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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Updated November 1, 2018

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie essay

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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 resist.

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 personal.

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. Bibliography 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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