Character analysis of Eric Birling

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Eric Birling works at Birling and Company, his father is presumably his boss. He is the son of  and and brother of . He is of roughly the same age and of the same spirit as his sister. During the play, Eric is exposed as a drunkard, the father of an illegitimate unborn child, a liar, a thief and an embezzler. We realise that there is something not quite right with Eric when he is first introduced in the opening stage directions. He is clearly uncomfortable in some way. He is described at the start as ‘in his early twenties, not quite at ease, half shy, half assertive.’ He has not yet found a meaningful role in life.

Eric acts as dramatic irritant to his father challenging his ideology – contradicting him and interrupting asking questions. Mr.Birling clearly thinks that his son has not benefitted from the expensive education he has given him, because it has been calculated to improve his son’s status, rather than develop a critical approach to life.

Eric seems embarrassed and awkward right from the start. The first mention of him in the script is ‘Eric suddenly guffaws,’ and then he is unable to explain his laughter, as if he is nervous about something. He finds the things his family say funny, even if there is no joke. He laughs aloud when the conversation turns to Gerald and his ‘work’. This indicates that he is aware of Gerald’s philandering. He is quite naive, in no way as worldly or as cunning as Gerald Croft. He may be jealous of the fact that Mr Birling seems to be much more interested in Gerald than his own son. There is another awkward moment when Gerald, Birling and Eric are chatting about women's love of clothes before the Inspector arrives. It is not until the final act that we realise this must be because of his having stolen some money.

He disapproves of his father’s decision to deny Eva Smith’s request for higher wages, and becomes drunk and upset throughout the course of the evening, which prompts Sheila to expose him as a heavy-drinker, to his parents. In the middle of the play, Eric storms out of the house. He seems hostile towards Mr.Birling as he is not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble.

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It soon becomes clear to us (although it takes his parents longer) that he is a ‘hardened drinker.’ We can see his familiarity with quick heavy drinking in the way he pours his whisky in Act III. Gerald admits, ‘I have gathered that he does drink pretty hard.’ When he hears how his father has sacked Eva Smith, he supports the worker's cause, like Sheila, ‘Why shouldn't they try for higher wages?’  He is part of the ‘chain of events’, having a fling with Eva Smith and getting her pregnant. 

Eric is isolated from the rest of the family and feels unsupported. So ...

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