Sheila Birling is the character who changes most in the play. She begins as a naïve, self-centered and privileged young woman but soon develops into a perceptive and increasingly mature and wise character, who displays the attitudes of responsibility that form J. B. Priestley’s message in the play. Set in 1910, the author attempts to show how Capitalism led to the world wars, revolutions and economic disasters.
Our first impressions of Sheila Birling are presented in the stage directions at the beginning of the play:
A very pretty girl in her early twenties, very pleased with life
and rather excited.
She is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and her life has been one of ease and pleasure with very small concern for the world outside her immediate social circle. It appears that she has lived an untroubled life to this point in time.
Nevertheless, we learn fairly quickly as the play begins that she is not naïve as she may at first appear. When Gerald mentions the fact that he has been trying to get her to marry him for some time her reply suggests that she suspects this is not quite true:
. . . last summer, when you never came near me, and I
wondered what happened to you.
Gerald’s excuse is that he was busy at the works; she replies ‘that’s what you say’ in a tone that is described as ‘half-serious’ It suggests that Sheila suspects that an affair may of occurred during that time.
Our impressions of Sheila begin to change as we learn that she is capable of compassion. When she is first told of Eva Smith’s suicide her reaction is ‘Oh - how horrible!’ You can tell that this is a genuinely immediate response to the suffering of another human and from this we see she can be sympathetic towards those less fortunate than herself.
Although she has probably never considered the conditions of the workers, she shows she has an ability to appreciate the needs of others when immediately she...