Essay on Predestination in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel by Muriel Spark which follows an eccentric unconventional teacher in a traditional girls’ school. This essay will examine to what extent the idea of predestination is reinforced and how far it is challenged in the novel. In this essay, I will discuss how Jean Brodie attempts to manipulate and foretell the destinies of those around her through the themes of: religion, focussing on Calvinism; her psychological manipulation of Sandy Stranger and Stranger’s attempts to challenge Brodie’s dominant influence; Brodie’s possessive relationships with Teddy Lloyd and Gordon Lowther; and how the narrative structure reinforces the hold Brodie has over the other characters, with particular reference to Mary Macgregor.

Religion is a central concern in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as Calvinism contributes a great deal to the theme of predestination. One of the main principles of Calvinism is the belief that God has already elected those who shall go to Heaven and whose who shall go to Hell and that no amount of sinning or repenting will change a person’s fate in the afterlife (Dabney, 2007, p.3). Spark enforces the theme of Calvinism throughout the novel as Brodie herself ‘elects’ the members of her set which is reminiscent of Jesus Christ and his disciples; therefore Spark suggests that Brodie is so narcissistic and arrogant that she considers herself to be a God-like figure. As Spark presents Brodie as a strong Calvinist, it becomes apparent that Brodie is a justified sinner who believes she will receive salvation no matter what she does: ‘She was not in any doubt that God was on her side whatever her course’ (Spark, 2011, p.85). Spark uses this extract to exemplify Brodie’s feeling of superiority and her belief that she was some kind of prophet, chosen by God and has a specific moral code for herself. Spark reinforces the idea of being ‘chosen’ throughout the novel:

She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end (Spark, 2011, p. 120).

Spark uses this extracts to show that the theology of Calvinism also proposes a reason behind Brodie’s controlling tendencies as Brodie seemingly considers it to be her duty to influence and predestine the fate of those around her, just as God does; exemplifying that Brodie considers herself to be a ‘chosen one’ and justifies her questionable actions by believing that God wills them.

In addition to using religion as a way of manipulating those around her, Brodie also attempts to predestine the lives of her colleagues, particularly Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher, and Gordon Lowther, the singing master. Brodie appears to toy with both men as she is in love with Lloyd, as he is with her, but she doesn’t have sex with him because he is a married Catholic with children. However, she does have sex with Lowther, even though she doesn’t love him as he does love her. Spark presents this paradox of relationships to suggest an undercurrent of unexplored sexuality within the novel as Brodie never allows herself to fully experience true intimacy or love. This theme of an undercurrent of sexuality also runs through Edwin Muir’s work Scottish Journey:

This yearning again is drenched in unsatisfied sex. Nowhere that I have been is one so bathed and steeped and rolled in floating sexual desire as in certain streets of Edinburgh. (Muir, 1996, p. 18).

This idea, supported by Muir, that within the Scottish psyche lies a trait of unsatisfied desire suggests that by denying herself a romantic relationship, Brodie becomes frustrated and detached from reality as she lives in a fantasy of literature and art to prevent herself from getting too close to anyone; leading to her unravelling into a ‘ridiculous woman’ (Spark, 2011, p.122) (e.g. she creates myths of what the set will be famous for: ‘famous for sex…famous for her spritely gymnastics’ (Spark, 2011, p.7) and she had a seemingly fictitious relationship with a solider called Hugh who possessed traits of Lowther and Lloyd: ‘Sometimes Hugh would sing…other times he would set up his easel and paint’ (Spark, 2011, p.172)).

Spark implies that as this feeling grows, Brodie takes her frustrations out on those around her and moulds her set into miniature clones of herself and pushes one of them to have an affair with Lloyd, knowing that when he is with the set, he will be immediately reminded of Brodie. Spark subtly illustrates that by encouraging one of her set to have an affair with Lloyd, Brodie is determining the short-term future of said girl, and taunting Lloyd by presenting him with a replica, but not the real, Brodie. Spark powerfully emphasises Brodie’s control over the other characters when Lloyd paints portraits of the set:

Teddy Lloyd’s passion for Jean Brodie was greatly in evidence in all the portraits he did of the various members of the Brodie set…in a magical transfiguration, a different Jean Brodie (Spark, 2011, p.111).

Spark uses this bizarre and comical extract to show that Brodie has had such a striking effect on the girls of her set that even other people are started to view the girls as embodiments of her character. Spark also illustrates the extent of Lloyd’s uncontrollable passion and fascination of Brodie as he unknowingly paints her face in all his portraits. Spark demonstrates that Brodie’s possessive relationships with Lowther (who she attempts to over-feed, smother and control: ‘He looked at her with love and she looked at him severely and possessively’ (Spark, 2011, p.89)); Lloyd (who she denies a relationship with but taunts with a fantasy and false version of herself); and a member of her set (who she pushes to have a sexual relationship with Lloyd) exemplify how subtly she is able to manipulate those around her into behaving the way she wants them to; therefore she has the power to predestine the events in their lives.

In addition to Brodie manipulating her colleagues, the narrative structure of the novel with its flash-back flash-forward format also provides a sinister tone as Spark illustrates that Brodie wishes to predestine and plot the futures of her set. Spark uses this format to show how strong Brodie’s influence was in the girls’ future choices. Spark uses this technique in a dismissive and disturbing way when discussing the fate of Mary Macgregor, the ‘scapegoat’ and blameable victim of the group:

Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke…She ran, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils (Spark, 2011, p.15).

One interpretation of Spark’s use of this unconventional narrative structure is that: by describing Mary Macgregor’s brutal death and then abruptly shifting back to her childhood in Brodie’s classroom leads the reader to believe that this flippant and sinister shift in tone mirrors Brodie’s character (as she changes frequently from being a caring attentive teacher to a possessive and controlling spinster) and again portrays Brodie as a God-like figure by suggesting that if in fact Brodie does determine the fate of her set, she must have predestined Mary to die in such a horrendous way. As Mary is repeatedly described as ‘famous for being stupid’ (Spark, 2011, p.13), Spark implies that Brodie considers stupidity to be a sin and therefore predestines Mary to be punished in this fiery scene which is in itself reminiscent of Hell. Critic Peter Robert Brown supports this theory of the inevitability of Mary’s ghastly and perhaps foolish death in his article “There’s something about Mary:” Narrative and Ethics in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:

…her responses to flames suggest a characteristic pattern of behaviour…Because Mary has already been called stupid by the narrator, we might see her death as a sad but fitting end and even as following from her character (Brown, 2006, p.239).

By suggesting that Mary’s death could have been caused by a flawed trait to her personality, Brown suggests that as Brodie manipulates and moulds each member of her set to adopt characteristics that she wishes them to have, Brodie has instilled a feeling of inferiority and insecurity in Mary by continuously mocking her and breaking her down. Brown suggests that this insecurity manifests itself into these anxious, clumsy and dim-witted characteristics which seemingly lead to Mary’s death; therefore Brodie herself has predestined Mary’s demise. Another section of Brown’s article proposes that the narrator itself could be considered as a character in its own right within the novel:

Given the narrator’s superior knowledge, we might call her omniscient. However, given the theoretical problems with the term ‘omniscient,’ it might be more useful to identify the narrator as both ‘heterodiegetic,’ external to the story, and ‘extradigetic,’ (epistemically) superior to it (Brown, 2006, p.232).

This idea, coupled with the continuous snippets of personal and judgemental opinion we receive from the narrator rather than an objective and impartial statement of events (e.g. ‘Mary sat lump-like and too stupid…’ (Spark, 2011, p.11) and ‘mysterious priesthood…’ (Spark, 2011, p.75)), leads the reader to interpret Brodie herself as an omniscient presence, perhaps a spirit, overlooking and contributing to the narrating of the lives of her Brodie set even after her death. Judy Suh supports this idea in her article The Familiar Attractions of Fascism in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:

As players in the teacher’s vision and vice versa, the students’ lives are dictated for them. As a storyteller, Miss Brodie recklessly orchestrates the girls’ beginnings and endings (Suh, 2007, p.88).

Suh examines Brodie’s character to illustrate that she is a powerful force in the predestination of their lives. Consequently, Spark employs these techniques through the narrative structure to reinforce Brodie’s prevailing control over the set even when they are no longer physically in her presence.

Spark illustrates that as well as the format of the narrative structure, Spark also attempts to show Brodie’s psychologically control her set, particular Sandy Stranger. However, Spark subverts Brodie’s and the reader’s expectations when Stranger rebels against Brodie’s influence, ‘betrays’ Brodie, converts to Roman Catholicism and becomes a nun. Spark presents Stranger’s conversion to Catholicism in a troubling and suspicious way when Stranger is having her affair with Teddy Lloyd, the art master:

The more she discovered him to be still in love with Jean Brodie, the more she was curious about the mind that loved the woman…she extracted his religion as a pith from a husk. Her mind was as full of his religion as a night sky is full of things visible and invisible (Spark, 2011, p.123).

Spark presents this curious passage in a way which encourages the reader to attempt to understand Stranger’s mind. In this situation, the reader would expect Stranger to be jealous and bitter that her lover was in love with someone else but instead she is seemingly fascinated by his infatuation and bizarrely, finds her religion through it. Spark illustrates the complexity of Stranger’s character and her interest in the human mind to suggest that Stranger has the intelligence and capability to rebel against Brodie; therefore foreshadowing the betrayal. Spark’s sophisticated metaphor of Stranger’s mind being, like a night sky, full of visible and invisible things, suggests the conscious and subconscious parts of Stranger’s mind: her consciousness full of seemingly harmless traits inherited from Brodie, and her subconscious full of the malicious and sinister traits Brodie has implanted deep in her mind.

Spark also uses this extract to suggest that, although Stranger attempts to eradicate the Brodie-esque traits that have been instilled within her by joining the religion that Brodie despises, Stranger still maintains traits to Brodie’s, seemingly without knowing; exemplifying that Brodie still succeeds in contributing to predestining Stranger’s fate. Spark exemplifies this when Brodie ponders who could have betrayed her: ‘It’s only possible to betray when loyalty is due,’ said Sandy (Spark, 2011, p.127).

Spark shows through this ironic conversation – as it is in fact Stranger who betrayed Brodie yet Brodie trusts her more than any other member of her set – that although Stranger tries to reject Brodie’s influence, she still unknowingly possesses Brodie’s traits as she too subconsciously considers herself to be a justified sinner. Spark suggests that if Stranger were a true devoted Catholic, she would feel remorse and guilt for betraying Brodie and she would confess her sins and repent, however she instead adopts the same egotistical, arrogant and double-standard attitude that Brodie possesses by believing that is was her duty to betray Brodie and have her removed from the teaching. Therefore, even though Stranger makes desperate attempts to shake off Brodie’s influence, Spark demonstrates that to an extent Stranger fails in this as Brodie still has a profound effect on Stranger and she continues to contribute to predestining Stranger’s future.

Therefore, the idea of predestination in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is very much reinforced and challenged to a certain extent by Sandy Stranger. Spark successfully and sophisticated constructs a set of intricate layers which Brodie uses to manipulate the other characters including: religion; psychological manipulation; narrative; and romantic relationships to predestine the lives of those around her.

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