Birling is probably the biggest factor in the family’s downfall. His naivety and foolishness are real problems, especially with him being at the head of the household. A great example of these traits comes when he says in one of his lengthy speeches at the dinner table, “we’ve passed the worst of it”. Dramatic irony, which Priestley also uses to great effect, shows us just how wrong Birling is in this instance as the Great War is just about to start. Priestley uses dramatic irony in this case to demonstrate to the audience that disaster and indeed downfall are definitely looming over the household with a man like Birling who is so pompous, constantly wrong and stuck in his opinions at the helm and in full control.
Another one of the problems with Birling is his poor judgment as it renders the family really rather vulnerable against things in the future that are unpredictable. “We’re in for a long period of increasing prosperity” he says. However, again, through the median of dramatic irony the audience knows that as the play is set in 1912 the Great War, one of the most destructive and devastating events in the whole of history, is about to take place. So if Birling is so overly confident about such direly important matters (and is wrong about them more often than not) then what is to keep the household from falling ill to a problem which is unseen, unpredicted, or even just dismissed by Birling as “Fiddlesticks!”?
Also, his lack of foresight is a major problem which is sure to impact on the success of the Birling household in the long-term. Priestley uses Birlings poor judgment and dramatic irony together to really emphasize these bad qualities of Birling. For example when he claims that the Titanic is “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable”. This shows just how wrong Birling usually is and therefore when he says that he says “we’re in for a time of steadily increasing prosperity” the audience starts to expect the worst.
Yet another of Birling’s bad traits is his lack of care for others and his individualistic nature which promotes only self gain. He also shows a lack of care for the concept of people, a manifestation of his political views, seeing them only as resources to be exploited for his self betterment. “Crofts and Birling working together… for lower costs and higher prices!” he says at a celebration of his daughter’s engagement which is completely inappropriate but demonstrates the fact well that even his daughter (marrying the son of one of his competitors) is just a tool for him to make more money and to climb the social hierarchy.
Birling does also look to climb the social ranks. Mrs. Birling is “her husband’s social superior”. This demonstrates that his need for social gain affects even who he marries. Also another example of this comes when he is left alone with just Gerald and Eric smoking cigars and drinking port. He mentions that he “might find his way into the next Honours list” because he thinks he has had a “hint or two”. He says this in part to convince Gerald that Gerald himself isn’t Sheila’s “social superior” as he thinks that Gerald’s parents may be worried about the very matter. This after all would jeopardize Sheila and Gerald’s impending marriage and disrupt Birling’s plans to form some sort of business deal with “Croft’s Ltd”.
Sheila however, doesn’t agree with many of her father’s (or mother’s for that matter) views and opinions. Where Birling and his wife’s heavily capitalistic weighted views believe in the “every man for himself” philosophy, Sheila’s views conflict. She has been educated differently, also at a different time, and these matters manifest themselves in her more socialistic, community ethos views. This is clearly displayed with the use of certain stage directions, for example, when the inspector suggests that the death of Eva Smith may have had something to do with her, her speech is described as “miserably” showing that this information has an effect on he her and she feels some form of responsibility for this girl’s suicide. However when the inspector suggests that the responsibility may lie with Birling, he “can’t accept any responsibility”. These evidences highlight the vast differences between her and her parents’ attitude to responsibility.
Priestley also uses stage directions in his play to help to demonstrate the conflicting views of the older and younger generation. The relationship between Birling and Inspector Goole is very important and stage directions are used often to display their indifferences. “Why you should come here, Inspector” said Birling impatiently and the inspector “cutting through massively” interrupts him. This demonstrates that the inspector won’t be intimidated by Birling as many other people are. This is key because most people who might question Birling are thrown off by his supposed “importance”. For example at the start of the inspector’s enquiries when Birling says “I don’t like that tone.” assuming that he is more important than the inspector who as a member of the police should rank high above Birling in authority.
Priestley uses Inspector Goole to highlight the indifferences between the two parties in the Birling household. The inspector sides more with the younger generation as he has very socialist, community based views. An example of a relationship which is typical of the fracas between the two groups is the one that forms between Birling and the inspector. Birling’s capitalist views, and the way that they manifest themselves within him, immediately bring the inspector to take a dislike to him. The inspectors socialistic, community ethos doesn’t match with Birling and his capitalism and the inspector sees Birling as a selfish, self obsessed man interested only in personal gain (whether that gain be monetary or otherwise).
A great example of this is when the inspector, very cynically, states, “the factories and warehouses wouldn’t know where to find cheap labour, ask your father” whilst describing to Sheila how said establishments take poor girls off of the street to put them into cheap, easy to find employment. Or as the inspector puts it “exploitation”. The inspector obviously hates the concept, and his views do have an effect on other members of the household, who realize that some of their views, which may well have been oppressed before the arrival of the inspector may not be so radical or foolish. The differentiation of the two groups views are, in my opinion, a very important factor to the downfall of the household.