One time Barb got a little obsessed with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Barb answered some online student essay questions.

MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT: The following Literary Corner involves big ol’ spoilers for the plot of the book and the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: In 1930s Edinburgh, some schoolgirls are in the class of Miss Jean Brodie, who describes herself as being “in my prime.” Miss Brodie gives her students lessons involving her personal love life and travels, talking a lot about art history and classical studies, but also how neat fascism is. One girl, Sandy, comes to realize how twisted Miss Brodie’s influence as a teacher is, and that she– Sandy– has got to take Miss Brodie down.

To what extent is Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie a multiple betrayal?

I don’t agree with the word “betrayal” at all. Instead, I prefer to see Sandy telling Miss Mackay about Miss Brodie’s fascistic beliefs and ties to be an honorable thing to do. Sandy is simply keeping an unfit teacher from harming any more students.

When Sandy was 10 years old or so, Miss Brodie seemed like an ideal to aspire to (as did all of Brodie’s favorite students). As Sandy matured, she could not help but see what a dangerous woman Miss Brodie was.

Growing up meant growing away from Miss Brodie’s manipulative grip. That was Sandy’s first “betrayal.”

Later, look at what Miss Brodie wanted Rose to do: she wanted Rose to become Mr. Lloyd’s underage lover in a weird sex-by-proxy scheme. Sandy was also too young to be Mr. Lloyd’s lover, but at least she did so of her own free will instead of being manipulated into it by Miss Brodie’s need to have Brodie’s unhinged fantasy world come to life. Sandy having her own (sexual and intellectual) identity was her second “betrayal.” Finally, Sandy honestly answering questions about Miss Brodie’s life, teachings, and political beliefs is the third “betrayal.”

Why does Sandy betray her former teacher?

Sandy eventually comes to the realization that Miss Brodie is a terrible teacher and a terrible person. Brodie doesn’t really teach. Instead, she gives almost surreal monologues about her love life, filled with romantic notions and nearly pathological lies. Brodie flits from subject to subject with no purpose except to make herself look wise, well preserved for her years, grander than she is, and more sexually appealing than she is.

Brodie not only plays favorites, but she has also cast her favorites into roles in Brodie’s fantasy life. Brodie will not let the girls think for themselves, be themselves, or (heaven forfend) disagree with her. The girls aren’t even allowed to do normal things like join the Girl Guides (the British version of Girl Scouts). She fills their heads with erotic notions, as well as fascistic propaganda. Miss Brodie sees her girls as her possessions, to do with as she sees fit.

To what extent might Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie be justified?

Sandy hasn’t betrayed Miss Brodie per se. We mostly get the word “betrayed” when Miss Brodie becomes obsessed with why she was forced to retire. Instead of blaming her own actions for her forced retirement, she obsessively thinks that she was “betrayed.”

The only real betrayer here is Miss Brodie herself. The sad truth is, Miss Brodie has betrayed her students in every way possible. She has isolated them, brain-washed them, and manipulated them without mercy or consideration of the psychological consequences of her “teaching” methods. Sandy saw Miss Brodie as a monster who had to be stopped before Miss Brodie could psychologically damage more young students.

What connections exist between Sandy’s relationship with Miss Brodie, her discovery of Calvinism, and her becoming a Catholic nun and the author of an influential book on moral perception?

When Sandy was 10 years old, there was only one God in Sandy’s life, and her name was Miss Jean Brodie. Miss Brodie, a frustrated spinster with a desire to live out a grandiose, narcissistic fantasy life, said that she was sacrificing her “prime” for the girls, but the truth was, the girls sacrificed their innocence and their childhoods to this demanding “God.” Miss Brodie was a perversion of the God of Calvin, a god who had a predestined fate for all of her disciples.

Brodie’s actions forced Sandy to find a moral source that didn’t come from the temporal, but from the eternal. She replaced Miss Jean Brodie, sexually frustrated spinster, with a religion that venerated a virgin–a young, humble woman, who became the mother of Jesus, as well as someone to appeal to for aid and succor in one’s prayers.

Brodie exposed Sandy to too much of the world’s uglier aspects, so Sandy repudiated and rejected not only Brodie herself (and all of her teachings) but also a world that would let such a woman shape the minds of young girls.

Sandy repudiated even her name, becoming Sister Helena. The name “Helena” comes from the Greek, meaning “light” (Miss Brodie would probably love that I looked up the root of the name). Helena has used her internal light to expose Miss Brodie, but at the price of later hiding that same light away from humanity.

As for becoming an author of a book about human psychology and moral perception, Sandy’s whole life has been about nothing but understanding human nature and trying to figure out what the moral good is.

I think Sandy found that moral good the second she chose to bring Miss Brodie’s spurious teachings and beliefs to an adult authority figure. Sandy pulled down the false idol of Miss Brodie and replaced her with a woman who was “immaculately conceived” (that is, a woman without flaws or sins).

That’s the problem with playing God. Once your followers see that you’re nothing but a deeply flawed but charismatic person, they “betray” you.

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