The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Muriel Spark
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How is the theme of religion explored in the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

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In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, religion is presented as an aspect of social snobbery, something inherently exclusive. Far from being an expression of sincere spirituality, it is a tool of exclusion, a blunt instrument used to divide the sheep from the goats.

As an ardent Calvinist, Miss Brodie believes herself without question to be one of the elect, those destined by God from all eternity to be saved, while the rest of humanity, the sinners, are to be damned to hell. This firm belief in double predestination manifests itself in the exclusive little coterie of girls that Miss Brodie gathers about herself, which becomes almost a Calvinist sect in miniature.

But as Sandy becomes more mature, she instinctively rebels against such a black-and-white worldview. Her rebellion manifests itself in the betrayal of Miss Brodie and her subsequent conversion to Catholicism. Scotland at this time was a fiercely Calvinist nation in which there was widespread prejudice against its minority Catholic population.

So, by knowingly joining the ranks of a despised minority, Sandy is taking upon herself the suffering of her coreligionists. To some extent, this can be seen as atonement for her betrayal of Miss Brodie. But at the same time it can also be seen as a rejection of the established order of Scottish society, shaped as it is by the Calvinist Church of Scotland.

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Calvinism and Roman Catholicism both play a role in this novel. Miss Brodie is a Calvinist, but she sometimes speaks in language tinged with Catholicism. For example, she says:

Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.

This is a paraphrase of Jesuit Ignatius Loyola's statement that if he had a child until the age of seven, the child would be a Catholic forever. The statement also suggests that Miss Brodie has a religious view of her calling as teacher.

Miss Brodie's Calvinism is a form of Protestantism that embraced the idea of unconditional election or predestination. This theology insists that people's salvation or damnation is decided before they were born, and it comes out in Miss Brodie's choice of her "special girls," the "crème de la crème." Of course, she strays from Calvinism in taking on the role of God herself, deciding who will be "saved" by becoming part of her inner circle.

Her belief in an elite group of girls mirrors the fascist belief in the Aryans as a superior race. We can see how the elitism in fascism attracts her.

Sandy, who betrays Miss Brodie and converts to Catholicism, rejects Calvinism, just as Muriel Sparks did:

Later, when Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God's pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous since of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

This could be interpreted as relating to the nasty outcome Miss Brodie endures when she is thrown out of the "paradise" of teaching at the school. All in all, Sparks questions the idea of the "election" of a superior group, both in religion and in politics.

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In Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark deeply probes the theme of religion and its role within the lives of the the titular teacher Jean Brodie and the "Brodie set." Spark contrasts Calvinism, a form of Christianity that emphasizes predestination, with Roman Catholicism. The two characters who best represent these two disparate religions are Brodie and Sandy Stranger, respectively.

Brodie is associated with Calvinism in part because of her fascination with Fascism. The predetermination inherent in Calvinism is rigid and dictates that all events have a predetermined outcome. Brodie is confident about the course that her girls will take, and believes that she has a huge influence in steering them toward what she perceives to be their destinies. At the end of the novel, Sandy reflects:

"She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end"(129).

This is especially potent because Brodie is influencing her set to be like her. She lives vicariously through these young women, but Sandy rejects Brodie's overbearing nature. Sandy plays a Judas-like role because she betrays Brodie, and then devotes her life to the Catholic Church. However, even in Catholicism, Sandy finds Fascist elements that are reminiscent of Brodie's influence:

"By now she had entered the Catholic Church, in whose ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss Brodie"(134).

Even though Catholicism does not have the same ardent belief system as Calvinism, Sandy discovers some of the same issues that she had when she was contending with Brodie. These are just some of the ways Spark explores the theme of religion in her novel.

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