The Birlings are a family of wealth and power, who take pride in their high social position. Mr. Birling is a successful businessman, and the family inhabits a nice home with a maid (and likely other servants). The play begins with the family celebrating and feeling generally pleased with themselves and their fortunate circumstance. Throughout the Inspector’s investigation, however, it comes out that several of the Birlings have used their power and influence immorally, in disempowering and worsening the position of a girl from a lower class: Mr. Birling used his high professional position to force Eva Smith out of his factory when she led a faction of workers in demanding a raise; Sheila, in a bad temper, used her social status and her family’s reputation to have the girl fired from Milward’s; Mrs. Birling used her influence in the Women’s Charity Organization to deny the girl monetary aid. Both Sheila and Mrs. Birling acted upon petty motivations in injuring the girl; Mr. Birling acted upon selfish, capitalist motivations.
Throughout the play, as these acts are revealed, the Birlings’ social status becomes a point of conflict amongst members of the family, as the children grow ashamed of their family’s ability to use their influence immorally and the parents remain proud of their social and economic position and do not understand their children’s concern.
The play demonstrates the corruption implicit within a capitalist economy in which wealth and influence are concentrated in a small portion of the population. The few wealthy people at the top maintain the social hierarchy in order to retain their high position, and have the power, on a petty whim, to push the powerless even further down the ladder. And, in the conflict at the end of the play between the younger and older members of the Birlings, it becomes clear that as the powerful settle into their power, they become blind to the possibility that they may be acting immorally, seeing themselves as naturally deserving of their positions and therefore of their actions as being natural and right (as opposed to selfish attempts to maintain the status quo that puts them at the top).
Wealth, Power, and Influence ThemeTracker
Wealth, Power, and Influence Quotes in An Inspector Calls
Birling: It’s a free country, I told them.
Eric: It isn’t if you can’t go and work somewhere else.
Gerald: We’re respectable citizens and not dangerous criminals.
Inspector: Sometimes there isn’t as much difference as you think.
You know, of course, that my husband was Lord Mayor only two years ago and that he’s still a magistrate?
We’ve no excuse now for putting on airs.