Arthur Birling is a wealthy, self-made middle class factory owner of the Edwardian era. We first learn about him from the stage directions. Priestley describes him as ‘rather portentous’ suggesting he is serious and self-important. This characterises his attitude throughout the play where his sense of his standing in society and the rights this affords him prevent him from the learning the lesson of responsibility that forms the main theme of the play. He dresses in expensive tuxedo suit, tie hat and gloves to look god on his daughter’s engagement party.
Mr Birling’s views and beliefs at the start of the play show us that he is an arrogant and proud man. He is very concerned with his place in society and within his family. We know this at the start of the play when he tells Gerald, with great pride, that he may soon receive a knighthood from the Queen.
He enjoys talking a lot, making other people listen to him and telling the younger people in the play how to live their lives. For example, just before the Inspector arrives he speaks in a very teaching way to Eric and Gerald, explaining how a man should put himself first and not worry about the community and society, as if we ‘were bees in a hive’ This shows us that he does not worry about the position of those less fortunate, or less wealthy than him, and he dismisses people who do think like this as ‘cranks’. Birling is also a political man. He believes that his success entitles him to comment on affairs of which he has little real knowledge: ‘…I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business. And I say there isn’t a chance of war.’
Priestley cleverly uses dramatic irony to burst the bubble of Arthur Birling’s selfishness. The play is set in 1912; two years before the First World War and by pointing up Birling’s weakness the audience are less likely to agree with his views on the personal and social responsibility he declares throughout the play. Priestley also makes fun of Mr. Birling’s beliefs by including…