Sheila Birling is the well-off daughter of Sybil and Arthur Birling, sister of Eric Birling and is engaged to Gerald Croft. She is described as a “pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life and rather excited. ” Sheila is one of the only two characters in the play to truly change her views towards life and the social ladder in 1912. At the beginning of the play, Sheila is shown to be happy and playful, telling jokes and making comments which are guaranteed to make one smile. Priestley has written in Sheila’s acting directions that she is often “(half serious, half playful)”.
This is a result of her parents shielding her from the reality of the outside world, the harshness and the bitterness that the ‘lower classes’ feel. She seems very shocked when the Inspector tells her about Eva’s downward spiral, which is evidence of this. However, she is the only Birling to see Eva’s death as the loss of a fellow human being and the way in which it will affect the world around her, not just in terms of personal matters. She also seems shocked that not everyone is like her, being young, pretty and well-off. She is evidence of the gap in the social ladder between the lower class and the upper class.
Sheila is what Eva could have been if she had been born to upper-class parents. Sheila is shown to have flaws in her character – Eric refers to her temper when he says “she’s got a nasty temper sometimes”, she is possessive and suspicious towards Gerald and his actions, having “(… , possessively)” written in her acting directions and questioning Gerald as to what he was really doing over the summer. She acts in an overly childish way, exhibiting this behaviour specifically towards her parents, calling them “Daddy” and “Mummy”, even though she is a grown woman.
Her behaviour at Milward’s shop also shows many faults, for example, being “jealous” of Eva’s good looks, which the Inspector helps Sheila to realise, and letting her temper get the better of her when she sees Eva smiling at Miss Francis (the assistant) after she found out that the dress did not suit her, and coming immediately to the worst conclusion possible: that the smile meant “Doesn’t she look awful”. In the confession of what happened in the shop, the reader also gets the impression that here, Sheila is not unlike her father and Gerald, in that she uses her family’s money and status to dominate the situation in the shop.
She threatens to “never go near the place again and (she)’d persuade (her) mother to close (their) account with them” unless the manager fired Eva. This is the complete opposite to how we see Sheila behaving during the play; during the play, she seems conscious of other people’s feelings and compassionate, however, there is a complete lack of this much-needed compassion in the Milward’s situation. Sheila appears to have the emotional capacity that none of the other characters do, even being quite melodramatic at times with her behaviour, becoming “hysterical” and “stormy”.
Her direct emotional opposite is Mrs. Birling, who has completely cut off her emotions from herself and does not seem to show any emotional response, even when the Inspector shows her the picture of Eva. However, Sheila has the impatience of the elder Birlings, although hers is in the hypocrisy and dishonesty which surrounds her family, rather than impatience in other people’s intelligence like Mr. Birling, or impatience in other people’s so-called “impudence”. She becomes harsh and sharp with her words when she is irritated, meaning to make the others see her’s and the Inspector’s point of view
Sheila seems to truly be affectionate towards Gerald; however, he does not directly return her affections. She is possessive of him, saying that she’d “hate (him) to know all about port – like one of these purple faced old men”. She acts the way that she is expected to be; demure, naive, agreeing with everything Gerald says, and having a lack of self-esteem. Her entire existence is focused on making a “good” marriage so her family can buy into more money and her father can get rid of a business rival. By contrast, Eva makes her living through working with her hands within the industry that the Birlings have much influence over.
After Sheila’s flaws are revealed to her through her confession, she begins to change as a character, and recognises the need for the Inspector’s methods. She rejects her father’s and Gerald’s attempts to continue shielding her from the outside world and reality, for example, when Gerald tries to convince the Inspector that Sheila is hysterical and needs to go to bed, saying “It’s bound to be unpleasant and disturbing”, Sheila rejects this with “It can’t be any worse than it has been. And it might be better. ” This demonstrates her desire to learn and change, and her understanding of the Inspector’s morals.
Sheila then accepts her mistakes and begins to work with the Inspector and is the most responsive to his questioning, challenging Gerald’s hypocrisy with her own blatant honesty, uncovering the truth about Eric’s alcohol addiction, and revealing the extent of Alderman “Joe” Meggarty’s womanising. When the Inspector is revealed to be a fake, she realises that this is not the end of the matter, and that the message the Inspector gave them is still a valid lesson to be learnt, whether he was real or not, because “he inspected (them) all right”.
She recognises that even if Eva’s suicide was all a hoax, their actions still had the potential to affect eh lives of others, be it in a good or bad way. She and Eric, the two ‘converts’, try to convince their parents and Gerald not to start pretending that Eva did not exist, and that there is truth in the Inspector’s words – “One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives … ll intertwined with our lives… ”
She verbally attacks the elder Birlings for refusing to accept their mistakes and shows how ashamed she is of them, which is encapsulated in Eric’s words “I’m ashamed of you as well – yes, both of you”, and her own words, “But now you’re beginning all over again to pretend that nothing much has happened-“. Sheila recognises that the way that the elder Birlings had acted in the presence of the Inspector was a facade, and they have indeed started “all over again”.
At the end, Sheila’s refusal to accept back Gerald’s engagement ring or his assumption that she will shows how she has entirely changed as a person – at the beginning, Sheila was ecstatic when Gerald handed her the ring, even “kissing him hastily”, but at the end of the play, when Gerald tells her “everything’s all right now, Sheila”, both the audience and Sheila know that everything will certainly not be alright, and when Gerald asks her “What about this ring? “, Sheila says “No, not yet. It’s too soon. I must think. ”
The tone of voice used when she says “… ot yet” implies that she is willing to give Gerald the chance to change, but that she will marry him even if he does not, leading to an unhappy marriage. Sheila’s acceptance into the ‘new’ thinking methods of the Inspector and her rejection of Gerald’s ring adds to the uncertainty of the play and the audience’s and the Birlings’ shock when a telephone call comes through saying a girl has committed suicide. The audience’s knowledge of the sinking of the Titanic and both World Wars adds to their uncertain view of the Birlings’ future and their incredulous view of the Birlings’ easy complacency.