In the play ‘An Inspector Calls’, the Birling family and Gerald Croft are taught a lesson by the Inspector about responsibility and looking after each other. When Mr Birling fired Eva Smith he was, in his opinion, acting in the interest of his business. However, there could be more to it than that. He says, ‘She’d had a lot to say – far too much – so she had to go.’ He fired Eva because he believed she was too confident and spoke out about what she believed in, which was likely to cause trouble for his business. In his opinion, girls of that class should not be allowed to do this – they were there to be ordered about and to do exactly what he said. Surely firing Eva Smith because of this is being irresponsible?
Throughout the play, Birling never takes responsibility for her death. ‘Still, I can’t accept any responsibility.’ After the Inspector has gone, he is only interested in covering up his actions and he does not care about what he has done to an innocent girl. He is so wrapped up in his own affairs that he refuses to take any responsibility for the people around him. Instead, he tries to shift the blame onto others, even his son. ‘You’re the one I blame for this’. In my opinion, he is one of the most irresponsible characters in the play.
Sheila, being young and quite nave, has more of an excuse for acting irresponsibly than her parents. When she had Eva fired from Millwards, she was being petty and immature. She had been brought up in such a protected surrounding that she didn’t realise what it was like in the real world – she didn’t know how hard it was for a girl of Eva Smith’s social standing to find a job. Sheila decided to take away the opportunity of a lifetime for Eva from her with one fell swoop.
She didn’t see how serious the effects of this would be for Eva. This is anything but being responsible. The difference, however, between Birling and his daughter is that Sheila learnt from what she did and later took responsibility for Eva Smith’s death. ‘I know. I had her turned out of a job. I started it.’ This shows us how Sheila has matured throughout the evening and how she is a better person than her parents. The fact that she regretted her actions and learnt a lesson does not take away the fact that she acted very irresponsibly in getting Eva Smith fired.
Gerald is, in my opinion, one of the most conniving and manipulative characters in the play. His affair with Eva Smith was undoubtedly irresponsible and traitorous. He was meant to be ‘busy at the works’ when he was actually seeing Eva Smith instead of Sheila. He likes to see himself as a ‘public man’, someone who sets an example to others. He is certainly not setting a good example by being unfaithful.
During the play he says, ‘We’re respectable citizens and not criminals.’ Gerald still keeps up the pretence that he is ‘respectable’, even when he is being anything but this. Like Mr Birling, he is more concerned about covering up his actions after the Inspector has gone and he does not really show any further regret about the death of Eva Smith. Throughout the play he shows himself to be an easy liar. ‘So – for God’s sake – don’t say anything to the Inspector.’ The fact that a man of Gerald’s age uses lying as a way to get out of predicaments shows how immature and irresponsible he really is.
Mrs Birling is described in the stage directions as being ‘a rather cold woman’. This is certainly true as we see throughout the play. She turned down Eva Smith because she considered her to be ‘impertinent’. Mrs Birling’s crime was quite similar in its pettiness to Sheila’s. Being a prominent member of a charity committee and being an older person, she should have cared and she should have been able to recognise someone who was in desperate need of help.
However, just because ‘she didn’t like her manner’ she turned down her claim. Mrs Birling has responsibilities to help all those in need but she refused to abide by these. This shows her to be self-absorbed and, like her husband, irresponsible. She remains convinced throughout the play that her actions had nothing to do with Eva’s death. ‘Simply because I’ve done nothing wrong and you know it.’ She has been brought up to believe that the upper class should not mix with the lower class and that she shouldn’t be responsible for anyone else but herself.
Eric is shown up in the play to be a foolish drunk. The very fact that he drinks so much shows how irresponsible he is and how he uses alcohol to wash away his troubles. His crime was that he had a drunken liaison with Eva Smith and consequently got her pregnant. This shows a serious lack of sense and maturity on his part. What is different about Eric is, however, that he took responsibility for his actions and tried to help Eva by giving her money. By doing this, Eric showed himself to be a gentleman and someone with a conscience – which is more than can be said for his Father. Like Sheila, he shows that he has learnt a lesson after the Inspector leaves and that he is not just concerned about covering his actions up. ‘Birling: There’ll be a public scandal. Eric: Well I don’t care now.’ In my opinion, Eric was the most responsible member of the Birling family.
We do not learn much about the personality of Eva Smith in the play, but from what we hear of her actions it is easy to come to the conclusion that she had moral standards and felt responsibility for her actions. She had the confidence and courage to come forward and demand better pay for her fellow-workers – this involves taking on a huge responsibility which she was willing to do. You could argue, however, that having an affair with an engaged man, of a different class, was not very responsible. Whether it is true that she was really laughing at Sheila in Millward’s is not known, but if she was then this shows a different, more foolish side to her. The fact that she refuses to accept stolen money from Eric shows her to be a sincere and honest person. I believe that Eva Smith was a superior person to all of the Birlings, despite their apparent divisions in class.
The Inspector’s moral beliefs are socialist, as seen through his final speech. ‘We are responsible for each other.’ He came to the Birling’s house to show them the error of their ways and to try to teach them to be better people. Taking on this task is in itself a responsibility. Out of all the characters in the play, the Inspector represents responsibility and moral standards. One of the main themes to the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ is that we all need to look out for each other and act responsibly and be aware of the effects of our actions on others. This is something which needed to be brought to attention to the Birling family, although some of them still refused to accept that even after the Inspector pointed this out to them. The play shows that we can learn responsibility, examples of this being how Eric and Sheila changed their attitude to Eva.