In The prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark uses certain narrative techniques which reflect the ways of manipulation used by the title character of her novel. On one hand, an omniscient third person narrator is a way for the reader to experience all the character’s thoughts and views so that as the novel proceeds, the reader can observe the different views of Miss Jean Brodie by every girl from the set and analyze all the different aspects of Miss Brodie’s character. On the other hand, the narrative techniques in the text, such as the specific focalization aspects and the constant use of analepses and prolepses in a visibly authoritative manner, contribute to the impression that the reader’s judgements are in fact manipulated by the narrator, although it could seem that there is no particular attitude to characters and events suggested by means of narration.
Obvious to the reader right from the start is the fact that Spark uses many time shifts which keep the reader’s attention focused. The time scheme of fast forwarding and rewinding causes the novel to seem more fictional. In The prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the narrator begins in 1936 but soon jumps back to 1930, and then forward again to 1943, the year of Mary Macgregor’s death. She then returns to 1939 and then back to 1931. The narrative then jumps forward to 1959 and then returns to 1931. A specific example of this obscure time structure is on page 26-27, “It was twenty-eight years laterIt is time now to speak of the long walk” (Spark 1984: 26-27). In this particular quotation, Spark begins with the girls at a young age. She then jumps forward to when Eunice is older and living her own life, before going back to the time when the girls are young. Although confusing at times, this format incorporates the past, present and future of the girls in order to show Miss Brodie’s influence on them as adults simultaneously with their relationship as teacher and pupils but it also affects the reader’s reception of the text in a quite different way.
The jumping of the time scheme, although it adds suspense to the novel as a whole so that the reader does not know who betrayed Miss Brodie or why, does not give the reader a chance to think and analyze the characters. The time scheme causes confusion, almost as if the reader is being brainwashed. There is no concentration on a particular time period for very long. The narration constantly switches from year to year so the reader cannot focus too long on certain actions of Miss Brodie or any of the characters. When reading the novel the reader cannot form their own conclusions of the set or predict any outcome.
Another noticeable characteristic of the novel that relates to the narrative is the repetition of various concepts. On several occasions, the narrator alludes to a significant happening early on in
the novel, and then mentions it several other times before the reader is actually sure of its
significance. One example of this is when Spark continually uses one characteristic to describe each of the girls: “Rose Stanley was famous for sex”(Spark 1984:7) “said Rose who was famous for sex appeal”(Spark 1984:9) “Rose Stanley who six years later had a great reputation for sex.” (Spark 1984: 13) Each of the girls has one defining trait that the narrator states over and over again. Instead of giving a load of details about each person, the characters are limited to their most defining characteristic which become constantly repeated cliches.
As the story progresses it emerges that there are certain parallels between Jean Brodie’s leadership of her girls, referred to as the Brodie set, and the dictators she so admires since she uses her charm and intellect to influence and manipulate her pupils. Throughout the novel, the narrator makes continual references to specific people, events, and places. This has many different effects on how the reader sees the story. The prime of Miss Jean Brodie is in a way based on a fascist way of thinking and teaching. Miss Jean Brodie is very fond of this method herself and the narrator also uses this method when telling the story. Miss Brodie always tells her set of girls what the correct way of thinking is and does not allow the students form their own opinions. “Who is the greatest Italian painter? ‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’ ‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite.’” (Spark 1984:10) She also leads the students to believe that some subjects are more important that others. “Art is greater than Science. Art comes first, and then Science.” (Spark 1984:24) “Art and religion first; then Philosophy; lastly science. That is the order of the great subjects of life, that’s their order or importance.” (Spark 1984:25) Miss Brodie brainwashes her students into believing what she says and she involves them into her own specific discourse based on several frequently used notions and phrases.
In the same way that Miss Jean Brodie uses repetition so does the narrator, by mocking Miss Brodie’s obsession with her prime: “Attend to me girls. One’s prime is the moment one was born for. Now that my prime has begun-Sandy, your attention is wandering. What have I been talking about?’ ‘Your prime, Miss Brodie.” (Spark 1984:12) “The summer holidays of nineteen-thirty-one marked the first anniversary of Miss Brodie’s Prime.”(Spark 1984:44 ) “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her Prime.” (Spark 1984:128)
By frequent repetitions the author reminds the readers throughout the novel of the characters and their personalities, so that we are not given a chance to form our own opinions of them. These are only a few examples of how repetition is used in the narration so that the readers are deceived into believing what the narrator wants them to which is the way of brainwashing the audience just as Miss Jean Brodie does.
The narrator uses a similar technique used by Miss Brodie as she can give the readers any opinion she wishes them to believe. The narrator tells the story in such a way that all the characters’ opinions on Miss Brodie are exposed but simultaneously, throughout the story, the narrator bases and manipulates our ideas about the characters. Despite the fact that Miss Brodie might have good intentions, the reader is more compelled to dislike her because of her fascist teaching methods and actions. The narrator proves this by focusing on certain characters, the ones who were most influenced by Miss Brodie’s prime. Such examples are Mary MacGregor’s death which occurs in several prolepses and leads the reader to believe that she really was as stupid as Miss Brodie predicted. Another argument which makes it difficult to formulate any different opinion on Miss Brodie is the emphasized motive of one of the pupils who, inspired by her, runs away to join the Civil Guard in the Spanish Civil War and dies in the process. As there is much focalization through Sandy’s eyes at some points the reader seems to be encouraged to have sympathy with her although it does not seem likely when considering the frequent references to Sandy’s small pig-like eyes which hardly suggest broad or reliable vision. It is also difficult to feel sympathy with a character who is able to betray Miss Brodie in such a cold-blooded way but, in spite of that, Sandy’s point of view has a strong impact on the reader as she is the most frequently focalized character in the novel. Similar techniques of narration, and manipulation, refer to Miss Brodie. On one hand, the reader knows she is a solipsist with a highly inflated sense of her own importance as on learning that Sandy has become a nun her immediate response is “Do you think she has done this to annoy me?” (Spark 1984:63). This example, and many other occuring in the text, makes Jean Brodie seem a thoroughly unpleasant character. However, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for Miss Brodie in her latter years when she is frequently described as “shrivelled and betrayed”(Spark 1984:85).
It is somewhat ironic that the narrative structure of the novel is a reflection of the devices used by the main character in order to manipulate her pupils and make them adopt her own opinions and ways of thinking. Miss Brodie’s teaching methods parallel the narrative techniques of the novel, such as using certain specific and unchangable phrases when referring to each character, frequent repetitions and intrusive time shifts throughout the story. The narration in this novel is very interesting. Although it is initially confusing, the reader is able to piece together all the pieces of the puzzle at the end. Spark effectively, and provocatively, uses time jumps and simple character descriptions, which keep the reader interested and alert and at the same time intrude or impose facts and opinions into the reader’s mind.
19611984The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.