The seven deadly sins are also known as cardinal sins, or capital vices. These delightful characteristics are of Christian origin and concern the grouping of certain behaviours that have immorality as their bedfellow. They are: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. It is important to note that they are considered excessive versions of a person’s natural instincts or desires.
Their origin hails from the desert fathers, specifically Evagrius the Solitary (a Christian monk). His book came with his pupil, John Cassian, to Europe where the sins became fundamental to Catholic confessional. They were used in order to guide people away from the tempting lures of the deadly sins before any dreadful consequences occurred. Interestingly, pride was considered the most severe as it was thought indulgence in it would sever the soul from the grace of God – this is deadly sin that we can associate with Sybil Birling, who arguably commits the worst ‘crime’ against Eva. [Read more]
Often referred to as a ‘morality play’, An Inspector Calls seeks to remind its audience of their moral compass and guide them from the temptations of the seven deadly sins. This is certainly true for the audience, who are yet to confess or even sin perhaps, but the Birlings have tumbled head first into a swirling pit of capitalism, elitism and sexism. It is the Inspector’s role to extract them and to ensure they confess and repent, thus setting them back onto the path of righteousness and allowing them to be used a stark warning to others.
Arthur can immediately be seen to represent greed. However, even before the audience get a taste (pardon the pun) of Arthur’s gluttony, they are confronted with the Birling’s dining table which is lavished with dessert and champagne. Considered one of the lesser of the deadly sins, it makes sense that Priestley chooses to place him in the firing line first; this is where the phrase ‘things can only get better’ could not be more wrong. Arthur’s desire for “lower costs and higher prices” reflects a man whose only purpose is to make money and also “his own way”. He views the working classes as greedy, claiming they would ask for the “earth” if allowed; this attitude reveals his complete lack of self-awareness. Further to this, he is outraged that his son has taken “fifty pounds!” from his office; his reaction is far more dramatic and overstated than when hearing news of his son’s alcoholism or his wife’s neglect of their own grandchild. The Inspector seeks to guide Arthur Birling away for his gluttonous approach to life by pushing him to face the impact his greed has had on Eva Smith. However, we know he does not succeed. Arthur Birling does not repent.
Sheila’s own “prettiness” further cements her jealous behaviour as irresponsible because she is in such a privileged position and because she already has what she is envious of. She also comments (about Eva) that “she looked as if she could take care of herself” which suggests she was aware at the time that her behaviour was potentially destructive. Her temper can be connected to the deadly sin of wrath as well – her use of the word “furious” is an extreme version of anger, revealing Sheila’s loss of control as something relatively small (the dress she wanted not suiting her; being wrong about her assumption that it would; being contradicted by her mother and the other sales girl) and going as far as to exact revenge. The word “jealous” also means to be fiercely protective over ones rights which again reinforces the elitist attitude of entitlement that Sheila has embedded in her character. Sheila is quick to describe to the Inspector her bad behaviour in a transparent and genuine tone – her development as a character from a spoilt naïve child to a mature responsible adult is perhaps the most significant in the play.
Sybil Birling directs wrath at Eva Smith when Eva comes to her charity asking for help. As noted earlier, wrath is often considered the worst of the deadly sins; phrases like “fearing the wrath of God” and my favourite: “He who conquers his wrath overcomes his greatest enemy” (Publilius Syrus) come to mind. The idea that wrath is a great “enemy” paints Sybil as a weak character because she strides blindly into the open arms of wrath and fails to extract herself from its fiery embrace, despite her intentions to show herself as strong and defiant. It is perhaps her ignorance to the state of play rather than her anger at Eva that depicts Sybil in such an unfavourable light. She is given several opportunities by both the Inspector, her family and even Gerald to abandon her toxic vitriol, but again and again she fails to break out. In addition to this, she adds fuel to her flame with comments like “Girls of that class”; here, we see that she cannot even utter the words “working class”. “That” is chosen carefully by Priestley to convey the disgust she feels towards women like Eva Smith. Like her husband, she refuses to accept any responsibility for her actions and believes she was doing her “duty”.
Gerald Croft and Eric Birling
Quite plainly, both Gerald and Eric are guilty of LUST. Lust or lechery are defined as intense longing, specifically in terms of sexual desire; the reason it is a sin is the intensity can lead to rape and adultery. Lust could also refer to desire for material things like money or possessions. Eric and Gerald both long for sexual attention to the point where their proper behaviour is subverted. Eric admits that he “threatened to make a row” if Eva did not let him into her flat, which suggests he believed he was entitled to her body. He also claims she was “a good sport” which reflects that he views romance and sex as a game rather than anything involving kindness or commitment. As a sin of the flesh, it is considered least serious (because it is instinctual) which no doubt can be seen very differently in our modern world today. Gerald is quick to express the care that he had for Eva and his regret over her death. He explains he helped her not out of lust, but because he was “sorry for her”. However, he describes her in a very similar way to Eric as “young and pretty and warm-hearted” which can be seen as objectification. Both men objectify Eva so they think only of their own desires; Eric evidently regrets this, but Gerald is quick to return his attentions to Sheila at the end of the play.
Eva Smith can be seen to represent the seven virtues, or heavenly virtues: temperance, justice, prudence, courage, faith, hope and love. Jesus rejected temptations with these virtues. At every turn, Eva attempts to use her virtues to seek a better life for herself and those around her, including her unborn child. The Inspector highlights her qualities throughout the play to further shame the Birlings and shine a brazen light on their sins. Her innocence further solidifies the importance of social responsibility.
Thank you for reading.