How is Eric presented both in the extract (P.15/P.16) and across the whole play?
Eric is a fascinating character in the play, one who suffers under the overbearing shadow of his father, and is, alongside Sheila, a voice for social justice. While his worrying drinking obsession, which might be a mask for his own sense of inadequacy and dissatisfaction in life, leads him into some deeply unpleasant behaviour, he is mostly admired by the audience towards the end of the play as he maintains his sense of morality by seeking to help Eva Smith in her darkest moments .
In this extract, Eric challenges his father about his treatment of Eva Smith in removing her from her job at his factory. Eric rejects Gerald’s support for Mr Birling by saying ‘ He could have kept her on instead of throwing her out’ which shows h is sympathy for Eva’s plight, and his rejection of his father’s cold hearted business led conduct in ‘throwing her out’. The fact Eric ‘bursts out’ later in the stage directions suggests he is desperate to make his voice heard in front of the dominant Inspector and his father. Eric declares ‘Well I think, it’s a damn shame’ with the curse adding to his perception that what his father did was frustratingly unfair and unjust. Priestley shows Eric’s skill in arguing a case as he turns his father’s words back on him in the direct address, ‘You said yourself she was a good worker. I’d have let her stay’. The audience learns that his father is quickly angered by Eric’s defiant and arguably disloyal behaviour in front of the Inspector, and threatens his own future at the factory, ‘Unless you brighten your ideas, you’ll never be in a position to let anybody stay or tell anybody to go’. The fact Eric responds ‘sulkily’ suggests that he knows his power of influence is limited, and the adverb used suggests that he does on this occasion succumb grudgingly to his father’s authority .
Eric’s drinking is something of note throughout the play, and something that leads him into trouble. He helps himself to the port in the opening celebration scene, and tries to escape the Inspector’s questioning early on when he says ‘I’ve had a few drinks and I’ve got a headache’. Perhaps this behaviour is to mask his youthful ‘half shyness’? Sheila later confesses that he’s been steadily drinking too much for two years’ but Mrs Birling doesn’t want to hear about it. This is an early example of how the upper class Mrs Birling is intolerant of anyone with problems, and views such behaviour as beneath her. Even with her own son, she appears to bury her head in the sand about the problem that everyone else is aware of. Ironically, the reason for Eric’s drinking may be a coping mechanism as his parents are distant and seemingly despised; he later says to his mother ‘You don’t understand anything, you never did’. The drinking is used as a clever plot device by Priestley to foreshadow Eric’s involvement in Eva Smith’s death later on in the play, as it is the fact he was too drunk to care that led him to force himself on to Eva which results in her falling pregnant. Eric is a character whose moral compass never wavers, and after sticking up for Eva at the beginning of the play, he further demonstrates his considerate character by seeking to look after Eva after he makes her pregnant. By offering to marry her and insisting on giving her money to ensure she has somewhere to stay, Priestley emphasises Eric’s sense of regret for his drunken deed, and determination to do the ‘right thing’. Eric is livid when he hears about how his mother, as the chair of the Women’s charity organisation, turned Eva’s request for support down, and the audience witnesses his broken , hyperbolic speech, ‘You killed her! – My child – your own grandchild!’ Again, the juxtaposition of the young and the old characters is clear – Eric’s sympathy and understanding vs his mother’s heartless dismissal, and Priestley is clearly urging more of society’s younger generation to take on Eric’s rage in fighting for social justice for women and the poor.