An Inspector Calls is a British play delivering a sharp critique of 19th/20th century cultural, economic and national ideologies. The play describes the visit of Inspector Goole to the Birling family, concerning the death by suicide of a former female employee. The Birling's reactions, and the eventual revelation of their responsibility for the circumstances leading to the young woman's death, are meant to represent the actions and responsibilities of society and the blind eye that it turns to its own hypocrisies.
Mr. Birling is the head of the family, an aggrandizing businessman who is meant to represent a sort of "fat cat" stereotype, constantly reminding others, and himself, of his importance. At first, he is too self-important to recognize the line of Goole's questioning, or even to recall his own familiarity with the girl. However, after being shown a photo, he gradually, and cautiously, releases some of his acquaintance with her; she was employed, and fired, by him about two years prior.
Goole insists that this firing, while not directly causing her suicide, may have begun a chain of events that led to her death. When questioned as to why he fired her, Birling states that she, and other girls, returned from holiday and sought a raise. Birling, seeking to keep costs down, saw no reason to pay them above the going rate for their work, and fired her. Birling is very defensive about all of this, and resents Goole's insinuations that he is in any way responsible for the death, or unjustified in firing her. This defensiveness is where Birling reveals more of his dual function as a form of social commentary:
Birling: Rubbish! If you don't come down sharply on some of these people, they'd soon be asking for the earth.