An Inspector Calls

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Arthur Birling Character Analysis

Arthur Birling is introduced as a “fairly prosperous” manufacturer and a family man with a wife and two children, Sheila and Eric. He is large-bodied and middle aged, with easy manners and provincial speech. Birling is identified by the Inspector as the initiator of Eva Smith’s downfall: he refused her request for a raise in his factory and forced her to find work elsewhere. He is portrayed throughout the play as a fierce capitalist, who cares only for the prosperity of his own company—even at the sacrifice of his laborers’ well-being—and for the prospect of ever greater success. He further seems to care more for success than for his own children, as people. When, at the end of the play, the Birlings discover that the Inspector was a fraud and no suicide has taken place, Mr. Birling is triumphant and relieved that the revelations will not precipitate a social scandal. He is resistant to any lesson that might be gleaned from the Inspector’s interrogation, and remains unchanged by it.

Arthur Birling Quotes in An Inspector Calls

The An Inspector Calls quotes below are all either spoken by Arthur Birling or refer to Arthur Birling. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Wealth, Power, and Influence Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dramatists Play Service, Inc. edition of An Inspector Calls published in 1998.
Act 1 Quotes

There’s a good deal of silly talk about these days—but—and I speak as a hard-headed business man, who has to take risks and know what he’s about—I say, you can ignore all this silly pessimistic talk. When you marry, you’ll be marrying at a very good time.

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker), Sheila, Gerald Croft
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Arthur Birling, the patriarch of the Birling family, gives a toast in which he welcomes Gerald Croft into the family. (The speech is important because it provides all the expository information we need for the moment--Sheila and Gerald are getting engaged.) Birling is described as a successful businessman, and his tone is casual yet emotional as he congratulates his daughter and future son-in-law.

There are a couple things to notice here. First, Arthur defines himself as a "hard-headed business man," even in the middle of his engagement toast. Indeed, Arthur is so focused on business and the capitalistic mindset that he thinks of his daughter's marriage in business terms--he later describes it as a "merger" between the Birling and the Croft family businesses. Furthermore, Birling claims that now is the "best of times" for marriage. He ignores the harsh realities of the time: as we know, World War I is about to begin. Birling's ignorance of the real world makes him seem small-minded and petty; by the same token, it allows the audience, with the benefit of hindsight, to feel a little superior to Birling and Birling's family--the Birlings don't know what's about to happen to their country, but we do.

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I tell you, by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labor agitations and all these silly little war scares. There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere.

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

As Arthur Birling proceeds with his toast, it becomes clearer and clearer that he's a businessman first and a father second. Birling's advice to his daughter Sheila and his new son-in-law, Gerald, could be interpreted as fatherly and kind--he's telling them not to listen to cynics and doubters and focus on their own happiness. And yet Birling's speech isn't really about marriage at all: the "happy future" he mentions is a future in which capitalism has triumphed over its opponents, and businessmen like Birling have achieved massive success.

Birling's lofty vision of the future makes it clear that he defines himself in terms of his wealth and success as a businessman. And yet for all his emphasis on the future, Birling is clearly wrong--as we know very well, World War I is about to begin (not exactly a "silly little war scare"...), and class revolutions continue to take place around the world. So Birling tries to give the impression of being wise and fatherly, but when viewed from an outsider's perspective, he's greedy, selfish, and short-sighted.

A man has to make his own way—has to look after himself—and his family, too, of course, when he has one—and so long as he does that he won’t come to much harm. But the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive.

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker)
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

During the period when the play is set, there was a lively debate in England over the future of the English economy. Should a small group of wealthy capitalists be allowed to continue owning their own factories and facilities, leaving their workers to toil for tiny wages? Or should the wealth be redistributed, so that society as whole could benefit from industrialization? Mr. Birling clearly takes the former point of view: as a successful businessmen and capitalist, he looks out for his own interests, not those of his workers.

Birling's speech is important because although he frames it in strictly economic terms, we'll come to see that it has serious moral implications. Birling thinks that he can go through life never caring about other people; his philosophy is that everybody should "take care of themselves," contrary to what socialist "cranks" believe. The play will show the moral limitations of such a philosophy--Birling will cause enormous misery to other people, then turn his back on them.

If we are all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

The Inspector continues to talk about Eva Smith with Arthur Birling. Birling admits that he knew Eva Smith when she worked for him, but angrily denies that he had anything to do with her death. Birling doesn't deny that he had a major influence on the course of her life; his point is that people can't be held accountable for every single person they influence.

The key word in this passage is "awkward." Birling isn't denying that he influenced Smith, or even that he ruined her life--his point is simply that acknowledging his own guilt would be publicly and privately embarrassing to him. Birling is shown to be obsessed with his social status; thus, he conceals (even to himself) the true nature of his crimes. Birling's statement could be considered the "capitalist's abili"--unchecked capitalism, we can see, is an ideology that ruins lives and drives people to immoral actions. And yet the powerful businessmen who cause suffering to other people claim deniability; they're not "truly" responsible for their fired employees.

Birling: It’s a free country, I told them.
Eric: It isn’t if you can’t go and work somewhere else.

Related Characters: Arthur Birling (speaker), Eric (speaker), Eva Smith
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Arthur Birling proceeds to tell the Inspector more about his relationship with Eva Smith. Smith, we learn, was something of a union organizer; she wanted to mobilize the people who worked for Birling to ensure that they'd get better wages and fairer hours. When Smith demanded that Birling pay his employees more, Birling responded in classic capitalist fashion: he told Birling that she was "free" to work somewhere else if she didn't like her wages.

Birling's response to Eva Smith illustrates the flaws in the free market. It's all very well for someone like Birling to preach sanctimoniously about freedom to run one's own business--but at the end of the day, his "philosophy" is just an excuse for his own greediness. As Eric points out, a country isn't truly free if people like Eva can't find a good place to work. Birling's smug definition of freedom, then, is sorely lacking in substance.

Act 2 Quotes

You know, of course, that my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago and that he’s still a magistrate?

Related Characters: Mrs. Birling (speaker), Arthur Birling
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Mrs. Birling's hypocrisy is clear. She insists that Inspector Goole should leave as soon as possible, sparing the family any further consternation. Her reasons for insisting so are fascinating: she claims that good, respectable people like her family members have nothing of substance to learn from the life of a poor girl like Eva Smith. Even worse, Mrs. Birling cites the fact that her husband used to be a Lord Mayor, and still works as a magistrate. Such information, we're left to assume, is supposed to mean that Mr. Birling is above all moral suspicion. High-ranking people can't possibly be bad!

The statement could also be interpreted as an implied threat: it's as if Mrs. Birling is reminding Inspector Goole that he's playing with fire by inquiring into the lives of powerful people. If Goole isn't careful, Arthur Birling could ruin Goole's entire career. Mrs. Birling is one of the most openly hypocritical characters in the play; simultaneously threatening her guest to close the investigation and claiming that her husband is above all suspicion.

Act 3 Quotes

There’ll be plenty of time, when I’ve gone, for you all to adjust your family relationships.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker), Arthur Birling, Mrs. Birling, Sheila, Gerald Croft, Eric
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Birling family has descended into arguing. A once-happy betrothed couple has split up, and everyone else is shouting at one another. The Birlings have learned that they're all greedy, drunk, disloyal, and even complicit in a woman's death. Goole listens to the Birlings arguing, and tells them that they'll have to work out their new "relationships" later--for now, they need to focus on Eva Smith.

Goole's statement can be taken in any number of senses. First, it's a sign that the Birlings, in spite of the new information they've received, are still making a big mistake: they're focusing too exclusively on each other's private faults, instead of showing real compassion for the deceased, or accepting the larger social ramifications of their actions (the fact that because they are so wealthy and powerful, they have undue influence over others). Second, Goole's statement reminds us that his investigation has permanently changed the Birling family. It's possible that the family will be permanently disgraced, or fall apart from within. Yet it's also possible that the Birlings--particularly Sheila--will learn from the experience and try to become better people.

This girl killed herself—and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her. Remember that. Never forget it. But then I don’t think you ever will.

Related Characters: Inspector Goole (speaker), Arthur Birling, Mrs. Birling, Sheila, Gerald Croft, Eric, Eva Smith
Related Symbols: Eva Smith
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

The Inspector comes to the conclusion he's been anticipating this entire time. He's shown the Birling family that they caused the death of Eva Smith: in various ways, each Birling (and Gerald) has ruined Smith's life and pushed her to kill herself. Goole predicts that the Birlings will never be able to forget their sins.

Why, exactly, did Goole come to visit the Birlings? His visit seems far different from that of a typical police officer: he seems more philosophical, and more concerned with morality than with solving a crime. It's as if Goole just wants to teach the Birlings a lesson about the importance of personal responsibility. While Arthur Birling wants to believe that it's "every man for himself," Goole has endeavored to prove the opposite point of view.

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Arthur Birling Character Timeline in An Inspector Calls

The timeline below shows where the character Arthur Birling appears in An Inspector Calls. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Wealth, Power, and Influence Theme Icon
Class Politics Theme Icon
The curtain lifts to reveal a family—the Birlings—and one non-family member, Gerald, sitting at the dining-room table. Edna, the maid, is cleaning the... (full context)
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Mr. Birling opens the play by thanking Edna for the port she has brought out of the... (full context)
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Birling encourages his wife to drink, reminding her that it is a special occasion. Edna takes... (full context)
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...the summer before. He defensively cites how busy he was at the works and Mrs. Birling chimes in that once Sheila is married she’ll realize that men with important work sometimes... (full context)
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...him “squiffy.” Eric provokes Sheila, and she calls him an ass, at which point Mrs. Birling tells the two of them to stop it. To change the subject, she asks Arthur... (full context)
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Birling rises to deliver the promised toast. He prefaces the speech by regretting that Gerald’s parents... (full context)
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Mrs. Birling and Sheila object to Arthur’s discussing business on such a night, so Arthur raises his... (full context)
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Birling mentions that there’s been a lot of “silly talk” around lately, but he encourages Gerald... (full context)
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Mrs. Birling leaves with Sheila and Eric, who is whistling “Rule Britannia,” and Birling sits down with... (full context)
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...port. He reports, dismissively, that he has left his mother and sister talking about clothes. Birling informs him that clothes mean more to women, because they function as a sign of... (full context)
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Birling begins in again on his lecture. He tells Eric and Gerald that a man has... (full context)
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...that a police inspector by the name of Goole has called on an important matter. Birling instructs her to let him in, and jokes with Gerald that Eric has probably gotten... (full context)
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When Birling presses the Inspector on the reason for his appearance, he explains that he is investigating... (full context)
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At the Inspector’s prying, Birling admits that he does remember Eva Smith, and that he had discharged her from his... (full context)
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Birling contests that he had nothing to do with the girl’s suicide, because her time at... (full context)
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Eric chimes in with a reference to his father’s previous pep talk, and Birling explains to the Inspector that he had recently been giving Gerald and Eric some good... (full context)
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After the Inspector expresses allegiance with Eric’s disapproval, Birling inquires how well the Inspector knows Chief Constable. The Inspector replies that he doesn’t see... (full context)
Wealth, Power, and Influence Theme Icon
Blame and Responsibility Theme Icon
Class Politics Theme Icon
...higher wages, and adds that in the same position, he would have let them stay. Birling chastises Eric, then asks the Inspector what happened to the girl after he let her... (full context)
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When Birling and Gerald chime in that there’s nothing more to be revealed, the Inspector asks if... (full context)
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...than one name, and then tells them that, for the months following her dismissal from Birling’s, the girl was unemployed and downtrodden. He reminds the family that many young women are... (full context)
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...and then sobs and leaves the room when the Inspector shows her the girl’s photograph. Birling scolds the Inspector for upsetting his daughter and their celebratory evening. (full context)
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...manager of Milward’s to fire the girl, threatening that if they didn’t fire her, Mrs. Birling would close the family’s account there. Sheila admits that she was acting out of a... (full context)
Act 2
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Class Politics Theme Icon
Before he can respond, Mrs. Birling strides in. She has been informed of the proceedings, and insists to the Inspector that... (full context)
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Class Politics Theme Icon
Mrs. Birling suggests that Sheila go to bed, because she won’t be able to understand the motives... (full context)
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Mrs. Birling reports that her husband is in the other room calming Eric down from his excitable... (full context)
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Birling enters and reports that Eric has refused to go to bed as his father asked... (full context)
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Public versus Private Theme Icon
Birling takes offense at the Inspector’s tone and handling of the inquiry. The Inspector coolly proceeds... (full context)
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...at the moment he noticed her she was being harassed by Old Joe Meggarty. Mrs. Birling bristles at the idea that Gerald is speaking of Alderman Meggarty, whom she had always... (full context)
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...who sat down to dinner, and that they would have to re-build their relationship anew. Birling tries to convince Sheila to be more reasonable, but Sheila replies that Gerald knows better... (full context)
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Mrs. Birling announces that it seems they’ve almost reached the end of it, but Gerald interrupts that... (full context)
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The Inspector shows the photograph to Mrs. Birling, who denies recognizing it. The Inspector accuses her of lying. Birling demands that the Inspector... (full context)
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...whether Gerald has returned or Eric has left. The Inspector continues his interrogation of Mrs. Birling by identifying her as a prominent member of the Brumley Women’s Charity Organization. He asks... (full context)
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Blame and Responsibility Theme Icon
Class Politics Theme Icon
Mr. Birling asks why his wife should answer the Inspector’s questions, and the Inspector informs him that... (full context)
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The Inspector asks Mrs. Birling why the girl wanted help, and Mrs. Birling initially refuses to answer, determined not to... (full context)
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...that she didn’t want to take it because it was stolen. The Inspector asks Mrs. Birling if it wasn’t a good thing that the girl refused to take the money. She... (full context)
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...Inspector voices his eagerness for Eric’s return. When the door slams, signifying Eric’s return, Mrs. Birling finally understands and asks the Inspector if her son is all mixed up in this.... (full context)
Act 3
Blame and Responsibility Theme Icon
Public versus Private Theme Icon
...into trouble. Eric bitterly accuses his mother of making it difficult for him, and Mrs. Birling defends that she couldn’t have known the man in question was him, as he’s not... (full context)
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When Mr. Birling asks where the fifty pounds came from, Eric confesses that he took it from his... (full context)
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...afterward, but then he asks how the Inspector had known that. Sheila reveals that Mrs. Birling sat on the committee that assessed the girl’s need for aid. Eric turns to his... (full context)
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...responsible for the death of Eva Smith. He tells them to never forget it. Mr. Birling offers the Inspector a bribe of thousands of pounds, but the Inspector refuses it. (full context)
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Sheila is left crying, Mrs. Birling is collapsed in a chair, Eric is brooding, and Birling pours himself a drink and... (full context)
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...happened. She then wonders aloud whether the Inspector wasn’t actually a police inspector at all. Birling judges that it would make a big difference if the Inspector had been a fake,... (full context)
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The Birling parents are very excited by this news, and Birling calls Chief Constable to verify that... (full context)
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Mrs. Birling reminds her family that she was the only one who didn’t give in to him,... (full context)
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Birling demands that Eric, who is looking sulky, begin to take some interest in the matter.... (full context)
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...significance—that Eva Smith is dead—may not even be a fact after all. He asks the Birlings how they know that they’ve all committed offenses to the same girl, suggesting that the... (full context)
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Gerald asks what happened after he’d left. Mrs. Birling recounts that the Inspector accused her of seeing Eva Smith only two weeks previous, and... (full context)
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Birling triumphantly continues to hypothesize that the Inspector simply shocked them into submission with his initial... (full context)
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Gerald, Mr. Birling, and Mrs. Birling relax at this news and pour themselves a drink. Sheila refuses to... (full context)
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Just as Birling begins to make fun of his overly serious children, the telephone rings. After Birling hangs... (full context)