Eric Birling

A photo of Eric Birling
Eric Birling lacks confidence

Eric is the Birlings' son and is in his early twenties, he is described as being 'not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive'. In other words, he lacks confidence. At points he tries to stand up to his father but is talked down. It becomes clear that he is drunk at the dinner table and later it is revealed that he has been drinking too much for quite some time.

It turns out that Eric had an affair with Eva Smith and that she was pregnant with Eric's baby when she committed suicide. Eric stole money from his father's business to help Eva. In the final act Eric makes an emotional attack on his parents and their values and shows that he can be assertive.

How is Eric Birling like this?EvidenceAnalysis
Lacking confidenceAt the start of the play Eric is very unsure of himself. He tries to speak up but is often talked down by his father. His behaviour is awkward and stilted."I don't know - really. Suddenly I felt I just had to laugh."The stage directions describe Eric as being 'half shy, half assertive' and this comes across in his dialogue. He is awkward and unsure of himself. Here he cannot explain his sudden laughter.
AssertiveLike Sheila he can be assertive as well. Even early on in the play he tries to stand up to his father."No, I mean about this girl - Eva Smith. Why shouldn't they try for higher wages? We try for the highest possible prices. And I don't see why she should have been sacked just because she'd a bit more spirit than the others."At the start of the play, Eric shows that he can be assertive. Here he questions his father's decision to sack Eva Smith. He backs up his point with a well-reasoned argument. His father quickly shouts him down though.
EmotionalEric’s experience with the Inspector causes him great emotional turmoil, unlike some of the other characters. "(bursting out) What's the use of talking about behaving sensibly. You're beginning to pretend now that nothing's really happened at all. And I can't see it like that. This girl's still dead, isn't she? Nobody's brought her to life, have they?"Eric suddenly shows how he has been affected emotionally by Eva's death. He asks the stark question 'This girl's still dead, isn't she?' He is clearly distressed and understands the gravity of the situation, he can’t understand why the others don’t.

Social and historical context

J B Priestley uses Eric as he does Sheila - to suggest that the young people of a post-war Britain would be the answer to a hopeful future. With Eric he also addresses some concerns he had about the dangers of immoral behaviour. Through Eric, Priestley shows that excessive drinking and casual relationships can have consequences.

Analysing the evidence

quote
Whoever that chap was, the fact remains that I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her. It's still the same rotten story whether it's been told to a police inspector or to somebody else. According to you, I ought to feel a lot better - (To Gerald) I stole some money, Gerald, you might as well know - (As Birling tries to interrupt.) I don't care, let him know. The money's not the important thing. It's what happened to the girl and what we all did to her that matters. And I still feel the same about it, and that's why I don't feel like sitting down and having a nice cosy talk.Eric Birling
Question

How does Eric stand up to his parents in Act 3 of the play?

How to analyse the quotation:

"Whoever that chap was, the fact remains that I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her. It's still the same rotten story whether it's been told to a police inspector or to somebody else. According to you, I ought to feel a lot better - ( To Gerald.) I stole some money, Gerald, you might as well know - ( As Birling tries to interrupt.) I don't care, let him know. The money's not the important thing. It's what happened to the girl and what we all did to her that matters. And I still feel the same about it, and that's why I don't feel like sitting down and having a nice cosy talk."

  • "I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her" - Eric repeats his point to add emphasis.
  • "rotten story" - strong emotive language shows his opinion.
  • "(As Birling tries to interrupt.) I don't care, let him know." - he stands up to his father, he is being honest.

How to use this in an essay:

At the start of the play, Eric tries to stand up his father but lacks the confidence to do it. After the truth about Eva Smith has come out, he has grown up enough to confidently state his point 'I did what I did. And mother did what she did. And the rest of you did what you did to her', the repetition of 'I did', 'she did' and 'you did' shows that Eric is clear in his mind who is to blame for the death of Eva Smith. He describes the episode as a 'rotten story', the word 'rotten' is very emotive, he wants to let his parents know exactly how he feels. Finally, Eric speaks over his father, something he would not do in Act 1 '(As Birling tries to interrupt.) I don't care, let him know', not only does he stand up to his father, he stops him trying to cover up the truth about the theft of the money.