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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark

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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...

(The entire section contains 37475 words.)

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Critical Overview