Several of the characters in J. B. Priestley's play An Inspector Calls have names of symbolic significance. Most notably, Inspector Goole plays on his potential supernatural aspects: "spectre", "ghoul". But there are others: Eva Smith was a very common pairing of names for the time, indicating her role as "everywoman". I have also heard it suggested that Gerald Croft plays on the derivation of the surname from "crafty", as in "cunning", and that Sheila is so-named because the name is derived from the Gaelic for "blind", indicating her unwillingness to see injustice.

I have not ever come across a suggestion that the surname of the family, Birling, has any meaning, but it is an extremely unusual name. It's essentially unheard of in the UK beyond the play. It struck me, given the fact the play was authored at the end of the Second World War and can be read as a warning against both war and fascism, that it might be a play on "Berlin". But that seems far-fetched. Is there an accepted theory as to the significance of this unusual surname?

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    There's an entire youtube post about names in Priestley, including Birling. I have not read the book so cannot comment: Nomenclature in An Inspector Calls youtube.com/watch?v=lRcbZ4ujgkI
    – Lambie
    Mar 21 at 13:11


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