An Analysis of Teacher/Student Relationships in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

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An analysis of the power and influences Miss Jean brodie has over her students and the positive and negative effects of this.


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is based on the novel by Muriel Spark, published in 1961. The film, though released in 1969, is set in Edinburgh 1932, during the immediate prelude to World War 2. Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at the very conservative Marcia Blaine School for Girls. “I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders” she says to her class, “and all my girls are the crème de la crème”. Miss Brodie’s unconventional teaching methods spark confrontations with the school authorities. She fascinates and infuriates the two men who are in love with her. The film follows the development of the students under her tutelage; she commands loyalty in her pupils. But one betrays her


The film very vividly depicts the power a teacher can have over her pupils – for better or for worse. Miss Jean Brodie has the raw potential to be a fantastic and inspirational teacher. Miss Brodie has an innate sense of the best approach for a particular  individual.  Miss Brodie is exceptional and special, and her pupils must be too. In her world, the greatest crime is to be normal or average and she drills this into her pupils.

The cinematography reflects this. Miss Brodie is always dressed in bright, life-affirming colours, usually red. That contrasts visually with the monochromatic and conformist grey background of the school uniforms and of Edinburgh itself.

She presents to her class of pre-teen girls glimpses of things forbidden and attractive. At the beginning, all of Miss Brodie’s girls are caught up in the whirlwind. In the storm of words, in the torrent of poetry in the tempest of ideas, they were (almost literally) swept up in the flood. Each girl is made to feel as though special and chosen; on the surface she treated them like adults. She tells her pupils stories of sex, romance and long lost love. Each girl feels like a cherished, adult individual. However, as she teaches them to adore her, she begins to lose sight of their individuality. Miss Brodie continually refers to her hero Benito Mussolini and her girls begin to reflect this. Like Mussolini’s elite troops, they are encouraged to be special and unique – but within limits defined by her. She states to her class, ‘Be the prima ballerina, not the corp de ballet”. However what if, like Mary Macgregor (as Miss Brodie always refers to her), you are a slow, awkward and plain girl? This dream is simply impossible.

Even from the very beginning, Miss Brodie seems to sense that the not very pretty, but extremely intelligent and observant, Sandy is her adversary. Jenny, Monica and Mary Macgregor remain infatuated with Miss Brodie, but Sandy begins to break away. When Miss Brodie realizes this, she decided to deliberately cut Sandy down.

Miss Brodie initiates a conversation with her four ‘special’ girls. She imposes on them her belief that Mary Macgregor will stop stuttering and distinguish herself. Miss Brodie tells them that Monica will become a famous actress and Jenny an artist’s model. When Sandy asks what Miss Brodie expects her to be, Miss Brodie says that “Sandy is… Sandy is dependable”. In Miss Brodie’s world, where being normal is the greatest crime, this is the most cutting insult of which she could think. By saying this to Sandy, she creates in Sandy a need to return close to Miss Brodie, to please her and to seek her approval.

Even after ‘her’ girls leave the junior school, Miss Brodie continues to try to manipulate them. She is afraid of her lover Teddy Lloyd leaving her for a younger woman so she decides to choose that woman. She intends that Jenny sleeps with Mr Lloyd. Sandy, however, is sick and tired if Miss Brodie’s manipulation. Sandy ends up sleeping with Mr Lloyd. This is Sandy’s first major display of defiance.

Meanwhile Mary Macgregor hears that her brother is fighting in the war for Spain. Miss Brodie convinces her to join him, proclaiming that she will be a “heroine”. Some weeks later Sandy reads of Mary Macgregor’s death in the newspaper. Sandy blames Miss Brodie for planting the idea and manipulating Mary Macgregor into seeking out her brother.

As Sandy observes Miss Brodie beginning to teach a new batch of girls, she decides that Miss Brodie has carried on long enough. She seeks an audience with the school’s Board of Governors and gets Miss Brodie fired. Sandy justifies her betrayal of Miss Brodie as motivated only by concern for future generations of pupils, but it was really partly from revenge. Even though it was not by choice, Sandy loved Miss Brodie the most out of all her girls. She was deeply hurt and rejected by Miss Brodie’s waning interst in her, and subconsciously wanted to pay her back.

The last scene of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie shows her girls exiting Marcia Blaine School for Girls for the last time. Mary Macgregor is gone forever, due to Miss Brodie’s influence. Jenny and Monica have escaped her; they are laughing and chatting like any other 18-year-old girls. Sandy is walking alone, bitter tears streaking her face. Half of Miss Brodie’s girls have been destroyed forever by her influence.

The last pictures we see of the two men who loved Miss Brodie are remarkably similar to this scene. One is marrying a young woman who loves him and is moving on in his life, whilst the other is standing alone in his art studio, painting Miss Brodie’s face onto every other portrait that he paints. His art, his joy and release, is ruined for him. Poisoned by Miss Jean Brodie. Miss Brodie has a 50% casualty rate in all whom her influence touches.

 Miss Brodie should have been an inspirational teacher, but instead she destroyed most of the people she came into contact with. Why? What is the difference? Why was she a malignant and not a benevolent influence?

The reason is that she taught how she did for her, and not her pupils. To her, they were ultimately dispensable. In this, she runs parallel to Mr John Keating of Dead Poets Society. Mr Keating entered his school with the purpose of reforming it and introducing free and radical thinking (thinking, not thinkers, since the individuals chosen did not matter in themselves to either Miss Brodie or to Mr Keating in the end). Miss Brodie’s motivation was purely selfish. She had to be in control of every aspect of her life, a life in which being normal was the ultimate crime. Her pupils had to adore and idolise to her. Her lovers could only love either her, or another of her choice. She had to vein control of everything. Miss Brodie’s and Mr Keating’s motivations were very different but the results the same. Their pupils were ultimately and tragically destroyed.

That is the difference between a teacher who does good and one who does harm - their motivation and intention. It is the difference between love of others and the love of yourself.


  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969.
  • Dead Poets Society, 1989

Submitted: September 20, 2011

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