Tension at the heart of Birling Family

Notes i've made from various resources, not necessarily my own work 

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  • Created on: 29-09-12 20:50
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How does Priestly show that tension is at the heart of
the Birling family?
Priestley shows that tension is at the heart of the Birling family by bringing an inspector into the household who
uncovers some truth about the Birling family, a family that on the outside appears to be a loving and well constituted
Priestley sets the whole of the play in the family dining room. In the opening description Priestley describes the set
as `substantial and heavily comfortable but not cosy and homelike'. A house is a good indicator of the family that
occupies it, for example if a house is messy and untidy you can expect the family to be messy and untidy. Priestley
has set the scene to make the house look grand and well-kept as if it were a show home but underneath it doesn't
serve its function of being `homelike'; a loving safe family home. This is a signal to the audience that the family too
are grand and showy but underneath they don't serve the function of being a loving family; the appearance may be
well-kept but they may not show each other the love and support they need.
Priestley brings the character of the Inspector right into the heart of the family home in the dining room. An
inspector's role is to uncover secrets and the truth. By bringing him into the heart of the family home, Priestley is
showing that there are hidden truths and secrets at the heart of this family.
Furthermore in the first description, Priestley describes how the lighting should be. At the start the lighting is `pink
and intimate until the Inspector arrives, and then it should be brighter and harder'. The lighting is used by Priestley as
a dramatic device; the pink light creates a rosy light-hearted atmosphere but when the inspector arrives the light is
brighter and harder as if the truth is coming out. The light is showing what is hidden. The family has been living in the
dark about each other's secrets.
At the beginning of the play, Priestley sets up the idea that there is tension at the heart of the family through Birling's
speech. Birling says that the engagement means `a tremendous lot' to him because the two rival companies can `look
forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together ­ for lower costs and
higher prices'. Priestley shows through Birling's dialogue that the character is mainly interested in profits and
business rather than his daughter's happiness; he could be using his daughter to get ahead in business and doesn't
really care for her well-being.
Also in the speech, Priestley uses dramatic irony as a signal to the audience that tension could arise. Birling believes
that society is heading for a time of `increasing prosperity' and that `the Germans don't want war'. The audience
knows however that war is just around the corner. Birling waxes lyrical the subject of the Titanic, stating that she's
`luxury' and `unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable'. The audience knows that the Titanic sank on her very first journey.
Priestley uses the dramatic irony as a foreshadow of what will happen to the family. The family at the beginning of
the play appears stable and steady but that they will crumble like society just as the Titanic did and enter a time of
panic and war. Priestley also uses the dramatic irony to show that Birling is quite stubborn in his beliefs. Even though
the signs are quite clear that there is a strong possibility of war he refuses to believe it. He is stuck in his own world
and not in contact with the rest of the world possibly including his family's world.
Priestley sets up the inspector to arrive just as Birling is talking about how a man `has to look after himself' and how
he doesn't believe in the idea that `everybody has to look after everybody else'. This might make the audience
wonder whether Birling will put himself first before his family. Priestley chose to enter the Inspector at that moment
to interrupt the speech to hint that it isn't right, and uses the `sharp ring of a front door bell' to warn of the events
about to happen. The inspector's arrival changes the mood of the scene from light hearted to tense and worried.
Priestley uses the characters engagement with one another to show that tension is at the heart of the family. Birling
and Eric argue a lot showing that there's tension between them. For example Birling is constantly telling Eric to `just
keep quiet' and `just you keep out of this'. This shows that the characters are very outspoken towards each other and
aren't very caring of each other's feelings.
In a later scene, Priestly sets up Gerald to tell the Inspector that they're `respectable citizens and not criminals' to
which the Inspector answers `sometimes there isn't much difference'. Here, Priestley likens the family to criminals
who are corrupt and always fighting, to show that tension is at the heart of the family who are like the corrupt

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Priestley shows that tension is at the heart of the family when Mrs Birling finds out about Eric's drinking. Mrs Birling
denies that Eric is used to drink but Sheila and Gerald both admit that `he does drink pretty hard'. Priestley uses stage
directions to show that Mrs Birling is `staggered' at the idea, showing that she was completely oblivious to the idea
and `bitterly' replies `and this is the time you choose to tell me'.…read more

Page 3

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Mrs Birling dislikes happens to be her own son. The impact of the inspector's visit shows that the happy family
was just a facade, revealing that some of the people they hated happened to be their own family members.…read more


Monica Benson

clear and focused, using all the AOs required

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