The patriarch of the Birling family. Arthur is a “rather portentous” man “in his fifties” who owns a profitable manufacturing company. His business success allows the Birlings to live in upper-middle-class comfort. Birling believes that capitalist principles of individual willpower and the protection of company profits are good for business and good for society. On the night the play takes place, he is hosting a dinner at which Gerald Croft and his daughter Sheila are guests of honor.
The matriarch of the Birling family. Sybil is described in the play’s performance notes as “cold.” Though she is pleased her daughter Sheila is engaged to be married, she tends to ignore any potential discord in the family. Sybil serves on a charitable committee in the town, and busies herself with social events befitting a woman whose husband is a business success. She protects what she perceives to be the family’s good image and standing in the community.
Daughter of Arthur and Sybil. Sheila, “in her early twenties,” is engaged to Gerald and believes, at the start of the play, that her future lies bright before her. But knowledge of her role, and the family’s role, in Eva/Daisy’s death devastates Sheila, who wonders how her family can go on afterward, pretending simply that nothing has happened.
Son of Arthur and Sybil, and older brother of Sheila. Eric works part-time at the family business and has a drinking problem that he hides, with some success, from his parents and sister. When it is revealed that Eric had a romantic relationship with a woman, resulting in a child born out of wedlock, the family must confront facts about Eric’s life, and about their own, which they had sought previously to ignore.
Fiancé to Sheila, and son of another prominent manufacturing family. Gerald is from a more socially-elevated family, and Arthur worries that Gerald’s parents believe he is making a “poor match” in marrying Sheila. Although the Inspector criticizes Gerald’s affair with Daisy, the Inspector notes that Gerald is perhaps the least culpable, and most morally upright, of all the characters.
A representative, supposedly, of the local police force, sent to investigate Eva Smith/Daisy Renton’s suicide. The Inspector asks all the Birlings, and Gerald, questions about Eva/Daisy. It seems that the Inspector knows the answer to everything he asks, but wants the family to admit to various instances of wrongdoing. At the close of the play, the characters wonder aloud whether the Inspector is actually a policeman, and the constabulary confirms that no such man serves on the force. But this does not explain why the Inspector, who seems to have socialist sympathies, would have come to the house, or how he could have known so much about Eva/Daisy and the Birlings.
The Birlings’ maid. Edna mostly sets the scenes in which the family eats and talks. She is not, like the Birlings, of the upper-middle class, but instead makes money by virtue of her labor. Edna leaves the room at the end of the play without mention of her absence or whereabouts.
The victim in the play, and its most mysterious character. Inspector Goole begins by telling Arthur that a girl named Eva Smith has killed herself, and Arthur recalls a girl of that name in his employ whom he dismissed because she asked for a raise. Other characters claim to know different girls of different names, including “Daisy Renton,” who, the Inspector asserts, are all the same person. But the Inspector only shows Eva/Daisy’s photograph to one person at a time, causing Gerald to wonder, just before the play’s end, whether the Inspector has tricked the family into combining incidents involving separate girls into one. This revelation is again undercut when, at the very close of the play, Arthur receives word that an unnamed girl has died in the local hospital from ingesting disinfectant.