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Mrs. Birling shows a complete lack of self-awareness from the beginning of the play and also exposes her wishes to be detached from anyone with a lower social status. Mrs. Birling says during the dinner “(reproachfully) Arthur you are not supposed to say such things” the way that she criticises her husband from what comes across as a rare pleasant remark from Mr Birling shows how she doesn’t which to praise or associate her self with anyone below her in the social hierarchy.
This reflects Priestley’s point that the beneficiaries of Capitalism have little respect or have even the slightest sense of empathy for those below them in society. The way she also “reproachfully” condemns her husband is also very peculiar, it is almost as if she is unaware by the tension created by her remark on what is a very important family occasion. This may also be a sign of subtext that Mrs. Birling also might be dissatisfied with the social gap between her and husband.
This could perhaps be a subtler view of Priestley’s about the lack of cohesiveness between classes in society.
Despite her daughter being a grown woman who is in the process of marrying, Mrs Birling is of the view that Sheila is incapable of speaking for herself. When Sheila “(half serious, half playful)” criticises Gerald for “not coming near me last summer” Mrs Birling doesn’t pick up on the “playful” nature of her daughter’s remarks and instead tries to pacify the tension, which is ironic as it was created by herself in the first place, she decides to lecture her daughter and demean her importance and how she should use to being second rate for her future husband “men with important work to do…spend nearly all their time and energy on their business.
You’ll have to get use to that, just as I had” and Sheila replies “I don’t believe I will” this also shows how Sheila clearly has a capacity to change which we experience later in the novel. This also represents Priestley’s view that men who go after an endless pursuit of wealth not only has a negative effect on society as a whole but also those most closest to them.
Mrs Birling is used as a contrast of the future welfare state; in 1912 rich people would decide on their own prejudices on who deserves welfare and who doesn’t. So Priestley’s attack is also how the rich keep even the most basic human rights away from the poor. When describing hearing Eva Smiths case she says “She was claiming elaborate fine feelings and scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position” Mrs Birling’s reference to a “girl in here position” highlights her class prejudice and how just because she was of a lower class wasn’t considered to be genuine or believable. It might be a coincidence that she is called ‘Sybil’ but there is a clear use of sibilance by Priestley “feelings…scruples…simply…absurd” this highlights the sinister sound of Mrs Birling, designed to show her evil intent.
Priestley also highlights the hypocrisy of Mrs Birling, when she is referring to Eva Smiths case. Mrs Birling describes “the elaborate fine feelings and scruples which were simply absurd” shows a strong sense of irony. Mrs Birling refers to Eva’s feeling of elaborate, and then she attempts to use the most advances vocabulary she can “ridiculous airs…scruples…absurd” to disguise her snobbery and prejudice. Her clear discrimination of the lower class is displayed when she tells the inspector “As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!” The demeaning labelling of her as a “girl” rather than a woman shows how superior she feels. She also feels morally superior suggesting that a lower class girl “would ever refuse money” trying to suggest that the poor are always after money, this again is heavily ironic. As after all Eva Smith only wanted a couple more shillings a week while the main attraction of the marriage of Sheila and Gerald is the alliance between the 2 firms, allowing “lower costs, higher prices” showing Priestley’s view that it is the rich that crave money not the poor.
As the play progresses Mrs Birling’s characteristics become more clear, despite it being quite clear to Sheila who the father of Eva’s daughter is Mrs Birling seems oblivious to the reality of what is occurring. Rather than facing the reality Mrs Birling decides to attack, the father who is unknown at this stage “I blame the young man…he didn’t belong to her class and was some drunken young idler” the way that Mrs Birling not only critices the young man for being drunk and leaving a young girl with an unborn baby but also because “he didn’t belong to her class” this shows how Mrs Birling’s marginalization of the working class community is exactly the opposite of the sought of society Priestley would want to create.
Even after it is apparent to Sheila who the father is; Mrs Birling blindness is so apparent as she continues to unknowingly castigate her own son “certainly, he ought to be dealt with severely-“ and Sheila replies “ mother – stop – stop” shows how Sheila is the opposite of her mother and is picking up events at a rapid rate. Sheila comment of “don’t you see” is a metaphor, not only does it suggest Mrs Birling doesn’t understand but also referencing to Mrs Birling blindness and lack of thoughts. Mrs Birling’s further throwaway remark “you’re behaving like a hysterical child tonight” again is another example of her completely misreading of the situation as in fact Sheila is quite intelligent in her evaluation that the father of the son must be Eric.
Overall, it is quite clear that Mrs Birling (much like her husband) is a perfect example of the ills capitalism and what needs to change. Priestley would like a society where the state provides welfare to those who need it, not by the prejudices of the rich. A society where money isn’t what epitomizes success but people ability to care after one and other. As suggested by Inspector Goole “We are one body. We are responsible for one another” shows how each specific character has a clear simplistic purpose. For Mrs Birling it’s to be symbolic of the greediness that capitalism involves.
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