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 standing in society and the rights this affords him, prevent him from 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:
…I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of
business. And I say there isn’t a chance of war.
Priestley cleverly employs dramatic irony to burst the bubble of Arthur Birling’s pomposity. The play is set in 1912, two years before the First World War and by pointing up Birling’s fallibility the audience is 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 Sheila’s engagement to Gerald are as much about the fact that Gerald is aristocracy as his daughter’s happiness. It is this particular weakness in his character Priestley exploits during the Inspector’s investigation into the death of Eva Smith as Birling’s 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 Smith’s death Arthur Birling’s...