Mr Birling thinks that the idea of social responsibility is ‘nonsense’
‘as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive – community and all that nonsense... a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own – and – ‘
The Inspector wants to prove that all actions have consequences:
INSPECTOR: what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide. A chain of events.
BIRLING: ...If we were all responsible for everything that happened to everybody we’d had anything to do with, it would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?
The Inspector wants the family to realise that being ‘respectable’ in society’s eyes does not mean you are not responsible for your actions:
GERALD: After all, y’know, we’re respectable citizens and not criminals
INSPECTOR: Sometimes there isn’t much difference as you think. Often, if it was left to me, I wouldn’t know where to draw the line.
Ironically, Birling tells Eric that he needs to learn to take responsibility: ‘It’s about time you learnt to face a few responsibilities. That’s something this public-school-and-Varsity life you’ve had doesn’t seem to teach you.’
The family initially joke that the doorbell might be because of Eric’s guilt. This shows how confident they are in their secure position and innocence in any involvement.
GERALD[lightly]: Unless Eric’s been up to something [Nodding confidently to Birling] And that would be awkward, wouldn’t it?
BIRLING [humorously]: Very.
The family are disturbed when the Inspector reveals he has not simply come to question Mr Birling: [The other four exchange bewildered and perturbed glances]
Mr Birling is pleased about his daughter’s marriage as it links his family to a wealthier family, thus securing their social position.
Mr Birling tries to use his social status to intimidate the Inspector.
Gerald makes the excuse that he does not want Sheila to listen to the Inspector’s questioning in case it is ‘unpleasant and disturbing’ – this reveals his hypocrisy.
INSPECTOR: And you think young women ought to be protexted against unpleasant and disturbing things?
GERALD: If possible – yes
INSPECTOR: Well, we know one young woman who wasn’t, don’t we?
The Inspector does not want Sheila to feel completely responsible for the girl’s death: ‘Now Miss Birling has just been made to understand what she did to this girl. She feels responsible. And if she leaves us now, and doesn’t hear any more, she’ll be alone with her responsibility, the rest of tonight, all tomorrow, all the next night –...You see, we have to share something. If there’s nothing else, we’ll have to share our guilt.’
The Inspector criticises Mrs Birling for refusing to take any responsibility for the girl’s death: ‘I think you did something terribly wrong – and that you’re going to spend the rest of your life regretting it. I wish you’d been with me tonight in the Infirmary...’
Mrs Birling is so offended by the pregnant girl’s use of the name ‘Birling’ that she overlooks her poverty and desperate situation: ‘a gross impertinence’. This word is significant; Mrs Birling does not simply think Eva was rude, she is offended that Eva did not show enough respect to someone from the upper class.
Gerald comments that he rescued Daisy from Alderman Meggarty – a senior local councillor who is ‘a notorious womanizer as well as being one of the worst sots and rogues in Brumley – ‘. This shows that anyone can end up involved in scandalous behaviour and should have been a warning for Mr Birling.
The Inspector shows no fear of Mr Birling’s importance in the town and reminds the family that men who hold public authority ‘have responsibilities as well as privileges’
Mr Birling reveals that his big concern is the reputation of the family name when he hears about his wife’s involvement: ‘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 – ‘
Guilt and responsibility
The Inspector wants to family to realise their individual responsibility: ‘This girl killed herself – and died a horrible death. But each of you helped to kill her.’
He is also proposes the idea that everyone in society is responsible for each other and threatens that if the privileged classes continue to pursue self-interest, it will lead to disaster:
‘Just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millins and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and their fears, their suffering, and their chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.’
Even after the Inspector’s speech, Mr Birling is still concerned about his status and reputation: ‘There’ll be a public scandal...I was almost certain for a knighthood on the next Honours List – ‘
Sheila recognises that her family are more concerned with appearing respectable than with being honest about their responsibilities: ‘I suppose we’re all sensible people now.... You’re just beginning to pretend again.’