Should we believe Gerald in Act 2? Thoughts to stimulate and provoke.
After reading pages 35-40 a lively debate often follows as we try to work out whether Gerald is a reliable witness or not. A few things that you might like to consider as you approach this question are explored below, within the context of establishing that a) he is deeply unreliable and b) that I believe his good intentions.
Firstly, to consider his reliability we must consider the context of this interview. Eva is, as ever, the crucial witness who is never present. People will state with confidence how she felt or what her hopes for the future were, but all this is speculation and based on their own view of the situation they find themselves in. For Gerald this is a tricky situation. As the son of Sir George Croft we can safely assume that he belongs to a level of aristocracy above that of the Birlings. His political leanings have been shown in Act 1 to be Capitalist as he supports Birling in his handling of the strike –“you couldn’t have done anything else” pg 15. Here, however he seems to have to accept the need to stop protecting himself in order to clarify his part in the events leading to Eva’s suicide. His conversation with Sheila at the end of Act 1 –“yes, we can keep it from him” suggests that his natural instinct is for self-preservation, yet here he seems to have realised that openness and honesty will serve him better in the long run. He will, however, garner his truth with a degree of narrative designed to reduce the negative connotations from sticking too closely to his character.
This is the reason, therefore, for the lengthy description of the meeting in the bar – “the girl… gave me a glance that was nothing less than a cry for help” pg 35- which establishes his role as the protector and saviour of Eva. His own attitude to the “hard-eyed dough-faced” women suggests the inbred disdain of his class for those less fortunate, but Eva, presumably because she is still young and beautiful, has awoken something inside him. He is clear that their first meeting did not result in sex, but simply an arrangement to meet again and that the installation in Charlie Brunswick’s flat arose from the discovery of her true financial position, not from a wish for a “kept woman”.
All this is given to us in his own testimony and you may feel that he would say that to protect himself. However, consider the role of the Inspector here. As the omniscient controller of the confessions, the Inspector would know if he were lying. Since he does not interrupt, we can assume he is not. So why does Priestley want Gerald to be seen as truthful here? Probably, since the political parable of the play focuses on the Birling family, Gerald’s position is meant to be seen as outside the group. His fault seems to be one based on an inflated romanticised self-image, not the envy, greed or lust shown by the rest of the family. Moreover, he can be seen here as acting in a manner more suited to the Socialist – until he goes to bed with Eva/Daisy. Gerald acts to support someone weaker in society and this is important. In this play, the age gap indicates social awareness. The young are easily assimilated to the inspector’s point of view whilst the older generation remain stolidly entrenched in their (to Priestley) unacceptable political positions. Gerald, as we learn form the initial stage direction sits between the two. It is, therefore, sensible that he should be portrayed as showing aspects of both sides of the political debate. Ultimately, he will fail Priestley, but here his honesty is enough for Sheila to “rather respect” him.
So context suggests that we should accept his story. What of the writing? First of all, you can not make assumptions based on your gut reaction or on how you perceive Gerald through 21st century eyes. Base you comments on the text itself.
The first place to look for any idea of intention behind the speech is the stage directions. In this play you must be aware of the directions and use them to support any thesis you develop. Looking at Gerald in this section his directions retain the sense of “steadily” or hesitatingly throughout. “Steadily” implies calmness even though the other characters are interrupting him for clarification, or in the case of Sheila to use irony to belittle him. He maintains his calm and outlines a detailed, factual account. His speech becomes slightly fragmented by pg 39 with dashes breaking the long sentences and although this could indicate him struggling to invent the next sections of his story, I feel that they indicate the increasing difficulty he is having as his emotions get the better of him. Indeed at the top of pg 39 his tone is “low” and “troubled” as he is forced to face up to the emotional impact that he has had on Eva/Daisy and she on him. “Troubled” is not an emotion associated with the Birling parents!
As he runs out of facts, he needs to seek information from the Inspector. He seems genuine when he asks about Eva/Daisy and how she coped after the affair and the punctuation of the speech at the foot of 39 again supports the idea of his speech being fractured by emotion rather than any other cause.
Structurally the calmness of his story is contrasted with the squabbling of the Birlings. The interruptions by the parents and the increasing authority shown by Sheila in putting them down serve to delay the inevitable outcome of the story, thus increasing or maintaining tension, whilst at the same time showing Sheila mature from an emotional, wronged lover to a mature and dignified woman when she returns the ring. The serious nature of that exchange, with the recognition that they “aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here” signifies the moment at which Sheila has accepted the change and her crossing to the Socialist perspective. She sees that Gerald’s honesty and openness has indicated the possibility of the change in him and leaves the door metaphorically open with her “ we’d have to start all over again, getting to know each other –“
Against this maturity and burgeoning social conscience Birling’s plea for her to accept that all young men have affairs and to continue the engagement looks impossibly self serving and highlights the growing gulf within the family. Sheila assumes control over her father and Gerald is left asking her permission to return. The balance of power has shifted.
At this point, as Mrs Birling tries to close the inquisition the focus will shift back onto her and the family as a whole. Gerald needs to be believed. If he is not than the fireworks of the Mrs Birling interview can not have the required impact. We are reading the calm centre – the eye of the storm –in this passage. The language and the context support the idea that Gerald is telling the truth. His behaviour has been reprehensible towards Sheila, but his motives towards Eva/Daisy were at one level pure. It should disappoint at the end of the play when he introduces the idea of self-preservation. If we find him to be lying here, that disappointment is lessened.