Eric is potentially one of the founders of the next generation; if Eva had lived he could well be a father. Despite his wild and reckless past, his childish actions and the fierce protectionism of his family, Eric emerges as penitent and ready to acknowledge the lesson that Inspector Goole delivers. It is important that he represents youth and the hope that the dramatic message can be learnt.
In the early part of the play he is drunk and insensible, mocking of the proceedings. He laughs aloud when the conversation turns to Gerald and his ‘work’. This indicates that he is aware of Gerald’s philandering, and probably views it this point as inconsequential as his own.
Eric is quite disturbed to discover that the visitor is an inspector. This foreshadows his revelation of his criminal activity in the theft he has perpetrated from his family in a feeble attempt to support Eva.
By the end of the play, Eric is clear on the message that the inspector has delivered, that
‘we are all responsible for each other’,
Eric can also see that its reality or source is unimportant.
‘It’s still the same rotten story whether it’s been told to a police inspector or somebody else…It’s what happened to the girl and what we all did to her that matters.’
Eric represents the younger generation of a social class that is self-indulgent and spoiled. In this sense, he becomes an almost willing victim of its uncaring and supercilious attitude. He is raised in this society and the natural consequence is that he adopts its values. This attitude is displayed in his careless approach.
It is obvious that Eric is actually uncomfortable in this role, and takes to drink. His nervous anxiety and untimely outbursts early in the play further informs of his discomfort. Furthermore, he is clearly an object of his father's derision and is continuously put in his place by Mr. Birling. His father's disparaging remarks add to the young man's nervous and somewhat excitable demeanor. He does not seem able to counter his father's criticism and constant admonishment, and we can assume that he must resent him.
In Mr. Birling's estimation, Eric has to earn his place and learn, as he did, to make his mark. The young man obviously feels pressured and uncertain, and that is probably another reason why he drinks so much.
It is clear, however, that Eric, unlike his parents, has a social conscience. He constantly remarks about the unfairness of his father's actions for treating Eva Smith so badly and dismissing her. Eric believes that she should have been given what she asked for, and makes remarks in which he contradicts his father's sentiments. He, for example, tells Gerald, "He could have kept her on instead of throwing her out," when Gerald supports his father's contention that he had no choice but to dismiss Eva.
Eric, in this sense, comes across as something of a rebel. It seems as if he is intent on opposing whatever values his father seem to hold. As the play progresses, he becomes more outspoken until, in a climactic scene, he lashes out at his mother. When he discovers that she had turned down the destitute and desperate Eva's plea for assistance, he violently turns against her:
Then – you killed her. She came to you to protect me – and you turned her away – yes, and you killed her – and the child she'd have had too – my child – your own grandchild – you killed them both – damn you, damn you—
Eric is deeply distressed and seems to have previously accepted responsibility for having gotten Eva into the terrible situation she had found herself in. He tried to help the unfortunate girl when he discovered that he had made her pregnant. He stole money from his father's company and gave it to her. Eva later refused his generosity when she discovered that the money was stolen.
By the end of the play, it is obvious that Eric has matured somewhat. He openly declares that his parents never understood anything and later states that he is ashamed of them. His remarks indicate his courage in standing up to them and challenging their authority. He also reminds his father of what he had said earlier:
Yes, and do you remember what you said to Gerald and me after dinner, when you were feeling so pleased with yourself? You told us that a man has to make his own way, look after himself and mind his own business, and that we weren't to take any notice of these cranks who tell us that everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together.
After inspector Goole's departure, Eric seems to be the most sensible when he declares that, irrespective of all their considerations, a girl died. He makes everyone aware that that is something that cannot be changed. He also agrees with Sheila about having learned something, unlike his parents, who seem prepared to go on in the same way they had before. His earlier remark is portentous when it is later confirmed that a girl had actually died in exactly the manner described by the inspector and that a detective was on his way to see them.