Arthur Birling

Character Analysis

Arthur Birling is a wealthy manufacturer who takes great pride in his business success. He is head of the household and, at the start of the play, is a complacent man in a position of control.

‘I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business’

Arthur Birling declares himself to be a sensible, pragmatic businessman. He repeats this phrase in Act 1, showing that he takes great pride in his position as a factory owner.

The tone of pride in the adjectives ‘hard-headed’ and ‘practical’ reveals that he sees these qualities as admirable ones, and the phrase ‘man of business’ shows that Priestley is establishing Arthur Birling as a symbol of capitalism.

Context: Capitalism was the economic system which shaped society in 1912. Capitalism meant that rich landowners and factory owners were able to control the labour force, resulting in profit for those in control but often poor living and working conditions for the workers.

‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’

Mr Birling declares the Titanic to be unsinkable.

He repeats this opinion, which he presents as a fact, with the intensifier ‘absolutely’ showing his complete confidence in his judgement.

Context: The Titanic famously sank in 1912, the year that the play is set in. The watching audience of 1945/46 knew this and so Priestley uses dramatic irony to show how flawed Arthur Birling’s judgement is. From this point onwards, we do not trust anything that he says.

‘community and all that nonsense’

Mr Birling states that we only have a responsibility to ourselves and to our families; he dismisses the idea of community and social responsibility as ‘nonsense’.

There is an arrogance and an ignorance in his dismissive, contemptuous tone.

Context: Priestley was a socialist and believed that a fairer way of organising society and industry would result in a better world. We already distrust Mr Birling’s judgement because of his comments on the Titanic, and here Priestley shows how misguided Mr Birling is.

‘Well, it’s my duty to keep labour costs down’

Arthur Birling is forced into answering the Inspector’s question about why he refused Eva’s request for a wage increase.

The interjection ‘well’ suggests that Mr Birling is reluctant to justify himself, yet he does give reasons for his actions, showing that the Inspector has power over him.

Birling states that he needs to keep ‘labour costs down’. He uses the language of economics which hides the reality of the situation; by keeping wages down, Birling is condemning his workers to lives of poverty and hardship.

Birling sees his actions as his ‘duty’; while the Inspector’s, and Priestley’s, duty is to change society, Birling’s duty is to make more money.

‘I’ve got to cover this up as soon as I can. You damned fool-’

Mr Birling’s first instinct when he hears about Eric’s activities of stealing money is to ‘cover this up’. Priestley shows us how Arthur Birling’s hypocrisy is deep-rooted. It does not seem to matter to him that his son is in such a desperate position that he is stealing to pay for his unborn child; he is more concerned with his company’s position. Mr Birling’s earlier proud declaration that he is ‘hard-headed’ and ‘practical’ is exposed here for what it is: a lack of compassion and empathy.

He snaps at Eric that he is a ‘damned fool’; this insult is patronising and vicious, and shows how Mr Birling despises his son. He makes little effort to understand Eric’s actions, and instead verbally attacks him, showing himself to be an inadequate father.

‘They just won’t try to… see the difference between a lot of stuff like this coming out in private and a downright public scandal’

At the end, when it is realised that the Inspector was a ‘fake’, Birling sneers at his children for still being troubled by the evening’s events.

He is a character who has learned nothing from the events; he dismisses a girl’s suicide and his part in it as ‘a lot of stuff’. This callous off-hand phrase shows that he is cold and uncaring.

Birling shows his pretensions to achieve a higher social standing in his desire to avoid a ‘public scandal’ that could damage his chances at moving up the social ladder by being given a knighthood. At the end of the play, he is unchanged – and as snobbish, arrogant and unlikeable as at the start.

Context: Pre-world war society in 1912 was strictly controlled with a rigid hierarchy of social class. Despite being rich, Mr Birling does not have the social status he craves and is desperate to achieve this knighthood; Priestley condemns this social climbing.

Grade 9 Analysis

Look at the character in a different way.

Is Arthur Birling a completely unchanged character?

Yes: Any wish to change the situation stems from his fear that he is about to be publicly exposed, not because he feels any shame or remorse. The fact that he defines any regret in monetary terms – ‘thousands’ of pounds – shows that he is still seeing the world purely in terms of financial gain and loss.

No: In Act 3, Arthur Birling says (unhappily) ‘I’d give thousands- yes thousands’ to change the course of events, showing some regret here for the consequences of his actions. The stage direction ‘unhappily’ and the fragmented speech indicated through the dashes suggests a change from the character at the start who is very pleased with himself and his life; he is now disturbed, with his confidence shaken by the events. The repetition of ‘thousands’ shows the extent to which he feels remorse and wishes that he could change the past.

Context: Priestley drew upon conventions of morality plays. These were plays performed in the Middle Ages which taught audiences how to behave through the repentance of the deadly sins. Arthur Birling represents the deadly sins of avarice (love of money) and pride, but he does not repent and is essentially unchanged at the end of the play.

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