Blame and responsibility are key themes in the play an inspector calls. Priestley set the play in 1912, but he wrote it in 1944. During that space of time many big social changes took place. After reading the play we come to realise each character has contributed to the death of Eva Smith, but is anyone solely to blame? The play shows the younger generation of 1912 starting to understand their responsibility to society. Sheila is a fine example of this.
Sheila the Birlings’ daughter is impressionable, and deeply affected by the Inspector’s revelations. She and her brother Eric are the only characters who give any cause for optimism in the play. Sheila has an attractive and essentially honest character, and lacks in the cold-blooded attitude of her parents. Sheila first set eyes on Eva when Eva was working in a shop called Millwards. The previous months before, Eva had been unemployed after being sacked by Mr Birling. Sheila was jealous of Eva’s pretty looks and Sheila, as a customer complained about her. Eva was sacked. Sheila’s spiteful complaint against Eva is probably the most indefensible action of all; based merely on her own wounded vanity.
Sheila is the first to confess her part in the girl’s fate, ‘I know I’m to blame and I’m desperately sorry’. Sheila takes full responsibility for her actions. Sheila wants to know how much trouble the families are in, ‘you talk as if we were responsible’. Sheila is prepared to take the consequences for her actions. The Inspector makes sure that she knows that she is only partly to blame. Sheila is partly to blame, however she did admit her guilt and express great regret for her actions. Sheila abused her power in much the same way as her father did when dismissing Eva from his factory. The Inspector points this out to Sheila, ‘ you used the power you had’. Sheila accepts that the Inspector’s accusation is true.
Sheila realises it is not enough that she has admitted her crime and is sorry. She realises that she has a responsibility to her mother to help her accept the blame for what she has done. Mrs Birling becomes aversive, avoiding the Inspector’s questions. Sheila advises her mother to not, ‘build up a kind of wall between us and that girl’. Sheila is trying to show her mother that if she builds up a wall the Inspector will just break it down. Unfortunately, her mother does not listen to her advice. Sheila refuses to be treated like a child any longer. Sheila objects to her parents’ attempts to protect her from unpleasant truths; ‘…I’m not a child, don’t forget. I’ve a right to know.’ Sheila suggests that each of them has a similar right to know the truth. Sheila is not fully to blame, as each character has contributed to Eva’s death.
At the end of the play she feels that, whilst for a time it seemed as though they had learnt something about themselves and their society, once they saw a ‘way out’, they simply returned to how they were at the beginning. Sheila and her brother Eric represents the younger generation which Priestley hopes is still open-minded enough to learn to accept responsibility for others. During the play, Eric is exposed as a drunkard, the father of the illegitimate unborn child, a liar, a thief and an embezzler. Eric met Eva in the Palace bar and went home with her afterwards. Eva and Eric became lovers and soon Eva got pregnant. Eva refused to marry Eric, because he did not love her. Eric gave Eva money to live on – about fifty pounds. However, this money was stolen from Mr Birling.
Eric seems hostile towards his parents, especially his father. This contrasts with his sister, whose criticisms seem more balanced and whose motives are easier to understand. Eric finds his father unapproachable and unloving. This may be why Eva treated Eric, as he admits, as if he were a ‘kid’ and why he responded to her pity. She may have recognised in him a need for affection that she herself shared.
Eric may be a weak and lonely figure, but he is capability of real feelings for others. Eric has changed considerably during the play. Eric becomes a lot more responsible and mature, ‘whoever that chap was the fact remains that I did what I did’. Eric understands that whether there is or is not an Inspector nothing is any different. Eric accepts that what he did was wrong. Mr Birling is a successful factory owner, Ex-Lord Mayor of Brumley and a local magistrate. He regards himself as reasonable and pays his employees no more and no less than the going rate. Eva was a ringleader in an unsuccessful strike for more money; she was sacked. Mr Birling claims that it is his duty to keep costs low and prices high.