He is head of the Birling family – he is used to everybody obeying and respecting him. He is not used to people challenging him (Inspector/Eva Smith and later Sheila/Eric). He likes people to listen to him and be aware that he has power. ‘We hardheaded practical business men must say something sometime. And we don’t guess – we’ve had experience – and we know.’
He is a rich, successful businessman – he is a self-made man/nouveau riche. (He is not aristocratic/upper class, but has acquired his wealth through his success as a ‘hard-headed practical man of business’ – he is upper-middle class, but always looking for opportunities to climb the social ladder - Sheila’s marriage to Gerald/marrying Mrs Birling/getting a knighthood etc. ‘your engagement to Sheila means a tremendous lot to me’)
He does not consider those who are less fortunate than him (lower class citizens): ‘community and all that nonsense’. This kind of attitude angered Priestley, a committed SOCIALIST, who felt the Mr Birlings of the world needed to change. Birling is very traditional in his views: ‘a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own – and –‘ The Inspector arrives here to interrupt Mr Birling, suggesting that his views need to be challenged.
He rejects socialist views: ‘But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive’
He is very shallow, obsessed with how things appear to people. He makes sure that people are aware that he has been active in local politics, and has been Lord Mayor. He name-drops to the Inspector in an attempt to intimidate him. ‘How do you get on with our Chief Constable, Colonel Roberts?…Perhaps I ought to warn you that he’s an old friend of mine’. He wants to avoid scandal at any cost in order to protect his reputation. ‘I’ve got to cover this up as soon as I can.’ ‘I’d give thousands’
He always thinks he is right and is very sure of himself: ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’, ‘there isn’t a chance of war’ – the use of DRAMATIC IRONY here encourages the audience perceive Mr Birling as foolish. His views cannot be trusted.
He is a hypocrite – he says that ‘a man has to look after…his own’, but he is not a good father to Eric. Mr Birling is not supportive – Eric can’t turn to him when he is in trouble. ‘You’re not the sort of father a chap could go to’
He is constant throughout the play. He refuses to take responsibility for any part in Eva Smith’s death at the start of the play: ‘I can’t accept any responsibility’, ‘obviously it has nothing to do with the wretched girl’s suicide’ At the end, he is just the same; he wants things to return to the way they were. He cannot understand Sheila’s and Eric’s insistence that there is something to be learnt. He is just relieved, thinking he has escaped a ‘public scandal’.
He doesn’t believe his actions have consequences.
He represents the older generation.
Relationships with other characters:
With Mrs Birling – not close – probably married her as she was his ‘social superior’.
With Sheila – treats her like a child, feels she needs protecting from the truth.
With Eric – not close. Eric can’t turn to him when it matters.
With Gerald – tries to impress him (as Gerald is from an upper-class family). Happy about his marriage to Sheila as it is good for business. Not personal/genuine.
With the Inspector – tries to intimidate him.
With Eva Smith – abused his power over her. Threatened by the fact that she had ‘a lot to say – far too much – ‘, so he used his power to get rid of her. Heartless/uncaring.
What is the significance of his character to the play as a whole? (Why is he important to play?)
He holds the traditional, selfish attitudes (held by the wealthier classes, particularly the older generation) that Priestley challenged (through the character of the Inspector). Priestley was concerned about the consequences…