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 CharactersThe 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 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."
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."