In early twentieth-century Edinburgh, the influence of Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism, was waning. Calvinists believe that human beings are so inherently and absolutely corrupted by original sin that they can only lead depraved lives, lives unworthy of salvation. However, God in His infinite mercy, and by His mercy alone, nonetheless elected before the world’s creation a few people to be saved through Jesus Christ, this election being mysteriously determined not based on faith or virtue or merit, but by God alone. Those elected were elected unconditionally, regardless of their conduct on earth. In the novel, Miss Brodie reacts violently against this doctrine of predestination by usurping God’s function herself—she elects six of her pupils to be her special girls, and predestines them, as it were, to be “‘the crème de la crème,’” in what amounts to a secular, sexually charged appropriation of Calvinist thought. She also presumes to shape their fates, most centrally when she plans for Rose Stanley to sleep with Mr. Lloyd as her proxy. She is, in a sense, a maker of plots, just like the deft novelist—Muriel Spark—writing about her.
However, Miss Brodie’s plots tend to go awry. It is Sandy, not Rose, who has a love affair with Mr. Lloyd. Though Miss Brodie thinks she can marry Mr. Lowther any time she likes, a day after she makes a pronouncement to this effect it is announced in the newspaper that Mr. Lowther is engaged to Miss Lockhart. And, most crushingly, it is Sandy, one of Miss Brodie’s own special girls, indeed, her favorite and most trusted, who betrays her at last to Miss Mackay. The narrative structure of the novel is full of prolepses (fast-forwards) so that present events are juxtaposed with related future events, and these juxtapositions often contrast Miss Brodie’s plans and expectations with the reality that comes to pass. For example, though Miss Brodie discusses her deep devotion to her girls and the need for absolute loyalty, the reader knows almost from the beginning of the novel that one of these girls will ultimately betray her. In this way, the narrative creates ironic tension between Miss Brodie’s predestining and actual destiny itself.
As Miss Brodie reacts violently against Calvinism, so does Sandy react violently against the egotism and amorality and potential destructiveness of Miss Brodie’s own secular program of election and predestination. She turns to Roman Catholicism (as Spark did herself) for a different vision of life, one where salvation is a function of one’s faith and works, and not a product of blind election. Sandy also replaces Miss Brodie’s self-election to grace and guiltlessness in herself with a deep sense of culpability before the eyes of God.
Religion, Predestination, and Narrative Structure ThemeTracker
Religion, Predestination, and Narrative Structure Quotes in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Sandy looked back at her companions and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the head. She perceived herself, the absent Jenny, the ever-blamed Mary, Rose, Eunice, and Monica, all in a frightening little moment, in unified compliance to the destiny of Miss Brodie, as if God had willed them to birth for that purpose.
Mussolini had put an end to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets. It occurred to Sandy, there at the end of the Middle Meadow Walk, that the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti, not to the naked eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way, marching along.
The shuttle of the sewing machines went up and down, which usually caused Sandy and Jenny to giggle, since at that time everything that could conceivably bear a sexual interpretation immediately did so to them. But the absence of Miss Brodie and the presence of Miss Gaunt had a definite subtracting effect from the sexual significance of everything, and the trepidation of the two sewing sisters contributed to the effect of grim realism.
This was the first time the girls had heard of Hugh’s artistic leanings. Sandy puzzled over this with Jenny, and it came to them both that Miss Brodie was making her new love story fir the old… Sandy was fascinated by this method of making patterns was facts, and was divided between her admiration for the technique and the pressing need t prove Miss Brodie guilty of misconduct.
Her [Miss Brodie’s] disapproval of the Church of Rome was based on her assertions that it was a church of superstition, and that only people who did not want to think for themselves were Roman Catholics. In some ways, her attitude was a strange one, because she was by temperament suited only to the Roman Catholic Church; possibly it could have embraced, even while it disciplined, her soaring and diving spirit, it might even have normalized her. But perhaps this was the reason that she shunned it…
It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of disorder that she could look back and recognize that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects; by which time Sandy had already betrayed Miss Brodie and Miss Brodie was laid in her grave.
In fact, it was the religion of Calvin of which Sandy felt deprived, or rather a specified recognition of it. She desired this birthright; something definite to reject. It pervaded the place in proportion as it was unacknowledged. In some ways the most real and rooted people whom Sandy knew were Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters who made no evasions about their belief that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died.
She [Sandy] began to sense what went to the makings of Miss Brodie who had elected herself to grace in a particular way and with more exotic suicidal enchantment than if she had simply taken to drink like other spinsters who couldn’t stand it any more.
It was plain that Miss Brodie wanted Rose with her instinct to start preparing to be Teddy Lloyd’s lover, and Sandy with her insight to act as informant on the affair. It was to this end that Rose and Sandy had been chose as the crème de la crème.
She [Miss Brodie] thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end. And Sandy thought, too, the woman is an unconscious lesbian. And many theories from the books of psychology categorized Miss Brodie, but failed to obliterate her image from the canvases of one-armed Teddy Lloyd.
The more she [Sandy] discovered him [Mr. Lloyd] to be in love with Jean Brodie, the more she was curious about the mind that loved the woman. By the end of the year it happened that she had quite lost interest in the man himself, but was deeply absorbed in his mind, from which she extracted, among other things, his religion as a pith from a husk.
‘What were the main influences of your schooldays, Sister Helena? Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?’
Sandy said: ‘There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.’