Here is a sample question for the whole text question, followed by a model answer. You would be expected to write for about 40 minutes for this question.
Write about the character of Mr Birling and his importance to the play.
You may want to consider:
- His views and beliefs at the start of the play
- The way he reacts to the Inspector
- His attitude at the end of the play.
He enjoys talking a lot, making other people listen to him and telling the younger people in the play how to live their lives. For example, just before the Inspector arrives he speaks at length, in a very didactic manner, to Eric and Gerald, explaining how a man should put himself first and not worry about the community and society, as if we ‘were bees in a hive’ This shows us that he does not worry about the position of those less fortunate, or less wealthy than him, and he dismisses people who do think like this as ‘cranks’. Priestley ridicules these beliefs by including within this speech the statement ‘Look at the Titanic! Absolutely unsinkable!’ – when in fact the Titanic sank shortly after the period the play was written in. Mr Birling can be seen as the main representative of a set of beliefs that Priestley sees as responsible for some of the catastrophes of the early 20th century.
Mr Birling’s reaction to the Inspector shows us his concern for status, as he is constantly trying to influence the Inspector by dropping the names of important local policeman and politicians. This shows us how self-important he is and how he thinks that his power and influence can overcome the law. However, the Inspector is not concerned at all by these names, which seriously affects the attitude and behaviour of Mr Birling. He gets angrier and angrier at the Inspector, calling him ‘officious’ and threatening to report him. There is a definite clash of authority and beliefs between the two men, which again can be seen as the clash between the two main ideas of Socialism and Capitalism.
Finally, Mr Birling’s behaviour at the end of the play shows us that he has not learnt anything at all from the night’s events. At the end of the play, he is less concerned with whether or not he might have been responsible for Eva Smith’s death than whether or not he will be found guilty. He is more concerned that there might be ‘a public scandal’ and that his ‘special reason’ for not wanting a scandal – ie, his knighthood – will be put in danger. He still believes that he can carry on the way he did before, not worrying about other people, sacking the workers in his factory and using his power and influence to ensure nothing is investigated. Therefore, the importance of Mr Birling to the play is to show how strong and unshakeable his beliefs are, but also to show how such beliefs will always end in catastrophe and disaster.