The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Muriel Spark

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How does Muriel Spark handle time in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

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In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Sparks, time is manipulated in order to demonstrate how Brodie's grand plans turn out.  In other words, rather than writing the work in strict chronological order, Sparks intersperses the present and future to see how Brodie's molding of her young set works out. 

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, by Sparks, time is manipulated in order to demonstrate how Brodie's grand plans turn out.  In other words, rather than writing the work in strict chronological order, Sparks intersperses the present and future to see how Brodie's molding of her young set works out. 

The enotes Study Guide on the novel says the following:

The story is told in chronological order covering the period from the fall of 1930 to the summer of 1939, yet at certain points the story suddenly leaps into the distant future, revealing important information that, in a more traditional story structure, would be withheld until it occurs in chronological order. In this way, the present of the novel is seen in contrast to the future, through the lens of retrospect it is reframed and can be reinterpreted. One example of how this technique works is in the several passages which show the students’ later assessment of Miss Brodie: Mary Macgregor, at twenty-three and recently dropped by a boyfriend, looks back on her school years as her happiest time. Eunice tells her husband of twenty years that she intends on their return to Edinburgh to lay flowers on the grave of Miss Brodie because she was “full of culture.” And Sandy, who betrays Miss Brodie and thus contributes to her being forced to resign, later admits that her career in psychology and success as an author results from the impression Miss Brodie made on her.

Perhaps the unconventional use of chronology in the novel reflects Brodie's unconventional use of her students for her own fulfillment and political purposes, though probably not--the novel's structure works better than Brodie's teaching methods and unconventional ideas.  

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Comment on the Muriel Sparks' handling  of time in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Time plays key roles in the novel in several ways. Some of the surviving former students of Miss Brodie look back upon their years with her, but from different temporal vantage points. Those with the longest histories are not necessarily the most favorable assessors of her influence. Thus the role of memory in coloring one’s view of the past is one of Muriel Sparks’ important themes. In addition, the passage of time during their childhood, including the clear limit of one student’s death, corresponds to historical developments that indicate how misguided were Miss Brodie’s political affiliations.

The romantic ideas about education that Jean Brodie entertains initially seem harmless as much to the reader, as they did to the girls of her “set.” As events develop, however, some of the girls, along with the reader, begin to see the harm in her attitudes and actions. Any girl who is not the “crème de la crème” is subject to her censure and belittling, in ways inappropriate even for another student, much less a teacher. At the same time, most of her students are fascinated, even beguiled, by her attention and her naively informed politics. As Spark was writing decades after World War II ended, her readers understand that Fascism did sway many British people, at least for a while, but also that most Europeans and the United States opposed Franco’s campaigns. Joyce Emily’s death, although accidental, is a watershed moment in Sparks’ narrative—a point of no return showing that Brodie’s influence is far from benign.

Juxtaposing the surviving students’ attitudes toward those days, the reader is offered a window into their psychological development as well as British society. Mary, only 23 as she reflects, is rosily nostalgic for the not-too-distant pre-war years. Sandy, in contrast, who played an active role in stopping Brodie’s influence, gained insights into mental processes that she later put to good use; this both shows that even negative examples have their uses, and corresponds to later 20th-century developments that offered women more educational and career choices.

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Comment on the Muriel Sparks' handling  of time in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Although the novel follows chronological time (beginning in 1930), Spark makes use of all three time periods - past, present and future -- to tell her story. There are many flashbacks and flashforwards in the novel.  In this way, the reader has the advantage of knowing the outcome of a character's life, and then going back to learn of events that led up to that outcome. Also, the grown-up girls assess Miss Brodie from a mature perspective that they did not have when they were growing up as one of the Brodie set, so the reader has the advantage of seeing how the girls reacted to Jean Brodie when they were girls and when they were adults. This gives readers an in-depth look into Miss Brodie's motives and psyche. Readers may smile at the naive Miss Brodie's fawing over Hitler and Mussolini, until one sees the long-reaching evil effects this has on some of the girls who actually act upon Miss Brodie's idealism.

There is a good discussion of this here on eNotes at the link below. See the link below under "style" for more information.

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