The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Muriel Spark
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Describe the narrative structures used in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and their relevance to the novel.

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The narrative structure of Spark's novel is a fluid one that moves freely backward and forward in time. It is not so much a case of multiple flashbacks as it is a framework where there is no single principal time period in which the story is set. It is a...

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The narrative structure of Spark's novel is a fluid one that moves freely backward and forward in time. It is not so much a case of multiple flashbacks as it is a framework where there is no single principal time period in which the story is set. It is a series of equally significant time-pictures across the years in the lives of Miss Brodie and "her girls."

The reason Spark adopts this structure is probably because it shows the changeability of the relationships between Brodie and the girls as they all mature over time. The pre-adolescent Sandy, for instance, has a connection with Miss Brodie that cannot be maintained once Sandy has matured and begun posing for Mr. Lloyd, eventually becoming his lover. When the girls are at their youngest in the story, they have no way of understanding the wrongness of Miss Brodie's admiration for Mussolini or the fascists in Spain (many others in Europe, of course, made the same mistake). The constant movements through time and the juxtapositions of past and present are Spark's method of getting across a message that human understanding and human relationships are in a constant state of flux. It also brings up the question of whether the same "self" exists through time or whether none of us has a fixed identity. Perhaps we are just collections of "impressions" and "experiences," as David Hume—the Scotsman who might have been Miss Brodie's favorite philosopher—speculated.

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Although the story follows a broad chronological framework, following events from 1930-1939, the narrative flashes forward every so often to offer glimpses of the future. This juxtaposition of different time frames is extremely relevant to the novel's purpose as a whole as it deals with Miss Brodie's influence on a select company of her pupils, the Brodie set, throughout their lives. The irony is that while Miss Brodie is supremely confident of exerting a lifelong influence on these girls, the flash-forward technique shows that, with the exception of Sandy, this does not turn out to be the case. Though they remember her from time to time, they end up leading quite different lives from what she imagined for them. For instance Rose, whom Miss Brodie imagined would turn out to be a great lover, a 'Venus incarnate', settles down to a conventional role:

Rose ... made a good marriage soon after she left school. She shook off Miss Brodie's influence as a dog shakes pond-water from its coat. (chapter 6)

Rose, then, emphatically does not fullfil Miss Brodie's exalted plans for her, and discards her teacher's influence with barely a thought.

The only girl on whom Miss Brodie has a profound and lifelong effect is Sandy. The narrative perspective generally reflects this, as events are mostly filtered through Sandy's consciousness, although we also get a direct insight into other characters' minds on occasion. Sometimes the narrative structure shifts to an omniscient narrative voice, for example at the beginning of chapter 3, which provides some background commentary on women of Mrs Brodie's type: educated and cultured women who were bereaved in the First World War and subsequently sought some outlet for their energies. This somewhat complex structure allows for multiple viewpoints on Miss Brodie and her actions, and other people's reactions to her. This is again very relevant to the novel's overall purpose of highlighting Miss Brodie's ideas and influences on others. 

The narrative also makes frequent use of repetition, referring to some incidents more than once. This kind of narrative structure allows for events to be considered from different angles. One example is the death of Mary Macgregor. First this is shown from Mary's own point of view, evoking some pathos, then it is discussed by the other girls and Miss Brodie, showing how they come to feel remorse for not having treated her more kindly. 

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