Perversity or the product: a dedication to Eric

Eric’s interrogation wrenches us as an audience into full-throttle speed in comparison with the other characters’ moments in the spotlight; he is last, which makes his journey of realisation not instantaneous, but also, not one of passivity. In we turn our gaze to the periphery, we can watch Eric as he unravels alongside an alignment with the influence and social mould to which he has been formed, and over the course of the play, spectate as he is forced to question the only belief systems that he has ever known, so that he can evolve into someone changed. Unlike his sister, we do not leave Eric in quiet acceptance, but utterly broken. Eric is somewhat of a product, and that is not to say that we must rush to sympathise, but it pays to ponder on why we may be encouraged to do so.

Priestley gives us an awkward only-just-but-no-longer a teenager in Eric, he is ‘half shy, half assertive,’ and yet, I would argue that his assertion comes through simple and inquisitive lines of enquiry to begin with. He is the picture of entitlement, yet deeply unhappy: uncomfortable to be surrounded by his closest family. He seems isolated from them, as we view not only how unlilkeable the Birlings are, but how little regard they hold for one another. He echoes a Lewisian Edmund in his exchanges about women, making generalised statements for effect, that they’re ‘potty’ because it is what he has heard and seen. Eric says what he thinks other men expect to hear: he starts to tell a tale of a girl he remembers who used clothes as a mark of identity and falters, because he lacks the patter. Instead, he ‘takes decanter and helps himself’ because he is hemmed in by his own lack of expertise in how to carry himself in the world, and the only freedom he knows is the liberty of being regarded as mature enough to drink excessively.

From this, we can quickly surmise that Eric is a product of his upbringing: privileged and yet encompassed by insecurity, with the social awkwardness of a boy who doesn’t know how to place himself in regards to his own identify, but also amongst these people who appear to know so little about him. With the exception of Eva, he is the only character for which Priestley encourages genuine pity, and perhaps that is because he behaves as a child, to a degree. His reactions are ‘involuntarily,’ speaking as he thinks, impulsively and perhaps without the guarded tone of the other two men, whoc understand the power of language and the wisdom of when to curate a timeline or narrative to meet an advantage. He provides the contrasting voice to his Father, quietly at first, thinking aloud that, ‘if you can’t work anywhere else…’ that it would be ‘tough luck,’ and a ‘damn shame.’ Small, possibly insignificant commentary, but that which helps Eric to assert his own stance around collective responsibility, and mark out the lines when something is, or is not your problem. Acting as the undercurrent to what is markedly a building tension around the question of blame, Eric states, ‘that might have started it,’ in response to Arthur’s actions, remarks that ‘it’s a bit thick, when you come to think of it-‘ before Priestley promptly retires Eric during Gerald’s interrogation.

His absence serves a multitude of purposes: we would not experience the harrowing moment of realisation that Sybil encounters as she grasps that her son is the very man she holds to account, but further to this, Eric does not see, and therefore is not educated by the older man, setting out a rather sinister, premeditated narrative which paints him in such a heroic light. Priestley requires Eric to take the journey between impassive voyeur to active participant, so it is ill-fitting for him to be able to learn how to talk the walk from the son of a Lord. Withholding Eric from such sordid, uncomfortable discussion means that we are able to listen to his interrogation with a sense of clarity- that whilst we understand the heavy influence of the older male figures and how that will contribute to Eric’s version of events, that is isn’t entirely tainted by this. We can instead view Eric as somewhat of a product of his upbringing, on account of the earlier evidence of his impulsive, yet reasonable retorts as the story unfolds of each character’s connection.

Eric’s interrogation reveals him as guarded, and isolated. Set apart from the scene, he shows his disdain ‘bitterly’ to Sybil at the fact that she has left him at rather a disadvantage by deciding his fate before he can form the argument and case for himself. Whilst the issues of consent are not up for debate by any but those that stand on the stage, we are encouraged to listen to Eric with sympathy, because his failure to interpret the world for himself forces us to do so. He fails to understand the exploitation of Eva by the Madam of the house, and until it is laid bare before him, had not thought to linger over the fact that Eva ‘told me she’s didn’t want me to go in.’ He appears to look back to recount the memory, and make sense of the violence and forcefulness of it for the first time. It is important that Eric is the one to acknowledge his own violence, and for this self-realisation to crush him- Priestley needs this moment to be relived by Eric as opposed to explained by another, more knowledgeable character. To do so might threaten not only Eric’s journey of remorse, but also, who would tell him he was wrong? Birling, or Gerald, who view the girl as ‘wretched’ and ‘gallant’? HIs mother, so quick to refer to a sordid affair as ‘disgusting,’ yet leaves without protest, so as to avoid hearing her son speak? It is crucial that Eric, armed with the wisdom that he has gained over the course of the evening, view his behaviour through a new lens.

And it is at this point that Eric reveals resentment for not only a girl who rejected him, but women who disgust him because their purpose is both dissatisfying and ambiguous to him. His commentary that Eva was a ‘pretty good sport’ in contrast to the ‘fast old tarts round the town’ reveals a childish version of the more sinister narrative which Gerald had shared earlier on. Eric is clumsy, and his behaviour is laced with insecurity and inexperience: indeed, Eva views him ‘as a kid,’ which he spits with bitterness and damaged pride. His attempt to undo the significant mess that he has made is to do as has been done unto him- to throw money at it. However, Eric is unfortunate and pitiful in his move to fix an unfixable problem, because the irony is not lost upon the audience that this gesture is fuelled by the very money that Eva had spoken up for with assertion some eighteen months before, as she was ‘discharged.’ The money is hers- she just stops taking it, because it is an extension of the saddening disappointment that she has encountered from this entire family, and even in these darkest moments, she still maintains the power to choose to do so.

The handling of morality in contrast to legality is interesting to note during Eric’s version of events, as this part of the final act reveals the way in which Eric’s viewpoints may have been manipulated. When it is heavily insinuated that he raped Eva, Birling removes his wife and daughter form the room and questions the idiocy of Eric’s choices: ‘so you had to go to bed with her?’ The use of ‘had’ twists the argument of consent, as Birling has somehow managed to distort ownership and choice here- and he says very, very little. Why is the focus on Eric’s forced hand and not Eva’s? Because to Birling, she deserves little regard- she’s simply a past moment of irrelevance.

Yet, when it is revealed that Eric has stolen from him, he’s furious, insistent that the lines of clarity remain as he echoes ‘not really?’ incredulously at his son’s attempts to highlight the irony of this money changing hands. Birling is angry at the flippant way in which Eric tells the truth, but moreover, his admission of responsibility is seen as weak on Eric’s part, this attempt at virtue. Birling has tried to raise Eric as a man of the time, pre occupied with instant gratification and social acceptance- there’s very little room for compassion and demonstrations of kindness that appear not to aid self- benefit. For Birling, the transfer of money from me to Eva in this indirect fashion, a payment of compensation that should have instead been a justified salary, is utterly lost on him. The fifty pounds has become tainted, originally entitled for legitimate work and now a culmination of guilt on at least Eric’s part.

This may sound like a sympathetic analysis of Eric, and perhaps when placed next to Gerald, it is easy to draw a more gentle set of inferences, but it it is less about sympathy, and more about representation. It isn’t that we sympathise, but that it is difficult not to do so when it becomes apparent that he is the outcome of a collection of distorted misconceptions about what it means to find your place in the world as a young man. Instead of honour and virtue, he has watched on, stock-piled with uncomfortable labels and throwaway misogyny; of dismissive remarks that indeed carry their weight when on the receiving end, yet accepted because they are a sign of the times. Eric despairs, because he has looked at his understanding of society, and realised that it was a house of cards, and whilst he does not question the necessity of moral and duty, he’s not quite sure what the reality of this alternative world looks like. Quite simply, he has nothing to model it against. Is it possible to respond with disgust and not pity, when Eric’s fate was sculpted by those that raised him to have such a low opinion not only of women, but of his own place in society? To argue that Eric is treated with care on the Inspectors part because Priestley was renowned for his own promiscuity dilutes the social discussion of the play itself, but perhaps also alludes to the character’s autonomy far more than we should, or can. It is worth consideration as to how much power we can place in Eric’s hands. Was this awful act the only opportunity he has happened ever had to assert what he believed to be individual thought? And that though, ironically so, was simply the outcome of watching others exploit and violate with a slightly higher level of subtlety.

What will become of Eric? As the play draws to a close and time begins to loop back of itself, whilst Sheila reaches somewhat of a quiet, maybe bleak acceptance of what her life will look like- her ‘not yet’ carrying the implication that she will indeed marry Gerald- Eric is broken. Certainly, Priestley ensures he is ambiguous in his final assertions: ‘the one I knew is dead’ reminds us that Eric’s sense of responsibility is for this situation, with this girl, which makes us uncertain that he will learn from the evening’s events. He attempts to align his views with that of Sheila, ‘it frightens me too,’ but perhaps the question is how much, and for how long. Eric’s regret for his actions feels deliberately ephemeral, because he is a component of a social construct which is uncomfortably recognisable to the audience then and today. That the ambiguity and excuse of mismatched perceptions that sits behind the exertion of power and control is far greater than Eric, and transcends that one room, for that one moment. It endures through trivial comment, and half playful banter, and physical intrusion that continues to be executed, questioned and challenged today.

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