Although the most drastic difference is shown after the Inspector has left the family, we can still see a hint of contrast before he arrives. In the first few lines of the Act one, we get a clue that Sheila is not that happy with her fiancé Gerald. She says to Gerald ‘(half-serious, half-playful) Yes- except for all last summer, when you never came near me.’
This shows that Sheila perhaps has higher expectations of Gerald, and is already quite suspicious about his behaviour. She’s clearly not that willing for him to just not talk to her for long periods of time.
It is proved that the older generation think differently however when Mrs Birling tells Sheila that she ought to get used to Gerald behaving in this way. She says ‘when you’re married you’ll realise that men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business.’
Unlike Sheila, Mrs Birling of the older generation clearly thinks it’s acceptable for men to be away from their wives or partners for the majority of the time. It shows a lot of signs of male superiority, and the fact that men of the family can pretty much do what they want. Sheila doesn’t seem so inclined to think this way so this shows quite a big difference of opinion between the two generations. Priestly demonstrates this through how the two speak about the subject of marriage and how quickly Mrs Birling dismissed her daughter’s complaints.
When the Inspector does arrive however, we see a big difference in reaction when he shares the occurrence of Eva Smith’s death.
Mr Birling barely reacts at all, and seems as though he wants to brush the news aside. He says ‘(rather impatiently) Yes, yes, horrid business. But I don’t understand why you should come here.’
He shows no shock or concern at the news of a girl dying, but just wants to know how it affects him, showing how self-involved him and much of the older generation are. He only wants to know why the Inspector is concerning him with the death, instead of showing any emotion about the fact a young person has just died, proving his selfishness and self-centredness.
He has no sympathy when the Inspector goes on to say how the girl committed suicide and was in great agony, showing his lack of regard and interest in anyone who doesn’t directly affect him.
Mr Birling’s son Eric reacts a lot more as you’d expect to the news of Eva Smith’s death. He says ‘(involuntarily) My God!’ Even though the Inspector wasn’t addressing him, Eric expresses a sign of shock and horror at the news of a young girl drinking disinfectant. He’s upset by what the Inspector says, and the news of something like that happening clearly distresses him, much unlike Mr Birling.
These two reactions show another big difference between the two generations. The older generation are unfortunately a lot more obsessed with their image and reputation.
Another big contrast is how the family members react to the Inspector’s questions and accusations.
In the case of Sheila, she only has to look at the photo of Eva to recognise her, and ‘with a little cry,’ she gives a ‘half-stifled sob’ and then runs out of the room. She is honest about knowing who Eva is straight away, and catches on to the fact that The Inspector knows about the truth about the family extremely quickly.
She confesses not only what she did to Eva Smith, but also how guilty she is and how much remorse she feels about Eva’s death. She acknowledges and accepts her faults straight away, much unlike her mother.
When Mrs Birling is first shown the photograph of Eva she denies knowing her at all. The Inspector asks Mrs Birling if she recognises Eva, and Mrs Birling responds with ‘No. Why should I?’
Mrs Birling will only talk about her contact with Eva when the Inspector pushes her to, and at first is far too proud to even admit she’s seen her, and even when she eventually admits she refused the desperate Eva Smith charity, she maintains haughtily she’s done nothing wrong. Unlike Sheila Mrs Birling will not admit any flaws or failings on her part. She is prepared to lie to the Inspector to shield her image, and feels herself so superior to people like Eva Smith they are not even worth telling the truth about. When hearing how badly she’s affected another human being, Mrs Birling accepts no blame and feels no guilt like her daughter Sheila, and much like her husband and many of the older generation is only concerned with making sure none of the responsibility lies with her.
The way Gerald reacts to the Inspector is somewhere between the two. He half-heartedly tries to act as though he doesn’t know Eva, but knows really he’s given himself away, as when The Inspector mentions Eva changing her name to Daisy Renton, Gerald reacts: ‘(startled) What?!’
Despite the foolish attempt to try and cover his tracks Gerald does confess and seems to feel some regret towards Eva. Unlike the rest of the family he didn’t treat Eva, or ‘Daisy’, unkindly, though is still quite reluctant to admit his interaction with her, though nothing compared to Mrs Birling.
Gerald is not quite part of Mr and Mrs Birling’s generation, though is still older than Sheila and Eric. Priestly perhaps uses him to depict someone in the middle of the two, whose attitude is not quite as supercilious and conceiting as Mr and Mrs Birling, but still shares a lot more of their faults than the younger generation.
The biggest divide however is shown once the Inspector has left the family. They have all been shown how badly their actions have affected other people, and how desperate the need for change is, but it is only Eric and Sheila who seem willing to do so.
Whilst Mr and Mrs Birling discuss and cling on to the possibility that the Inspector wasn’t in fact from the police force, Sheila declares ‘it doesn’t make any real difference’ with Eric agreeing with her.
The two of them realise both their own and their parents’ faults, and understand it is not important where the Inspector came from; there must be a change in their behaviour.
The older generation however give little thought to what they’ve done to Eva Smith, and are practically elated when Gerald brings back the news there isn’t ‘any Inspector Goole or anybody like him on the force here.’
They have no inclination to even consider changing their behaviour for the better and are only concerned that no one finds out about the ‘scandal.’
When discovering that no girl has in fact died at the Infirmary Birling says ‘(triumphantly) There you are! Proof positive! The whole story’s just a lot of moonshine. Nothing but an elaborate sell! (He produces a huge sigh of relief.)’
All the warnings and hints The Inspector has given the family have clearly gone straight over Mr Birling’s head. He is not relieved that nothing has happened to Eva Smith, but just pleased that he and his family can now be accused of nothing. After all the Inspector has revealed to them, Mr Birling still has trouble believing such a ‘hard-headed businessman’ as himself could be anything close to a criminal, or need any changing, and so can still be convinced the story’s a lot of ‘moonshine’ even though his family could have quite easily driven a girl to suicide between them.
This is where Priestly shows the largest divide. Mr and Mrs Birling are unable to accept any responsibility and are only concerned with themselves and their reputation. Their children however can quite clearly see how the family are at fault, and this difference in attitude is shown throughout the book, with Mr and Mrs Birling displaying constant signs of ignorance and selfishness, and Eric and Sheila understanding a lot more, showing a lot more empathy and a sense of feeling and consideration to other people, whatever their class or gender. They are far less judgemental than their parents, and Priestly uses their speech and behaviour to show how different their attitudes are compared to their parents, and what a big generation gap there is.