These instances of dramatic irony have two effects. First, they are morbidly funny, as they point out the characters naïveté and the audience’s knowledge of history and psychology. Second, they cause the audience to sympathize with and to better understand the play’s characters. After all, many people have experienced false confidence, and many people have been disappointed by personal or world events they could not anticipate. That the Birlings do not know what will happen to them does not make them stupid. It makes them realistic human beings.
The problems of the characters’ temperaments arise at this point in the play as the audience learns about the facets of the characters’ personalities that they choose to show and to conceal. Arthur presents an image of steadfastness and power, but he is deeply concerned with his social station. He reveals this to Gerald when he acknowledges the Crofts’ social superiority. Arthur’s desire for a knighthood is almost painfully poignant, and Gerald, for his part, seems relieved to hear it because he believes it will satisfy his mother. It is not clear whether Sybil’s unflappability in this section is reserve or disdain. And Sheila’s teasing of Gerald is not readily identifiable, either. Although one wonders if Gerald’s absence the previous summer will be explained, there could, of course, be a simple and innocent reason for it.
Thus Priestley sets in motion the problems that will combine to form the play’s dramatic tensions. But these problems are not announced from the beginning. Instead, they are insinuated, revealed through the characters’ words and the manner in which those words are said. The play’s lack of narrator and its revelation of plot only through dialogue means there is no third person who announces their intentions. The closest the play will come to this kind of organizing presence is the Inspector, but even he primarily asks questions. He does not feel it is necessary to answer them, and, as Sheila notes, he appears aware of the truth already, and more interested in getting the other characters to admit to it.
A final important note is the relative stasis of the play, or its “seatedness” in one place. Although other locations are mentioned, including the factories where Arthur and Eva work, and the bars where Gerald and Eric meet Eva/Daisy, the play’s action unfolds in the dining and living room of the Birlings’ home. This gives the play a small, contained, even panicked quality, as though the characters could not escape their interrogation if they tried. Of course, Eric and Gerald do leave for a time, but they return to the scene of inspection to answer the Inspector’s questions about their behavior.