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‘An Inspector Calls’ is a play in which the characters and readers are expected to feel shock, guilt and regret. Few characters do but they all change in some way or another. Some make it more obvious than others. Many of the Birling family caused interest and suspicion throughout the play; however, the character that interested me most was Mr Arthur Birling. His strong opinions, his selfishness and his lack of morals captivated me.
By the end of act one J.B Priestly has painted a picture of a snobbish, arrogant man who only wants what is best for himself. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the play the reader is led to believe that Arthur Birling is good-hearted, considerate and friendly. He is the head of the family, wealthy and determined to become high in society. His business runs successfully and he is very proud of this fact. His opinions are strong and it would be hard for any person to change them. The whole family come across as close with each other as they discuss matters openly.
The atmosphere starts off well with a family celebration of Sheila, Arthur Birling’s daughter, becoming engaged to Gerald Croft. Clearly, Mr Birling is content with this as the Croft family own a large company, bigger and older than his, and he is hoping that they could merge together. Trying to gain respect from Gerald he talks about his possible up and
coming knighthood of which he is hoping to receive so as to seem more important and upper class. Throughout the celebratory dinner Mr Birling makes many speeches on his delight towards the engagement, his business and his opinions on war never happening, always having ‘peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere.’ J.B Priestly times his last speech very well when the women are out of the scene and Arthur is giving some advice to his son, Eric, and soon to become son-in-law,
‘A man has to make his own way-has to look after himself- and his family too of course, when he has one…you’d think everybody had to look after everybody else…nonsense’
As the inspector entered my opinion of Mr Birling began to change. He admits that he discharged Eva Smith, his employee, after she had helped organise a protest when refused a pay rise of less than three shillings, but sees no wrong. This justifies the advice he has just given, that you should care for no one else. What does make the reader see his more selfish side is the way he reacts when Inspector Goole declares that he was not the only one involved. Suddenly he calms down realising that he is not all to blame, and that ‘one of them knows something about this girl…’ He immediately takes back his rude comments admitting ‘if I’d known that earlier, I wouldn’t have called you officious’
We are also, as the reader, made aware of the favouritism that Arthur has for his daughter over Eric. While the inspector is talking to Arthur he has no concern over Eric hearing about it and snaps, ‘Just keep quiet Eric and don’t get excited’ whenever he makes small remarks, however, when Sheila appears his attitude is quite different, and he becomes very over protective, ‘not wanting to go upsetting a child like that.’ In addition, Mr Birling does not react or cause any aggravation when Sheila tells of how she had this young lady sacked through jealousy of her looks. It is very different when Eric explains his part in it. Eric had got her pregnant and had stolen money so as to help her after she had refused to marry him. To Mr Birling this was definitely something to be concerned about. It is also at this time that we see that Mr Birling is only interested in, money and himself. He does not take into account that Eric made this young girl pregnant when he had no feelings for her and no intentions of staying with her. All he concentrates on is the money stolen from his company; discarding the fact it was to help a young poverty stricken girl who was carrying his child. Mr Birling cannot see the seriousness of this and is more worried about having to ‘cover this up as soon as I can’ not wanting to lose his reputation. When Mr Birling asks why he was not previously informed the response is very abrupt stating that he is ‘not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble.’ This quotation contradicts everything that was originally thought at the beginning of the play. Was the family as close as the reader was made to believe? Beforehand we were warned of Eric’s drinking problem, of which Mr and Mrs Birling knew nothing of, and many secrets have come out over the one night period. I don’t think that Arthur Birling knew his son or daughter very well at all.
However the main question is, did Arthur Birling really feel guilty about what happened? Did it strike him as an important issue? As the inspector leaves his feelings of responsibility show through, offering the inspector ‘thousands-yes, thousands.’ However, the answer to the question is obviously no. The moment it is discovered that it was probably a hoax he returns to his usual selfish ways, making jokes on how they had ‘been had’ and quickly interrupting Sheila and Eric when they contradict his words. Whether he thinks twice after the final phone call is unexplained.
I think that Arthur Birling was selfish and hypocritical. Although he gives off the impression of being respectful, responsible and caring it is simply an act. He is more interested in himself than his family and is quick to blame others before taking responsibility for his own actions and mistakes.