The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

7 July 2016

German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, has supported the statement “Form is inseparable from content in a work of literature”. He strongly believed that “‘Form’ without ‘content’ is empty; ‘content’ without ‘form’ is blind. ”1 (page 157) It can be argued that the formal qualities in literature are a key aspect in contributing to the reader’s overall experience. E. M Forster has suggested that the generic structure of a novel should entail a beginning, middle and an end.

2 In Muriel Spark’s novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, the author has challenged this traditional format through illustrating events in an anachronical form and through the inclusion of a universal omniscient narrator, which has resulted in a build up of suspense, reinforced the novels thematic richness and enabled the reader to recognise the development of characters throughout. Reflecting upon Forster’s belief, I would have to disagree with this and feel that Spark’s structure has successfully enhanced the reader’s appreciation of the novel as a whole.

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On general terms, it seems clear to me that the form of literature is a tool used by authors in order to display the content within the novel in a certain fashion. This will result in the reader interpreting the text in a specific way, driven by the writer. This reflects Kant’s opinion when focusing on the divorce of ‘form’ with ‘content’. In any novel, and in every aspect of life, time is of paramount importance. In Spark’s novel, this facet is manipulated in such a way to be unfamiliar to the reader, yet still providing structure.

Despite foreshadowing events of the story, the reader has become intrigued to find out the reasons as to why certain events occur. Time as a general concept, can be used by writers to emphasise events and regardless of the malleability of time as a structural point, linearity cannot be eradicated completely – it fundamentally acts as a structural base for a novel. At the start of the novel, it is immediately clear to the reader that the pattern of time is not in a chronological order, as Spark has included numerous counts of analepsis and prolepsis.

This has insistently drawn the reader to a question of time, and it is obvious Spark has explicitly made this a key focal point for the reader. At the first introduction to the ‘Brodie Set’, we are informed that the girls are “fourth-form” (page 5). Following this, there is a flashback to when the girls were age twelve, and then a scene of the girls at the age of sixteen. The individuality of the girls is framed when the reader is told, “The five girls, standing very close to each other because of the boys, wore their hats each with a definite difference.

” (Page 5) Despite sharing the commonality of being a part of “The Brodie Set”, their differences are highlighted with a flash-forward to how the girls are viewed as individuals later on. Spark has strategically mentioned in the first chapter that Mary Mcgreggor “lost her life in a hotel fire” (page 14). This key piece of information has signified this event, which has ultimately created a sense of tension, and despite knowing the fate of Mary, the reader almost feels obliged to continue reading.

This early foreknowledge one has of Mary’s fate, affects how the reader views her throughout the remainder of the novel. Critic Teresa Bridgeman has stated, “The proleptic information is active in influencing our reading, but anticipation of the event is not strong. ” (140)3 Looking at this quote, I have already shown a way in which the technique of prolepsis can have a strong impact on the reader, however Bridgeman’s radical statement implying that the reader’s anticipation is minimal due to the mere knowledge of what happens, I would have to disagree.

By simply knowing key events about the content of a novel, the reader begins to actively think about the circumstances surrounding such events, ultimately creating a strong sense of anticipation. Continuing on from Bridgeman’s view, John Holloway feels that “The fact remains that the structure of this narrative is largely a matter of the constant operation of writing a next event so as to negate an existing forward. ”4 (Page 591) He has applied this statement with direct relation to Spark’s novel.

One may say that this view is too simplistic as it only focuses on the surface of the basic structure. The narrative has foreshadowed many of the events that follow, however the context of these events remains unclear until the story has evolved. There is constant movement within the story, as themes and characters develop. Additionally to Spark’s consistent use of prolepsis and analepsis, the form of narrative used has also affected the reader’s experience of this novel. The main events of the novel are told through the presence of an omniscient narrator.

This has enabled the reader’s understanding of the main themes of the novel (Miss Brodie’s Prime and it’s effect on her pupils) to be deepened. It has created a strong sense of perspective for the reader, and allowed him or her to form an opinion that is not based directly from one of the character’s point of view, which is often biased or unreliable. John Morreal has criticised the omniscient narrator, and has said, “Omniscience could not provide a filter for a story in the way that the limited knowledge of an internal narrator does.

”5 (Page 432) I believe Spark’s novel as an example, negates this claim entirely. The style of narrative used, reveals knowledge through the use of prolepsis and analepsis in such a way only to inform the reader of brief, yet vital events. With regards to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, if Spark had instead used an internal narrator, the content of the novel would not have been delivered as effectively as it has done with the omniscient narrator, and it would possibly lack its uniqueness.

Overall, this has helped shape the readers understanding and experience. The impact of an omniscient narrator can be applied to other texts, such as Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’. In this case, the omniscient narrator has been included in order to introduce a sense of uncertainty to the reader, as the narrative form initially seems to lack credibility and reliability. It has presented a perspective that not only links to the uncertainty experienced by the governess herself, but also to influence the outcome the reader takes away from the story.

This can therefore draw a likeness to the narrative form in Spark’s novel – it has been used in order to directly impact the reader. Furthermore, a primary function of a narrative is to tell a story and create a mood, which is achieved in this novel through various language techniques, including speech. The use of direct speech has allowed the reader to gain an insight of characters themselves. Miss Brodie says “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life. ” This statement, direct from Brodie herself, frames her manipulative personality and her desire to assert control on vulnerable people.

The power this has of being direct speech eliminates any ‘misinterpretation’ the omniscient narrator may have of Brodie’s character. It therefore adds a sense of truthfulness to what the reader is told. The mood throughout varies with instances of humour, seriousness and a sense of pity (towards the victims of Brodie’s manipulation). This constant change in tone creates mixed emotions yet keeps the reader entertained and focused. The reader experiences different emotions whilst forming an impression on Jean Brodie.

The use of speech further creates a sense of distance between the reader and Miss Brodie as her character becomes more and more unattractive, however the reader’s empathy grows for the individual members of the ‘Brodie Set’ as the harsh effects Brodie has, start to become apparent. Critic Peter Robert Brown has stated that; “Readers are encouraged to acknowledge their participation in victimization in the actual world and to reflect on the role that narrative plays in the process and justification of victimization.

”6 (229) This suggestion implies that the reader’s experiences throughout the novel are somewhat based on their own personal experiences, and a sense of appreciation can be formed based on this. Finally, an important aspect of form, especially with reference to Spark’s novel, is the repetition, which emphasises the main themes, fundamentally leading the reader to having a greater sense of the message Spark has aimed to convey. The word “prime” is mentioned again and again through the course of the novel.

In addition to being in the title, and mentioned throughout, the word is even said in the closing sentence of the novel. “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime”. This is an exact repetition of what Sandy had said earlier on in the novel (page 35). This closing sentence successfully reiterates the theme of one’s Prime, and leaves a lasting impression on the reader, allowing him to reflect and create his or her own opinion on what exactly one’s prime is, and how Brodie’s ‘prime’ affected the girls. Continuing on from the impact repetition has, it almost mirrors the repetitiveness of time itself.

This parallel draws attention to the non-linear structure of time, and highlights its individuality. In conclusion, the basic structure of time and unraveling of events has been manipulated – a clear representation of the manipulation the girls experience as a consequence of Miss Brodie’s actions. The formal qualities used by Spark extend further to the narrative technique and aspects such as speech. Looking back at what Forster suggested, Spark’s innovative structure has proven successful and has resulted in positively impacting the reader’s experience of the novel.

It has highlighted main themes, reinforced ideas and enabled the reader to recognise the development in characters. With regards to the statement that ‘Form is inseparable from content in a work of literature’, it is clear that the two can be differentiated, however they both positively correlate and compliment the purpose and effect each has. Spark has used the form of her work to illustrate the content in order to influence the way in which the reader interoperates certain aspects of the novel.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. (2016, Jul 08). Retrieved December 13, 2019, from
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