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  • Maria Moyles

How does Priestley present Sheila as a character who changes throughout the play?

GCSE English Literature Example Essay

How does Priestley present Sheila as a character who changes throughout the play.

The extent of Sheila’s change a character is largely dependent on how she is presented at the start of the play. On the one hand, there is evidence in the first scene of a chatty, somewhat socially ignorant character, one that lacks maturity and education, she is “rather pleased with life” according to the stage directions and “excited”, a characteristic that is then evident in her early on-stage presence. However, whether through ignorance, a lack of education or as a result of an exuberant personality, Priestley does weave early signs of murmuring dissatisfaction through his representation of Sheila – she is a character who from the start can see the flaws in society – she even tentatively challenges some of these in the first Act. Learning of the life and death of Eva Smith gives her wider cause and impetus to act on these principles and vocalise that discontentment which arguably is the most notable change evident in Sheila’s character.

At the start of the play, Priestley forms the concept that Sheila is not quite as pleased as perhaps it may seem – there are signs of nagging discontentment, particularly around the expectations of marriage. Perhaps important to note is that Priestley chooses the engagement of Sheila and Gerald in which to set the play; it is during this intimate and supposed happy occasion that the news of Eva Smith’s death is brought. The disruption of this private, purportedly happy union is a significant one – it allows Priestley’s message about social change to span wider than the working classes; change too is needed for the likes of Sheila, who without it, will enter into a marriage and a set of values and traditions that are old fashioned and not conducive to personal happiness. Sheila’s early scolding of Gerald on his whereabouts last summer is delivered “half serious, half playful” – she is not confident enough yet to challenge her husband to be and indeed the wider institutional system of marriage, but nor is she ingenuous enough to be willing to accept a casual, indifferent arrangement from her husband to be – she is looking for a partner someone who she can share her life with equally, a more modern and progressive idea than that which was afforded to women of the 1920s. Indeed, Priestley then uses Mrs Birling’s response to juxtapose Sheila’s; “you’ll have to get used to that, just as I had” – a clear representation of the older generations passing on and shaping younger generations in their behaviour, values and expectations of life. What is most interesting is Sheila’s response to her mother – “I don’t believe I shall” – again which is delivered “half playful, half serious” indicating that she is not yet ready, mature or confident enough to have conviction in her beliefs. It is interesting that the challenge she offers in retort to her mother is then redirected to Gerald “so you be careful” – perhaps the most significant change that occurs in Sheila is the growing conviction of her own ideals and the confidence she has to directly challenge her parents, the older generation and the wider institutions they represent.

In this early act, Sheila’s emerging discontentment is almost all directed at the younger generations – Priestley stops short of unequivocally challenging the upper middle classes (her parents) at this stage. Throughout the play, through the use of the Inspector, the mirage around the older generations, their authority, morality and supremacy are shattered – a crucial catalyst in enabling Sheila to have the confidence to challenge them and their ideals. Her early indignations although serious, lack substance, as a character Priestley gives us the impression that she can detect and sense things are not right but is not yet mature, confident or knowledgeable enough to fully understand the ramifications of what she sees and therefore unable to convincingly challenge them. On stage, she is the only character to recognise Eric’s alcohol problem “You’re squiffy” – but does so in an inarticulate, childish way. So much so, it is disregarded by her parents and even potentially at this stage by the audience; as a character she is overlooked – she is a young woman with “silly” ambitions for marriage and characterised by juvenile expressions such as “squiffy” and “purple faced old men” – phrases that expose her as immature. As a result, she is not taken seriously – it is not until the inspector arrives that the audience understand the grave significance of Eric’s alcohol problem – one which was instrumental in his rape of Eva Smith. As the play progresses, both the audience and Sheila gain critical insight from the Inspector that then lends weight and substance to the observations she can see but does not understand at the start of the play.

Indeed, ignorance is essentially bliss – facilitating Sheila’s “half playful” tone at the start of the play is that crucial lack of understanding – as a character she is naïve of the extent of even her own situation and suffering as well as that of others:

“(rather distressed) I can’t help thinking about this girl- destroying herself so horribly- and I’ve been so happy tonight. Oh I wish you hadn’t told me.”

Sheila’s alleged happiness has already been undermined somewhat by Priestley – she does want and expect more from marriage than society affords and is rather disillusioned in her playful demands; here, Priestley reveals how naïve Sheila is to even her own situation, never mind how woefully ill-equipped she is to be able to appreciate that of Eva Smith’s. Ultimately, ignorance is bliss, what changes for Sheila is not her character but her knowledge of the world beyond the Birling household – prior to the Inspector’s input her knowledge of the world and life of others was minimal – she has lived a sheltered life that has fooled her into feeling contented with her lot. Her immediate response is to long for ignorance – “I wish you hadn’t told me” – it is this knowledge that she cannot shake and cannot ignore – it is this knowledge, therefore, that is central to the change that we see from jovial banter that betrays an inner dissatisfaction to direct vocalisation for the need to accept responsibility and change. Her early wishes for ignorance are soon replaced by what Mrs Birling interprets as a “morbid curiosity” for the truth – Sheila is impetuous and unable to settle until she “knows why that girl killed herself”. What is equally interesting here is the way Priestley shows how Sheila feels personally afflicted by the news – she “cannot help thinking about this girl”, the news has personally disrupted her “happy” night. In this early instance, she is grieving more for the disruption to her own peace of mind and false happiness than she is moved by the appalling death of Eva Smith, she is then personally unable to rest until she knows the truth – Sheila’s change and desire for change stems from personal motivation.

It is interesting to note that even Sheila’s early discontentment is self-serving, she wants more from Gerald, she wants more from marriage – she is driven, as upper middle classes were, by self-serving deeds and interests. Perhaps the most notable change is how Shelia’s discontentment of society shifts to appreciating how others’, notably Eva Smith, have suffered as a result of capitalism. What starts as a self-serving act of revolt against her wayward husband to be, becomes support for the wider movement of socialism. What is most curious tough is that self-serving motivation – if she did not seek to benefit from social reform would she support it?

As the play reaches a conclusion and the Birlings are afforded the brief interlude of the possibility that it was all a ‘joke’, Priestley illustrates the most notable change in Sheila though her language which echoes that of the Inspector signalling Sheila’s change in authority – she is no longer passing moral comments through the infantile language that Mrs Birling scoffed, but emulating the power of the Inspector’s words – “fire, blood and anguish” which reveal how she now understands the grave, wider consequences of their actions. However, this is then tempered through the line “it frightens me the way you talk” which reminds us how she remains a young woman whose influence on society is minimal – she may have been moved and terrified personally but her ability to influence even her own family, let alone the wider society is improbable. As the play concludes, Sheila has grown further away from her family unit, she is shaken by truths and is positioned in direct opposition to her father and mother who now “frighten” her – it could be argued that the play ends with Sheila’s growing vulnerability as an individual – isolated from her family and class system and powerless as a result of her gender and position in a society that she now longs so desperately to change.

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