How does J.B. Priestley get the readers to sympathise with Eva Smith?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The readers' sympathy for Eva Smith is aroused in Priestley's play through the characterization of the players in this "whodunit" drama:

  • Mr. Berling

Initially, the Berling family is depicted as a typical and complacent upper class family in 1912. The patriarch, Mr. Berling expresses the arrogant and selfish attitudes of the entrepreneurs of his time: he is against unionization or any workers' rights, he is interested in arranging a profitable marriage for him with his daughters' engagement to the son of a business rival, and he is proud of his social and political status. He tells Gerald Croft, who is engaged to his daughter Sheila,

You’re just the kind of son-in-law I always wanted. Your father and I have been friendly rivals in business for some time now – though Crofts Limited are both older and bigger than Birling and Company – and now you’ve brought us together, and perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together – for lower costs and higher prices.

Further, he expresses a confidence in the prosperity of his country that is, of course, unrealistic since the first world war and the Great Depression lie ahead. Clearly, he exists in his own realm, as does Mrs. Berling, and is unconcerned about others who are not of his class.

  • Mrs. Berling

This woman's supercilious attitude certainly elicits sympathy for Eva Smith. For instance, when the "Inspector" questions Mrs. Berling about denying the young woman aid from her charitable organization because the woman has lied about using the name of Berling casting doubt about the verity of her financial of physical conditions. In Act II, Mrs. Berling tells the inspector,

I'm sorry she should have come to such a horrible end. But I accept no blame for it at all.

  • Gerald Croft and Eric Berling

These two young gentlemen, while extending some kindnesses toward Eva Smith, have displayed their selfish and opportunistic characters in their erotic relationships with her, knowing that they would never become seriously connected to her because of their social standing.

  • Sheila Berling

Through her own admission, Miss Berling complained about the salesgirl because she was jealous that the outfit she tried on befitted Eva than it did her. Her petty action cost Eva a good job, and led to her penurious state. That she was wrong in her attitude, Sheila confesses in Act III:

We all started like that--so confident, so pleased with ourselves, until he started asking questions.

  • Inspector Goole

Through his deliberate and acute examination of each member of the Berling family, the supposed policeman brings several of the Berlings to realize their duties in society; that is, instead of the patriarch's position that society is "Every man for himself," the inspector, Sheila concludes at the end of the drama, has shown them that "We are all connected." Therefore, Eva Smith's death is important and is tragic because of the selfishness of those who have felt themselves superior to her.

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