The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie Essay Topics

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Summary

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Considered a modern classic and having been adapted for both television and film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel written by Muriel Spark published in 1961. It tells the story of the charismatic Scottish school teacher Miss Jean Brodie and her influence on the lives of six impressionable students at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1930s.

The story opens in 1936 as Miss Brodie comes upon The Brodie Set, the name given to the group of students the teacher selected six years ago from the junior class to become “the créme de la créme,” the best of the best, through lessons often having little to do with academics. Supremely confident in her views of the world, Miss Brodie expands their ideas and knowledge while also manipulating their growing perceptions to remain as much in alignment with her own as possible. Still, it’s known Brodie’s girls are the brightest in the school, and now, at sixteen and in their fourth form, they still remain under her influence despite no longer being in her classroom. As she states, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.”

The narrative continually moves forward and back through time to explore events, people, and relationships that will shape not only the girls’ futures, but Miss Brodie’s as well. The narrative voice is not only omniscient, but timeless, often revealing the future fate of a girl while narrating her experience as a child. In this manner, the majority of the plot is revealed early, although one central mystery is left in place. In one flash-forward we learn that one of the girls will eventually betray their teacher, but the who isn’t revealed until later.

The story dips back to 1930 when the girls—Monica Douglas, famous for her mathematics and temper; Sandy Stranger, a small-eyed girl famous for her English pronunciation and who will become Brodie’s most trusted confidante; Rose Stanley, who will undeservedly become famous for sex; Jenny Gray, Sandy’s best friend who is known for her beauty; Eunice Gardiner, famous for her gymnastics; and Mary Macgregor, the dim-witted scapegoat of the group—are 10 years old and just entering junior school with Miss Brodie. The teacher is already considered too progressive in her methods by the majority of the faculty, including the headmistress, Miss Mackay, who tries throughout the story to gather evidence of misconduct to remove Brodie from her position. Brodie’s instruction often focuses on controversial concepts of art, politics, religion and interpersonal relationships, all being influenced by her personal views on these subjects. An early lesson with the girls includes sharing a story of the time she was engaged to her lover, Hugh, who died on Flanders Field during World War I. It is her hubris in her views and teachings that will eventually be her downfall.

During the course of the story two prominent characters—the singing instructor, Gordon Lowther and the art master, Teddy Lloyd—form a love-triangle with Miss Brodie, who is, as she constantly tells her girls, “in her prime.” Both men love her, but Brodie truly only holds affection for Lloyd, although expression of her feelings never moves beyond a single kiss, due to Lloyd being married. Believing the singing instructor to be a more appropriate romantic interest, Miss Brodie begins an affair with Lowther during two weeks away from school. However, over the course of the story Brodie neglects the relationship and Lowther later marries the school’s chemistry teacher, Miss Lockhart.

A bit obsessed with romantic, and usually inaccurate, concepts of love and sex, the girls often engage in wild speculation on Miss Brodie’s experiences in these areas, especially Sandy and Jenny. Sandy goes so far as to imagine her teacher having sex and imagining herself a policewoman looking for evidence of a relationship between Brodie and Lowther, on a mission to “stop sex” completely.

By the age of twelve, the girls graduate from Brodie’s care into the Senior School, and the headmistress does her best to break the girls up and remove them from Brodie’s influence. However, the connection between the girls remains solid despite having little in common. Although no longer their instructor, Brodie still invites the girls into her personal world, continuing to mold and influence their lives. By the time they are around sixteen, Brodie decides to make Sandy her most trusted confidante, deciding that she is the most trustworthy.

Eventually a new girl, Joyce Emily Hammond, tries to enter the group. Although rejected by the girls, Brodie takes her under her wing. At one point, Brodie encourages Joyce Emily to run off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Later she will do so, only to be killed. This incident will play a part in Brodie’s eventual betrayal.

As the girls enter their late teens, prepare to graduate, and head their separate ways, Brodie sets on the idea of Jenny, who often models for Lloyd, having an affair with the artist in order to enjoy the relationship vicariously. When it’s clear Jenny isn’t interested in Lloyd, Sandy enters into the affair instead. She eventually loses interest in him as a lover, but grows interested in his love of Miss Brodie. She also becomes interested in his Roman Catholic beliefs, and we learn Sandy will eventually become a nun. However, before doing so, having been disturbed by Brodie’s part in the death of Joyce Emily and perhaps growing resentful of her old teacher’s controlling influence, Sandy gives the headmistress the ammunition she needs against Brodie by revealing her teachings on fascism. Miss Brodie only begins to suspect it was her most trusted student that betrayed her as she lays on her death bed several years later. Despite this, later, while a nun, Sandy is asked about her greatest influence. She says: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”

1. What does Miss Jean Brodie herself mean by the phrases "one's prime" and "the creme de la creme"? What additional meanings do these phrases take on in relation to Miss Brodie, her girls, and other characters?

2. What are Miss Brodie's "principles of education" and the practices she derives from those principles? How do her principles and practices differ from those of Miss Mackay? What are the pros and cons of each approach to education?

3. How do Miss Lockhart and her science room contrast with Miss Brodie and her lessons? Why are the girls "enthralled" by Miss Lockhart's science room? What ironies are involved in Miss Lockhart's marriage to Gordon Lowther?

4. Why does Miss Brodie admire Mussolini and, later, Hitler--"a prophet-figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more reliable than Mussolini"? What parallels emerge between Miss Brodie's "vision" and methods and those of the fascist dictators she admires? How do Miss Brodie's "politics" affect her life and her pupils' lives?

5. To what extent is Sandy's betrayal of Miss Brodie a multiple betrayal? Why does Sandy betray her former teacher? What connections exist between Sandy's relationship with Miss Brodie, her discovery of Calvinism, and her becoming a Catholic nun and the author of an influential book on moral perception? To what extent might Sandy's betrayal of Miss Brodie be justified?

6. How does Miss Brodie's attitude toward "team spirit"--it is "always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties," she announces--both agree with her educational principles and undermine her relationship with her students? What dangers arise from allegiance to a tightly organized group?

7. How does Miss Brodie's story of her ancestor, Willie Brodie, and his cheerful death "on a gibbet of his own devising"--"it is the stuff I am made of"--reflect on her own life and personality? Does Miss Brodie die "cheerfully on a gibbet of [her] own devising"?

8. When the seventeen-year-old Sandy realizes Miss Brodie's plans for Rose and Teddy Lloyd, she decides of Miss Brodie: "She thinks she is Providence . . . she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end." To what extent is Sandy's assessment accurate? Has Miss Brodie assumed godlike prerogatives?

9. Shortly after her forced retirement, Miss Brodie writes to Sandy, questioning who might have betrayed her. Sandy replies, "If you did not betray us it is impossible that you could have been betrayed by us." In what ways does Miss Brodie betray her girls?

10. What is the role of religion in the novel, in Miss Brodie's behavior, and in Sandy's and the other girls' lives? What correspondences are established among Scottish Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, and fascism?

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark

  • Publication Date: February 1, 1999
  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
  • ISBN-10: 0060931736
  • ISBN-13: 9780060931735

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