This book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a rich novella that needs to be conquered as if one could! several times; that is, round and around and with noise, as the Israelites conquered Jericho.
Having attempted countless time to form a coherent timeline for this novella, this last time I gave up the idea, deciding that it was easier to do it for One Hundred Years of Solitude. One has to accept the fact that it is that the story has neither beginning nor end, but only a thick Byzantine middle. Yet, it is cogent by virtue of its precise flash forwards, flash backwards, and resonant images; the latter acting as anchors in time.
The resonant images are: the elm tree, a walk through Edinburgh, a fire, transfiguration of the commonplace, and the word menarche.
Given the school setting, it is a book about impressionable high schoolers, and a charismatic teacher: Miss Jean Brodie, a maverick teacher with dangerous ideas. On the surface she seems to be a level-headed, vastly informed, and attractive lady whose strong personality influences students, teachers, and even the headmistress. The reality turns out to be something else: she teaches her pupils the Brodie set to be leaders, the crème de la crème, so that they can “belong to life’s elite.”
Using the Socratic Method, she attempts to mold her girls into heroines, superior women, superb individualists who’d do for themselves rather than for the group; that is, team effort be damned. A victim of her times (1930s), Miss Brodie admires Hitler and Mussolini, and it is this spirit of Fascism that she instills in the Brodie set.
What the author, Muriel Spark, left behind is a book about negative, autocratic leadership: “my way or no way,” “either you are with me or against me.” Sandy (Brodie’s pet pupil) betrays her, and in the end Miss Brodie is fired from her job for misconduct. Because of the very same education she received from Miss Brody, this betrayal was inevitable. And given that she taught the Set that violence and cruelty were acceptable, the betrayal seems adequate poetic justice.
To discourage love of neighbor, care, cooperation, and harmony, can ultimately create monsters. If there’s a moral lesson that can be discerned is that extreme individualism can be harmful to society, while group nurturing is the opposite. In Donna Tartt’s Secret History we also see that Julian, an elitist teacher, also attempts to mold superior students, with disastrous results. This is an attitude that goes back to Plato and Socrates who in The Republic advocated a ruler caste.
The result is that elitist teaching creates tyrants. Doesn’t it then follow that we should be wary of teachers and schools that prepare unfeeling, insensitive, inhuman leaders?
What is the good of a book if one doesn’t learn from it?
First published in 1961, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, finds itself established as a good novel not because of its inherent goodness, but because of the evil it depicts. Besides the mastery of technique (especially of fictional time), this brief book stands as a negative paradigm of human relations, education, and leadership. Had President George W. Bush, and his advisors, read and absorbed the lessons of this novel, they wouldn’t have lectured the world with Bush’s loathsome doctrine: “our way or no way,” “either you are with us or against us.”