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• How Sheila responds to her family and to the inspector.
• How Priestly presents Sheila by the ways he writes.
AO4 [4 marks]
The play An Inspector Calls, by J.B Priestly was written in 1945 but is based in 1912. At the time the play is based, the majority of the country was capitalist and women had very few rights. There was also a large divide between upper class and lower-class people, which is reflected in the play. The play begins with the Birling family celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling and Gerald Croft. Priestly describes Sheila as “a pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited”. This is most likely due to her upper-class lifestyle, naïve outlook on life and recent engagement. Mrs Birling, Sheila’s mother, tells her: “Now, Sheila, don’t tease him. When you’re married you’ll realise…” to which Sheila responds with “I don’t believe I will, (half playful, half serious. To Gerald.) So you be careful”. Similar to most upper-class women of that time, Sheila craves attention, wanting her fiancé to be constantly attentive to her and not his work. Priestly also presents Sheila as immature and someone who is easily influenced by the way he describes her mannerisms, for example, she does most things excitedly or gaily and allows herself to be dismissed by her father; “Nothing to do with you, Sheila. Run along (She starts to go.)”.
However, as the play progresses and the Inspector arrives, we see begin to see a change in Sheila’s attitudes and way she behaves. Although never having previously thought about the conditions for workers of the lower class, she shows immediate sympathy and begins to show her socialist views: “But these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people.” This is also the beginning of Sheila’s growing disrespect for her parents. She is horrified to hear about Eva Smith’s/Daisy Renton’s suicide and even more so when she finds out that her father’s act of firing Eva was the act to set everything in motion and that Sheila’s act was a catalyst to her suicide. Although, unlike Mr Birling, Sheila takes responsibility for her actions and feels guilty about them. It’s at this point that Sheila matures slightly and stands up for herself. “(Cutting in) Why should you? He’s finished with you. He says it’s one of us now.” This shows Sheila’s confidence, which was absent before the inspector arrived.
Nonetheless, we can see the most change within Sheila occurs during Gerald’s discussion with the Inspector about his involvement in Eva Smith/Daisy Renton’s suicide. She is much more perceptive and smarter in act 2 onwards, evident in how she realised Gerald knew Daisy previously before he told them, she understood Eric’s part in the story and, most significantly is the first one to question who the Inspector is: "I don't understand about you.”. Sheila’s lack of anger when discovering Gerald’s affair shows how she has matured, she understands and respects his honesty, yet still maintains self-respect and doesn’t allow herself to forgive him. These responses/attitudes are a contrast to how women were viewed during the Edwardian era as it was unlikely for them to not only disobey their parents but to stand up for themselves. This is a big change from Sheila’s stereotypical upper-class feminine behaviours at the beginning of the play.
By the end of the play, the immature girl has disappeared and Sheila’s social conscience has been awakened, thanks to the inspector. Both Sheila and Eric represent the younger generation in the final act, enabling the audience to relate to the two characters as they are most likely what was the younger generation during the time the play was set. Priestly hopes that by making Sheila have a new found awareness of responsibility, that the audience will reflect on that. Sheila can be seen as an inspirational character by the end of the play for many reasons: she has the most character development during the play, realises her own self-worth and accepts her responsibilities. This is what makes her wiser and able to judge her parents and Gerald from a new perspective. Eva Smith’s suicide made Sheila less ignorant to the social classes as well as help her to see the world in a much clearer, harsher way. “I tell you – whoever that Inspector was, it was anything but a joke.” Sheila’s final quote shows how much she has learnt from this experience and that unlike the others, she feels like everything has changed.