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Would more information regarding the suicide victim, at the end of Act Three, tell us more about the characters in the play? Would it advance the play’s plot? If not, why has Priestley chosen to end the story here?
The end of the play seems intentionally “open” and, further, its openness might have important effects on the way the play is interpreted. If Priestley were to have demonstrably stated at the end that the girl whose death is announced is Eva/Daisy, and that that girl is the same girl each character has wronged in turn, it would finalize the meaning of the play, and it would prove that the Inspector was correct in his assertions. This might be a more satisfying ending from the detective’s point of view, and it would certainly give the characters in the play more clarity. But clarity does not seem to be the thing that Priestley is most concerned about.
Indeed, by leaving the play open, Priestley seems to take up and echo Sheila’s position, which is that it does not matter who has done what to whom. The very fact that the characters have done bad things at all means that they each must reevaluate how they think of themselves in relation to society. It is disturbing to think that someone could have died on account of what they have done. But someone could still die on account of things they are yet to do, if they do not change their worldview. Sheila attempts to tell her father this when she is convinced that he has begun to learn what is going on in the family, only to turn back and feel, with relief, that “public scandal” has been avoided.
Arthur’s motivations are fairly easy to parse, but his wife Sybil’s seem more obscure. What does Sybil value most in life, and how does Priestley frame that valuation?
A Sybil, in Greek and Roman antiquity, is someone whose sayings, though obscure, can predict the future. Interestingly, it is the Inspector who is a “Sybil” in this play, whereas Sybil seems perfectly unconcerned with the ramifications of much of what the family has done. Or, rather, she is concerned with them only to the extent that they would disrupt the social order in which the family exists at the time. If that order were to be disrupted, then Sybil could no longer be in charge of the women’s charity, and she might lose prestige in the community.
Read about another character who expresses this attitude, Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
The idea that Sybil must come to terms with her actions, as the Inspector demands, is a shock and surprise to her. Sybil makes clear that there have been very few times in her life when she has had to account for herself to others, and she is comfortable believing that whatever she chooses to do is right, because she has chosen it, and because she tends to be right. This set of beliefs is precisely at odds with the world the Inspector sketches for the family, where even small or perhaps well-intentioned decisions, or decisions that have bad intentions but can be justified, can result in real, irreparable harm for other people. Sybil’s anxiety at the end of the play is not anxiety that what she has done might be wrong. It is, instead, a feeling that her belief in a rational world is upended, that the Inspector might be right after all, and that someone can come into her home and accuse her and her family of things she did not even know to have existed.
Arthur accuses Eric of being “the cause” of all the play’s strife. Is this true? Support your answers with examples from the text.
In some sense, Eric’s behavior shows the most obvious indifference to another person’s welfare. But on the other hand, Eric does try to help Eva/Daisy by giving her money that he has stolen from his father. When Arthur is upset with Eric, indeed, it seems he is most concerned with this money, which represents a breach of contract with the company, and upends the very principals of capitalist accumulation on which the manufacturing business is founded. Arthur also considers, from the beginning of the play, that Eric is lazy and that he doesn’t know the value of work or money because he has been insulated from privation throughout his life.
For his part, Eric seems ready to acknowledge that he has a drinking problem, and that his behavior with Eva/Daisy was at best quite reckless, and at worst criminally negligent. But Eric does not believe that stealing the money was really morally wrong, because he stole with the intent of paying back and genuinely hoped that the money might help Eva/Daisy. In this way, Eric does have a sense of how his actions might be perceived by others, and he seems to have recognized that the things he has done have effects that ripple out far away from him. Eric’s social conscience might not be so clear nor powerful as Sheila’s, but it is nonetheless present, and in this a contrast to Arthur and Sybil’s studied lack of concern for the wellbeing of most other people.