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Mrs. Birling During her Interrogation in An Inspector Calls

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Mrs. Birling During her Interrogation in An Inspector Calls

How does Priestley present the character of Mrs Birling to the
audience in Act II, during her interrogation by the Inspector?

In ‘An Inspector Calls’ Priestley presents the character of Mrs
Birling in many ways and using many different devices. Before the
dialogue of the play begins there is a short description of the set,
lighting and characters. This is mainly to help the director of the
production but it is also useful to the audience as it sets the scene
for the play and gives a brief insight into the characters. Prior to
Mrs Birling re-entering the play in Act II the audience only have this
short description and the beginning of Act I to develop a first
impression of her.

‘His wife is about fifty, a rather cold woman and her husband’s social
superior.’

Having read this description and with Act II about to begin the
audience would expect Priestley to reinforce this original description
with cold and inhospitable behaviour towards the Inspector. In
contrast to their expectations she greets him with a warm welcome.

‘(smiling, social) Good evening, Inspector.’

However gradually throughout Act II Priestley does present Mrs
Birling’s character to mirror this original description and the
audience are reassured that their original impressions of Mrs
Birling’s character were right all along.

During Act II Priestley presents the character of Mrs Birling through
her use of language and tone, her reactions towards her daughter
Sheila, and her harsh viewpoint of Eva Smith. All of these factors
that Priestley has used to present Mrs Birling’s character combine and
reach a climax at the end of her interrogation by the Inspector in Act
II resulting in her true character being revealed to the audience.

At the beginning of Act II when Mrs Birling greets the Inspector with
what I have described as a warm welcome she is merely maintaining a
cool and superficial exterior for the Inspector so that she feels in
control. She introduces herself as if the Inspector should know who
she is.

‘(same easy tone) I’m Mrs Birling, y’know.’

Her tone of voice is easy as she is relaxed but it is also snooty and
full of self-importance. She does not feel threatened by the Inspector
and her casual language shows this. However just like Mr Birling when
he says,

‘And to that I say fiddlesticks! The Germans don’t want war.’

She has no idea of what is to come. Mrs Birling is proved to be very
foolish as she believes she is above the law yet later she will be
involved with the ‘crime’. At this point in the play the audience will
think that Mrs Birling is snobbish and thinks too highly of herself.
They will know that she is in a high class because of the description
of the dining room in the stage directions and of her.

‘The dining room of a fairly large suburban house, belonging to a
prosperous manufacturer.’

Priestley may have wanted to create a character like Mrs Birling
because he was a socialist. He wrote many plays and novels and most
were light and optimistic in their tone so ‘An Inspector Calls’ was
not his usual mood. Many think that ‘An Inspector Calls’ shows
Priestley’s beliefs about the class system and life in 1912. The
character of Mrs Birling could be based on what he could have thought
was the stereotypical high-class mother. He spends a lot of the play
adding to her character and the shock at the end of Act II is Mrs
Birlings reaction to finding out that she has inadvertently killed her
own grandchild.

‘(agitated) I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it …’

She did not seem to be guilty or ashamed about turning Eva away but
was worried about the scandal of it all. Even Mr Birling was shocked
at her treatment of Eva.

‘(dubiously) I must say, Sybil, that when this comes out at the
inquest, it isn’t going to do us much good. The Press might easily
take it up -’

Despite Mrs Birlings retorts of doing nothing wrong at this point in
the play the audience won’t feel any sympathy for her predicament.

‘I did nothing that I’m ashamed of.’

Priestley has purposefully used her interrogation with the Inspector
to show her cruel nature.

Even before Mrs Birling knew why Eva was requesting help and aid from
her committee she was prejudiced against her case for using the name
Birling and she admits it. She was the head of the committee and if
anyone could have helped Eva then she could have. She was the last
family member that Eva came into contact with and many believe that
she had the most devastating affect on Eva’s well being. Mr Birling
was the catalyst as he sacked her from her job at his factory and Mrs
Birling finished what her husband started.

As Act II develops Mrs Birling’s cool exterior begins to melt away
with Sheila’s hysterics and warnings.

‘(annoyed) Mustn’t - what? Really Sheila!’

Priestley is gradually breaking down Mrs Birling’s exterior so as to
present the audience with her real character. The language that he is
using in her speech is becoming less casual and relaxed and more
uptight. Her tone is becoming slightly aggressive.

Sheila tries to warn her mother not to deny her involvement with Eva
as she cares for her mother and does not want to see her embarrass
herself.

‘(slowly, carefully now) You mustn’t try to build up a kind of wall
between us and that girl. If you do, then the Inspector will just
break it down. And it’ll be all the worse when he does.’

Later in Act II Mrs Birling disregards this warning as during her
interrogation with the Inspector she denies recognising Eva, and
refuses to answer his question about her committee. She didn’t
understand or care what Sheila meant and so her warnings fell on deaf
ears. However the audience understood as they have already watched the
Inspector interrogate Mr Birling, and Sheila. They all started
confidently and one by one they revealed their involvement with Eva
and in her death. The audience now see Mrs Birling as incredibly
foolish.

Sheila is obviously becoming increasingly distressed by the news of
Eric’s involvement in Eva’s life yet Mrs Birling tells her to ‘be
quiet’ and claims she is ‘behaving like an hysterical child’. This
shows that Mrs Birling is not close to Sheila and there is no sign of
affection. She is obviously annoyed at Sheila’s inappropriate
behaviour. She wants Sheila to uphold a cool exterior like she does,
or tries to. The audience would view their relationship as very
strained.

I think that Priestley has successfully presented Mrs Birling
throughout Act II to match his original description of her. Many of
the stage directions for Mrs Birling in Act II represent this first
description.

‘(angrily)’, ‘(with dignity)’

These quotes support the description that she is a cold woman with a
high social position. The audience will have seen this description
portrayed through Mrs Birling’s actions. When the audience find out
about Mrs Birling’s involvement with Eva and the death of her
grandchild they feel as though justice is being done as her reluctance
to accept any responsibility as been taken away and she now has to
face up to what she has done.

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