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Mr. Birling is a fictional character in the play An Inspector Calls.
Mr Birling is the head of the Birling household. He is described in the play as a “heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties but rather provincial in his speech”. He has made his own way in life, and has an inflated opinion of himself and his social class; but his less comfortable upbringing ensures that he has less social nous than either his wife or Gerald; He makes a few social fax paus in the play, for example, his praise for the cook’s quality of cooking. However, he does acknowledge almost sycophantically that he is not of as high a rank as the Gerald and his parents, Lord and Lady Croft, as well as admitting that “Crofts Limited are both older and bigger than Birling and Company”. He also tries to impress Gerald by boasting about the possibility of his receiving a knighthood in the next Honours List; in the same section, Birling tries to get Gerald on his side, by saying that he will only get a knighthood “so long as we behave ourselves, don't get into the police court or start a scandal”. He is dedicated to his business, which is involved in producing furniture, and it is implied that he enjoys the engagement of his daughter and Gerald Croft because it allows for the possibility of Crofts Limited and Birling and Company working together in the future. He is also a magistrate who has been active in social politics, having been Lord Mayor two years previously.
Priestley portrays him as a selfish capitalist who cares more about his knighthood and money than his own family, as even after finding out about Gerald's affair with Eva he still encourages Sheila to stay with him because Gerald's family business is merging with the Birling business. This is evident in his speech at the beginning, in which he declares that “we employers at last are coming together to see that our interests are properly protected”. This suggests that Arthur only cares about himself, and Priestley enforces this view with the revelation of Mr. Birling's sacking of Eva Smith after she demanded higher pay, as it would have “added about twelve per cent to our labour costs”; being staged a time of significant industrial unrest, Birling wants to take a stand against the unions and strikes that were occurring, and he makes an example of Eva Smith, something which the Inspector is not at all happy with. Although he wants to protect Sheila from the unpleasant tale of the girl’s life, he feels no remorse at not having given the girl anywhere near a similar level of shelter, despite their having been of a comparable age. Although Gerald agrees with his chosen course of action (probably because he is from the upper classes he has more to lose if the poor are in power), Eric, Sheila and the Inspector do not.
Mr. Birling also makes several mistakes when trying to predict the future: not only does he ridicule the suggestion of war (which was to begin a mere two years later), but he also declares the Titanic, which was to sink on its first voyage, as “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” and that there is economic “prosperity to come” – this was to be followed by the resource-draining war and the Great Depression. He is far more optimistic about the future than others, who, by the time the play was first performed, had been proved to be right. He blunders ahead with his own views, but is never quite as in control, or correct, as he would like to be seen to be; because Priestley wrote the play in retrospect, 30 years later, he can use his knowledge of what occurred in between times to make the audience doubt Mr. Birling's judgement and that of capitalists in general.
He tries to worm his way out of any blame as soon as it is suggested that Inspector Goole may not be a real inspector, despite still being under the impression that a girl has died as a consequence of his actions. He is strongly aware of the possible implications for his reputation - and the chances of his being awarded a knighthood - the case might cause, and says “I've got to cover this up as soon as I can”. He is described at the start as a "heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties but rather provincial in his speech."
He has worked his way up in the world and is proud of his achievements. He boasts about having been Mayor and tries (and fails) to impress the Inspector with his local standing and his influential friends. However, he is aware of people who are his social superiors, which is why he shows off about the port to Gerald, "it's exactly the same port your father gets." He is proud that he is likely to be knighted, as that would move him even higher in social circles. He claims the party "is one of the happiest nights of my life." This is not only because Sheila will be happy, but because a merger with Crofts Limited will be good for his business. He is optimistic for the future and confident that there will not be a war. As the audience knows there will be a war, we begin to doubt Mr Birling's judgement. (If he is wrong about the war, what else will he be wrong about?) He is extremely selfish: - He wants to protect himself and his family. He believes that socialist ideas that stress the importance of the community are "nonsense" and that a man has to 'look after number one': "a man has to make his own way." - He wants to protect Birling and Co. He cannot see that he did anything wrong when he fired Eva Smith - he was just looking after his business interests. - He wants to protect his reputation. As the Inspector's investigations continue, his selfishness gets the better of him: he is worried about how the press will view the story in Act II, and accuses Sheila of disloyalty at the start of Act III. He wants to hide the fact that Eric stole money: "I've got to cover this up as soon as I can." At the end of the play, he knows he has lost the chance of his knighthood, his reputation in Brumley and the chance of Birling and Co. merging with their rivals. Yet he hasn't learnt the lesson of the play: he is unable to admit his responsibility for his part in Eva's death.