Mrs Birling’s Character in An Inspector Calls
Mrs Birling is one of the principle characters in An inspector calls – she is used to portray the idealistic views held by the upper-class at the time. Mrs Birling is presented by Priestly as the body of Capitalism – by portraying her in a negative light allows the reader to draw assumptions between the negative characteristics portrayed by Mrs Birling and the negative aspects of a capitalist society, which is what Priestly intended to do.
Our first impressions of Mrs Birling come from the following quote used to describe her, ‘A rather cold woman,’ – the use of the word cold suggests a lack of emotion – of substance there, which is strange considering her life is initially put across to the reader as a vision of perfection full of ‘desert plates and champagne glasses,’ This immediately sets the tone for the rest of the play as here as Priestly suggests here that some people fail to see what is directly in front of them – Mrs Birling is so focused on conforming to her stereotypical ‘upper-class’ title that she doesn’t appreciate the riches that she already has.
The notion of maintaining a certain image is developed further by Priestly when we see Mrs Birling’s embarrassment when her husband complements the cook, ‘Arthur, you’re not supposed to say such things-’ Her life is governed by her notion of correctness – as soon as someone behaves in a way which does not live up to their social expectations in society – she reprimands them.
This expresses her narrow-mindedness as there is no flexibility here to step out of this stereotype – Priestly does this to portray the idea that in a capitalist society you are in a sense ‘trapped’ as there is no escaping these idealistic views thrust upon you from a very early stage which also implies that Mrs Birling is a product of her capitalist upbringing. This introduces Ouspenky’s theory to the play which suggests that after death we will re-enter our lives in a continuous cycle of the same events from birth which will continue until a significant change is made – then the cycle will stop as allow you to escape from the repetitions.
Priestley uses this to represent Mr and Mrs Birling as here he states that they are continually going around in this cycle as they are incapable of making a significant change to break this cycle – which also portrays a key theme represented in the play of the notion of change which is un-welcomed by the older generations. However this could also interpret that this cycle will continue for generations to come – as these same capitalist views will be carried on by Sheila and Gerald.
This idea of cyclic events could have also been used by Priestley to convey a sense of repetition of the same mistakes being made in society at the time. As the play develops Mrs Birling insists on criticising the speech of others which is shown by her disapproval towards Sheila in using the word ‘squiffy’ – here Mrs Birling is surprised to hear Sheila use such words, stating ‘What an expression, Sheila! Her response to this shows how oblivious she is to everything around her as she genuinely believes that her Sheila is better than this. However she follows this by ,’Arthur, what about this toast of yours? ‘ – she immediately changes the subject here as Eric states, ‘if you think that’s the best she can do… ‘ She refuses to accept anything other than perfection from her children so when she is faced with less than this she dismisses it – which is also the attitude she has towards Eva Smith as she is not at all accepting of her.
This shows just how narrow-minded she is which Priestly uses to voice his opinion of capitalism as he feels that all capitalists are reflection of Mrs Birling – narrow minded and arrogant. Mrs Birling is portrayed by Priestly as petty as she refuses Eva Smith help from her charity simply due to the fact that she claimed her name was, ‘Mrs Birling. ‘ Here Priestly uses one of the seven deadly sins to describe Mrs Birling – anger. Here she was so consumed by her anger ‘ It was simply a piece of gross impertinence,’ so she used her power as chairmen of the charity to have her case refused.
This also portrays one of themes presented through out the play of the power held by the rich over the poor – as here Mrs Birling abuses her position as chairmen of the committee and has Eva Smith ‘turned out’ simply because of her own personal feelings. This also allows the reader to question why she is even a member of this charity as she does not come across in the slightest way charitable – it’s almost as though she is a member of this charity so she can look down on others as a source of enjoyment to reinforce her position of power in society. Mrs Birling shows no remorse for her actions – claiming ,’ I consider I did y duty,’ and ‘I’ve done simply nothing wrong,’ here she refuses to take even the slightest bit of responsibility in the death of Eva Smith which suggests one of the themes used by Priestly of the notion of change in the older and younger generation. Mrs Birling who is part of the older generation is so set in her capitalist ways that she can not see beyond this and so is not capable of taking any responsibility for the actions of another person. This is developed further as we see Mrs Birling, under pressure, trying to shift the blame onto the ‘drunken young idler’ that her pregnant.
Priestley deals with Mrs Birling by having her fall into a trap that she has created for herself as she is confronted with the knowledge that Eric is a hard drinker and the father of the dead woman’s child ,’ I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it. ‘ Here Steinbeck uses italics for the word ‘won’t’ again showing how even after learning that she is to blame for the death of the own grandchild she still ‘won’t’ accept the truth – which highlights the position of society at the time, as Priestly suggests here that society ‘won’t change despite the need to – just like Mrs Birling.
The way in which Mrs Birling is trapped could also be interpreted as situational irony as the reader knows she would not apply the same standards to her own family as she states the father of Eva’s child should be ‘ dealt with very severely,’ yet Eric is condemned by her words. At the end of the play we say Mrs Birling unchanged – as she learns it was all a hoax she seems relived and ‘amused’ and cannot see a reason why the family should not carry on as before.
At the end of the play Mrs Birling’s final line ,’ They’re over tired. In the morning they’ll be as amused as we are. ‘ is followed after Sheila and Eric stating that the family can’t continue as before but here, as in the beginning of the play, Mrs Birling dismisses it. Priestly did this to emphasise the fact that she is completely unchanged by the inspector and will continue to live her life in this cycle of events as she refuses to make a significant change.