You are on page 1of 6

1 Jessy Quinn

How does Priestley use Mrs Birling as a symbol?
In a phrase that is remarkably relevant to An Inspector Calls , George Orwell describes England as a family with the wrong members in control [1]. If this template is applied to the Birling family, I think it illuminates the role played by each character. Mrs Birling, as the character I am analysing, would certainly be one of the wrong members that Orwell, as a socialist, is specifying. The reasons for this characterisation are rooted, of course, in the political views that are given to Mrs Birling and it is these political views that indicate Priestley s use of Mrs Birling to represent socially regressive ideas and criticisms. These opinions are hinted at in the introductory stage directions of An Inspector Calls, when Mrs Birling s described as about fifty, a rather cold woman and her husband s social superior . From this depiction, many things can be supposed. For example, as we know that the play is set in 1912 and Mrs Birling is around fifty years old, when she was born and through which period she grew up can be considered in an analysis of her character. The fact that she grew up in the era of Victorian morality corresponds well with her later character because the general principles of the late nineteenth century were seemingly very strict but notoriously hypocritical. In contrast, the term rather cold woman , due to its ambiguity, does not give much scope for any assumption other than that she is not a nice person. The important statement in the description that Mrs Birling is her husband s social superior , allowing us to infer that she is from a family with inherited wealth. The phenomena of the upper classes marrying self-made men is summarised accurately in this quotation: After 1832 the old land-owning aristocracy steadily lost power, but instead of disappearing or becoming a fossil they simply intermarried with the merchants, manufacturers and financiers who had replaced them, and soon turned them into accurate copies of themselves. The wealthy shipowner or cotton-miller set up for himself an alibi as a country gentleman, while his sons learned the right mannerisms at public schools which had been designed for just that purpose. This can, perhaps, be therefore seen as Priestley commenting on the reality that, while capitalism can create nouveaux riches, the difference in attitude between these newly rich men and those with trans-generational wealth could be so slight as to allow marriage. Priestley, throughout the play, uses Mrs Birling to represent socially regressive ideas and criticisms. The union is sustained through a common desire for the retention of the status-quo, though for different aspects. Therefore, the marriage represents the two strands of conservatism with Mrs Birling embodying the social and Mr Birling the economic. Priestley may be using the marriage to imply that social and economic stagnation are welded together and that forms of social liberation such as gender equality cannot be achieved in a capitalist society. With regards to Mrs Birling, one of the most interesting and well-established aspects of the first act is her exchanges with Sheila. The relationship at first seems quite loving or good-natured at least, with Mrs Birling complying when Sheila encourages her to drink to [Sheila and Gerald s] health . This amicability suggests that the two women hold very similar views and the establishment of this allows the audience to compare Sheila s progression throughout the play with Mrs Birling s lack of it. Quite quickly however, it becomes evident that Mrs Birling is quite accustomed to controlling

of course. They re more impressionable. One of Priestley s main criticisms. which is the main theme of the play. at its core. This recurrence during such a subject matter suggests that Mrs Birling wishes Sheila to talk of and be excited about only proper subject matter such as marriage. but rather to confront Sheila s choice of words. unhappy. respectively.2 Jessy Quinn Sheila s behaviour. if indirect. a didactic message pertaining to the malleability of youth comes through . suggesting that she places no importance on talking to or knowing her own children. extols the virtues of a family which is entirely independent and indifferent to the world around them. therefore. he s created a family that is vain and. Sheila then attempts to warn Mrs Birling about the Inspector s purpose and methods . The pleasantness of this relationship with Sheila displayed at the very beginning of the play does quite swiftly return with the discussion of Sheila s newly given engagement ring. This particular example not only further reveals her regulation of Sheila. Priestley I believe is implying the importance of humanity and familial cohesion as well as integration in wider society. the parentage of Sheila and Eric can also place additional.a message that I think gains relevance as the play progresses. not to express concern or even any recognition of Eric s drinking. Mrs Birling s lack of comment of Eric s drinking could. Another instance is an exchange between Eric and Sheila wherein she accuses himof being squiffy and Mrs Birling chooses to intervene. From this. but also her ignorance in regards to Eric and his behaviour. of capitalism is the consumerist society it creates in lieu of one based on relationships and love. INSPECTOR (coolly) In the Inspector s remark within the dialogue. Birling. the fact the she encourages and to instil in her daughter the idea that men are the dominant sex reinforces her characterisation as someone who seeks to preserve the current social order. an arrival that is actually felt by Sheila (I think that this adds to the idea that their relationship is more flawed that it may first have appeared). It could also be inferred from this that she does not even consider that her upper class children could be corrupted in such a lower class way. it seems less likely that they would be so selfish and lonely. responsibility on the shoulders of Mr and Mrs Birling for they way in which their children acted. She also instigates her and Sheila s exit to leave [the] men presumably so that they can talk about business. in doing so. if I return to my opening remarks. I believe. If Sheila and Eric had been brought up in a more concerned household. an interesting exchange follows: MRS BIRLING You seem to have made a great impression of this child. An example of this is Mrs Birling s third line of the play in which she answers a question of Gerald s in lieu of a response from Sheila herself. . Inspector We often do on the young ones.a warning briskly ignored by Mrs. makes people such as Mr and Mrs Birling the wrong members of society to be in power. While Mrs Birling s sexist actions would not seem remarkable in the clearly patriarchal society. also be seen as an indication of her ignorance. Mrs Birling enters the room again shortly after the beginning of the second act. This perceived tendency of young people is integral to the play s meaning because it allows Sheila and Eric to change into better people. Dramatically. it seems. The implication of this is that stubbornness grows with age that. Once the focus has settled on Mrs Birling and the Inspector. I think that this is an especially interesting idea because Mr Birling.

Birling describes her as a child . We ve done a great deal of useful work in helping deserving cases. who is probably middle class and . Dr Julie-Marie Strange. of course. After attempting to hinder the Inspector s questioning. judging by the reference to a meeting in the town hall. Little more is said by her during Gerald s confession. asserting than everybody knows . rather than Sheila. pointedly correcting Mrs Birling s statement by telling her that he s a young man . while the Inspector alludes to her as a young one . From this discussion. The inspector responds to this phrasing in a way that feels like an amplification of previous remarks. This obliviousness is further exaggerated by Sheila. reveal more to the audience about Mrs. which defined 19th century social policy. On such expert. The classification deserving is obviously a very ambiguous and subjective term. a person seeking to be selected as someone deserving of charity would have had to mimic or represent middle class . she gives a concise description of this work: MRS BIRLING Yes. but the connotations of the word child are ideas of immaturity and irresponsibility. on the basis that Priestley does refer to Sheila as a pretty girl in her early twenties and so the suitability may not be being questioned but I think that this is Priestley indicating Sheila s change and Mrs Birling s inability to recognise this. In doing so. Later on in the scene. she gives up and affirms that she is a member of the local women s charity. someone who has been quite sheltered. thoughts and potential to someone who is working class. believing that she is fundamentally different in emotions. however. In this case. that is the subject of discussion. the most important moment for her character as it is when the faults of her character are properly established. Both phrases make reference to age. in the late Victorian Edwardian era. In contrast to this. save for several mentions of how disgusting she finds the topic of his affair. Sheila and Mrs Birling then clash over whether or not Sheila should go to bed instead of finding out more about Eva Smith and. In the context of Edwardian society. She continues to rebuff the suggestion until it is Gerald. While she is prevented from elaborating on this idea. I think that this is most likely a reference to Victorian Poor Laws and the concept of the undeserving poor . This is a view that is challenged by Sheila and that challenge allows the audience to see the two women s opinions juxtaposed. it is clear from her few words that Mrs Birling defines people entirely by class. Birling attitudes to those poorer than she is: she doesn t think that someone of her position could understand the suicide of a girl of that class . there are experts on Victorian history that are able to elaborate on the ideology behind this phrase. The inevitable revelation of Mrs Birling involvement with Eva Smith is. This point could be challenged.3 Jessy Quinn The nouns used to refer to Sheila are also quite interesting: Mrs. The fact that she does this again shows how little importance she places on her daughter s own thoughts. Mrs Birling attempts to rubbish the accusation because he s only a boy . addressing a woman in her early twenties as young seems much more ambiguous and appropriate. Mrs Birling s ignorance is further revealed when she appears to be shocked by the allegations Gerald makes about Alderman/Old Joe Meggarty. clearly revealing the change in one generation and the stagnation of another. some sort of official. that explains it to be true. when the subject of Eric s drinking is brought up. however. says that. in doing so. it is made clear to the audience that Mrs Birling does not understand the society in which she lives because she finds in difficult to comprehend that someone with money and power is not morally pure.

In this criticism. Priestley is here revealing the ignorance that leads to class conflict and. Mrs Birling s attitude toward Eva Smith.4 Jessy Quinn values of respectability [2]. She evidently does not have the same sceptical stance toward people of a higher class: she was the only family member who was shocked to hear Alderman Meggarty being called a notorious womaniser . This obviously is again based in the idea of social interdependency and a criticism of individualism . Smith would not have killed herself. in a less theoretical sense. though still quite vague. is an opinion that is in direct opposition to Priestley s . by incriminating and condemning her own son without realising it. or a person. As the conversation between Mrs Birling and the Inspector continues. which should provide a safety-net beyond which no one should fall. seeks to highlight the inherent flaw in a system of voluntary bodies being the sole providers of help for those less well off that it is to prone to inconsistency to be effective or just. The family is further divided when Mrs Birling begins talking about how the father of the child [Eva Smith] was going to have should be made an example of . an alternative likely envisaged as a form of the welfare state founded after the Labour Party s landslide 1945 election. and therefore the Inspector s. Priestley is here having her ignorance and self-righteousness break her family apart. Priestley is clearly implying.is further elaborated upon when she claims that Smith s claim of fine feelings and scruples was simply absurd . that a woman becoming pregnant is something that it is almost impossible for her to be solely responsible for. . that she saw Eva Smith had appealed for help and been refused just two weeks before. when she recounts how she questioned Eva Smith in a seemingly interrogatory manner. This. This. what will be achieved will not be independence but dissatisfaction. The conflict clearly occurred as a result of their actions toward Eva Smith and so is in opposition to Mr Birling s view that so long as [a man looks after himself and his family] he won t come to much harm . throughout the play. treating the surrounding society with apathy. that a family. Another revelation of Mrs Birling s character arrives. Eva Smith s death.that if you seek to isolate yourself and your family. is probably quite similar to the attitudes of Mrs Birling and also reveals that the concept of deservingness is based upon a subjective judgement rather than a true measurement of need. and what she represents the working class. Mrs Birling s actions and. I think. of course. Mrs Birling insists that [Eva Smith] only had herself to blame . This definition. though no without encouragement from the Inspector. can only be honest and pleasant if they actively ensure that society is also. members of the family begin to turn on each other. This statement seems especially cruel when the entirety of the play is considered: Mrs Birling already knows that Eva Smith was pregnant. the very existence of charities makes clear at least some acceptance of social responsibility and so Priestley. shows that she is automatically very suspicious of the poor women who ask her committee for help. Additional vindication of this point stems from the knowledge that. in retaliation. though it would not atoned for the faults of the other family members. Despite this. though to varying degrees and for different reasons. evidently. Mrs Birling soon admits. the implication is that an alternative is possible. if Mrs Birling had given Eva Smith the help she required. even at that time. she blames them both for having Eva Smith turned out of her employment. I think that most people would agree. Of course. while not challenging this view. the Inspector would not be visiting and the family would still be as content as it was an hour previously. ideas of social responsibility. which probably began it all . firstly Sheila and Mr Birling condemn.

I believe. if not discredited. any progress that it could be claimed Mrs Birling had made is certainly reversed when it is discovered that the Inspector was a fake . that Eric gets drunk and still doesn t understand [Sheila s] attitude . but so unacceptable for a working class woman that she should be refused vital support. she will seemingly disregard any amoral behaviour as a blip. Gerald. she reacts by asserting to the rest of the family that she knew and describes herself as amused . also allows the audience to contrast the progression and growth of Sheila and Eric with their . that continues to define our politics. that Mrs Birling is not such a righteous person as she presents herself to be. the one way to reason Mrs Birling s marriage to some socially inferior with her refusal of charity to someone of similar origins is that Mrs Birling sees only someone who is financially prosperous and another who is not. She does. Secondly. is perhaps still prevalent. despite testimonies from nearly every other character.5 Jessy Quinn As Act 3 begins. More specifically. I believe that Mrs Birling s apparently principled exterior masks a hatred fuel by class differences. the ides of the idle (undeserving) poor is commonly written of in newspapers through complaints about benefit scroungers . The presence of Mrs Birling. I think that the relevancy of Mrs Birling s character in today s world is more complicated. though still some. One of Priestley s integral objections is the hypocrisy of the views implementation. Therefore. and I m most grateful. which is an interesting concept to consider. still had an affair whilst presumably being in a relationship with her daughter. Two things are proved by this. show a remarkable change in manner toward Gerald. this occurrence underlined Mrs Birling s lack of true concern for well-being of Sheila. though they may believe Eva Smith did not exist. Priestley s implicit criticisms of her character can be extended to the ideology that she represents. and those of her Edwardian society. MRS BIRLING (smiling) And I must say. people would be outraged at the pregnancy of a woman out of wedlock. In more recent political events. seems very close to Mr Birling s brand of self-interest that he promotes in the first act. The 1980 s Thatcherite rise of individualism. firstly. Fundamentally. She only passes a final a judgement on a person s actions if they are poorer than she is. Her (apparent) principles. despite this. In addition. How. Her general outlook. not to be rich indicates a rather serious deficiency of character and to be poor is not much short of criminal [3]. broadly. In words used to describe the politics of Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Birling would consider class is in purely monetary terms. These two indicators show clearly Mrs Birling s stubborn stagnation. you ve argued this very cleverly. As a concept that presents the virtues of volunteering as an alternative to big government . are obviously outdated. This leads nicely onto the relevance of the play and Mrs Birling to modern society. few. and Mr Birling. the idea that it is morally adequate for an upper class male to have an affair. it appears to be criticised. an approach which differs from the more accepted view that a wide range of factors such as family and education affect a person s class. someone who. I think that Mrs Birling is a character acts as a personification of social conservatism and that. by Priestly for being too discriminatory and fallible. Indeed. If a person is similar to herself. however. the push of the big society by the current government has an interesting relevance to the actions of Mrs Birling. the audience see that Mrs Birling still does not believe. however.

References 1. The fact that she was the last member of the family to have contact with Eva Smith.6 Jessy Quinn parent s torpor. shows that what she represents is the root cause of class conflict and inequality. she fundamentally judges a person. that for all her pretence of concern about the upholding of morals. not on their actions or personality. but on their wealth. in my opinion. England Your England 2. Thinking Allowed (Transcript) 3. Class Power and State Power .