The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Analysis

Muriel Spark

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Miss Brodie lives life on a grander scale than the typical unmarried schoolteacher does, and she believes that her students should have the benefit of her experiences, which she considers more valuable than the lessons within their texts. Her students are told to hold their history books open when they are really hearing about Miss Brodie’s travels in Italy, her dead fiancé, or her views on art.

The six girls who make up the Brodie set are selected at age ten, when they are in her junior school class. They are chosen not so much for their special abilities as for what Miss Brodie will be able to do with them—each has parents who will not question the teacher’s departures from traditional educational patterns.

In addition to vicariously experiencing Miss Brodie’s youthful affair with a soldier who was killed in World War I and her travels in Europe, the members of the set are educated in other ways that Miss Brodie finds most appropriate. They accompany her to concerts, to ballet performances, and on walks through derelict sections of Edinburgh, where they see historic buildings and learn about unemployment.

The girls remain Miss Brodie’s students for two years but continue to be the “Brodie set” through all their years at Marcia Blaine. They take tea and excursions with their former teacher as they grow older, telling her what they are learning in senior school and continuing to hear of her vacations and opinions. Their behavior is shaped by Brodie’s ideas; none joins the Girl Guides or is actively a team player because Miss Brodie does not believe in conformist behavior. This contrasts strangely with the teacher’s vocal admiration for the order in Italy under Benito Mussolini and his fascists. Only Sandy picks up on and ponders this...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie powerfully evokes a women’s world. All the major characters are female, and their views and voices dominate the text. The Marcia Blaine School is a female universe and functions as a microcosm in which women play almost all the roles. This novel was one of the first to portray sophisticated girls unsentimentally. The Brodie set members are not the “sugar and spice” young women of stereotype.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie also functions as a study of female social patterns. The girls’ school setting provides a comparison with the many works that focus on the interactions of boys and men in schools and other closed groups.

Because the story is so woman-oriented, the male characters almost become objects. Certainly, the passive Mr. Lowther, who allows Miss Brodie to control his kitchen and his bedroom, seems more acted upon than active. Even Mr. Lloyd is under the power of women: All the portraits he paints resemble Miss Brodie because he is obsessed with her, and Sandy is able to make him kiss her simply by manipulating the way she looks at him. This female-male pattern is unusual in literature.

More subtle woman-related issues involve Miss Brodie’s role as a spinster. She never reproduces herself literally. It may be that she is trying to reproduce herself through her girls. Perhaps Miss Brodie’s power becomes warped because her position as a junior school teacher only allows her to exercise that power in a limited arena. If this aging, unmarried woman had possessed more options for power in her life, perhaps her need to control would not appear so manipulative.

Spark’s novel was received enthusiastically, and it remains her most popular work. Film and stage adaptations have proved to be extremely popular; Maggie Smith won an Oscar for best actress for her portrayal of Miss Brodie. The concept of a Miss Brodie—a controlling but inspiring teacher—has even entered popular discourse as a sort of cultural archetype.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Great Depression

The late 1920s and the decade of the 1930s witnessed a global economic depression. Prices...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)


Characterization of the Brodie set is achieved in part by repetition of the girls’ famous traits. For...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1930s–1940s: By 1933, when Germany passes its own mandatory sterilization law for “defectives,” the United States is the world...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research current law on the rights of students to disagree with their teacher or to protest school policy. Write an essay in which you...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Adapted from the novel and based on a screenplay by Jay Presson, the film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring Maggie Smith in...

(The entire section is 49 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

In the novel The Abbess of Crewe (1974), Spark seems to parody the Watergate scandal, using an abbey instead of the White House and...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Hicks, Granville, “Treachery and the Teacher,” in Saturday Review, January 20, 1962, p. 18.


(The entire section is 241 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Bold, Alan. Murile Spark. London: Methuen, 1986. A treatment of Spark’s poetry and fiction, with an excellent bibliography.

Bold, Alan. Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984. A series of nine essays dealing with various themes and techniques in Spark’s work. Two of the essays contain extended treatments of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Hynes, Joseph. The Art of the Real: Muriel Spark’s Novels. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1988. An analysis and explication of seventeen of Spark’s novels, especially in terms of their comedy, ironic social criticism, and religious elements.

Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. Murile Spark. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Contains background material on Spark and discussion of her work in terms of its major themes.

Sproxton, Judy. The Women of Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Studies three primary types of female characters in Spark’s work. The chapter on Miss Jean Brodie labels her a “woman of power” and shows how she manipulates and deludes others but is ultimately deluded herself.