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Note: Questioning of Sybil to end of Act Two
Sybil thinks that the interrogation should be over. But the Inspector says that Sybil might know something about the girl’s death. He shows her the picture, and Sybil, not responding at first, hands the picture back, saying she has no memory of her. Arthur tells the Inspector that the Inspector is behaving rudely, and that he, Arthur, should be respected as a “public man.” The Inspector says that Arthur has responsibilities as a citizen, as well as privileges. Sheila announces to Sybil, Arthur, and the Inspector that she knows Sybil has recognized the Eva/Daisy’s, based on Sybil’s reaction to the photo. Sheila begs Sybil and Arthur to say what they know about Eva/Daisy’s death.
The front door opens and shuts. The family wonders if Gerald has come back, or if Eric has gone out, but neither person enters the room. The Inspector asks Sybil if she is a member of the Brumley Women’s Charity Organization, and Sybil says that she is, and that she is proud of the group’s community work. The Inspector tells Sybil and the family that Sybil must recognize the girl, because she saw her only two weeks before that night, when the girl petitioned the charity for financial assistance. Sybil agrees that this is the case, and her husband and daughter are shocked. Sybil says that the charity refused to give the girl money because of her “impudence.”
The Inspector asks what name the girl provided to the charity. Sybil says the girl did not provide the name Eva Smith, nor Daisy Renton, but “Mrs. Birling.” Sybil found this to be a cruel, impossible joke, since the girl no relation to the Birling family. Sybil tells the Inspector that this “prejudiced” her against the girl’s case from the beginning. Sybil defends hers and the charity’s decision to withhold assistance, because she did not find the girl’s claim for aid compelling. The Inspector reveals to the family that the girl required aid because she was going to have a child. When Arthur interjects to ask whether Gerald was the father, the Inspector says no, that it was another, yet-unnamed man.
Sybil says that, first, the girl claimed to be married, and to have been abandoned by her husband. Sybil told the girl that this husband should be responsible for paying the child’s bills. Sybil says under the pressure of questioning that the girl revised her story to say she was not married to the father of her child, and that she could no longer take money from that man because she knew his money was stolen. Sybil argues to the Inspector that, because the girl changed her story, Sybil did not know which to believe, and despite the girl’s dire straits, Sybil rejected her petition.
The Inspector leads Sybil into admitting that the father of the girl’s child bears enormous responsibility for the girl’s difficulties and eventual death. Sheila and Arthur realize, with great disappointment, that Eric is probably the father of the child, thus explaining why Eva/Daisy would present herself to the Women’s Charity as Mrs. Birling. Sybil then realizes, after seeing the looks on Arthur and Sheila’s faces, that Eric is most likely to blame. At this moment, caught in her statement that Eric should suffer for his malfeasance, Eric reenters the room, and all characters stare at him expectantly.
This section of the play presents perhaps the most damning evidence against the family. On Sheila’s urging, Sybil admits that she has seen Eva/Daisy, or at least the girl in the picture that the Inspector shows only to Sybil. The very idea that Sybil would be in charge of a charitable organization is shown here to be a fanciful, cruel joke. For Sybil is the play’s least charitable character, by a long stretch. She shows little alarm at Arthur and Sheila’s misbehavior, and appears worried only about the family’s reputation. She admits that, when Eva/Daisy came to the charity, she was inclined not to like her simply because she presented herself as “Mrs. Birling.” What Sybil did not realize, however, was the possibility that Eva/Daisy actually might be tied to their family, and that Eric could be the father of the unborn child.
Read more about what Sybil values most in life, and how Priestley frames that valuation.
Thus Sybil unwittingly repelled the charitable request for her own grandchild. Sybil appears unmoved by this, even when the Inspector and Sheila remind her of the fact. Sybil notes that, as a matter of procedure, the charitable organization was correct in withholding its money from Eva/Daisy. But the Inspector urges Sybil to consider that there is more to the case than procedure. In other words, Sybil might have added human emotional connection as a factor in helping the girl. But Sybil will have none of this, and even after learning that Eric was the father of the child, she still believes that the charity ought to deny petitions from people it considers unsavory or unworthy of help.
Here, the Inspector has turned Arthur’s maxim against them. Arthur believes that people should only help their families and themselves. But without realizing it, Sybil has directly harmed her family out of a belief that the Eva/Daisy had no relation to her. In a society where people care only for their immediate friends and loved ones, the Inspector implies that these sorts of tragedies can occur. People die because the people closest to them give them no time, no effort, no consideration. That humans care more for some people than for others is natural, but that should not prevent anyone, the Inspector says, from thinking about the common good as much as they can.
Read more about the theme of guilt and how the Inspector wants the family to come to terms with their guilt.
Eric is the play’s “wild card,” a character whose presence is difficult to characterize and explain. His drunkenness makes his own actions hard even for Eric to remember. He stumbles back into the home at the end of Act Two, hoping perhaps to go to bed. But he is instead confronted with an entire relationship he barely remembers or understands. Eric does little to hide what he knows, at this point, to be his guilt in the matter, as will be taken up in Act Three. But Eric’s descent throughout the play thus far has been a precipitous one. His drinking in Act One has become heavier and has been revealed to be a pattern. And that drinking has resulted in a dissipation that only added to Eva/Daisy’s troubles, which have led, of course, to her demise. Even as Arthur and Sybil alternately make excuses for Eric’s behavior and try to think about him as little as possible, they realize at the end of Act Two that Eric is at the center of the night’s predicament.
Read more about Arthur’s accusation toward Eric and the idea that he is the reason for all of the play’s strife.