The Men

Mr Birling

  • Arthur Birling is the head of the Birling family, an upper middle class man who has made his fortune by being a 'hard-headed' businessman. He judges people based on their class, and comes across as extremely arrogant.  Significantly, he suggests that men should look out for themselves only and not look after other people. Immediately after he says this, the Inspector arrives. This juxtaposition between the selfish capitalism of the Birling family and the socialist symbol of the Inspector reveals the interrogation that capitalism is about the undergo.

  • Mr Birling's hypocrisy is seen in the active role he plays in the community, speculating that he might even get a knighthood - yet this role has not been for the benefit of other people, simply for his own greed and pride.

  • He is contrasted with the Inspector due to his short-sightedness and inability to predict the future. He says that the Titanic is 'unsinkable' and 'there isn't a chance of war', showing his lack of insight and thereby makes the audience realise that he wrong about society as well.

  • Mr Birling also has extremely old-fashioned views about women, saying that clothes are more important to them than they are to men.  Though this may seem relatively benign, it reveals the contemporary idea that women were decorative objects who belonged in the home, their status unequal to that of men.  

  • He thus represents entrenched societal views, capitalism and narrow-mindedness.

  • Prior to the play, Mr Birling had fired Eva because she had been asking for a slight pay rise, which he objected to. As she was the leader of this argument, he fires her to prevent others also asking for a raise. He displays extremely prejudiced views against Welfare Reforms and Trade Unions ('there's a good deal of silly talk about these days'). He is obsessed with money, seeing Sheila's engagement as a financial opportunity and is blind to everything happening outside his social circle, including the prospect of war.

  • Mr Birling opposes the inspector many times to try and prove his own argument, and the irony of his character is exposed as he keeps talking about the amount of responsibility he holds, but doesn't realise anything about his social responsibility.

  • Repeatedly, Mr Birling seems to be extremely possessive (calling people 'my', representing the way in which he sees them as a commodity) and does not consider how he might harm other people, e.g. how 'higher prices' might not be socially responsible.  

  • Mr Birling is shocked at what is revealed by the Inspector, particularly by Eric's actions but never changes and continues to try and cover up his part in Eva's death.  Towards the end of the play he is extremely willing to believe that the Inspector was simply a prank. Thus, Priestley reveals the entrenched inability of the middle aged in the upper classes to change, instead placing hope for the future in the young.

Eric

  • Eric is Mr Birling’s son, whosee conflicts with his father show and expose the darker side of the character who is a nasty drunk at times - 'I was in that state when a chap easily turns nasty.' The quote seems to suggest that this could happen to anyone, showing his initial refusal of responsibility for what he did to Eva when he was drunk.

  • He is quite a weak character -  a secret alcoholic who steals money to buy his alcohol, and has gone into the family business for no good reason. We can see he is a heavy drinker when he pours his whisky with 'familiarity with heavy drinking' in Act Three, although his family ignores this due to its impropriety.  

  • Before the play it is suggested that he coerced Eva into sleeping with him and so then made her pregnant and then had to steal more money to support her. All of these are morally reprehensible acts and show him as a man taking advantage of women, particularly less wealthy women in society. His actions are seen in a number of man in the play, e.g. Gerald when he was looking for prostitutes.  Thus, as much as the play is about the upper classes exploiting the poor, it is also about men taking advantage of women.

  • Eric is quite moody and generally not particularly nice when we initially meet him, creating an unsympathetic first impression.  He seems to be rather spoiled and his parents believe he can't do anything wrong

  • Increasingly, however, Eric is shown to have a much more sympathetic side, particularly when he realises what he has done.

  • It is suggested that Eric's father disapproves of him and that they wish he was more like Gerald. He seems quite insecure and not very comfortable around other people - 'in his mid-twenties, not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive.' We might be shown that his low self esteem and his parents ignoring his problems leads him partly to his bad actions. 'You don't understand. You never did. You never tried.'

  • Eric also shows great remorse when he realises what he has done - 'My God - I'm not likely to forget;' and he also turns on his parents' way of thinking, exposing them as extremely selfish and berating them for refusing to see what they have done.  This may be seen where he outright berates Mr Birling for sacking Eva - 'And I don't see why she should have been sacked just because she'd a bit more spirit than the others.'

  • Towards the end of the play, Eric is similarly outraged at his family’s refusal to take responsibility for their actions.  He states, '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?' We might look at use of rhetorical questions and very brutal language to effectively convey his point and his distress about what he has done.

  • Eric is one of the characters who gains the most sympathy because he recognises his mistake, changes considerably during the play, even eventually standing up to his parents and accusing his mother of murdering her own grandchild.

  • This then shows the ability of the younger generation to change and amend the views commonly seen in post-war Britain, suggesting that even despite their awful mistakes previously, people can repent and save society from itself.

  • He may also function as a warning against immoral behaviour, including drinking and casual relationships.

Gerald

  • Gerald Croft  is the son of a wealthy business and heir to a rival industrial business, Crofts Ltd.

  • He is 'rather too manly to be a dandy but very much the easy well-bred young man-about-town.' This shows that he isn't a dandy (isn't obsessed with looks) but instead is at ease with his money and very at home in an upper class lifestyle, with all the hedonistic parties and events that entails.

  • Gerald is very aware of his social status and can be seen as at times arrogant and full of himself.

  • Mr Birling is extremely fond of Gerald, who unlike his own son is strong, manly and can hold his drink.

  • He represents the selfish and narrow-minded ideals of time, and also is initially extremely unpleasant about the working classes and about women and their place in society.

  • This is revealed to be extremely hypocritical when we find out that Gerald visits prostitutes, despite ignoring his actual fiancee. The differing gender expectations of society are also revealed here - it was not uncommon for men to have a 'mistress', but the same could not be true of women, and Eva is harshly judged for her affair.

  • Despite initially denying his role in the death ('I don't come into this suicide business') it is revealed that despite having feelings for her, he effectively used Eva, lowered her position in society even further and then left her alone. From the beginning he has tried to hide his involvement with Eva/Daisy, and is ashamed that he left her when she had much stronger feelings for him than he did for her.

  • When he hears about Eva's death he is extremely shocked ('I'm rather more - upset - by this business than I probably appear to be.') This shows that despite his stiff upper lip, he is nevertheless deeply affected by what he had done.

  • The Inspector treats Gerald with quite a bit of sympathy, due to his genuine feelings for Eva and because initially he seems sorry for what he did.

  • Yet this again changes when he returns with news that the Inspector was an imposter. From being initially ashamed and repentant, the news allows him to revert to his former self, offering Sheila the ring back and forgetting how poorly he treated her.

  • Gerald represents the selfish nature and poor memory of the upper classes, who occasionally care about the poor, but easily forget their responsibility again.

The Inspector

  • The Inspector's name is Inspector Goole, 'Goole' being a homophone for a ghost. This is heavily symbolic, as the Inspector is later revealed to be perhaps non-existent, and so appears more as a ghost that guilts the Birling family into a realisation of social responsibility. His role is not to literally work out who performed a legal crime, but to inspect and inform the characters about their moral crimes and the immorality of society.  To some extent we may read the Inspector as a metaphor for the need to realise the inherent guilt and sin in all people.

  • 'The Inspector need not be a big man, but he creates at once an impression of massiveness', showing that he is extremely ambiguous and also extremely intimidating. In the play, he tends to interrupt the characters and control the conversation, leading them purposefully to the realisation of their roles in Eva's death.

  • Goole purposefully dramatises Eva's death, using extremely emotive language - 'Her position now is that she lies with a burnt out inside on a slab.' This is designed to create great sympathy for Eva among the readers and also shock the family in their confessions, showing them fully what they have done.

  • The Inspector speaks 'carefully, weightily [...] has a disconcerting habit of looking hard at the person he addresses before he speaks.' This shows how the Inspector looks into the souls of the other characters, confronting them with the truth of what they are. Nevertheless he also treats some characters more sympathetically than others - he is much kinder to Sheila and then Gerald, as he knows they feel bad about what they have done.

  • He is also a character who directly raises tension in the play, and whose entrances and exits are designed for maximum tension, keeping an audience on their seats.

  • The role of the Inspector in the play is to make the Birlings realise their mistakes and teach them the important of treating everybody in society equally. Unlike the Birlings who talk using 'I', he talks using 'We', showing his belief that he is part of a collective society.

  • To some degree we might see the Inspector's prophetic message as Priestly's own warning: 'And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.' He warns that if social equality is not addressed much greater suffering will come to society.

  • The Inspector is not only there for the characters, but also for the audience, who were equally complicit in the oppression of the poor and also had to realise their mistakes. He represents himself as Priestly's own voice, attempting to spread empathy through society.

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