Arthur Birling is the man and leader of the Birling household. He has a wife Sybil and a son called Eric. He also has a daughter called Sheila. Edna (the maid) and the family live in Brumley, which at the time was an industrial city. The household live in a large suburban house and in 1912 they would be regarded as well off upper class citizens. Arthur is a respectable and experienced man in his mid-fifties who likes to speak his mind about things. He has many specific views on society and an outlook on life. He believes that ‘a man has to make his own way’ and look after himself. Arthur Birling can be stubborn and has his views on the business he is managing. He refuses to accept any responsibility for the death of Eva Smith even when Inspector Goole shows him the evidence.
Mr Birling’s workers are paid the going rate in the factory and he is determined to protect his own interests. His attitude towards ‘trouble makers’ is unsympathetic and he feels nothing for the young woman. He says, ‘It is my duty to keep costs down’. Arthur is offended by the inspector’s attitude and may be slightly intimidated when the inspector looks hard into his eyes before addressing him.
Being a father he wants the best for his children and does not want to upset or distress them. He also approves of Sheila (his daughter) and Gerald marrying and expects a time of ‘increasing prosperity’ but feels a little uneasy in that Gerald’s parents might feel that their son is marrying ‘beneath himself’. Arthur feels in control of his children even though they are in their early twenties.
The most disturbing part of the play for Mr. Birling is the scene in which he learns that his own son is shown to be a thief, a drunkard and is responsible for fathering a child. When he learns of all this he exclaims ‘You damned fool – why didn’t you come to me when you found yourself in this mess?’ Eric’s reply indicates that Mr. Birling was never close to his son ‘Because you’re not the kind of chap a man could turn to when he’s in trouble’. Such a response indicates that things aren’t going to improve after the play ends.
From the story you can tell that after meals Arthur likes to relax with a good cigar and enjoys some port. He likes to talk about business and explains to the inspector that Eva Smith was just an employee. Throughout the play Arthur thinks that he knows best. This is probably due to his time as the Lord Mayor of Brumley and when he was a local magistrate. He says, ‘I’ve always regarded myself as a sound useful party man’. Arthur regards himself as a practical man of business and takes risks in life. He has his point of view about most things and disregards anyone else’s. He says in Act One, ‘Bernard Shaws and H. G. Wellses do all the talking. We hardheaded practical businessmen must say something sometime’.
He represents a very unattractive sort of person and even tries to threaten the Inspector by talking about his friendship with the Chief Constable. At the end of the play he grudgingly wishes things were better but even here he still thinks in terms of money ‘Look, Inspector – I’d give thousands’. I think that Arthur Birling believes that he can solve most situations with money.
In the middle of Act One Arthur explains to Eric about war. There is irony in what he says. He explains that there is no chance of war but in fact the First World War was to begin in a couple of years. When talking he says that the world is developing so quickly that ‘It’ll make war impossible’. He mentions that the new ocean liner, the Titanic, would be unsinkable but it sank on it’s maiden voyage. This shows that he is a man who is very confident in his views, but not always right.
Mr Birling has little imagination and seems totally blind towards the consequences of his actions and to the events which would follow. He is a self-centred man and as soon as the inspector shows up he emphasises his own position in society. Eric points out that Mr Birling is useless in a real crisis. Arthur Birling’s ignorance means that he doe not believe the inspector and he still believes that he has enough responsibilities without the torment of the inspector.
Inspector Goole carries out his inquiry in a calm but firm way – ‘It is my duty to ask questions’. In Act Two, he interrupts Birling in a forceful way (the stage direction says, ‘cutting in, with authority’). Arthur Birling has no real memory of the woman Eva Smith and does not believe that he played any part in her death although he did sack her from the factory. When Arthur tells the inspector this the inspector says, ‘What happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards’.
The inspector’s attitude towards Arthur becomes harder as Arthur continues to believe he played no part in Eva’s death. Arthur becomes angry and protective and says, ‘I don’t like your tone nor the way you’re handling this inquiry’. However, the inspector remains calm and is not intimidated by Arthur’s social standing and dominating manner, such as when he says, ‘Look here, I’m not going to have this, Inspector. You’ll apologize at once.’
The inspector strives to make Arthur Birling aware of his actions. The hardest thing for Arthur to face is that he does not believe that he was responsible but other people in the family do and feel that they have done wrong and contributed to the woman’s suicide as well. The inspector says, ‘We are responsible for each other. 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’. Arthur is very aware at the end of the play of the possibility that he may be deprived of his promised knighthood and feels upset. He is scared that ‘There’ll be a public scandal’.
Arthur Birling continues to ignore the shameful things that his family has done. When it appears that the Inspector might be a hoaxer he is happy to believe that everything is as it was a few hours ago. He copies the Inspector and laughs when he remembers the faces of Eric and Sheila and accuses them of being ‘the famous younger generation who know it all’. This is an example of pride coming before a fall, a moment later of course he is panicking as the phone rings again.
Mr Birling represents Priestley’s hatred of businessmen who are only interested in making money. He believed that Birling would never alter his ways and it would be left to the younger generation to learn from their mistakes.
The inspector holds the whole family responsible for Eva’s death, but I think he believes that Arthur was the guiltiest. He says, ‘You made her pay a heavy price.. and now she’ll make you pay a heavier price still’. Each person contributed to Eva’s fate and has to share the guilt, but Arthur’s actions in sacking her started the chain of events. I think that Arthur was the guiltiest due to his reckless and heartless sacking of the young woman.