In this post, which is Part 3 of a four part series, we look at the Inspector’s interactions with Gerald and Mrs Birling. The series is written with students in mind.
The Inspector and Gerald
- At the end of Act One the Inspector reveals that Eva often went by a different name (Daisy Renton) and upon hearing this Gerald shows obvious recognition.
- In an effort to remove Sheila from earshot Gerald says: ‘I think Miss Birling ought to be excused any more of this questioning. She’s nothing more to tell you. She’s had a long, exciting and tiring day […] and now she’s obviously had about as much as she can stand’ (27).
- In the same condescending tone that Mr Birling adopted earlier in the play, Gerald seeks to assert his patriarchal influence by speaking on Sheila’s behalf and as such suppressing her voice.
- As well as very obviously patronising, there is even an undertone here of something more sinister: he seeks to control Sheila, not only what and how she ought to think but even to exert a certain control over her body by suggesting she should be removed and that she is tired. This apparent willingness to exert control over Sheila foreshadows much of the subsequent revelations about Gerald’s pernicious interactions with Eva
- Yet, Sheila does not accept this and assertively states that she is staying. This represents a significant change in her tone and manner that will continue throughout the play, but it also highlights Sheila’s ability to reject Gerald’s attempted control in a way that Eva could not. Perhaps Priestley is hinting already at the success of the Inspector’s interrogations.
- Before Gerald has a chance to relay his involvement Mrs Birling appears and attempts to end the Inspector’s inquiry with this comment: ‘I don’t suppose for a moment that we can understand why the girl committed suicide. Girls of that class –‘ (30).
- This demonstrates the clear class prejudice that both Mr and Mrs Birling share and Priestley’s choice of ‘that’ has the same dehumanising effect that Mrs Birling’s earlier use of ‘these’ had. One can even imagine the actress spitting out this word, exhibiting, as it does, a certain repulsion that Mrs Birling has for ‘girls of that class’
- Furthermore, it also emphasises that for Mrs Birling all that matters is Eva’s class: her worth and value as a human is inextricably linked to her social class and, again, this is the view that in writing the play Priestley sought to challenge and subvert.
- At this point we discover Gerald’s true involvement: he met Eva whilst at an event and took her, as he would like us to think at least, under his wing. He offered her a place to stay and gave her money and she soon became his mistress.
- As Shelia summarises: ‘Gerald set her up as his mistress and then dropped her when it suited him’ (41).
- To Gerald Eva is disposable: he is able to do what he wants with her without any consideration of the consequences. She is simply a plaything to him and as her name suggest she is, in his view, for ‘rent’.
- Indeed, the way in which Gerald speaks of Eva helps to capture this rather insidious attitude: she looked, he says, ‘young and fresh’ and was ‘out of place’. Priestley makes it clear, here, that Gerald recognised Eva’s vulnerability and took advantage of it for his own ends.
- The use of ‘fresh’ is especially revealing and a rather odd way in which to describe someone. ‘Fresh’ suggests vulnerability and youth, and as such the promise of a future squandered, but also indicates Gerald’s sexual attraction to Eva. It implies a rather sickening recognition and awareness of her inexperience and the ability for this to be exploited and leveraged.
- Gerald knowingly and manipulatively ‘set her up’ and in doing so manufactured a situation where Eva depended upon him for the necessities of life (food and shelter) so that he could, at his own whims, sexually exploit her, finally ‘dropping’ her when it no longer suited him.
- The cruelty at the crux of the play is that different people held power over and had control of Eva, and perhaps none so as manipulatively and insidiously as Gerald.
- Whether it be as an employer, as a customer where she works, or as a man she turns to for help, people had power over Eva and then abused that power for their own ends.
- At its most fundamental the play is an attempt to provoke a reconfiguration of society where no one person has a monopoly over the life of another.
The Inspector and Mrs Birling
- It soon transpires that Mrs Birling chaired the Brumley Women’s Charity and Eva sought help from her.
- At this point in the play it is revealed that Eva was pregnant when she committed suicide and she asked for help from the charity in order that she might better look after the child.
- One reason that Mrs Birling denied the request of help, aside from her class prejudice, was that Eva used the name Birling, which Mrs Birling describes as a ‘damned impudence’ (43).
- Mrs Birling also explains that she refused to help her because ‘she wasn’t married’ (44), which would have been especially frowned upon in Edwardian society.
- Thus, instead of helping her Mrs Birling casts her aside. There is an interesting parallel here to Gerald who, unlike Mrs Birling, ‘sets her up’. Yet, Priestley seems to suggest both act without care for Eva, seeing her as disposable and someone able to be discarded
- What is especially interesting about Mrs Birling is the complete lack of emotion she has for Eva: ‘I did nothing I’m ashamed for […] I used my influence to have it refused. And in spite of what happened to the girl since, I consider I did my duty’ (44).
- Again, Priestley’s use of ‘duty’ in this context would have been especially jarring for a post-war audience: the conception of duty that Mr and Mrs Birling have is eternally different from the conception of duty that Priestly seeks to cultivate.
- Furthermore, it comes to light that the reason Eva needed help in the first place is because the person who had previously been helping her (the father of the baby) had been stealing money and Eva did not want to be involved in this.
- Yet, because her view is tainted by class prejudice Mrs Birling does not believe her: ‘As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!’ (47).
- Even more perverse is that Mrs Birling, by her own admission, uses her ‘influence’ to turn the committee against Eva. It was not the case she was passive in her refusal, but, one assumes, actively sought to persuade others to reject Eva’s appeals. This is a cruel perversion of the kind of communal society Priestley envisages where we are all ‘members of one body’.
- Likewise, Priestley’s evocation of ‘influence’, similar to Sheila leveraging her influence to have Eva fired, underlines the way in which influence wielded by the wrong people can lead to a disastrous outcome. Better, perhaps, Priestley is suggesting, not to have such power in the hands of prejudiced individuals, but rather an accountable government.
- Mrs Birling, perhaps more so than the other characters, represents a complete abdication of responsibility and a complete lack of remorse: she utterly abused her position of power.
- Contrast, for instance, Mrs Birling’s cold reaction to Eva’s death with Sheila’s now sickened reaction: ‘No! Oh – how horrible – horrible’ (45). The short syntax and fragmentary speech mimics her now disjointed frame of mind and she comes to realise what has taken place.
- This section of the play also functions as a social commentary on the efficacy of charitable bodies. In the Edwardian Period if a person needed help they would typically go to a charity and rely on the ‘kindness of strangers’. However, the Welfare State saw to put an end to this. Thus, the play might be seen as an attempt to justify the introduction of the Welfare State by denigrating the previous system of charity, teasing out its many flaws.
- In a manner far more pernicious and cruel than ether Sheila or Mr Birling, we see in Gerald and Mrs Birling a willing and unashamed capacity to wield power over another person and to treat them as utterly disposable. Eva suffered at the hands of both and neither, one feels, have learnt their lesson.
- The challenge, indeed moral injunction, that the play presents to its audience, whether now or 70 years ago, is to ensure we do not follow in the footsteps of Gerald or Mrs Birling.
I think you’re being too harsh on Gerald. He met Daisy / Eva at a bar, not an event. The bar was a haunt of ‘women of the town’, i.e. prostitutes. Daisy was there because she had reached a point where she was turning to that out of desperation, hence her change in name (for ‘rent’, as you say). However, Gerald recognises her as ‘out of place’ because she is not a prostitute, and he does remove her from an unpleasant situation. I think we can trust Gerald when he says that when giving her somewhere to live, he did not ‘install her there so that he could make love to her.’ So his actions, whilst not admirable, certainly don’t seem as insidious or pernicious as you describe. Even the Inspector accepts that Gerald ‘at least had some affection for her and made her happy for a time.’ A (probably overly) sympathetic view would be that Gerald is unable to pursue this relationship because of society’s class barriers – his parents disapprove of Sheila, let alone Eva.
I think a lot of interesting point. I’m not entirely convinced but then of course there’s no need for me to be, or for you to be convinced of my reading! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I enjoyed reading.
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