An Inspector Calls

Mr Birling

what is Birling's attitude to the future and the progress he foresees?

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The centerpiece of this first part of the play, though, is the self-satisfied attitude of Arthur Birling. He is indeed, as he puts it, every inch the “hard-headed man of business.” Smug and sure of himself, he launches into a series of assertions which Priestley’s 1946 audience would have known only too well to be false. Birling asserts that there will not be another war, yet, two years after this utterance (the play is set in 1912) the First World War was to begin. Moreover, the 1946 audience would have only just managed to live through the Second World War of 1939 to 1945. Birling also asserts that the Titanic, which sets sail “next week,” is “unsinkable,” yet the audience knows that the ship sank only a little later in 1912. Priestley’s original audience probably would have found Birling’s reference to the Titanic more distressing than a modern audience because some of them may have known people who died in the disaster. Priestley’s dramatic irony, then, is poignant, not merely coy and comfortable, for the audience.

Birling’s politics of self-reliance and personal responsibility are staunchly and unashamedly capitalist, perhaps even right-wing. He believes in “low wages, high prices,” is absolutely dismissive of Eva’s strike, and, even at the close of the Inspector’s inquiry, can only limply claim that he would “give thousands” to make things better. Money, indeed, dominates the way he thinks, even to the extent that, Priestley subtly illustrates, he sees his daughter’s engagement to Gerald Croft as a financial move and potentially the first step towards a merger between the Birling and Croft businesses. Birling represents the political point of view opposite to Priestley’s own. Birling even makes himself out to be the antithesis of left-leaning writers and intellectuals generally, namely George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, both very famously left-wing voices.