her’) and that he tries to protect Sheila and Daisy mean that he does maintain the impression of being vaguely honourable.
Gerald’s description of Daisy emphasises her vulnerability, although he does not blame her for their affair: ‘she looked young and fresh and charming and altogether out of place down there.’
In Gerald’s confession, he tries to portray himself as Daisy’s rescuer: he says she gave him ‘a glance that was nothing less than a cry for help’
Although the Inspector condemns all of the characters, he does note that Gerald ‘at least had some affection for her and made her happy for a time.’
Gerald is the one who confirms that Inspector Goole is not on the local police force, raises the key question about the photograph; But how do you know it’s the same girl? and about the suicide: How do we know any girl killed herself today?’
Gerald is relieved to discover there is no Inspector: he agrees with Birling that if Goole is a fake, it ‘makes all the difference. ’ This undermines his sense of responsibility– we see that he has not learnt as much as Sheila and Eric and is perhaps more similar to the adult Birlings.
Eric Birling (not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive’)
There are hints that Eric lacks control: he drinks ‘rather noisily’
His father feels that Eric’s life so far has been easy and hasn’t taught him to take responsibility:
‘Unless you brighten your ideas, you’ll never be in a position to let anybody stay or tell anybody to go. It’s about time you learnt to face a few responsibilities. That’s something this public-school-and-Varsity life you’ve had doesn’t seem to teach you.’
Sheila has to tell her mother about Eric’s drinking in this scene: ‘has been steadily drinking too much for the last two years’. This prepares the audience for the later revelations about his drunken behaviour towards the girl.
His mother’s confident outburst against the ‘drunken young idler’ who made Eva Smith pregnant and who she feels ‘ought to be dealth with very severely’ leads the audience to expect that it is Eric who was responsible
Eric is initially upset with his sister for revealing his secret drinking habits
He then realises there is no way of hiding the truth and admits everything; his behaviour towards Eva Smith was brutish: ‘that’s when it happened’ His behaviour was driven by impulse and drink: I wasn’t in love with her or anything – but I liked her – she was pretty and a good sport.’ The Inspector exposes how Eric used the girl: ‘as if she was an animal, a thing, not a person.’
However, his later comments reveal his regret at his actions:
ERIC [unhappily]: My God – I’m not likely to forget
Inspector Goole (‘he creates at once an impression of massiveness, solidity and purposefulness... has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before actually speaking.’
The Inspector tends to repeat someone’s words back at them to teach them the selfishness of their way of thinking:
BIRLING: We were having a nice little family celebration tonight. And a nasty mess you’ve made of it now, haven’t you?
INSPECTOR: That’s more or less what I was thinking earlier tonight, when I was in the Infirmary looking at what was left of Eva Smith. A nice little promising life there, I thought, and a nasty mess somebody’s made of it.
The Inspector refuses to be intimidated by Mr Birling and shows increasing control of the situation. At the end of the scene, Sheila has realised his power over them and the audience expects him to reveal more secrets: [the INSPECTOR appears, looking steadily and searchingly at them]: Well?
Again, the Inspector repeats the characters’ words in order to have maximum impact:
MRS BIRLING: She was claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl of her position.
INSPECTOR [very sternly]: Her position now is that she lies with a burnt-out inside on a slab.
Sheila describes the Inspector’s methods insightfully: "He's giving us the rope - so that we'll hang ourselves.”
The Inspector speaks as though he knows what is about to happen. Shortly before Eric enters the scene, the Inspector says: I’m waiting ... to do my duty as if he knew that Eric was about to arrive.
Again, the Inspector uses repetition of other character’s speech to expose their hypocrisy and faults:
BIRLING [angrily]: I don’t want any of that talk from you –
INSPECTOR [ very sharply]: I don’t want it from either of you. Settle it afterwards...
BIRLING [angrily]: Your trouble is – you’ve been spoilt –
INSPECTOR [cutting in]: And my trouble is – that I haven’t much time...
Again, Sheila offers insights into the Inspector’s ways of working: ‘We hardly ever told him anything he didn’t already know’
The video below explains the dramatic devices used in An Inspector Calls: