Mr Arthur Birling

A photo of Mr Arthur Birling
Mr Arthur Birling is a hard-headed business man

Mr Birling is the head of the Birling household. He has made himself very wealthy by being a 'hard-headed' business man. He is an active member of the community in Brumley and thinks that he might be in the running for a Knighthood. At the start of the play he comes across as being arrogant, making long speeches about his predictions for the future. He also makes assertions about how a man should look out for number one and not waste time helping others. It is at this exact moment that the Inspector arrives. Sybil, his wife, is his 'social superior' and it is hinted that he is self-conscious about being from a more working-class background. He is materialistic and possessive and also has old fashioned views about women.

Mr Birling is shaken by the investigation and is shocked by the behaviour of his son Eric. However, he doesn’t learn any lessons during the course of the play. When it seems that the Inspector might have been an imposter he is overjoyed and mocks the others for having been 'tricked' by the investigation.

How is Mr Birling like this?EvidenceAnalysis
ArrogantHe makes long speeches at dinner about things that the audience would know were incorrect. For example, he claims war will never happen and that the Titanic is unsinkable."And I'm talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business. And I say there isn’t a chance of war. The world's developing so fast that it'll make war impossible."Mr Birling is confident that there will not be a war, saying that 'there isn't a chance of war' and then repeating this idea when he considers it 'impossible'. His arrogance and complacency are made very clear. The audience, knowing that just two years after this speech, World War One will begin, see that Mr Birling is wrong on this point, and on many others, including his prediction that the Titanic is 'unsinkable'. The audience lose trust in him as a character.
Patronising views about womenMr Birling makes some old-fashioned and patronising points about women and how they view clothes and appearance."...clothes mean something quite different to a woman. Not just something to wear - and not only something to make 'em look prettier.'"He shows that he is quite sexist by suggesting that clothes are somehow more important to women than to men. The fact that he thinks clothes 'make 'em look prettier' shows he objectifies women too.
CapitalistMr Birling is a business man whose main concern is making money. This is what is most important to him and he comes across as being greedy."...we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together - for lower costs and higher prices."It is clear here that Mr Birling is driven by money, he is a capitalist. The fact that he sees his daughter's engagement as a chance to push for 'lower costs and higher prices' shows just how greedy he is. He does not consider the impact 'higher prices' might have on anyone else, he just wants more money.
PossessiveOn a number of occasions Mr Birling refers to things and people as being 'his'."Is there any reason why my wife should answer questions from you, Inspector?"He emphasises that Sybil is 'his' wife suggesting that he sees her as a possession. He does not allow Sybil to talk for herself here.

Social and historical context

 A black and white photo of J B Priestley recording for the BBC
J B Priestley was a socialist

When the play was written after World War Two in 1945, there was no form of welfare from the government to help the poor. J B Priestley believed in socialism, the political idea based on common ownership and that we should all look after one another. Mr Birling represents greedy businessmen who only care for themselves. Priestley uses him to show the audience that the Eva Smiths of the world will continue to suffer if people like Birling remain in positions of power.

Analysing the evidence

quote
Well it's my duty to keep labour costs down, and if I’d agreed to this demand for a new rate we'd have added about twelve per cent to our labour costs. Does that satisfy you? So I refused. Said I couldn't consider it. We were paying the usual rates and if they didn't like those rates, they could go and work somewhere else. It's a free country, I told them. Mr Birling
Question

Looking at this extract from the play - how does Priestley present Mr Birling?

How to analyse the quotation:

"Well it's my duty to keep labour costs down, and if I’d agreed to this demand for a new rate we'd have added about twelve per cent to our labour costs. Does that satisfy you? So I refused. Said I couldn't consider it. We were paying the usual rates and if they didn't like those rates, they could go and work somewhere else. It's a free country, I told them."

  • "my duty to keep labour costs down" - use of 'my' shows his arrogance, 'duty' suggests he feels an obligation to do this.
  • "Does that satisfy you? So I refused." - asks a question and then answers it himself. Not interested in the views of others.
  • "It's a free country" - it might be 'free' for someone who has money and power, however, Eva Smith had neither.

How to use this in an essay:

Mr Birling shows his arrogance in this speech first by suggesting that it is 'my duty to keep labour costs down'. The fact that he considers it 'my duty' means that he sees keeping labour costs down as some sort of noble quest he has undertaken. Of course, keeping labour costs down increases his own profits. Next he asks if his answer satisfies the Inspector 'Does that satisfy you? So I refused', here he does not even wait for the Inspector to respond, he assumes that he is in the right. 'So I refused' is a short, sharp sentence - here Mr Birling is being dismissive of the Inspector and his investigation as well as the requests of his employees. Finally Mr Birling declares that 'It's a free country', meaning that the girls could work elsewhere. While this might seem like a reasonable point, it shows that Birling does not understand how hard it is for people like Eva Smith to find work in the first place.