Compare and contrast two characters from the play “An Inspector Calls”. Explain how Priestly uses them to show the different ideas and values of the older and younger generations. In the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ a young girl called Eva Smith commits suicide by drinking disinfectant and we see the reaction of the Birling family when they find out they all had a part in her death. The older and younger generations react differently to Eva Smiths death.
Priestly wrote the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ in winter 1944-1945. The play was set in spring 1912 and it was first performed in 1946, in London. ‘An Inspector Calls’ was a well made play because their was a progression of ignorance to knowledge both characters and audience. I am comparing Sybil Birling and Shelia Birling, Sybil Birling is part of the older generation and Shelia is part of the younger generation. Shelia is warm hearted and affectionate. Shelia will take blame for what she has done. Sybil is “cold” and snobbish. She is also prejudiced and doesn’t like change. She will not take blame for Eva Smiths death.
In the first scene the characters are sat round a table celebrating Shelia and Gerald’s engagement. This means the audience focus on them because there is no action so the audience concentrate on what they are saying. This is important to hear their conversation because in the first scene this is where we can tell what their character is like. Priestly manages to keep the play constant and contributes action to the play with no distraction. The Birlings dining room is constant throughout, the action and dialogue contribute to the central theme of the play with nothing extraneous to distract the audience’s attention. From their performance in the first act we can tell that Arthur Birling is ‘rather portentous’, Sybil his wife is ‘rather cold’ Shelia is ‘very pleased with life’. Eric is characterised as ‘half shy, half assertive’ and Gerald Croft is described as the ‘easy well-bred young man about town’.
The first scene gives the audience a sense of unease by the ironic references to the war, which was to follow, and the Titanic, which was to sink on its first voyage. Also in the first scene the lighting is soft and intimate showing the audience that they are relaxed and comfortable, this lighting will change to brighter and harder when the inspector comes in and will remain like this for the rest of the play.
Shelia and Mrs Birling have very different characteristics. Shelia being a much younger character is quite impressionable as the story goes on, where as Mrs Birling refuses to change altogether. Their characteristics are shown in their reactions to Eva Smiths death. Shelia is shown as being young, attractive, sensitive, an honest character. She is one of the very few characters in the play that is impressionable, and deeply affected by what the inspector reveals to her family through the play.
In the first act we see that Mrs Birling and Shelia Birling have very few similarities, we can see this by the language they use. Shelia uses slang, whereas Mrs Birling uses no slang as she feels she is a very important respectable character. “You are squiffy” Shelia uses this expression to tell her brother Eric that he is drunk. The slang she uses helps emphasise her youth whereas Mrs Birling uses words and talks how an upper class woman would.
However, at the beginning of the play, when Sheila’s story is revealed, she seems to have very similar characteristics to that of her mother. She seems very selfish and full of self-importance. An example of this behaviour, is demonstrated when she gets Eva fired from her job, which was simply, as she admitted later, because she had laughed at her. She felt that she had a very high status in society, which gave her the power to be able to do this. This basically mirrors her mother’s attitude, which does not change, at any point in the play.
Before the Inspector arrived Mrs Birling is very “cold” and unpleasant. She is very serious and has no sense of humour. “Now Arthur I don’t think you aught to talk business on an occasion like this”. Where as Shelia is pleased with life, happy and rather excited. “Oh Gerald you’ve got it is it the one you wanted me to have”. Shelia doesn’t know much about life but this is soon to change. Shelia was involved with Eva Smiths death because she got her sacked from her job at Millwards as Shelia felt she was being rude. “I caught sight of this girl smiling at Miss Francis – as if to say: doesn’t she look awful”. Eva Smith got a job as a sales assistant in an expensive clothes shop. An important customer (Shelia) who was in a bad mood thought she was giggling at her, so she used her influence and her social class to get her sacked.
Miss Birling was involved in Eva Smiths death as she refused her a claim as Eva Smith found she was pregnant and applied for help to a charity. The head of the charity (Mrs Birling) refused her help because she didn’t believe her as she lied about her name and then used Birling as her name as well. “She only has herself to blame” this is a typical attitude of upper class and she is not sorry at all. Shelia will take responsibility for her part in her death, She feels sorry for Eva Smith because she killed herself like that, but Mrs Birling will not take any blame for it, as she feels it was her own fault.
Shelia and Sybil’s reactions to the Inspector and other family members are very different. At first Shelia is agreeing with the Inspector about her father sacking Eva Smith. “(To Birling) I think it was a mean thing to do. Perhaps that spoilt everything for her”, here when she found out about Eva she is very quick to protect Eva Smith but not any of the members of her family. Shelia is the only member who shows any genuine sympathy for Eva. But Mrs Birling tries not to believe it because she doesn’t want to spoil their family reputation. And she believes her family would not be involved in something like this, she is also shocked to find out that she is involved but feels it wasn’t their fault. She doesn’t want to hear about Eric and wont believe the truth.