Inspector Goole, a mysterious figure for social justice who claims to represent the police. A massive, solid, purposeful man of approximately fifty, he calls on the Birling family as Arthur and Sybil Birling celebrate their daughter Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft. Goole says that he is investigating the reasons for the suicide of a woman variously known as Eva Smith, Daisy Renton, and Mrs. Birling, who has died in agony after drinking disinfectant. Goole relentlessly reveals the role that each Birling (and Croft) has played through social or sexual irresponsibility. After Goole leaves, Arthur calls the chief constable and learns that no such inspector is on the force, but, as the final curtain falls, the telephone rings and Arthur hears that a woman has just died after drinking disinfectant and that an inspector is on his way to ask some questions.
Arthur Birling, a self-satisfied industrialist of about fifty. Heavyset, easy-mannered, and provincial in speech, Arthur, as the play opens, shrugs off the importance of labor unrest and the rumors of a coming war to forecast a rosy future for those of his class. He boasts of progress, of airplanes, of automobiles, and even of such unsinkable ships as the Titanic, slated to sail the next week. He confides to Gerald that he expects a knighthood, and he lectures his family members on their duties to themselves, not to the larger community. Shortly after this speech, Goole arrives and reveals that the dead woman was started on her road to death when she was dismissed by Birling for being the ringleader of a group who struck for minimally higher wages. Birling maintains that his attitude was correct, disclaims responsibility, threatens Goole with the wrath of the chief constable, and berates him for upsetting the family.
Sheila Birling, Arthur’s daughter, a pretty woman in her twenties. Although engaged to Gerald, she wonders why he ignored her the previous spring and summer. Shown a picture of Eva by Goole, she is horrified to realize that she herself had Eva fired from a sales position that Eva obtained after being dismissed by Arthur. In a bad mood, envious of Eva’s looks, she had threatened to close the family account at the shop unless Eva was dismissed. Unlike her parents, Sheila is lastingly changed by Goole’s revelations of the social injustices perpetrated by her family.
Gerald Croft, a well-bred man-about-town, approximately thirty years old. The son of a titled rival of Birling, Gerald is happy to unite the firms’ futures; the previous year, ignoring Sheila, he was living with Eva, whom he knew as Daisy Renton. He met her at a favorite haunt of prostitutes. Daisy was young, kind, lonely, destitute, and grateful to live for a time as Gerald’s mistress. She uncomplainingly accepted the end of the affair. Gerald gave her money to last out the year and thought no more of her future until shown a picture by Goole.
Sybil Birling, the fiftyish wife of Arthur and the mother of Sheila and Eric. Cold, haughty, and conscious of her social superiority to her husband, Sybil regards interest in Eva’s problems as a symptom of morbidity. She denies concern and responsibility, even when Goole tells her that, as chairwoman of a charitable organization, she herself had denied one of Eva’s final appeals for aid. Eva, who had become pregnant, assumed the name Birling; Sybil was offended by that and by the woman’s attitude. Rather than grant help, Sybil insisted that Eva should make an example of the baby’s father, who should be forced to confess in public. Eva would not accept help from the man, claiming that he was young, foolish, and a heavy drinker who, unknown to her, had helped Eva by stealing money. Now Sybil learns, and denies, that the young man is her son Eric.
Eric Birling, an immature, heavy-drinking young man in his early twenties. While drunk, Eric picked up Eva, herself hungry, a bit drunk, and down on her luck. He stole money from his father’s office to help her until Eva learned of the theft and refused any further aid of that sort. He did not confide in his parents because, with good reason, he doubted that they would understand. Like Sheila, he is profoundly affected by Inspector Goole’s revelations of the shared responsibility for Eva’s death.