Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The engagement ring
In Act One, Gerald gives Sheila an engagement ring as a symbol of their love and impending marriage. But after Gerald reveals his affair in Act Two, Sheila returns the ring to him and says they will need to start their relationship from the beginning, after the night’s events are over, to see if they can forge a life together.
The engagement ring thus marks not only Sheila and Gerald’s relationship but the idea of romantic love in the play more generally. Apart from Arthur and Sybil, whose marriage appears both strong and romantically cold, the other love-relationships in the play are illicit, involving people who are not married. Thus the engagement ring follows only those relationships receiving general social sanction. Relationships that could bring on “public scandal” receive no ring at all, and are only revealed on the Inspector’s questioning.
The Inspector reports that Eva/Daisy has killed herself by drinking “disinfectant,” which has ravaged the inside of her body. This disinfectant should, symbolically, make her “clean,” but it destroys her. In the same way, the Inspector’s questions should “make clean” the family, by bringing people’s secrets into the light of day. But these secrets nearly tear the family apart, too. Even after Gerald and Arthur question the Inspector’s legitimacy, the last phone call and the renewed presence of disinfectant again bring up the idea that there is dirt that must be cleaned away by the asking of questions.
As a counterpart to the room in which the play takes place, “the bar” is a scene in the novel of secret activity, often relating to illicit romantic love. Both Gerald and Eric meet Eva/Daisy in the bar, and Eric reports that other men in the community stalk those same bars to pick up women, some of them prostitutes. Even when characters who do not normally drink heavily, like Gerald, frequent the bar, they become embroiled in events they will need later to explain or perhaps forget.