‘An Inspector Calls’:  Mr Birling Character Analysis (animated)

‘An Inspector Calls’: Mr Birling Character Analysis (animated)


In this 1947 book ‘Theatre Outlook’, JB
Priestley wrote: ‘In a good theatrical production we are offered a piece of life so shaped and
coloured and contrived that everything in it, down to the smallest detail, is significant.’
He continues: ‘The shape and colour of a room, the way the light falls through a window,
the choice of furnishings, the very relation between a chair and a stool, all mean something.’ So in this video we’re going to analyse
the character of Mr Birling, starting by looking at one of those small details: the use of
port. In the play’s first line of dialogue, Mr
Birling says: ‘Giving us the port, Edna? That’s right… You ought to like this port,
Gerald. As a matter of fact, Finchley told me it’s exactly the same port your father
gets from him’. The drinking of port is significant due to its cost. It is something
that was associated with the wealthy in society: the price alone would have been prohibitive
and therefore out of reach for the working class – and let’s not forget the characters
have been drinking champagne before the play begins. In her fascinating book ‘Drinking in Victorian
and Edwardian Britain’, Thora Hands states: ‘The domestic context of alcohol consumption
was governed by rules of social etiquette, which both demonstrated and reinforced social
class and gender values. Within middle- and upper-class homes, purchasing, serving and
consuming good quality wines and spirits were key ways to demonstrate levels of cultural
capital and good taste’. Instantly, the audience sees Mr Birling as
someone who wishes to show off to others, and Priestley uses the name dropping of ‘Finchley’
to illustrate how Birling is keen to impress his future son-in-law. It’s important to
note that, in speaking to Gerald, the son of upper-class Lord and Lady Croft, Birling
is actually speaking to his social superior. This imbalance of power has reduced him to
name-dropping in an attempt to endear himself to a family whose social position is one to
which he personally aspires. Birling himself has moved from working class to middle class
through the success of his business. That’s why he occasionally has to be told how to
behave socially by Mrs Birling, his ‘social superior’ as the stage directions put it. Early in Act One, Priestley surprises the
audience when Birling delivers a speech to his family during the engagement meal that
does not – as you would have thought – focus on his love for his daughter or his fondness
of his future son-in-law. Instead, his speech centres around his opinions on the economic
future of the country and the failings of neighbouring nations. This speech is an excellent
example of Priestley presenting Mr Birling as a flawed, misled and pompous man. He refers
to himself twice in very similar ways, first as a ‘hard-headed business man’ and then
moments later as a ‘hard-headed, practical man of business’. This deliberate repetition
on Priestley’s part emphasises how Mr Birling’s self-perception is entirely built upon how
he sees himself in terms of work and money. Mr Birling’s priorities are not with people
or family, but with how much wealth he can accumulate. This results in a lack of empathy
for those he exploits in order to grow his fortune. As he himself puts it, ‘a man has
to make his own way – has to look after himself’. Mr Birling can be seen to represent the ideology
of capitalism – a system where business is privately owned for the sole purpose of
making profit. Of course, to make this profit, business owners have to ‘keep labour costs
down’ as Birling explains. As we go on to learn, Birling’s capitalist agenda will
be one of the causes of Eva Smith’s death. Birling’s viewpoint will be directly contrasted
by the message soon to be delivered by Inspector Goole, who Birling himself will dismiss as
being ‘Probably a Socialist’. Priestley uses an almost ridiculous amount
of dramatic irony to criticise the character of Mr Birling. Dramatic irony is where the
audience knows something the character on stage does not. Given that the play was set
in 1912 but first performed in 1945, the audience knows that much of what Mr Birling asserts
in the play’s opening moments is simply incorrect. His confidence that ‘The Germans
don’t want war’, for example, is doubly wrong, given that not one, but two world wars
would in fact take place in the coming years. Like many others in the early 1900s, Mr Birling
claims the idea of war is ‘nonsense’ and ‘fiddlesticks’. His dismissive tone reveals
how confident he is in his ideas. His error filled predictions about war, economic growth,
and the Titanic being ‘absolutely unsinkable’ do not simply make the character seem ill
informed and ridiculous. No, the errors about war, the economy and the Titanic mean that,
when we hear Mr Birling’s views on the treatment of his own employees and on business, we consider
his opinions on these matters to be just as incorrect. Priestley’s effective use of
dramatic irony here means Mr. Birling’s opinions are instantly devalued. Structurally,
these examples of dramatic irony occur so early on in the play – even before the arrival
of the inspector – to make it very clear that Mr Birling and everything he stands for
is wrong. Initial impressions of Mr Birling are not
good, but that can be also said of other characters (for example, see my video on Sheila). However,
what is so noticeable about Mr Birling is how he ends the play in the same manner in
which he started. For example, near the end of the play, Birling discovers that his son,
Eric, is an alcoholic who has stolen money from the office and impregnated Eva Smith.
It might therefore be surprising to the audience that the majority of his dialogue with Eric
focuses solely on recovering his lost money. Eric’s slight against him and the impact
upon his business causes Mr Birling consternation – not the death of his grandchild or the
alcoholism of his son. Priestley employs contrast between the older
and younger generations to make a point about capitalism and socialism. Unlike his children,
Mr. Birling fails to accept responsibility for the death of Eva Smith, telling Eric ‘There’s
every excuse for what both your mother and I did’. Birling fails to learn the inspector
(and Priestley’s) lesson of social responsibility, reinforcing the inspector’s earlier comments
about how it is the ‘young ones’ are ‘more impressionable’. Priestley is criticising
the behaviour of the older generation, implying that they are fixed in their ways. In contrast,
the younger generation of the Birling family are open to new socialist ideas.

18 thoughts on “‘An Inspector Calls’: Mr Birling Character Analysis (animated)

  1. My son is in Y11 but his school uses EDEXCEL rather than AQA. Are these videos still relevant for EDEXCEL? Also, are the exam questions similar for EDEXCEL?

  2. I got a 6 in Literature after receiving 3s and 4s in my mocks. For anyone reading this, these videos will do you wonders. Thank You Mr Bruff

  3. Unsubscribing because Iโ€™m doing my a levels now but just wanna say thanks mr bruff wouldnโ€™t have been able to do it without u

  4. Yes, great video. I have got GCSE's next year.๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†๐Ÿ˜†

  5. could you say :when Mr birling delivers the speech instead of congratulating sheila for her engagement ,he makes a speech about how he wishes both Mr croft and his business could merge instead of being competitors as they are both big successful companies this a example of Priestley presenting Mr birlings view on marriage and life Birling seems to think of everything as an opportunity to make more money this makes the audience think that his own marriage might have been for money and to gain access to Mrs birlings social class and lifestyle ,having fine expensive things such as port .Mr birlings priorities are not with other people including family but with money and how much he can accumulate from people whether its family or the working class .This results in a lack of empathy towards those whom he exploits in order to grow his fortune (can someone check this what level would u give it : )

  6. I made a short story for my section b on creative writing which had quotes from most of the 15 poems, Macbeth, a Christmas carol and an inspector calls…โ€ฆ. should I post it in this comment section??? My English teachers love it lol

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