Responsibility and compassion
Eric tries (unsuccessfully) to point out the possibilities of a war, but Birling brags “You have a lot to learn”. This suggests big-headedness to the audience, and they learn to dislike him for these reasons. Birling later tells of a friend who will be travelling on the Titanic, which is “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.” The audience in 1945 would be able to see Priestley’s use of dramatic irony again, as the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage to New York the week later.
Another of his flawed assumptions is: “There will be progress everywhere – except Russia”. This tells us that Mr Birling believes people are what they are, and cannot change their ways, a quite inaccurate statement as the Russians proved their strength and ability during World War 2, where they posed a serious threat during their dictatorship, in league with Germany. Finally, “We business men have experience, we know!” This again demonstrates the male superiority, and his egotistic self-confidence. It portrays him as an infallible human being. This is extremely unflattering.
The second scene involving the interrogation of Mrs Birling is particularly potent, in which she is seen to rage in front of the Inspector. When the Inspector asks her to look at the photograph of the dead girl, Eva Smith, and she says she doesn’t recognise her, the Inspector puts it to her “You choose not to recognise her!” Mrs Birling is outraged by the absurdity of his comment. “I beg your pardon” she remarks after the Inspector suggests Mrs Birling has been lying to him. This shows us the expectation, being an upper class citizen, that she should be believed. Of course, she could do no wrong!
Her speech “You know of course that my husband was Lord Mayor ‘only’ two years ago, and he’s still a magistrate” shows it matters to her that her husband holds positions such as these, and she expects the Inspector to be impressed. The words “of course” imply an assumption on her part that the Inspector (and everyone else) agrees with her. It’s also an example of her boasting about her family.
Mrs Birling is as aware of status and class differentiations as her husband. She often refers to Eva Smith as “this girl” or “that girl”. This type of speech and behaviour is appalling. Everybody has equal rights, but it was unfortunately normal for 1912. In retrospect, this is one of the reasons for Eva Smith’s awful demise, after being fired from Birling’s factory. She has campaigning for more money for her, and others in the same position.
Eva Smith appealed to the charity where Mrs Birling is employed, for help in coping, telling the truth about her current situation. Mrs Birling comments “Quite false … Pack of lies”. She thought this mainly because it sounded absurd to have been coming from a person of lower class. Mrs Birling’s speech indicates she assumed Eva lied. This is rather important to note, as a lot of speeches made by Mr and Mrs Birling in the play as a whole are based on misconcepted assumptions. The “pack of lies” also indicates she thought the whole thing was fabricated. THAT is the absurdity that the audience sees!
Mrs Birling is not so familiar with the ways of compassion and responsibility as she shows none whatsoever, a disgraceful fact, considering even she played a part of Eva Smith’s death. Mrs Birling is nothing like her daughter, Sheila, who does show these important parts of human nature.
Mrs Birling, whilst being encumbered with assumptions about people around her is subject to shortsightedness; especially regarding her son, Eric, which is rather astonishing. This fact helps the Inspector’s plan to set her up. It starts with him asking her if Eric is a person used to drinking to which she replies, “No, of course not, he’s only a boy”. In fact, the audience finds information to the contrary elsewhere in the play.
Mrs Birling says the people to blame for Eva Smith’s demise are the girl herself and the “drunken idler of a father”. The Inspector uses this to set Mrs Birling up. Sheila has already ‘cottoned on’ to this, but her attempts to warn her mother fall on deaf ears. The Inspector’s massive presence creates an impact on Mrs Birling, and he masterfully pulls it off. Mrs Birling is led to say, “There should be no hushing up … Make an example of him … Public confession of responsibility”. This is quite ironic as she tells others to she responsibility when she has / shows none herself. As soon as her speech is completed, she realises they are talking about her son, Eric.
The interest and suspense suddenly heightens the tension. This was the biggest of her shortcomings, and shows how cold and bitter she is, showing no morality, responsibility and compassion. In conclusion, both scenes show Priestley’s use of dramatic irony, as the audience know crucial details that not all of the cast members know. This is extremely effective and works successfully to heighten the tension, suspense, and interest in the play; it certainly kept me in suspense, waiting for more!