Analysis of Eva's Role in Inspector Calls
Priestley’s character, Eva Smith, in An Inspector Calls, never appears in the play, but is omnipresent throughout and the audience gets to know about her as the chain of events unfold. From Inspector Goole’s enquiry with other characters into her suicidal death, we can perceive who she was and what she stood for. It is fascinating how a character, that we never get to see, holds so much significance in this play and how Priestley takes us back to an era before the World Wars, where gender and class divisions, exploitation of the poor/working class by the rich, divisions of socialism and capitalism existed and where women were vulnerable to the rich, powerful men and lived desperate lives. Priestley conveys a strong social message through Eva’s character in this play, persuading us to take more social responsibility for our actions towards others and their plight.
Although written in 1945, the play is set in 1912, in the dining room of the Birlings’, ‘…a fairly prosperous manufacturer’. This sets the background for the play taking us into the lives of the rich industrialists and their interactions with the poor, working class women, represented by a pretty young charming woman, Eva Smith, who worked at his factory. The play also illustrates how the young men considered women as only an object of desire. Priestley was a socialist, who experienced the world wars and his disgust for the social inequalities and injustice that existed is heavily portrayed in the play through Eva’s interactions with other characters, as is evident from her diary.
In the beginning of the play itself, we are introduced to the social concept of class division. Mr. Birling tries to hint at his possible ‘knighthood’ to show his social equality to the Croft family, whose son, Gerald, was getting engaged to his daughter, Sheila. It is also suggested that Mr. Birling is of a lower social class than his wife. Priestley also uses Eva to show the working class and upper class of the society. Mr. Birling only cared about making more profit, even if that meant lower wages for his workers. Eva was fired from the factory although she was a ‘good worker’, ready for promotion, because she stood up for her rights and that of other workers by leading a strike. This is the first glimpse we get of the strength, determination, fearlessness and will power of Eva, and her outspoken nature as is evident when Mr. Birling states “She’d had a lot to say…far too much”. Priestley’s intentions were to show us how the upper-class had a different view and mind-set and shows us the negative side of capitalism.
The attitude of capitalists / industrialists who considered women as merely cheap labour, and easily replaceable is clear when Mr. Birling says “It’s a free country…” and they can leave if they don’t like the wages. It shows how snobbish and ignorant they were and didn’t realise it was hard for women to find alternate jobs like in Eva’s case after she got fired. His arrogant attitude and the class division in society is apparent when he states, “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth”.
In the 1900’s, there was a rise in the suffragette movement, where women had fought for their rights and stand in society. Socialism was also on the rise. These changes or divisions in society are shown through the character of Mr. Birling when he says, “…you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else…” or through Goole, ‘‘We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other’.
Inspector Goole tries to make Mr. Birling feel guilty for his actions and accept responsibility for Eva’s suicide. According to Goole, “…what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards…..may have driven her to suicide”. Priestley therefore uses Eva to connote how every action leads to other actions and how we should be socially responsible. When she got fired for asking for just three shillings extra, Eva was desperate as she had no home or relatives or friends to turn to and no savings and was nearly starved. In my view, this represents not just the plight of Eva, but of most women in her situation in those times. This is evident when Inspector Goole states, ‘There are a lot of young women living in that sort of existence in every city and big town in this country’ leading them to become cheap labour. Even Priestley’s use of the word ‘existence’ here shows how they were merely surviving and not really living, in the Edwardian era.
Although Eva got ‘a wonderful stroke of luck’ getting hired at a good shop afterwards, she became a victim again to the arrogance of the rich. This time by his daughter, Sheila. Sheila used her ‘power’ as a loyal customer to get Eva fired in a moment of furiousness and jealousy for her good looks. However, as the play evolves to Act 3, Sheila’s character has matured and she feels guilty for her actions and even stands up to her parents to make them accept responsibility. Priestley was perhaps trying to show us how the younger generation were more open minded and how class division was not so prominent amongst them. Also, how they take responsibility for their own actions when Sheila admitted her faults. This is also evident in how he shows her brother, Eric, who is pictured as a spoilt, rich brat in the beginning but towards the end, feels remorse for his actions. Whereas both the older Birlings easily forgets everything with a fixed mindset and only think about their status quo. We believe through this play, Priestley was not only trying to show us about class division but also the differences between the generations and their attitudes or the changing times.
As the play progresses, we understand about Priestley’s choice of the name Eva for his character. It could be from the biblical name for the first woman, thus representing all of womankind. Smith is also a very common family name in those days and it is evident that Priestley chose the name wisely. However, its also ironic because Eva means life, while the play focuses on her death.
As the play continues, Eva in desperation had to choose ‘another kind of life’, where she met both Eric and Gerald at a place where men picked up prostitutes. Even these men who chased women for pleasure are pictured as men of class in the play. Eva then had taken on a new name, Daisy Renton. We believe again Priestley chose this name to show her innocence just like the flower Daisy and Renton could be to show how her body was for rent and the desperate measures women those days took to survive. Or perhaps it could be to cast a shadow of doubt for us readers that Eva and Daisy were two different people.
Gerald and Eric were attracted to Eva’s good looks and used their power and position to sexually exploit her and she became an object of pleasure to them. Gerald kept her as a mistress even while being in love with Sheila, a common thing in those days. Being desperate for love and attention, he became the most important man for her. She eventually became pregnant with Eric but refused to take his help when she found out the money was not his and was stolen from his parents. It shows how she was a woman of principle even in those desperate times.
She eventually went on to seek help from Mrs. Birling, who was head of a women’s charity, but was rejected help. It shows how Mrs Birling doesn’t try to understand how a member of her own gender feels and calls it a ‘wretched business’. Through Mrs. Birlings character, we also see how ignorant and snobbish rich men’s wives are and show she failed to acknowledge her own son being a drunkard or men in their social circle being womanisers. Therefore, through Eva’s interactions with Mrs. Birling, we understand a lot of things about rich women’s attitude. In desperation, when had enough, she killed herself by swallowing disinfectant, which ‘burnt her insides out’. In my view, this is very symbolic as Eva may have looked back at the choices she had made and the things she’s done and may be trying to cleanse herself.
Readers are left to empathise with Eva and feel sorry for her. Perhaps we feel more so strongly because we never get to see her. Many social issues are raised and messages conveyed in this play as is evident above. Family relationships and their complexities/conflicts and different attitudes of various members of a family are also shown. Towards the end, we are made to feel sorry for Sheila who felt responsible for Eva’s death. Though Sheila says that Gerald was Eva’s ‘wonderful fairy prince’, he is just another man who exploited her when she was most vulnerable. Eric was brave enough to call his mother out and tell her that she is also responsible for Eva’s death and regrets his actions.
The older generation on the other hand are more concerned about their family’s involvement becoming public and affecting their status quo and Mr. Birling even tries to justify what Gerald did saying a lot of young men do the same. Same with Mrs. Birling who refuses to acknowledge Eric’s bad behaviours and this is evident towards the end when they try to pretend nothing happened when it appears that Inspector Goole may be fake. Also, towards the end of the play, we are being led to believe that Eva and Daisy and the woman that Eric met may all have been different women, which shows that Priestley was trying to convey a generic message.
Priestley uses Eva’s life and the sequence of events leading to her death to convey a strong message. ‘Each of you helped to kill her’. “If there’s nothing else, we have to share our guilt”. We are led to believe that each character contributed to Eva’s death in some form because nobody took responsibility for their actions. Social responsibility being a key theme of the play, perhaps Priestley was depicting his own feelings towards social injustice and plight of women and was trying to make everyone accept responsibility for their role in Eva’s suicide.
In conclusion, Eva did not deserve to die in my opinion. Priestley shows us that having a narrow mind set like the Birlings and having a harsh capitalist way of thinking can destroy a lot of lives like Eva’s. This strong message is evident when Goole states ‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us …We are responsible for each other.’ Through Eva, Priestley tries to teach us all a lesson to be responsible for our actions and to avoid mistreatment of women or people who are less fortunate and extend a helping hand to them. If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be “…taught it in fire and blood and anguish’.
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