The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Spark, Muriel - Essay

Muriel Spark


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark

The following entry presents criticism on Spark's novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 5, 8 and 18.

One of Spark's best-known and most critically acclaimed works, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) centers on morality, manipulation, and betrayal at a school for girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, during the 1930s. Praised for its structural complexity, the novel juxtaposes past, present, and future events as well as fantasies as it documents the decline of the title character—the teacher Jean Brodie—and her effect on her students. As Mary Schneider has stated: "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has long been recognized as a brilliantly woven novel, complex in its narrative techniques and themes."

Plot and Major Characters

The primary action of the novel takes place at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, during the 1930s and focuses on a small group of students, known as "the Brodie set," and their schoolmistress, Miss Jean Brodie. The story begins in 1936, when the girls are sixteen, but quickly flashes back to 1930, when the girls—then in the junior level—began their two year course of study under Brodie's tutelage. Spark utilizes flashbacks and flash-forwards throughout the novel. A domineering eccentric who admires the fascism of Benito Mussolini, Brodie attempts to exert control over her students' lives and fantasies and to mold their beliefs and aesthetic tastes. Although Brodie's affect on each of the girls varies, they remain a distinct clique at the school after they leave the junior level and move up through the senior level. Sandy Stranger and Rose Stanley are the principal figures among the girls, and it is through them that Brodie attempts to carry on a vicarious romance with Teddy Lloyd, the school's art master. Although Brodie is in love with Lloyd, she renounces him because he is married. Brodie instead carries on an affair with Gordon Lowther, the school's singing master, but refuses to marry him. At this point in the story—when the flashbacks have caught up to the time when the novel formally began, in 1936—a new girl, Joyce Emily Hammond, arrives at the school and manages to befriend Brodie. At the same time, the Headmistress, Miss Mackay, is attempting and failing to have Brodie removed. Joyce eventually disappears; it is later learned that she was killed in Spain, where her brother is fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. During the summer of 1938, Brodie tours Germany, where her admiration for fascism increases. At the same time, Sandy has an affair with Lloyd—Brodie had intended for Rose to sleep with him. Lloyd, who is Catholic, introduces Sandy to Catholicism. She later converts, becomes a nun, and writes a famous psychological treatise, "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace." After returning from Germany, Brodie tells Sandy that she encouraged Joyce to go to Spain and convinced her to switch her allegiance to the fascists. Horrified at Brodie's disregard for human life and individuality, Sandy relates the information to Miss Mackay, who forces Brodie's resignation. Brodie, who dies of cancer seven years later, spends the remainder of her life trying to figure out who betrayed her.

Major Themes

Major themes in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie include control and omniscience, Sandy's psychological development, and religion. The first theme centers on Brodie's attempts to influence the girl's actions and beliefs. Brodie tells the girls that they are an elite group—the "crème de la crème"—and she takes them into her confidence and tries to imbue them with her views on culture and life. As Dorothea Walker has stated, Brodie's "determination to broaden [the girls' knowledge] with her distorted version of reality suggests both her authoritarian nature and her desire to control. Her greatest wish is really to reproduce clones of herself." Miss Brodie's admiration for fascism reinforces this theme, and Sandy, in her recollections of "the Brodie Set" and its emphasis on conformity, likens the girls to Mussolini's soldiers. This theme is also reflected in Spark's narrative style—a number of critics have compared her authorial control over the characters with Miss Brodie's totalitarian personality and fascist impulses. Margaret Moan Rowe has stated that "Spark deftly counterpoints authorial omniscience with Brodie's attempts at omniscience; all the author plans works, not so with the plans of the character in the novel." The novel's second theme shows Sandy's development from a young girl who hesitantly accepts Brodie's declarations, to a teenager who questions the limits of her loyalty to Brodie, to a cloistered nun. As a young girl Sandy is obsessed with understanding Brodie's psychology. However, as Sandy matures, her fascination with Brodie gives way to the realization of her moral obligation to the welfare of others and compels her to put an end to Brodie's tenure at the school, thus preventing her from influencing another set of impressionable girls. Spark's characters rarely, however, act from a single motive, and the author suggests that Sandy's impulse to act against Brodie is also tinged with jealousy. The novel's third theme centers on Roman Catholicism. Brodie abhors Catholicism and tells her students that it is a religion for those who do not wish to think for themselves. In authorial commentary, Spark notes that this is an odd view for someone such as Brodie and suggests that Brodie was best suited to the Roman Catholic church, which might have refined her excesses. Sandy's conversion to Catholicism owes to her affair with Lloyd and the influence of Brodie. Commenting on Sandy's conversion and Brodie's role in it, Walker has stated that "Spark appears to be saying that out of evil may come good, in that evil might be refined and tempered into good. To a believer like Spark, the tempering agent is Roman Catholicism."

Critical Reception

Most critics consider The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to be Spark's finest novel. Commentators have noted its thematic richness as well as its technical achievements, particularly Spark's handling of time through flashbacks and flash-forwards. Others have remarked on Spark's writing and narrative organization, praising it as concise and economical. Rowe has written that "Nothing is wasted in [The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie], which is so much about a waste of human energy." Although many scholars consider the novel to be primarily a character study centered on Sandy and Miss Brodie, others have argued that the novel's focus is metafictional. Gerry S. Laffin, for instance, has suggested that "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a parable, and a highly autobiographical one, of the artist as a young girl. Further, it seems that in this novel at least, Mrs. Spark believes that any creator of fiction who claims to be a truth-teller is being absurdly, even dangerously, pretentious."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (criticism) 1951; also published as Mary Shelley [revised edition], 1987
The Fanfarlo, and Other Verse (poetry) 1952
John Masefield (criticism) 1953; revised edition, 1992
The Comforters (novel) 1957
The Go-Away Bird, with Other Stories (short stories) 1958; also published as The Go-Away Bird, and Other Stories, 1960
Robinson (novel) 1958
Memento Mori (novel) 1959
The Bachelors (novel) 1960
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (novel) 1960
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (novel) 1961
Voices at Play: Stories and Ear-pieces (short stories and radio plays) 1961
Doctors of Philosophy (play) 1962
The Girls of Slender Means (novel) 1963
The Mandelbaum Gate (novel) 1965
Collected Poems I (poetry) 1967; also published as Going Up to Sotheby's, and Other Poems, 1982
Collected Stories I (short stories) 1967
The Public Image (novel) 1968
The Very Fine Clock (juvenilia) 1968
The Driver's Seat (novel) 1970
The French Window (juvenilia) 1970
Not to Disturb (novel) 1971
The Hothouse by the East River (novel) 1973
The Abbess of Crewe (novel) 1974
The Takeover (novel) 1976
Territorial Rights (novel) 1979
Loitering with Intent (novel) 1981
Bang-Bang You're Dead, and Other Stories (short stories) 1982
The Only Problem (novel) 1984
The Stories of Muriel Spark (short stories) 1985
A Far Cry from Kensington (novel) 1988
Symposium (novel) 1990
Curriculum Vitae: Autobiography (autobiography) 1993

Samuel Hynes (review date 23 February 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Great Tradition: The Prime of Muriel Spark," in The Commonweal, Vol. 75, No. 22, February 23, 1962, pp. 562-63, 567-68.

[Hynes is an American educator and critic. In the review below, he comments on Spark's previous novels and argues that, like her earlier works, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is "intricately designed, and concerned with religious ideas."]

In this age of book clubs and television interviews and full-page advertisements, it is comforting (and perhaps snobbishly satisfying as well) to find now and then a writer who has made a reputation simply by being read and admired. Only five years have passed since Muriel Spark published her...

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Ann B. Dobie (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Muriel Spark Bridges the Credibility Gap," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1969, pp. 217-28.

[Dobie is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, she discusses the novel's point of view and the development of its major characters.]

Muriel Spark is certainly one of the most productive novelists writing today. Since 1957 she has published eight novels in addition to verse and short stories. Though all have received critical attention, amounting sometimes to little more than critical puzzlement, most interest has been paid neither to her first nor her latest fiction, but one of the central novels: The...

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Gerry S. Laffin (essay date Summer 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Muriel Spark's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl," in Renascence, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Summer, 1972, pp. 213-23.

[In the essay below, Laffin analyzes the religious, Freudian, and novelistic aspects of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by examining the various motivations of the character Sandy.]

It was with a sense of relief that Muriel Spark enthusiasts greeted The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for here at last was the concretely real uncluttered by the mysteriously occult, the supernatural, the fantastic. The Comforters had been one of the most puzzling of first novels; one was not altogether sure what to make of it. Robinson was...

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J. H. Dorenkamp (essay date Autumn 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Moral Vision in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," in Renascence, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1980, pp. 3-9.

[In the following essay, Dorenkamp discusses the theme of morality in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, focusing on the main characters, Jean Brodie and Sandy Stranger.]

Muriel Spark's novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is an economical treatise on moral perception which exemplifies not only the necessity of such perception, but also the terrible responsibility accompanying its acquisition. This relationship, arising from the close association between knowledge and action, is central to the conflict of the book and is...

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Velma Bourgeois Richmond (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," in Muriel Spark, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984, pp. 16-28.

[Richmond is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she discusses theme and technique in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, arguing that the novel "is concerned to define the nature of the human condition."]

With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark became famous and rich, a celebrated novelist with a wide audience. The title character of the novel fascinated readers and also became known through theater and cinema. Vanessa Redgrave first performed the role of the Scottish schoolteacher in Jay Presson Allen's play...

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Isobel Murray and Bob Tait (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," in Ten Modern Scottish Novels, Aberdeen University Press, 1984, pp. 100-22.

[In the excerpt below, Murray and Tait focus on Spark's handling of character development, the theme of religion, and literary technique in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.]

Three very different novelists … have one thing in common; an adult conversion to Roman Catholicism. They are Fionn MacColla, Muriel Spark and George Mackay Brown. Brown we must meantime leave to one side: his religious beliefs form an integral part of a personal vision of natural harmony in Greenvoe. Can anything useful be said in comparing such disparate...

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Alan Bold (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jean Brodie, the Girls, the Gate," in Muriel Spark, Methuen, 1986, pp. 63-86.

[A Scottish poet and critic, Bold has written extensively on Scottish literature. In the following excerpt, he remarks on language and character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.]

Several of Muriel Spark's novels place characters in insulated areas, contain them in tightly knit communities: the pilgrim centre in The Comforters (1957), the island in Robinson (1958), the geriatric ward in Memento Mori (1959), the hostel in The Girls of Slender Means (1963), the big house in Not to Disturb (1971), the apartment in The Hothouse by the East River...

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Anne L. Bower (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Narrative Structure of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 488-98.

[In the following essay, Bower analyzes Spark's use of flashforwards and fantasies, concluding that they "dramatize the unexpected ways in which a seemingly dedicated teacher can affect her pupils."]

Because the narrative line of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is often interrupted and time seems to be just a plaything of the author, a first reading may leave one feeling dislocated. Further investigation, however, proves that Spark regularly introduces flashforwards and fantasies into the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Auerbach, Nina. "A World at War: One Big Miss Brodie." In Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction, pp. 159-91. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Analyzes "the Brodie set" as a community of women, arguing that "the very seclusion of Spark's communities of women assures us that they are not pastoral alternatives to a world at war but symbols of it."

Hicks, Granville. "Treachery and the Teacher." Saturday Review, New York, XLV, No. 3 (20 January 1962): 18.

Favorably reviews The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, concluding that the novel "is...

(The entire section is 499 words.)