Sybil Birling

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  • Created on: 14-04-13 17:43


 Mrs Birling is described as a “rather cold woman, and her husband’s social superior”. This social superiority characterizes her throughout the play; she is extremely snobbish, and regards those on a lower social level as beneath her. She is even squeamish about what people say around her “(reproachfully) Arthur, you’re not supposed to say such things”, “Really the things you girls pick up these days”. Her outlook is governed by what she considers acceptable. Anything which falls outside these narrow boundaries is either “impertinent” or “disgusting”. She calls Goole a “trifle impertinent” and Eva’s calling herself Mrs Birling “gross impertinence”. Later she speaks with scandalized disbelief of “The rude way he spoke to Mr Birling and me”. To Mrs Birling, any speech which is less than humble and respectful is “impertinent” because as a lady of the upper class with an important husband, she feels she deserves to be treated with the utmost deference- an attitude which Goole and Sheila regard with utter contempt.

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Sheila twice warns her mother against this proud, arrogant attitude and later when Mrs Birling unwittingly urges the severest punishment to be applied on to the father of Eva’s child, who is unknowingly Eric. It is precisely because of her willful refusal to face up to the harsh truth which blinds Mrs Birling to Goole’s true purpose; she is baffled and annoyed by Sheila’s intervention and considers it inappropriate. This is summed up by her last words of Act 2 “I don’t believe- I won’t believe it”. It is this deliberate evasion of the truth which means that Mrs Birling feels no guilt for what she has done- “I accept no blame at all”. 

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At first, Mrs Birling adopts a patronising manner with Goole, confident that he can be awed quickly by her superior status, but her poise is soon shattered by Goole’s grim determination and refusal to be intimidated, and she seems almost childishly annoyed when he remains “imperturbable”- “You know of course that my husband was Lord Mayor”. Mrs Birling is so used to dominating people by such threats that when she encounters someone who resists her bullying she reacts angrily. It was Eva’s “impertinence” in calling herself Mrs Birling which infuriates her and influences her refusal to grant Eva charity, despite her obvious need for it. This is a sign of her pettiness and her vindictiveness; of all the characters, Mrs Birling’s conduct toward Eva was the most despicable, for her “own grandchild” was affected along with Eva herself. 

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It is obvious that Mrs Birling’s motive for her charity work are selfish- she has no genuine concern for the women, or she could never have treated Eva so heartlessly, however rude she had been towards her; instead she does charity work out of a condescending sense of duty or nobles oblige (the obligation of richer to care for the poorer). Her whole attitude is one of smug self-satisfaction- “We’ve done a great deal of useful work”. She is totally heartless, insisting that she “only had herself to blame”; to Mrs Birling, impertinence towards her is an offence punishable by death. She contemptuously dismisses Eva’s refusal to take money from Eric as “elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position”. Goole reacts “very sternly”, his own contempt for such heartless and arrogant attitudes is apparent. It is ironic that she cannot believe that “a girl of that class” could have “scruples”, as if these are a quality of the upper classes-when Goole is proving on the contrary , the upper classes are sadly lacking in even basic feelings of humanity. 

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Mrs Biring typifies the older generation in that she prefers to remain ignorant if anything that  might be upsetting or which might not fit into her artificially well-ordered world; for example, she is “staggered” and  “shocked” both by the revelation that Eric drinks heavily, and by the revelation that Alderman Meggarty is a “notorious womaniser”: “Well really! …we are learning something tonight”. Mrs Birling tries to abandon her responsibility to others as a member of society, but also her responsibility as a mother for the welfare of her son. This, Priestley implies, is the logical result of such immoral, wilful blindness. When Eric makes his confession, Mrs Birling has to leave the room, unable to hear such dreadful news.

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Sybil is just as delighted as Arthur when she hears that Goole is not an ordinary policeman; she is smug and “triumphant”, congratulating herself “I was the only one who didn’t give in to him”; she shows no remorse for what she did, and her first words after Goole’s final speech are to blame Eric-“I’m absolutely ashamed of you”. She does not learn from Goole’s visit, and remains as stubborn, snobbish, arrogant, corrupt, cowardly and selfish as ever.  

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  • She is a snob, very aware of the differences between social classes. She is irritated when Mr Birling makes the social gaffe of praising the cook in front of Gerald and later is very dismissive of Eva, saying "Girls of that class."
  • She has the least respect for the Inspector of all the characters. She tries - unsuccessfully - to intimidate him and force him to leave, then lies to him when she claims that she does not recognise the photograph that he shows her.
  • She sees Sheila and Eric still as "children"and speaks patronisingly to them.
  • She tries to deny things that she doesn't want to believe: Eric's drinking, Gerald's affair with Eva, and the fact that a working class girl would refuse money even if it was stolen, claiming "She was giving herself ridiculous airs.
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  • She admits she was "prejudiced" against the girl who applied to her committee for help and saw it as her "duty" to refuse to help her. Her narrow sense of morality dictates that the father of a child should be responsible for its welfare, regardless of circumstances.
  • At the end of the play, she has had to come to terms that her son is a heavy drinker who got a girl pregnant and stole money to support her, her daughter will not marry a good social 'catch' and that her own reputation within the town will be sullied. Yet, like her husband, she refuses to believe that she did anything wrong and doesn't accept responsibility for her part in Eva's death.
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  • "I think Shiela and I had better go to the drawing room and leave you men-" she has a traditional view of the place of women.
  • "You seem to have made a great impression on this child, Inspector" this is hierachical and patronising towards Shiela.
  • "You know my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago" implied threat based on social status.
  • "No of course not, he's only a boy" when asked if Eric is used to drinking. This is foreshadowing, and she could either be unaware or lying.
  • "Over excited" she thinks of her children as very young children.
  • "I must say, we are learning something tonight" foreshadowing.
  • "I did nothing I'm ashamed of" depsite admitting to being prejudiced against the girl, she feels no guilt. 

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  • "I used my influence to have it refused" she has a lot of power and social status.
  • "If he refused to marry her (...) then he must at least support her" irony! She is talking about Eric.
  • "As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!" very derogatory comment.
  • "If the girl's death is due to anybody, it's due to him" does not think that the culprit could possibly be someone of high status.
  • "No -Eric - please - I didn't know - I didn't understand-" for the first and only time in the play, Mrs Birling shows a little bit of guilt.
  • "Eric, I'm completely ashamed of you" she blames Eric, not herself.
  • "the way you children talk" patronising.
  • "Just be quiet so your father can decide what we ought to do" hierachy.
  • "I didn't give in to him" she refuses to accept responsibility. Does this make her the most guilty?
  • "They're over-tired" disregards Eric and Shiela completely.
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