Sheila and Sybil: names and their meanings in An Inspector Calls

As soon as the characters are introduced in the opening stage directions of An Inspector Calls, it is clear that their names are symbolic of their characters in some way.* In particular, the names of the female characters are used by Priestley to signal information about them, and can give us some level of insight into his critique of bourgeois complacency and intransigence.

The first female character to confess is Sheila, whose Gaelic name means “blind” and an initial assessment of her character may indicate that this is exactly how she behaves at the outset of the play. However, on closer inspection, it may be that Priestley indicates that this myopia is a pretence which enables Sheila to conform to the gender and class stereotypes that define her existence. In Act 1, the audience gains the sense that Sheila is aware of Gerald’s infidelity the previous summer. Priestley emphasises her “half serious, half playful” tone as she questions him about the lack of interest he paid to her in those months. The phrase “half playful” draws our attention to the idea that she has adopted the role of the innocent and naïve young bride. Yet, underneath the veneer of coquettishness, the “half serious” tone reveals Sheila’s doubts about her fiancé. Elsewhere in Act 1, Priestley highlights the importance of this marriage to the Birling family: not only does it mean that their ascent into the upper-classes will be confirmed, but also that the Crofts and Birlings will be working together “for lower costs and higher prices”. This union is primarily for financial and social gain, and if Sheila were to jeopardise it by questioning Gerald too strongly about his activities, she would also threaten her family’s hopes for the future. Therefore, Priestley presents her as walking a fine line between attempting to assert her desire for her fiancé’s faithfulness, and her need to maintain the status quo in order to retain her parents’ approval and her own comfortable lifestyle.

So if Sheila’s blindness is not necessarily related to her own relationships, perhaps the meaning of her name is meant to direct us elsewhere. And it is in her confession about the incident at Milwards that we discover her complete myopia to the struggles of the working-classes. Sheila’s question “did [being fired from Milwards] make much difference to her?” indicates her utter lack of understanding of the limited range of options open to a working-class woman who has been discharged from two employers. Whilst Priestley indicates that in some way this ignorance is because Sheila is a victim of her sheltered upbringing, her final comments in this episode negate our sympathy. Reflecting on what she has done, Sheila comments that “I’ve noticed them giving me a sort of look sometimes at Milwards […] and I suppose some of them remember [the incident with Eva]. I feel now I can never go there again”. The juxtaposition of euphemisms used to describe Eva’s “new sort of life” in prostitution, and Sheila’s lament at needing to change her shopping habits is unsettling, and reveals just how little she has learnt at this early stage in her development.

By the end of the play, Priestley does present Sheila as being less blind to the situation that Eva found herself in after Milwards. However, her mother, Sybil Birling, undergoes no such positive transformation. The meaning of Sybil’s forename is the opposite of her daughter’s: prophetess. It could be argued that this name is ironic – after all, Sybil fails to foresee that her son is the father of Eva’s unborn child. Yet is Sybil’s inability to see the truth a result of genuine lack of understanding, or of a wilful decision not to acknowledge reality? In Act 1, Priestley shows us that Sybil knows about her son’s drunkenness, despite her protestation in Act 3 that “you don’t get drunk”. For example, Sybil looks directly at Eric when he “guffaws”, and she swiftly silences Sheila’s comment that Eric is “squiffy”. She then quells the ensuing argument between Eric and Sheila with an authoritative “now stop it you two” before any more unpleasant truths can be revealed, and she later has a quiet word with Eric – presumably to reprimand him for his inebriation. Similarly, it is difficult to believe Sybil’s statement in Act 2 that she has no knowledge of Alderman Meggarty’s reputation as “one of the worst sots and rogues in Brumley”. Sheila’s insistence that “everyone knows” undercuts Sybil’s “staggered” response to this information, causing the audience to question the older woman’s honesty. Perhaps Priestley is suggesting that this continual suppression of knowledge can lead to genuine blindness to the truth.

Priestley’s portrayal of these two women – one with increasing knowledge and one who tries to repress her understanding – reminds us of the play’s central concept: that the capitalist system is fundamentally broken and that radical change is necessary to prevent the suffering of the working-classes.

* In the twitter discussion that prompted this post, a number of people had concerns about the over-analysis of names in literature in general, whilst others found this a fascinating area of discussion. I hope I have managed to strike a balance here.

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