An Inspector Calls
by J. B. Priestley
Arthur Birling is a wealthy, self-made middle class factory owner of the Edwardian era. We first learn about him from the stage directions. Priestley describes him as rather portentous suggesting he is serious and self-important. This characterises his attitude throughout the play where his sense of his standing in society and the rights this affords him prevent him from the learning the lesson of responsibility that forms the main theme of the play.
Birling is also an opinionated man. He believes that his success entitles him to comment on affairs of which he has little real knowledge:
Im talking as a hard-headed, practical man of
business. And I say there isnt a chance of war.
Priestley cleverly employs dramatic irony to burst the bubble of Arthur Birlings pomposity. The play is set in 1912, two years before the First World War and by pointing up Birlings fallibility the audience are less inclined to agree with the views on the personal and social responsibility he declares throughout the play.
Birling has a number of unpleasant character traits. Significant among them is that he is a social climber. He tells Gerald, his prospective son-in-law, that he expects to be knighted in the near future and the celebrations of his daughter Sheilas engagement to Gerald are as much about the fact that Gerald is aristocracy as his daughters happiness. It is this particular weakness in his character Priestley exploits during the Inspectors investigation into the death of Eva Smith as Birlings only concern is that his reputation and future social advancement will be affected by it. His self-interest contrasts vividly with the horror we feel at the tragic and painful suicide of a young girl resulting in our dislike of him and the lack of social responsibility he represents.
When the so-called Inspector arrives to investigate Eva Smiths death Arthur Birlings attitudes symbolise what happens when we do not recognise Priestleys message that we have a responsibility towards society as well as ourselves. The dramatic structure of the play introduces this very effectively. Just before the Inspectors entrance, Mr Birling promotes the opposing view of society to Gerald and his son Eric:
a man has to mind his own business and look
after himself and his own.
His words can be seen almost as an incantation (spell) summoning the presence of the Inspector who will try to teach him the error of his ways. The Birlings are utterly selfish and the Inspectors entrance heralds the series of interviews that show we all interdependent.
Arthur Birlings attitudes to the Inspector, the death of Eva Smith and his part in it are as we would expect from his character. He is dismissive of the Inspector, informing him the Chief Constable is an old friend of mine and I see him fairly regularly. He is using his social position to intimidate the Inspector to try to avoid his questions and when the Inspector persists he treats him with contempt saying I dont like that tone.
On hearing of the death of Eva Smith, he cannot see that his actions in firing her had any consequences:
Look - theres nothing mysterious or scandalous
about this as far as Im concerned. Obviously it has
nothing to do with the wretched girls suicide.
He does not see that her involvement in a strike for more wages arose out of his greed for profit or that in firing her he was leaving her destitute. He feels entirely justified by his belief in lower costs and higher profits. Priestley portrays him as the typical entrepreneur whose wealth is built on the backs of the poor who are merely commodities (items) on a balance sheet. It is people such as Birling that the author wished to influence through the writing of this play.