Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie Essay Research

Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie Essay, Research Paper

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie depicts the coming of age

of six adolescent girls in Edinburgh, Scotland during the 1930’s. The

story brings us into the classroom of Miss Jean Brodie, a fascist school

teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, and gives close encounter

with the social and political climate in Europe during the era surrounding

the second World War. Spark’s novel is a narrative relating to us the

complexities of politics and of social conformity, as well as of non-

conformity. Through looking at the Brodie set and the reciprocities

between these students and their teacher, the writer, in this novel,

reviews the essence of group dynamics and brings in to focus the adverse

effects that the power of authority over the masses can produce. Sparks,

in so doing projects her skepticism toward the teacher’s ideologies. This

skepticism is played out through the persona of Sandy Stranger, who

becomes the central character in a class of Marcia Blaine school girls.

Sandy’s character is even more focally sculpted than the teacher’s

favored disciples who came to be known as the Brodie Set; a small group of

girls favored by Miss Jean Brodie in her Prime. The Brodie Set is a social

system and a enigmatic network of social relations that acts to draw the

behavior of its members toward the core values of the clique. The teacher

Miss Jean Brodie projects upon this impressionable “set,” her strong

fascist opinions. She controls this group on the basis that she is in her

prime. Her prime being the point in life when she is at the height of

wisdom and insight. Sandy pejoratively uses the personality traits and

ideology of Brodie to overthrow her, by unveiling them.

Sparks is clearly opposed to the kind of authoritarian power and

control that is exercised over the impressionable adolescents by a

conniving school teacher. The writer thus uses the pitfalls of social

conformity found in classical studies, in order to make specific points.

For example, research done by social psychologists Muzafer, Carolyn Sherif

and Solomon Asch treated social conformity as an aspect of group dynamics

(Coon, 560). This is present in Spark’s novel, as seen by the dynamics of

the group formed by a teacher named Miss Brodie. Brodie’s students, like

the subjects of the said psychological studies, conform to a set of

beliefs under the pressure and power of suggestion despite what could be

better judgement. This is shown in the passage when Sandy expresses the

desire to be nice to Mary, but decides not to because she knew that such

an action would not be in accordance with the Brodie Set’s system of

behavior (Spark, 46). The narrator says about Sandy:

She was even more frightened then, by her temptation to be nice to

Mary Macgregor, since by this action she would separate herself, and be

lonely, and blameable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although

officially the faulty one, was at least inside Miss Brodie’s category of

heroines in the making. Theorists would say that an individual tends to

conform to a unanimous group judgment even when that judgment is obviously

in error (Coon, 561). The more eager an individual is to become a member

of a group, the more that person tends to orient his or her behavior to

the norms of the group (Coon, 561). This eagerness is true of Sandy

Stranger. Miss Brodie often makes reference to Sandy overdoing things, or

trying to hard. If the Brodie Set must hold their heads high, Sandy held

her head the highest (Spark, 35). Miss Brodie warned that “One day, Sandy,

you will go too far.” Also, the more ambiguous the situation, the greater

the group’s influence on the individual (Coon, 562). When the group’s

judgment reflects personal or aesthetic preference, however, the

individual feels little pressure to conform as is the case with Spark’s

character, Sandy Stranger.

Brodie’s fascism, born of an authoritarian political movement that

developed in Italy and other European countries after 1919 as a reaction

against the political and social changes brought about by World War I, is

projected in this novel as the unsettling proliferation of socialism and

communism in Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The early Fascist

program was a mixture of left and right wing ideas that emphasized intense

nationalism, productivism, antisocialism, elitism, and the need for a

strong authoritarian leadership (Homans, 451). This was the Brodie

ideology. With the postwar economic crisis, a widespread lack of

confidence in the traditional political system, and a growing fear of

socialism, Fascist ideology began to take root in Europe (Homans, 451).

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie takes us into a time when the spirit of the

times reflected Voluntaristic philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer,

Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson and to Social Darwinism with its

emphasis on the survival of the fittest. These personalities, like that of

the fictitious Miss Jean Brodie, saw fascism as an effective,

internationally appealing mass movement. Brodie, herself, is depicted as

the personification of this fascist movement in the Marcia Blaine School

for Girls. A movement against which society, as personified by Sandy, must


It becomes Sandy’s mission to examine and expose the dynamics of

how the power of suggestion enforced by an authority figure such as the

teacher Miss Brodie, would adversely affect the socio-cultural dynamics of

school life, freedom of choice and the social liberty of each girl in the

Brodie Set. In the struggle and vie for social liberty and freedom from

adverse indoctrination, Sandy betrays the anti- Catholic Miss Brodie and

defiantly converts to Catholicism by becoming a nun.

Nonconformity, is thus played out as a result of Sandy’s rejection of

the Brodie group norms. Sandy did not observe those norms. Sandy’s

defiance of the group’s norms becomes so great that the society of Brodie,

itself, dissolves under her attach. Sandy’s antagonism, in fact, becomes

the conformity to the norms of a particular subculture that the Brodie

group took a stance against, Catholicism.

Social scientists often examine conformity in the context of

deviance (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 157). Sandy is a deviant as far as

the Brodie set is concerned. It is the Brodie clique, however that shows

behavior that varies in some way from the normative rules of a social

system; the school. The functioning of the Brodie society, however, vies

against what would be seen as a pollution. It is a mixture of conformity,

and deviance in that they remain exclusive. If this group would have

allowed outside input, the range of behavior and belief systems would be

so wide, that control would not be possible (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson,

179). This social group tries to regulate behavior, by establishing

boundaries and excluding others. These boundaries are maintained by the

interaction between Sandy’s behavior which deviates from the norm, and the

agent Miss Jean Brodie that works to control behavior, as well as the

social mores of the Brodie set. Miss Brodie, however, is still able to

force a change of attitude and belief in the young students, which

ultimately leads to the demise of one girl.

Group interactions that mark the outside limits over which the

norm has control generates solidarity (Costanzo, 369). The group norm

remains valid only if it is used regularly as a basis of judgment

(Costanzo, 369). This is true of the Brodie Set. The girls of the Brodie

Set make very few decisions without first making sure that such a decision

would be in accordance with Brodie normative social rules. When facing the

decision of which course of study they would take in the Senior School,

the Brodie girls desired Classical learning. The school’s Headmistress,

Miss Mackay, notes about their decision for Classical learning that they

chose that route of education “because Miss Brodie prefers it…What good

will Latin and Greek be to you when you get married or take a job?” Miss

Mackay was correct in her observation because Miss Brodie’s preference for

Classical learning was the sole reason that Mary Macgregor so eagerly

desired to be allowed to take Classical classes.

The social dynamics of power and knowledge and the epistemological

issues of the sociology of knowledge becomes the centrally explored issues

when the motivation, extreme social ideology and stance of Brodie and her

girls, is examined. The Brodie set conforms and their behavior is in

accord with the expectations of their social group. They express

acquiescence to the norms of that group. Sandy rejects homogeneity.

Spark, in effect, gives, through her antagonist Sandy, her own

ideology as to what knowledge is worth having, and how that knowledge

should be acquired and disseminated. Furthermore, we are given insight as

to dynamics of how knowledge is verified and acted upon.

The novelist approach is less theoretical and more personal. We do

not like Miss Brodie for her way of distributing knowledge and exercising

power. This is not accidental, but arises from, what seems to be Spark’s

own theological erudition and personal experiences. Spark, herself, like

the character Sandy in her novel, rebels by conversion. Spark converted

from Anglican to Roman Catholic during the 1950’s, and clearly projects a

stance against fascism and it’s ideals, in life and in her novel(Lodge,

122). There is thus, the divergence of the basic assumptions of the

dynamics of social power and knowledge as reflected in the author’s life

as well as is projected in her novel (Lodge, 122). This approach then

takes into account concepts that are not merely theoretical but also


There is however personal, some social grouping depicted, that

accords with grouping identified by some theorist (Costanzo, 372). In

Brodie’s group we find elements of the two basic kinds of social

affiliation that most theorists present, sociality by partial fusion, and

sociality by partial opposition (Coon, 563). The “us” as represented by

the “Brodie Set” and the “Other” as represented by Sandy and all other

Catholics and any not sharing the Brodie’s views (Coon, 563). There is

some evidence to indicate that there is a relationship between

self-confidence and resistance to group pressures to conform (Coon, 566).

When we analyze the critical episodes in Brodie’s’s dealings with

her student we find a troubling endurance of a collective judgement of

ideas, that marks the group. Brodie is eccentric in her teaching method

and styles as she manipulates the minds and lives of all within the group.

Spark thus unveils with careful timing, an epistemological

leverage with which Sandy betrays and overthrows the Brodie Set. That

Sandy leaves and becomes a nun is ironic since her strategy for preserving

individuality may still be lost. The interest of any group is the natural

enemy of it’s members individuality. Sandy must not be concerned only with

the loss of individuality, as regards to the Brodie Set, but also with the

danger of fascist ideology. Each individual’s compliance with a group

judgment, is perhaps counter to his or her own judgment, but at this small

group level, conformity dispels individual judgement. Sandy projects to us

that this kind of social conformity under the pressure of authority, is to

be blamed for many social problems and adversities in the individual lives

of the Brodie girls, and in society at large.


1. Coon, Dennis. Psychology: Exploration and Application. West Publishing

Company: 1980.

2. Costanzo, P. Conformity development as a function of self blame.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 14; 366-374: 1970.

3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Larson, R. Being Adolescent. Harper Collins

Publisher: 1984.

4. Homans, G.C. Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. Harcourt Brace

Jovanovich: 1961.

5. Lodge, David. The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning

in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Ithaca, Cornell: 1971.


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