Eric Birling is a character that many readers are drawn to – initially, at least. Placed closest to the audience in the opening scene and created as a character foil to his father’s objectionable pomposity, Eric is presented as a reasonably likeable, if misguided, young man. Realising that he is the father of Eva’s child, he offers to marry her and provides her with money, rather than simply walking away. Eric is also portrayed as demonstrating grief at the death of “my child” and the line “we all helped to kill her – and that’s what matters” is used by Priestley to reveal his moral growth. The contrast with Mr Birling continues into the play’s final moments, as Eric is shown to accept at least some accountability for Eva’s suicide instead of pretending that the situation can be hidden from public attention. If anything, Priestley positions Eric as a victim of a society in which young, upper-class men are so infantilised by their parents that they struggle to realise the consequences of their actions. After the play’s exposure of the harsh reality of life under capitalism, and the benefits of socialism, surely a sympathetic audience will see Eric as a symbol of hope for the future: reform is possible, and necessary, to building a better society.
However, is Priestley’s presentation of Eric as a victim of society sufficient? Is he really portrayed as being so different from his father? Does a focus on the benefits of socialism distract us, as readers in 2021, from interrogation of the play’s gender dynamic? For a modern audience, to what extent is hope undercut by the play’s failure to address the topic of Eric’s assault on Eva?
From the outset, Eric is portrayed as a divided character, “half-shy, half-assertive”. He is clearly “squiffy”, disrupting the family celebration with “guffaws” of inappropriate laughter and challenging his father’s opinions (“what about war?”). The timing of Eric’s laughter is interesting, as it comes just after Gerald explains why he was unable to see Sheila much the previous summer. We later learn that Gerald had been having an affair with Eva at that time – so is Eric’s laughter an indication that he knows, or at least suspects, the truth about his sister’s fiancé all along? The emphasis on Eric’s obvious discomfort and frequent faux-pas provides clear evidence of a poorly repressed dissatisfaction with his life, with his father, and with the difference between reality and the family’s façade of respectability. Then when Eric starts to say “I remember –” there is a sense that his behaviour is also the result of a secret that is playing on his mind. Perhaps this is remorse at work, and Eric’s awareness of his culpability is deeply embedded even before the Inspector arrives. If this is the case, then he has a greater level of self-understanding than the rest of the family. Whilst this argument might be possible when reading Act 1, on closer inspection it is difficult to sustain the position that Eric is forward-thinking in his political and economic views at this point. The continual undercutting of Birling’s capitalist viewpoints arguably results more from an Oedipal compulsion to be in conflict with his father, than with a genuine belief in a need for social and economic change. For example, when Birling defends his firing of Eva, Eric responds with “I’d have let her stay”. Here, Priestley hardly shows that Eric is an advocate for workers’ rights and fair pay for all.
Yet Priestley shows that despite Eric’s clumsiness, flaws, and privilege, he is the only character who tries to right the wrongs he has done before the Inspector holds the family to account. Whilst it is undeniable that the theft of £50 is an immature and utterly insufficient response to Eva’s situation, at least he realises that “the money’s not the important thing” and that she required financial support. What is also clear is that the presentation of Eric’s attempts to help Eva are shaped by a patriarchal viewpoint – hence why many argue that he is a victim of his upbringing and that he symbolises the failings of the Edwardian period. The play is peppered with comments that reflect this context. In Act 1, Birling explains to Eric that “clothes mean something quite different to a woman…a sign or token of their self-respect”. Several characters are interested in whether Eva was “pretty”. Priestley highlights the Inspector’s complicity in this as well, as he describes how Eva “enjoyed being among the pretty clothes” in Milwards. The play then demonstrates – but fails to challenge – how the acceptance of objectification links to more disturbing rumours of sexual assault linked to Alderman Meggarty. Yet Priestley does underscore society’s blindness to such actions, as he includes a vignette in which Sheila is silenced after mentioning a friend who only “escaped” from Meggarty with “a torn blouse”. And it is this evidence of Sheila’s nascent understanding of the horrors of such violations that highlights how it is possible for the younger generation to move beyond the older generation’s thinking. Yes, Eric may have been brought up to be entitled and arrogant in a society in which it is acceptable for men to have mistresses and in which assault is brushed under the carpet – but that is no defence against his actions. Whereas Sheila seeks to speak, Eric strives to silence that part of his account, minimising the violence of his assault of Eva by saying that he “was in that state when a chap easily turns nasty”. By selecting the same adjective used for Sheila’s temper in Act 1 and depersonalising the statement with the word “chap”, Priestley may be showing how Eric regards his actions as relatively unimportant in a society in which this behaviour is horrifically commonplace. Even after this, Eric remembers that Eva was “a good sport” – a comment which reveals a callous lack of understanding of her experience.
After this partial confession, Priestley presents Eric’s realisation that his mother had refused to help Eva. Eric’s furious reaction – “you killed her” – not only reveals his displacement of rage onto another person, but also provides additional evidence that he is increasingly drunk at this stage of the proceedings. Despite his apparent grief for his unborn child, Eric’s intoxication makes it difficult for the audience to have faith in any long-lasting transformation. However, when Eric repeats the phrase later in the play he changes the pronouns: “we all helped to kill her”. Through an allusion to the Inspector’s final speech (“each of you helped to kill her”), Priestley seems to indicate that Eric accepts his accountability. However, whilst on a micro level there is an awareness of Eric’s role in Eva’s suffering, on a macro level there is a failure to grasp the true scope of the impact of his privilege and wilful blindness. Therefore, when the phone rings at the end of the play, it rings for Eric as much as for Mr and Mrs Birling.