The Character Of Eric Birling In The Play An Inspector Calls

J.B Priestley created Mr Birling, a stereotypical right wing capitalist, and one of the most interesting characters of the play, ‘ An Inspector Calls’. The play is set in 1912, written in 1945 and was first performed in England in 1946. He represents a typical upper middle class businessman of the era with an apathetic behaviour towards his fellow humans, full of ignorance and selfishness, exposing to the audience how harmful these kinds of attitudes are. In fact, he is a clear symbol of absurdity and the arrogance and ignorance of the older, male generation in pre WW1 Britain. He is an irresponsible, self important and greedy human being with a strong philosophy based on obsolete ideas of capitalism. Birling is the antithesis of Priestley’s socialist views who wanted to take advantage of the desire for a change after WW2, to construct a better and more empathic society where socialism extinguishes capitalism, where love eradicates avarice. 

An inspector calls is a morality play, this sort of play’s purpose is to teach a lesson to the audience. He does that by punishing the sins of sinful characters like Mr Birling himself, a character which committed the crime of mistreating eva smith, crime mentioned by the Inspector, a character that seems to represent a judge of morality. Also, another characteristic about this sort of play, which was typical in the middle ages, was to present a second chance to the convicted characters. In this case, Mr Birling rejects this opportunity “Horrid business. But I don’t understand why you should come here, Inspector.” and his punishment at the end is the police office call, which means the matter has escalated further than he expected. Priestley’s intention is to teach a lesson to privileged people about how not to use their power over other people, and also criticize that inequality. The text is presented as a dialogue with stage directions included, to not only facilitate a better performance of the show, but in case its readed; make the audience empathize and understand better each one of the characters. In Mr. Biring’s case, for example, in act one, Mr Birling is presented as a “heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties but rather provincial in his speech.” which, at the time, was a eccentric stereotype of a rich capitalist businessman. 

Mr. Birling is presented as a wealthy self-made factory owner. We realize this information at the beginning of the first act, when Mr. Birling is in the middle of a family festivity celebrating the engagement of his daughter to a wealthy businessman inside the dining room of his luxurious home. The stage directions describe a ' heavily comfortable' 'dining room of a fairly large suburban house belonging to a prosperous manufacturer '. However Priestley manages to reflect that they were uncomfortable with each other, as he presents this house as 'not cosy and homelike' suggesting that the members of this family don’t possess the typical family connections and are rather distant and cold with each other. As well, there are specific details of props, such as the expensive bottles of champagne, the clothes they are wearing, and the fact of having servants and a cook. It may have appeared over extravagant to a post WW2 audience that had suffered the consequences of war, remembering tragedies, remembering how all change so extremely fast. It is vulgar since individuals like Mr. Birling were the causes of the two most important wars of our history. For the audience seeing them living blissfully would generate anger towards mr Birling. Birling is the leading antagonist. He’s the first one who talks, commenting to Gerald the fact that the port was “exactly the same port your father gets from him”. He is the also the first character to be interrogated and the person who started off the chain of events that lead to the suicide of Eva Smith. He dominates the space, talking more than the rest of characters, starting conversations and interrupting them. This is effective if we consider the fact that this character was the one that J.B Priestley wanted to give more emphasis to, especially to his defects like the inappropriate way that he uses his power. He wanted to position this man as the one who started the chain of events that killed Eva Smith. As a result, he creates animosity from the audience towards the character of Mr.Birling. 

Almost as soon as the play begins, Mr Birling is presented as a figurehead of a capitalist philosophy. He repeats several times that he is a ‘hard-headed businessman’. The adjective ‘hard-headed’, with its severe and powerful alliteration, emphasises how severe and eager for power the attitude of Mr. Birling is, suggesting that he is a heartless person, a hard headed capitalist, and a human with an immense lack of empathy. He repeats several times this description, which shows how proud he is about his hard won success repeats various times, showing how important it is to be ruthless, giving a certain kind of authority to his affirmations. In fact, his ideals emerged instantaneously at the beginning of Act One with the quotation that clearly marks his self-centred point of view to the audience: “a man has to look after himself - and his family too, of course, when he has one”, positioning himself ahead the rest with an individualist and selfish purpose. After finalizing the comment, he repeats “that a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own -and -” the enigmatic sharp ring of the front door sounds. When the Inspector arrives there is a change in lighting as if under the spotlight to show that Mr. Birling can no longer hide from the truth. Priestley creates repulsion for the whole idea of being a capitalist. The audience can see Birling’s priorities in running his thriving company in his engagement speech, working “for lower costs and higher prices.” Continuously, he makes comments connected to money or his business at a celebration that was meant to be for his daughter, and future husband. “Now you have brought us together, and perhaps we may look forward to a time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together” expresses his enormous greed. He refers to his happiness with first-person pronoun 'I',and “your engagement to Sheila means a lot to me”, showing how egocentric and selfish Mr. Birling is. A considerable part of the audience would have been capitalists and wouldn’t want to be associated with someone like Mr Birling and others would have suffered as a result of decisions made by capitalists during and between the wars. As a result, it creates an empathy with Eva and other victims of capitalism, and hatred towards the selfish, arrogant Mr Birling. 

Mr Birling is also a social climber. It is easy to detect this by his intentions to attach himself to people of a higher class, including Gerald and his own wife. It is shown in the same quotation “I gather there's a very good chance of a knighthood - as long as we behave ourselves, don't get into the police or start a scandal” that he wants to climb higher on the social ladder receiving the title, rank, or status of a knight. It reflects his constant greed, of wanting more and more, creating an unpleasant first impression of Mr. Birling in the audience. Furthermore, Priestley uses dramatic irony to make Mr Birling sound like an ignorant outdated fool. He speaks with confidence, gives advice and makes predictions about the unknown future that he thought he knew, but his arrogant predictions turn out to be totally wrong. The first time this play was seen by an audience in 1946, thay had already suffered the consequences of the two wars and the sinking of the Titanic ship that was believed to be unsinkable. For this hard hit post war audience, imagine that after suffering such grief, hearing Birling dismissing the people who initiated the second world war with comments like “Fiddlesticks! The Germans don’t want war. Nobody wants war”, or declaring the Titanic as “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.” He uses repetition and repeats the adverbs “absolutely”, leading to dramatic irony. In this case, it creates resentment with Mr. Birling due to the repercussion of his comments on the audience making Mr. Birling look like a fool, and making all the ideas relationated to capitalism look foolish and senseless as well, something that Priestley knew and wanted to take advantage of to favor socialism. Also, dramatic irony is often used to create suspense, considering the fact that the public experienced and knew something the characters didn’t. Priestley wanted the audience to have interest in the play, to continue watching it until they reconsidered socialism as the best option. After the Inspector gives him the horrendous news that a young woman decided to end her life by burning her insides with strong disinfectant, his immense animosity is reflected the moment he says “(Rather impatiently) Yes, yes. Horrid business. But I don’t understand why you should come here, Inspector.” Priestley thought that he could encourage the public to dislike the character of Mr Birling and to reflect him as an ignorant fool who thinks that the only thing that matters is money. The audience would feel disgusted by his unjustly dismissal of Eva from his factory after she started demanding higher wages and getting the other girls in the factory to go on strike. He tries to justify his acts saying “we were paying the usual rates and if they didn’t like those rates, they could go and work somewhere else.” Priestley uses metaphor and hyperbole to mock the selfish capitalist ideals. Birling says: “if you don’t come down hard on these people they’ll soon be asking for the earth!”, referring to the lower social classes, the people who work for his company. The Inspector responds emotively: “It's better to ask for the earth than to take it” , showing what scoundrels employees were keeping salaries very low to maximise their profits. 

Mr. Birling doesn't learn from his mistakes. When the Inspector leaves, Birling concludes that Eric is to blame and regrets that he won’t receive his knighthood due to the scandal. Birling cares more about keeping his reputation clean and the loss of money than Eric's shocking behaviour towards Eva: “ But I care. I was almost certain for a knighthood in the next Honours List-” Though Sheila and Eric, the younger generation, are worried and concerned about the immorality of what they did, Mr Birling and the older generation, are only worried about the public repercussions of their acts. This makes the audience easily identify with the younger generation, giving power to socialism. Mr Birling doesn’t learn his lesson in the play. He is unable to accept responsibility for his part in Eva's death and acts like he forgot everything that he did once he finds out it was a hoax ‘It has nothing whatever to do with this wretched girls suicide. Eh, Inspector?’. The consequences are present in the moment that Birling receives another telephone call: “That was the police. A girl has just died.” He lost his confidence as that meant that it was not longer a private matter, but it was being researched by the police. Priestley wanted to reflect the repercussions and consequences of our actions. As the play ends, it leaves a confused audience with an intense curiosity, so people will talk about the end and their theories, making unconscious propaganda of the play. 

In conclusion, through Mr. Birling, Priestley creates an antagonist,who is exactly the opposite of the Inspector, leaving Mr. Birling as the horrendous monster who destroys the life of Eva, so the Inspector could be considered as the compassionate and fair hero that avenges her death. The character of Mr. Birling was created as a social criticism towards the inequality between the distinctive social classes that remained strong in the early 20th century, something that later changed. In fact, Priestley wrote the play as WW2 ended to remind people to pull together and fight against the weakened inequality of social classes and gender - a message that remind us to be responsible of our actions and change the chaotic world before it can be defined in the metaphor: “‘fire and blood and anguish.” 

16 December 2021
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