J.B Priestley was a socialist writer known to the world by his play, ‘An Inspector Calls’. This play was written in 1945 after World War II however the play was set in 1912 before World War I and before the women’s liberation movement. J.B Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ is a condemnation of capitalism, an examination of greed and the lust for power, and a genuine plea to care and take responsibility for every member of our society, including its dispossessed ‘We are members of one body’. Priestley uses Sheila Birling as a vessel to convey his message of social responsibility. Priestley specifically uses Sheila to represent social responsibility and to highlight social change.
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At the beginning of the play Priestley introduces Sheila as a conventional and well-behaved daughter. Sheila’s role in the Birling household is to be a dutiful, obedient and civil daughter. She represents women suffrage and her hopes and plans for the future is to be in a marriage similar to her mother’s. ‘Now I really feel engaged’ this shows how materialistic Sheila really is as she got the ring as a symbol of her engagement to a man of high status. The audience now know Sheila as a girl pleased with life, naive, rather excited and self-centred as well as very optimistic on the notion of marrying Gerald. The audience learn quickly that Sheila is not as naive as she may first appear. When Gerald reminds her he has been trying to get her to marry him some time. She reveals that she suspects this not to be quite true when she teases Gerald over his absence “last summer, when you never came near me”. The audience also think that Sheila behaves appropriately, receives attention and seems happy.
When Sheila first hears of Eva Smith’s suicide her reaction is ‘Oh- how horrible!’ She shows an immediate and sincere response to the suffering of another human being and from this the audience see she can sympathetic towards those less fortunate than herself. When the Inspector shows her photograph of the girl she reacts much more dramatically than any of the others. This tells us that perhaps she had already realised that her behaviour towards Eva had been inappropriate and unnecessary and she was feeling guilty about it. Sheila disappointed on hearing that her father, Arthur Birling, had sacked Eva Smith for asking for a pay rise. The audience presume Sheila is a very compassionate woman. “I think it was a mean thing to do. Perhaps that spoilt everything for her.” Sheila was jealous of Eva’s good looks, and the fact that a particular dress suited Eva better than her, Sheila had Eva’s death and feels full of guilt for her jealous actions also she blames herself as “really responsible”. “Rather distressed” Sheila feels very shocked about Eva’s death. “But these girls aren’t cheap labour- they’re people.” Sheila displays the sense of responsibility that people of her class should have towards those who work for them. At this point of the story, the audience think Sheila is a woman taking responsibility for her actions as well as a changeable woman who thinks of others around her and Priestley uses dramatic devices so that the audience can’t ignore the change in Sheila.
Sheila begins to understand what the inspector is trying to tell the Birling family when she realises he is investigating them and warns her family that “he’s giving us rope so that we’ll hang ourselves.” Sheila understands that avoiding the truth is useless in the face of the inspector’s questioning. She shows the audience she has learnt her lesson by showing the audience that she has been childish and selfish in her treatment of Eva, she reveals she’s ashamed of what she has done and wants to change what her actions has caused. “Between us we have drove that girl to commit suicide.” Sheila shows how she has learnt her lesson by being confident and assertive in her language. Furthermore, the audience knows Sheila has learnt her lesson since she tries to warn her family not to keep the truth from the inspector. Sheila has learnt by being inquisitive, moral and responsible.
The audience know Sheila has changed because at the start of the play she uses simple playful and quite childish language. “I’m sorry Daddy.” On the other hand, towards the end of the play Sheila’s language has changed to simple, plain and sometimes blunt. “I dislike you as much as I did half an hour ago, Gerald.” It is through the character of Sheila that J.B Priestley develops most clearly his theme of responsibility, for each person in the society. Priestley show how people can change through Sheila’s character. Sheila is not only horrified by her actions but also takes responsibility for them. “It was my faultâ€¦ I expect you’ve done things you’re ashamed of too.” She admits she used her power and social status inappropriately and vows “I’ll never, never do it again.” Sheila has learnt that we are all members of “one body” moreover, we have responsibility for others and this is the stance that she stands strongly by for the rest of the play.
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The audience knows Sheila has learnt her lesson when ‘she turns away’ leaving her old ways behind. J.B Priestley uses many dramatic devices, such as dramatic irony and tension in order to effectively convey this political message throughout the play. J.B Priestley ‘s main aim in writing ‘An Inspector Calls,’ was to warn the government of the consequences of not allowing social changes which socialists strongly demanded.
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