The scene and situation remains the same as at the end of Act 1, except that the main table is slightly more upstage. The Inspector remains at the door, and then enters the room and looks expectantly to Gerald. Gerald suggests that Sheila should be excused from the proceedings, but she insists on staying for the rest of the interrogation. The Inspector asks Gerald if he thinks women shouldn’t have to deal with unpleasant things, and then reminds him of one woman who wasn’t spared.
The Inspector points out the hypocrisy in Gerald’s wanting to protect Sheila from unpleasant things, in light of his previous activities with Daisy Renton. It is clear that Gerald only wants Sheila to leave so that she won’t hear more about his infidelity.
When Sheila again insists on staying, Gerald suggests that she only wants to see someone else go through the questioning. His suggestion offends her and she accuses him of judging her to be selfish and vindictive. The Inspector offers his interpretation that Sheila simply doesn’t want to be alone with her responsibility and that, if nothing else, we have to “share our guilt.” Sheila agrees with him, but then begins to question his strange manner for a police officer.
Previously so content and apparently in love, Gerald and Sheila have become increasingly antagonistic with one another since the revelation of Gerald’s affair. The Inspector makes another general remark about the necessity of sharing guilt, which renews suspicion about his unusual investigative methods and effusive theorizing.
Before he can respond, Mrs. Birling strides in. She has been informed of the proceedings, and insists to the Inspector that the family will not be able to assist him any more. Sheila begs her mother not to act so stridently and risk saying or doing something that she’ll later regret. She and Gerald and Mr. Birling, she explains, had all begun confident until the Inspector began questioning them.
Sheila has clearly been influenced by the proceedings thus far, and disapproves of her mother’s continued stridency. She tries to convince Mrs. Birling of the importance of humility at this point in the investigation.
Mrs. Birling suggests that Sheila go to bed, because she won’t be able to understand the motives of a girl “of that class.” Sheila again refuses to leave, and again warns her mother against building a wall between herself and the girl that the Inspector is bound to tear town. Mrs. Birling continues on in this vein, taking offense at the Inspector’s inquiry and reminding him of her husband’s high position as a magistrate and former Lord Mayor.
Again Sheila appears to have already learned and internalized lessons from the interrogation— in addition to humility, she has developed an increased respect for the lower classes and greater hesitance to draw sharp lines between classes of people. Mrs. Birling, meanwhile, stubbornly invokes the family’s social status, thus betraying her own ignorance of the lessons to be learned from the proceedings, and refusing to believe that people of her class could even understand those of the lower class.
Mrs. Birling reports that her husband is in the other room calming Eric down from his excitable mood. When she explains that her son isn’t used to drinking so much, Sheila corrects her by revealing that Eric has been consistently over-drinking for the past two years. Mrs. Birling doesn’t believe it, but Gerald testifies that Eric is indeed a heavy drinker. Sheila reminds her mother that she had warned her not to presumptively build walls between herself and others that she deemed less respectable.
The inspection has resulted in numerous personal revelations, including this revelation of Eric’s drinking habits. Sheila uses this information, and her mother’s surprised reaction to it, to support her insistence that Mrs. Birling needs to be more humble and not so presumptuous, that wealth and the trappings of "respectability" do not automatically equal moral rightness.
Birling enters and reports that Eric has refused to go to bed as his father asked him, because the Inspector has requested that he stay. He asks the Inspector if this is true, and then encourages him to question the boy now, if he is going to at all. The Inspector insists that Eric wait his turn. Sheila provokes her mother, “You see?” but Mrs. Birling doesn’t understand.
The Inspector is letting on that Eric, too, played a part in Eva Smith’s downfall, but Mrs. Birling in the arrogant blindness of her privileged position is blind to this implication.
Birling takes offense at the Inspector’s tone and handling of the inquiry. The Inspector coolly proceeds to ask Gerald when he first got to know Daisy Renton. His presumption of an acquaintance between Gerald and the girl surprises the Birling parents. Gerald half-heartedly attempts to seem surprised by the Inspector’s presumption, but then he gives in and confesses that he met the girl in the bar at the Palace Music Hall, a favorite destination for “women of the town.”
Again, suspicion is raised at the Inspector’s manner. As at their discovery of Eric’s drinking habits, the Birlings are surprised by the revelation of Gerald’s affair. The Birling parents are continually taken aback by the actual behavior of their children and relations, and yet remain seemingly incapable of drawing lessons from it.
Gerald explains that he was going to leave the bar when he noticed a girl who appeared different from the rest. In the middle of describing this girl, he exclaims “My God!,” having just internalized the girl’s death. He continues his description of her as charmingly dressed, and notes that at the moment he noticed her she was being harassed by Old Joe Meggarty. Mrs. Birling bristles at the idea that Gerald is speaking of Alderman Meggarty, whom she had always thought respectable, but Gerald and Sheila confirm that Meggarty is a renowned womanizer.
Though the investigation is a formal procedure, Gerald’s sudden exclamation reminds us as well of its emotionally fraught and tragic content. Again, Mr. and Mrs. Birling are proven to have been ignorant of the actual behavior of others in their "respectable" class, as they learn with great surprise about the universally known immoral behavior of an alderman they presumed to be respectable.
Gerald goes on to describe his first meeting with Daisy Renton—he took her out of the bar to the County Hotel, where he asked her questions about herself. She vaguely mentioned her jobs at Birling’s and at Milward’s. Gerald realized a few nights later, when they met again, that she was completely impoverished, and offered her to live in a set of rooms that belonged to a friend of his who was away on a trip. He assures the Birlings that he did not put her there in order to sleep with her, and that the affair only came after.
Gerald portrays his own role in Daisy Renton’s narrative to be rather innocent and well intentioned—he helped her in a time of impoverishment and need, and the affair, according to him, only came secondarily. And this may even be true, but it also suggests he did not understand the level of influence he would have over her once he put her up.
Gerald apologizes to the Inspector, but Sheila insists that she rather more deserves the apology. The Inspector asks firsts whether the girl became his mistress and then whether he was in love with her. Gerald responds affirmatively to the first question and hesitatingly to the second.
The investigation veers into the personal when the Inspector inquires about the terms of Gerald’s affair and his level of affection. Gerald was willing to have an affair with a poorer woman he did not love—he was in it for enjoyment. Also note how Gerald doesn't think to apologize to the woman to whom he is engaged.
Gerald reports that he broke off the affair in the first week of September, right before he was to go away for several weeks; she took it very well, and Gerald gave her a small parting gift of money to help her support herself for a while. She didn’t mention to Gerald what she planned on doing afterward, but the Inspector fills him in that she went away to a seaside place to be alone.
Gerald comes off relatively cleanly. Yet while, from his point of view, the affair ended smoothly, and with Daisy Renton’s compliance, that Daisy Renton went off to be by herself suggests that she may have needed to emotionally recover; that she was more in love with this man who had helped her than he ever understood.
Upset by the proceedings, Gerald excuses himself to walk outside and be alone for a bit. Sheila returns her engagement ring to him before he leaves. She respects him for his honesty, she says, but believes that they just aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner, and that they would have to re-build their relationship anew. Birling tries to convince Sheila to be more reasonable, but Sheila replies that Gerald knows better than her father does what she means; Gerald concurs.
The inspection has taken a serious toll on the family, now severing ties between the previously engaged Sheila and Gerald. Sheila's comment is interesting, as they are exactly the same people who sat down to dinner; now they just know more about each other. Birling seeks to keep things comfortable and "reasonable" more than he does about his daughter's emotional well-being or pride.
Mrs. Birling announces that it seems they’ve almost reached the end of it, but Gerald interrupts that he doesn’t think so, before he walks out the door. Sheila points out that the Inspector never showed Gerald the picture of the girl, and the Inspector responds that he didn’t think it necessary.
Gerald, like Sheila before, is confident that the Inspector still has unforeseeable tricks up his sleeve. He seems, in addition, to suspect the consistency of the Inspector’s procedures, given that he was never shown a picture as the other Birlings were.
The Inspector shows the photograph to Mrs. Birling, who denies recognizing it. The Inspector accuses her of lying. Birling demands that the Inspector apologize for his accusation, but the Inspector instead retorts that public men “have their responsibilities as well as their privileges.” Birling responds that the Inspector was never asked to talk to Mr. Birling about his responsibilities. Sheila contributes her feeling that the Birlings no longer have a right to put on airs. She then confronts her mother, insisting that she could tell by her expression that Mrs. Birling indeed recognized the photograph.
Mrs. Birling, like Mr. Birling earlier, refuses to admit she knows or recognizes the girl, even though Sheila can see that she does. The Inspector bluntly does not believe this, and his response to Mr. Birling suggests that Birling and his family have been enjoying the privileges of their public success while not recognizing their responsibilities. Sheila again tries to make her parents realize the lessons before their eyes: that they shouldn’t presume their own superiority or doubt the integrity of the investigation.
The front door slams, and there is some question about whether Gerald has returned or Eric has left. The Inspector continues his interrogation of Mrs. Birling by identifying her as a prominent member of the Brumley Women’s Charity Organization. He asks about a meeting of the interviewing committee a couple of weeks previous.
The Inspector now focuses on Mrs. Birling, clearly indicating that he knows that she does know the girl and about her participation in the girl’s fate.
Mr. Birling asks why his wife should answer the Inspector’s questions, and the Inspector informs him that the girl had appealed to the Women’s Charity Organization two weeks prior. According to the Inspector, the girl initially called herself Mrs. Birling, which Mrs. Birling notes having found very impertinent. At the Inspector’s provocation, Mrs. Birling admits that she was prejudiced against the girl’s case and used her influence to assure that the girl be refused aid from the committee.
Mrs. Birling joins her husband, daughter, and daughter’s fiancé in admitting that she, too, played a part in Eva Smith’s downfall. Based on her personal annoyance at the girl, Mrs. Birling denied her aid—an action similar, though more serious, to Sheila getting the girl fired.
The Inspector asks Mrs. Birling why the girl wanted help, and Mrs. Birling initially refuses to answer, determined not to cave under his pressure as the other three did, and convinced that she is not ashamed of anything she’s done. She explains simply that she wasn’t satisfied with the girl’s claim and so used her influence to deny her aid, and then reiterates that she’s done nothing wrong.
Mrs. Birling refuses to play into the Inspector’s motive to awaken the Birlings to their responsibility for the girl’s death. She sees her role on the charity organization not as to help people but to wield influence in deciding who does and doesn't deserve aid.
The Inspector states that he thinks she has done something very wrong that she will regret for the rest of her life. He wishes that she’d been with him at the Infirmary to see the dead girl, and then he reveals the more devastating fact that the girl had also been pregnant when she killed herself. Sheila is horrified and asks how the pregnant girl could have wanted to commit suicide; the Inspector answers that she had been “turned out and turned down too many times.”
The girl’s pregnancy adds yet another layer of tragedy to her suicide, and augments Sheila’s feelings of devastation and guilt. The fact that the Inspector has withheld this piece of information until this point, however, makes it seem as though he has conducted the investigation specifically with the goal of creating suspense and increasing astonishment.
The Inspector adds that it was because she was pregnant that she appealed to the Women’s Charity Organization. Mrs. Birling repeats what she reports having said to the girl—that she ought to go appeal to the child’s father, as providing for the child was his responsibility. Sheila tells her mother that she thinks what she did was “cruel and vile.”
Sheila’s disapproval of her mother for refusing the girl aid mirrors Eric’s disapproval of his father for refusing her a raise. Both Eric and Sheila continue to express growing sympathies with the lower class, while the Birling parents remain defensive of their use of power and influence and willingness to stand in judgment of the lower classes (despite the fact that their own class has been revealed by the Inspector to be not as respectable as it first appeared).
It comes out that the child’s father had offered the girl money, but that she didn’t want to take it because it was stolen. The Inspector asks Mrs. Birling if it wasn’t a good thing that the girl refused to take the money. She says possibly, but stands firm in refusing to accept any blame. At the Inspector’s lead, Mrs. Birling claims that, if the father was indeed guilty of thievery, then he is entirely responsible for the girl’s suicide and deserves to be punished.
Mrs. Birling stubbornly refuses to accept any culpability for the girl’s suicide, and instead places guilt on the girl herself. She thereby demonstrates allegiance with her husband’s philosophy about the priority of self-responsibility over mutual responsibility.
Sheila cries out “Stop” to her mother, and asks her if she doesn’t see what’s going on, right after the Inspector voices his eagerness for Eric’s return. When the door slams, signifying Eric’s return, Mrs. Birling finally understands and asks the Inspector if her son is all mixed up in this. The Inspector responds that, if he is, it’ll be clear what to do with him, based on what Mrs. Birling has just said. The Inspector holds his hand up as the front door sounds; everyone waits and looks towards the door; Eric enters pale and distressed. The curtain falls slowly.
Mrs. Birling realizes too late that she has foolishly placed blame on her own son. Mrs. Birling seems to have believed that the father of the baby must also have been lower class. Her blindness makes it impossible for her to see that her own class—her own son—might be "mixed up in this."