The Birlings are an upper class family living in pre-war England; they think very highly of themselves and are quite shallow minded. They concentrate centrally on material possessions. The Birlings live in a well-established and comfortable home, which is richly furnished, yet does not have a hint of homeliness or a sign of family life in it. Throughout the play there are symbols used to create the air of wealth, such as the Port they drink, and the careless way they talk about golf. It is obvious that they are rich and used to being that way. You could never call the Birlings anything but respectable; they consider social status as an extremely serious matter. However they seem to confuse respectability with morality; no matter what they do it is only their own benefit or enjoyment. Even Mrs Birling’s charitable works do not seem genuinely to be because she cares but more to do with controlling a certain image.
Mr Birling is a pompous and solemn man who is of new money and has made his wealth through business and industry. It is obvious he lacks some of the manners and etiquette that would prove him to come from old money. Birling is obviously conscious of this and feels the need to impress other people by ‘name dropping’. His speech is very affected and false, another part of his charade to hide his menial beginnings. Mr Birling seems to have married above himself when he wedded Mrs Birling, who is of old money; she is a little more reserved and well-mannered. However they are very similar in personality as they both enjoy the good-life a little too much and seem to look down upon anyone who is not as wealthy as they are. When Birling married it seemed as though he looked upon it as an important business deal which would improve his social standing.
Birling is a true capitalist and, in his eyes, the world is free and good fun if you have the money to make it so. His philosophy is all about ones own duty and responsibility, he is a true believer in the assertion by Margaret Thatcher- ”there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and their families.” Birling believes that everyone should look after themselves and asks why he should help other people who are in a mess ‘when it’s their own damn fault!’
At the start of the play while they are celebrating the engagement of Gerald and Sheila, Mr Birling quashes down any rumours of war. “The Germans don’t want war… stop all this silly pessimistic talk.” He also says “In twenty or thirty years’ time- let’s say, in 1940… you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly war-scares.” He seems to believe that the world is always going to be like it is now; this has a dramatic irony to it because although the play was written about 1912 it was first performed in 1946, which was post-war. Therefore the audience would have found Birling’s views rather amusing as they knew that quite the opposite of what he thinks is going to happen was true. The family also discuss the launching of the Titanic; they marvel at it and Mr Birling starts to say how much it much have cost and when Eric says “what will happen if it sinks?” Mr Birling seems outraged and replies that it is the unsinkable ship. “The Titanic…sails next week… and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.” There would also be more dramatic irony, because the audience would know that the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, so again Birling was wrong. In fact Birling does not seem to be right about many things throughout the play.
They are true social net-workers and seem to have collected all the ‘right’ connections, rather like you would collect stamps- they show them off at any possible time, to try and impress other shallow minded people such as themselves. However, despite their close contact with the outside world, their lives seem to be a dream and far away from the true reality of the everyday struggle of most people. This is especially apparent in their daughter- Sheila – who is a fanciful girl whose head is full of parties and petty social events. Sheila is protected by her father and Gerald as they seem to believe that she should not be subjected to anything that is unpleasant and disturbing.
However the Inspector quickly puts this down by stating that Eva Smith was not protected from the evils in life, and she was just a young girl quite like Shelia herself, which seems to make life very unfair. He says “Well we know one young women who wasn’t, don’t we?” Another thing to add to Sheila’s light-headed outlook on life is her recent engagement to Gerald Croft. He is obviously the more dominant one of the two however she does not seem to mind; on the contrary she lets him take the lead. The Birlings are very sexist and believe that the man should take the lead, and protect his wife from the bad things in life. The engagement is approved very highly by the rest of the family, especially by Mr Birling. Birling owns a large business and his main competition is the very factory owned by Gerald’s family. He seems to believe that the marriage will be a true industrial bridge that will make both businesses stronger as they learn to work together.
It is obvious that Mr Birling is infatuated with money and its importance by the way he does not even stop talking about it when Sheila and Gerald Croft announce their engagement- he almost treats them like another business deal. Mr Birling tries to impress Gerald as he knows his father is a rich gentleman and he holds him in great esteem; he tells Gerald how he bought the very same port that his father drinks- which seems to be an effort to make Gerald feel impressed by his knowledge and to make him feel at home in the Birling household and part of the family.
Gerald Croft does not seem to mind the way Mr Birling treats him, and laughs at the worst of Mr Birling’s jokes, so in turn he is also sucking up to Mr Birling as a ploy to his plan on becoming a member of the family. At times Gerald almost seems more like one of the family than their son Eric does- this view is extremely vital to the play. Gerald’s view on life is just like Mr Birlings’ he is fixated with social status and wealth. Although he is a little more reserved, but he is obsessed with money, and also sees the marriage as a perfect business opportunity- for himself and the Birlings. Whether he really loves Sheila or not, is not apparent, Sheila seems more in love with the idea of being married than the actual person. However they do seem genuinely fond of each other and in the eyes of Mr and Mrs Birling and the Crofts the marriage is truly respectable.
I can imagine in the public eye they are the perfect vision of respectability. However it all seems to be a lie which even the Birlings have started to believe. It is apparent from the very beginning of the play that their family charade is not so perfect, and it only takes one man bringing bad news of one event for the cracks to become visible. From the very first scene it shows how Sheila and Gerald are not the perfect couple; at the beginning she jokes at his expense about the last summer when she hardly saw him although they were supposed to be betrothed. As the play goes on it becomes clear that it was because of his affair with ‘Daisy Renton.’ However at this time Sheila obviously does not know that and although she seems to be joking it is apparent that she is genuinely upset by the way Gerald treated her before. Just this one example of the imperfections in the Birling household shows how they use their respectability as a faï¿½ade to cover up their selfishness and fake happiness.
However, Eric their son seems to have some more obvious problems- with drink. Even this- no matter how apparent it may seem- is ignored by the rest of the family and no one would ever dare ask if there was a reason for his drinking so much. This is entirely typical of the Birlings- to ignore the problems staring them in the face, just in case they take the merriment out of life. So it is obvious from the beginning that Eric is different from the rest of the family; he seems to have given up on trying to be happy- acting out something that can never be real. Eric’s behaviour is suspicious from the beginning and if the Birlings were truly moral and cared about the things they should, more than their own status, they would know why he is in trouble and trying to get drunk to take the pain away. Again as before, the Birlings use jokes to cover up real annoyance, or interrogations. In this case Mr Birling jokes about Eric being in trouble; it is not until later in the play that the real irony becomes clear, when the audience and actors find out how true this statement is.
The trouble with the Birlings however is they are so smug and happy with themselves and their lives that they set themselves up for a fall- hubris and nemesis. In this particular case, the fall comes in the form of the Inspector reporting the suicide of a young girl. The Inspector is the thing that brings them down to earth with a bump and pulls together the huge divide between the Birlings life and that of Daisy Renton or Eva Smith. There is a sharp contrast between the fake lives of the Birlings and the twisted reality of Eva Smith; it is strange how the two very different realities can affect each other so greatly.
Although there are many differences between the lives of the Birlings in their upper class rich house, and that of the dead girl Eva Smith, there are also some simple similarities as well. It just shows that no matter how much money you have it does not necessarily mean you will be happy in life, which is a total contradiction of Mr Birling’s philosophy, or rather what he wants to believe. It seems when you are poor you dream of having money and when you have money you dream of having more and you worry about what you should do with the money you have and how you can ensure you do not lose it. So really the Birlings are no better off than Eva Smith because they are not happy either, but at least they are still alive. Before she committed suicide Eva Smith was a much better person than the Birlings could ever be. She had morals and standards and was driven into the state of despair by other people. So in some ways she was much luckier than they are.
But where material possessions are concerned the Birlings were in the best place anyone could be at the time. The play was set in 1912 in Edwardian England before the war was declared, so they were in a safe environment; they could, with the right amount of money have anything they wished for. Nothing was rationed and to the Birlings’ shallow minds life was easy and free. The deepest concerns are probably that of Mr Birling who constantly talks about his business and money. But if you did not have money or a good job in this time, life was destitute and hard work, and many girls such as Eva Smith changed their names and were forced from sheer desperation to work as prostitutes or something they would never normally do just to be able to eat again. And the richer more fortunate ones would take advantage of this need to survive just like Eric and Gerald do to Eva Smith.
The Inspector shows the Birlings how the smallest thing they do can affect someone else so much and can ultimately lead to a person’s death. The timing of the Inspector’s arrival is very clever as well. He enters just as Mr Birling is in full flow of a speech, in which he is telling Gerald and Eric the true values of life in his eyes, and how every man must look after himself and his family, which is ironic as he does not know half the problems his own family have. Mr Birling’s views are very conservative, and he believes that everyone must fend for themselves, and if some people are not as fortunate as others it is only their own fault and it should not be anyone else’s responsibility to help them. The Inspector’s arrival interrupts this speech, and cuts him off sharply; this unexpected entrance reflects the harsh reality between the dream land the Birlings exist in and the true reality of the world and how unexpected things happen and bring them back to Earth. Birling is just saying “But the way these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look out for everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive- community and all that nonsense.” This is the perfect time for the Inspector to enter exactly when Birling has stated his philosophy that the Inspector has come to tear down. Also it would be a joke at Priestley’s expense, as he is the perfect example of what Mr Birling would class as a crank.
The Inspector is supposed to be a mysterious character in the play and Priestley portrays him very well, he describes how he introduces himself as Inspector Goole, which is another word for phantom or ghost, which is almost the perfect way to describe the Inspector- a phantom visitor who nobody knows, he comes and goes back into thin air. Also it says he is dressed in a plain dark suit, which seems to fit his character perfectly, as he is the bringer of dark and grave news, and when he does arrive he unearths some very dark secrets within the family. The suit is also a sharp contrast to the white light of the stage. When the Inspector arrives Mr Birling says “An Inspector? What kind of Inspector?” This adds to the level of mysteriousness that surrounds the Inspector. Also he says to the maid “Give us some more light.” This is a parallel to what the Inspector does; he comes to the family and sheds light on the current situation, all the secrets begin to unravel and come out into the light. This light is also a contrast to the pink rosier one in the scene before- which Priestley used to create a sense of false security, it is white and harsh- which is a suggestion of the Inspector’s news.
Despite the fact the Inspector is described as a plainly-dressed man in his early fifties with no distinguishing features, he creates an impression of immense strength and importance- the sort of impression Mr Birling tries so hard to give but can never quite achieve. The Inspector seems to have a habit of making everyone around him feel inadequate and inferior whether he means to or not. He has the unnerving habit of looking people hard in the eye before he speaks to them- fixing their gaze so they can not look away. It seems to tell him things that no words could explain, and it may be why he gives the impression of knowing the answers to all his questions before even the Birlings do. This quality scares Mr and Mrs Birling who hates anyone who compromises their positions of being in control of the house and their lives, so they react with the ploy that they think he is rude and impertinent to interrogate them in their own home, to gain back some of the control. However little the older Birlings want to remember the Inspector they know that they will never forget him, and even if he has little affect on their lives because they are so stubborn and set in their ways to admit they were in the wrong, he will still leave a huge impression on them that will last until their death.
The Inspector has a clever method of working; he travels round the group breaking each person down individually, by asking them questions and almost letting them find their own way into his trap. The Inspector is omniscient as he seems to know everything. Even the way the Birlings will react before they do and he sets up a trap which each member falls into. One interesting thing the Inspector does, which is what gives the Birlings their initial doubts, is the way he has a picture in his pocket which he shows to each of the family individually, and he will not let them see it at the same time. Whether this is because she is not actually the same girl as the Birlings think or it could just be another part of the Inspector’s method.
The Inspector seems to act as voice of justice and reason; he breaks each and every member of the Birlings down, forcing them to look reality straight on, instead of ignoring it. The Inspector arrives at a time when he was sorely needed; to the Birlings the true meaning of moral had long been lost from their vocabulary and they needed to learn it again. The Inspector took them from their ignorance and brought them back to earth. He says when asked how what Mr Birling sacking her had anything to do with her suicide “…what happened to her may then have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide…” this just shows that one thing can trigger off another, leading to a certain chain of events.
The prior descriptions of the Birlings personalities are extremely vital to how they react to the news of the suicide and how each of them played a part in it. The two children are greatly affected by the news, even though Eric seems to have been expecting something like this, and their parents are barely affected at all. They eventually acknowledge knowing the girl but they deny having anything to do with her death, and that there is nothing to learn from it. However Gerald is in the middle of the two extremes, he admits to knowing her and feels badly about her death, but it is obvious he does not really care about his past mistakes, he seems more intent on patching his ruined engagement up with Sheila, who after finding the truth about the affair out wants nothing more to do with him.
All the family members have different reactions to the news and the accusations of the Inspector. However they can be split into two general groups, the parents and Gerald and then the two children. The younger ones seem to react with more concern and care, maybe this is because Priestley is saying it is up to the younger ones to change society, as the older people are unwilling and too set in their old ways to bother.
Mr Birling simply denies him sacking her had anything to do with her suicide. Birling does say that the reason he sacked her was because she wanted a raise in pay; it is typical of Mr Birling to be involved in her death because of something to do with money. Mr Birling values it more than this girl’s life despite it menial properties. Even when the Inspector points out that his sacking her played a vital role and after Mr Birling has been broken and admits that it may have done, he still tries to tell to the Inspector that what she was demanding was unreasonable and his business could never afford it. He states “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’ll soon be asking for the earth.” Although it is obvious that the Inspector will never agree with his view on the matter he still tries to overpower him, by bragging of his public status, and saying how close a friend he is of the Inspectors ‘boss’. This is an attempt to try and intimidate the Inspector into not making Mr Birling feel so small. At one point Mr Birling’s true colours shine through when he refers to the death of Eva Smith as “that wretched girl’s suicide.” This shows how little he cares about anyone, and he is annoyed because her dying and the Inspector’s arrival had interrupted his cosy little meal.
At first Sheila reacts defensively almost aggressively when the Inspector begins to accuse her “What do you mean by saying that? You talk as though I was responsible-” However after he explains of the hardships Eva Smith went through Sheila begins to be very affected by the Inspector’s news, and admits to her getting the girl sacked from her second job at the shop and that it may have something to do with her suicide. She is different from the rest of her family; at first she just shows a genuine sympathy for the suicide and is horrified by the prospect of a pretty young girl just like herself could have ended her life in such a horrible way. However when she finds out she and the rest of her family and Gerald were to blame for her suicide she changes her view. Instead of just showing sympathy she seems to understand how the girl must have felt, and shows a genuine regret for her behaviour. “It’s the only time I’ve ever done anything like that, and I’ll never, never do it again to anybody.” The trouble is, as the Inspector points out, it is much too late for regrets now for the girl is already dead. Sheila is the only one that seems to understand the Inspectors way of thinking, she realises how his methods work, the way he sees a brick wall and slowly pulls it down until he has the answers he knew all along, whether they were given from free will or not.
Gerald at first tries to deny all knowledge of the girl but eventually admits to having known her. He is almost one of the hardest to crack as his story with the girl is so detailed and he played such a large part in her death. After a while he admits everything and tells the Inspector the whole story. Gerald does not deny having anything to do with her death, but whether that is because he really feels sorry for what he did or because it so obviously did have a major part in her suicide that he can not deny it. However the Inspector’s arrival shows that Gerald is not so much like Mr Birling that he has totally forgotten all his moral grounds and on some levels he is still a good person.
The point is he still has the potential to turn into Mr Birling and I believe the Inspector came at the perfect time and the shock may have changed Gerald’s future outlook on life. It is while Gerald is being questioned that Sheila realises how little the family know about each other, because Eric’s drinking habits come into the light and Mrs Birling tries to deny it, but Sheila says “But we really must top these silly pretences.” It is also after Gerald’s confession that Mrs Birling says “I must say, we are learning something tonight.” This is very true in many ways, they are not only learning about each other but also about themselves as the Inspector strips away their barriers and you begin to see the real people behind them. When Gerald does confess the truth of where he was last summer, Sheila seems to grow a new-found respect for him and says “That’s probably about the best thing you’ve said tonight. At least it’s honest.”
Mrs Birling however is probably the hardest person to try and break down in the Inspectors eyes. She completely denies all knowledge of the girl and first, she will have nothing to do with it. She is in some ways the strongest person in the family, she stands up to the Inspector; however he leads her step by step into the destruction of her own smugness. When he eventually finds out she had actually met the girl then she says the way she treated her was totally justified and correct. Even after Mrs Birling finds out the girl committed suicide she still sticks by what she did and even blames the girl for getting herself into the trouble in the first place.
After more questioning the Inspector finds out that she told the girl to go back to the father and ask for his help, and Mrs Birling thinks that the blame should all be laid on his shoulders; little does she know the father is her own son- Eric. The Inspector leads Mrs Birling on until she tells him exactly what she thinks should happen to the father of the child. It is obvious the Inspector already knows it is Eric and is just trying to get Mrs Birling’s views before he tells her. Sheila by this time has guessed as well and tries to warn her mother to be quiet or the Inspector will break her down as well, and then the truth will come out and ruin the family. Mrs Birling however has already told the Inspector exactly what she thinks, “I’ll tell you what I told her. Go and look for the father of the child. It’s his responsibility.” Mrs Birling is tricked by the Inspector into condemning her own son with the responsibility of the woman and child.
While the rest of the family are being questioned Eric walks out. The Inspector barely reacts at first because as he says he has no need of him. However Eric eventually comes back just after Mrs Birling has been questioned. When he does return he realises as he walks in that everyone knows he is the father of Eva Smith’s child. The Inspector then starts on Eric. It seems that what Eric did started from his enjoying himself a little too much, having a drink to make himself happy. And it after what he had done, when the reality had set in, he drank to take the pain away from it because it was the only thing he could turn to- a vicious circle. Eric tells them how he really raped her and then when he found out she was pregnant he tried to help her and get money.
Eric eventually admits he stole the money- 50, off his father; Mr Birling is outraged by this, and complains of the amount of money. Birling demands to know why Eric did not just come to him for help instead of stealing from him and Eric replies “You don’t understand anything. You never did. You never even tried…” this shows how large a gap there is between the family members and how little they really do understand each other. However Mr Birling does not see the importance of this and becomes even angrier with Eric, however the Inspector quickly quietens him by saying “She’ll make you pay a heavier price yet.” He means this metaphorically, in a mental way, however Birling takes him literally and says that he’d pay anything, any amount of money. This reaction just reinforces how little he cares about feelings, and thinks that a dead girl can be paid off just to save his own reputation and status.
When this comes out the whole family begin to argue; the Inspector quietens them quickly and he then gives a speech and leaves. The speech is a summary of not only the Birlings’ behaviour but also the rest of the world, and how “if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” The speech has a great prophetic power, and talks of an apocalypse, if the world does not learn the lesson of equality and helping each other instead of themselves. This is almost a reflection of the Great War that is about to overcome England in the play. The Inspector stresses the need for moral value and compassion- yet the Birlings believe that because they did not directly kill her- it had nothing to do with them. The Inspector’s speech adds to his wisdom and god-like power; he is completely mysterious but this adds emphasis to what he is saying- as though it is a message from ‘higher orders.’ This ties into the mention of the apocalypse and hell taking over if mankind does not change rapidly.
It is obvious even before the Inspector comes who he is going to affect the most, simply by looking at their personalities- which of them will be truly changed by the Inspector and who will just deny they had anything to do with what happened. However it only becomes clear who has actually learnt their lesson when the Inspector leaves and they find out he was not a real Inspector. Birlings says “This makes such a difference now,” and Sheila replies “Why of course, that makes us all nice people now.” This is where the real split in the family shows through.
The parents and Gerald then go back to their self-satisfied complacency and believe it was a hoax and therefore does not matter. However it is the children who really understand the real reason why the Inspector came and they try to explain it to their parents. As Eric says “It doesn’t matter if he’s a police officer or not- he was our police Inspector.” and when Birling says “He wasn’t a police Inspector!” Sheila replies ironically “Well he inspected us alright.” When the Inspector leaves Mr and Mrs Birling to say it does not matter anymore because there is no scandal it was all a joke. It is clever because after the Inspector has left Birling says “Oh look at them, can’t take a joke” talking about the children, this is exactly what he said about Eric before the Inspector came which shows that he has not changed or learnt his lesson at all.
It is when the phone rings saying that a girl has just died from drinking a strong disinfectant and that there is an Inspector on his way over to the house to ask some questions, that the Birlings finally start to learn their lesson. Or will they ever? It is in the last scene that the true colours of the Birlings come out. The older ones and Gerald are quite happy to forget about the whole thing, and move on without thinking back or learning anything from the experience; they seem to have no morals at all, and they only seem to care about their reputations and false respectability. However the children seem to care a little bit more about other people not just themselves, and they have some moral backgrounds.
The statement “The trouble with the Birlings is that they confuse respectability with morality,” is entirely true in some cases- that of the parents and Gerald. If the public really knew what sort of people they were they would no longer be respectable, far from it in fact. However the children are more respectable than their parents ever could, at least they regret their actions and try to help while they could, they long for a second chance and have genuinely learnt their lessons, which is far from what their parents have done. The play is very clever as it is obviously meant to teach the audience a lesson and not just the characters, it is supposed to make you think about the way you treat other people and how you should all be equal. J.B Priestley really sums up the troubles in society or the lack of it very well.