First of all, some exciting news: over the summer my wife and I became parents to a beautiful baby boy! And although I don’t often write about personal matters, it turns out that parenthood has – as trite as it may sound – changed my world in many unexpected ways. I’m learning, for example, how to get by on four hours’ sleep; I now have a much better understanding of how much urine and milk-vomit I’ll accept on my clothing before changing (answer: it depends on where the stains are); I can change a nappy in 3.5 seconds flat. More pertinently, though, the experience of becoming a father has prompted me to re-evaluate many of my perspectives on literature – even on texts that I’ve taught with confidence for a decade.
All of which is to say that I now think Mrs Birling deserves just the tiniest bit of sympathy at the end of An Inspector Calls. Hear me out.
It isn’t easy to summon much compassion for the Birling family. An Inspector Calls is a purposefully black-and-white morality play in which the Birlings (and Sheila’s fiancé, Gerald Croft) represent the absolute worst of a society rent asunder by unfettered capitalism and class division. Their abuse of privilege ultimately results in the deaths of a poor working class woman, Eva Smith, and her unborn child. The Birlings are pitted against Inspector Goole, the embodiment of Priestley’s socialist ideology, who teaches his audience that “we are members of one body” connected by a “chain of events” in which our behaviour directly impacts the lives of others. The clarity of Priestley’s message is one of the reasons that the play has stood the test of time, and to search too hard for shades of ethical grey is to rob the denouement of its stark impact. “A girl is dead,” says Sheila, “and between us we all helped kill her”.
Moreover, although each of the Birlings is unlikeable in their own special way, Sybil Birling is perhaps the most blatant villain of them all. She is a stickler for class segregation who knowingly condemns a pregnant woman to poverty and refuses to learn her lesson when given the chance in the play’s closing moments. Instead, she “triumphantly” embraces Gerald’s suggestion that Goole “wasn’t a police office”, an excuse that removes her from any real blame and renders the story of Eva Smith a fiction.
Why, then, do I believe that Mrs Birling deserves some compassion at the precise moment when she seems to be at her most unforgivable? Because Mrs Birling is also a victim of immense trauma. As I mentioned above, parenthood changes the way that we look at the world. Speaking as one for whom the journey towards becoming a dad was long and very difficult, with more than its fair share of heartbreak along the way, I now cannot help but feel immense pity for Mrs Birling, especially given the implications of her story. It is undoubtedly repugnant when she refuses to accept the Inspector’s parting message, but her behaviour here also feels like a symptom of a deeper suffering inflicted by the cruellest of punishments. We forget too quickly that Mrs Birling is responsible for the death of her own grandchild.
It’s so tempting to see her about-turn once the Inspector leaves as proof of her moral corruption. “She hasn’t changed!” I’ve told class after class of students. “She wants to pretend that it never happened, she refuses to relinquish her sense of control.” Seeing her in this light increases our sense of vindication when the play’s final, shocking revelation comes to pass: “A girl has just died… And a police inspector is on his way here”. Those who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions have responsibility forced upon them. It is grimly satisfying to see that heinous actions carry brutal consequences. But if we think, just for a moment, what victory means for Mrs Birling, her behaviour doesn’t really seem as unimaginable as I one believed. In fact, if I were in her shoes I might behave in the same way.
Mrs Birling does seem irrational, even deluded. But she speaks as one who has just been told that she is effectively guilty of murder by proxy of her grandchild. Priestley does not allow much time for this detail to sink in, but the little we are told directly of her reaction to this news is deeply upsetting. As Eric, her own son, tells her that “you killed them both – damn you, damn you”, the “very distressed” Mrs Birling can do nothing but splutter half-formed sentences: “No – Eric – please – I didn’t know”. She denies, grieves, and begs in the space of a single line. Although the play moves on quickly as it must, she remains silent for two whole pages of the printed text before “coming to life” again. Her silence speaks volumes. Imagine being Mrs Birling in these moments. Then imagine the impossibility of anything else mattering in the minutes that follow.
To Mrs Birling, then, Gerald’s suggestion that the family were had by a hoax inspector is a lifeline, and a threefold one at that. It saves a child by making its death an impossibility. It saves Eric from unparalleled heartbreak. And it saves her soul, which Eric has damned. In her grief- her trauma – Mrs Birling grasps that lifeline with the desperation of one drowning. She refuses to let go.
Compare her behaviour here with that of Mr Birling. Arthur appears unaffected by the loss of a grandchild. He is more occupied with the money that Eric stole, with the foolishness of the “younger generation”, with the prospect of knighthood. He is a “practical, hard-headed man of business”. His world is material. Mrs Birling, though, prizes the abstract. She long ago learnt that her power comes from class, manners, her name. Indeed, Eva’s pseudonym when approaching the charity committee – “Mrs Birling” – (an “impertinent” pick) is what turns her against Eva in the first place. And so, as her husband cracks open the port and celebrates having “been had”, I can’t help but imagine Mrs Birling – with one eye on the abstract – dwelling on the grandchild who could have been. Her unborn flesh and blood.
She later tells Eric that she is “ashamed” of him, but I like to think that at least part of that shame is directed inwardly, too. Her words ring hollow, part of a well-established act designed to restore the old status quo. Even as she clings tightly to the lifeline thrown by Gerald, she must pretend that she isn’t the one sinking.
And then the phone rings. And, with Eric so close and yet so far, the dreadful abstract becomes inescapable reality. The lights dim, the curtain falls, and Mrs Birling’s world ends once again.