For the last seventy years, the word “fascist” has become a universal symbol for everything that is wrong or evil in the world, and often inspiring an immediate response of fear and hatred in most people. The cause of this reaction to a simple word was the most destructive war that humanity has ever known. A war that was fought, in large part, due to fascist ideologies that were pushed by some of the most infamous people to ever walk the Earth. The idea of fascism first gained prominence under Benito Mussolini in Italy before spreading out to spots in Europe and, eventually, making its way around the entire world. Adolf Hitler soon took up the idea and was followed by others such as Francisco Franco in Spain, Juan Perón in Argentina, and Emperor Hirohito in Japan (Szalay). While fascism may be regarded as evil today, there were many people in the 1930’s who fully embraced the idea right alongside these famous men. One such person was the title character in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Brodie is a school teacher who does not hesitate to let her select group of girls, the Brodie set, know all about her admiration for the political belief. In a story that could be seen simply as a coming of age story for a group of young girls and their eccentric teacher, the novel instead becomes a criticism of fascism that is demonstrated through the words and actions of the misguided teacher and her treatment of her young students.
Like most other types of government, it is hard to pin down a single definition of fascism. Much like the Democracies around the world, the fascist states that sprang up in the years between world wars were incredibly varied, with each government having a different focus to rally their people around. Hitler and the Nazis are the most famous example and they rallied around the idea of themselves as the superior race, as well as the fact that Jews were barely human and deserved to be eradicated. Mussolini and the Italians, on the other hand, did not decide to embrace the racist mindset of their ally until much later, almost before World War II even started, and Japan was never on board with the Nazi’s approach (although they were far from innocent of war crimes themselves). Despite how different they were in many aspects, though, nearly all fascist regimes do share some similarities, even if they handle those ideas differently (Szalay).
The first thing that fascists all tend to share is an opposition to political and cultural liberalism. They tend to disregard the idea of the individual, and instead put the major focus on the idea of the greater good, or the Volk, as the Germans called it (Fascism). Fascists routinely condemned individual thinkers as troublemakers and people who needed to be silenced before causing too much dissent. The reader sees this type of behavior throughout The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by the teacher and one critic describes the book as “concerned with the erotics of teaching, [and the] contradictory authority of the teacher who seduces and bullies at the same time” (Wood). At one point in the novel, Brodie shares her philosophy of teaching with the girls, telling them that education “means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul” (Spark 36). Brodie thinks that by showing her girls all the supposedly wonderful things that she enjoys and sharing her love of Mussolini that she is teaching the girls to think for themselves. Instead, she is only teaching them to think and behave precisely how she wants them to. Which is exactly like her. At one point, for example, she asks her class who the greatest Italian painter. When one of the girls responds that it’s Leonardo da Vinci, Brodie informs the girl that she is wrong and that “The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite” (10). Another part of the book has the teacher breaking down her students’ individuality by getting onto one of the girls for opening a window too much, saying that “Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide. Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things” (45). The most conclusive evidence of how Brodie molds the girls to her will and forces individuality out of them is when Spark writes about the girls when they are all sixteen and are no longer in Brodie’s class, but “they remained unmistakably Brodie, and were all famous in the school, which is to say they were held in suspicion and not much liking” (5). Even though each girl may have had her own identity within the group, their teacher had completely destroyed their overall individuality to the rest of the world.
Another trait that every fascist regime has in common is a strong leader who claims to be the only person who can save their followers and lead them on to greatness (Fascism). For Mussolini, it was the promise that he alone could be the man to create jobs for the people and get the trains running on time. For Hitler, he was the only man who could protect the people from the supposed scourge of the Jews, and only him who could return the proper respect to the German people after the terrible Treaty of Versailles. For Jean Brodie, she was the only one who could make the girls special and stand out, which would in turn make them completely loyal to her. She even boldly states “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life” (9). In Brodie’s mind she alone was the ultimate source of knowledge in the world, and everyone else was wrong. Her ongoing battle with the school’s headmistress, Miss Mackay, is Brodie’s evidence to her girls that she is fighting for their future, and in a way becomes reminiscent of the fight between fascism and communism that was going on in the world at that time. The headmistress wants everybody to act alike and be treated the same, but Brodie does not want to go along with the same boring lessons that everyone else does and lashes out at the system. Instead of putting her faith in science like the other teachers in the school she instead embraces an anti-intellectual stance that many of her fascist idols take on and tells her girls “Art and religion first; then philosophy; lastly science. That is the order of the great subjects of life, that’s their order of importance” (25). Brodie wants to make it clear to the girls that she alone has the answers, and the rest of the world is wrong and not to be trusted. As Judy Suh states, “it is not merely the departure from sedimentation that attracts the students to Miss Brodie, but also the promise of security that her mode of rebellion implies. The girls relish the combination of renegade non-conformity and familiarity” (93). Much like the fascist leaders she idolizes, Jean Brodie is, through her own sort of charm and charisma, convincing these girls that everyone else is wrong and she is the only person to follow if they all want to be happy and successful in life.
The most important trait that fascist leaders stick to is creating a radical devotion to their own group at the expense of others; the classic “us versus them” mindset. A strong fascist leader must always have a scapegoat to blame his people’s problems on. This in turn scares the populace into doing whatever it is the leader wants (Szalay). The mindset of group over everything else is the culmination of all the other strategies a strong leader employs: they convince a person to give up their identity, to no longer trust scientists or the media, and to put all their faith in the leader to provide the answers, eventually forcing the follower to become a diehard convert of the group and no longer listen to sense or reason. In the novel the school tries to break up Brodie’s set by putting them into different houses in the senior school and having them compete against one another, hoping the girls will develop a sense of team spirit. Miss Brodie had already beaten them to it, though, and had taught the girls that “Phrases like ‘the team spirit’ are always employed to cut across individualism, love and personal loyalties” (78). Brodie knew that the others would try and break up her little group, so she planned out different ways to make the other teachers seem even more like the enemy. When Brodie is looking over the tests the girls had done for the other teachers, she tells them that the problems they had to do would be no use to “Sybil Thorndike, Anna Pavlova and the late Helen of Troy” (82), all women who Brodie taught the girls to admire and consider as part of their group. By delegitimizing what the other teachers had done and taught she was once again making her group stronger and portraying them alone as the only ones in the school who knew what was really going on in the world. At every point in the story, from her love life, to religion, to the school, Brodie paints herself and her girls as the victims fighting against tyranny, forcing them to together as a group and making it “impossible for them to escape from the Brodie set because they were the Brodie set in the eyes of the school… the Brodie set had no team spirit and did not care which house won the shield. They were not allowed to care. Their disregard had now become an institution, to be respected like the house system itself” (111).
Naomi Diamond says of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that “Despite the hilarious moments in the book, this is a study of how evil may work through the ostensibly commonplace” (323). While it is impossible to compare the damage done between people like Hitler and Jean Brodie, there is certainly evil in both of their actions. They both undoubtedly believed that what they were doing was right, yet all Brodie achieved was to set herself up in a position of authority and then abuse her power to the detriment of every single person around her. As Diamond puts it so well, it is also a look at how this sort of evil is not always glaring in your face like it is in so many other stories and movies. It is instead many little things that add up to a lonely lady who is lost and alone, longing for love and leaving instead a line of victims. Her fascist methods took their toll, and the book flashes forward occasionally to each of the surviving girls when they are much older and thinking about Miss Jean Brodie, proving their spinster school teacher right that, through her misguided deeds, those impressionable young women were indeed hers for life.
*Yes, this was a paper for college. But it really was a great book*
Diamond, Naomi. “Books Abroad.” Books Abroad, vol. 36, no. 3, 1962, pp. 323–324. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40117000.
“Fascism.” 4 October 2018. Encyclopædia Britannica. 5 November 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/fascism/Opposition-to-parliamentary-democracy>.
Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. New York: Macmillan Publishers LTD, 1961.
Suh, Judy. “The Familiar Attractions of Fascism in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007, pp. 86–102. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4619329.
Szalay, Jessie. “What Is Fascism?” 4 January 2017. Live Science. Web. 5 November 2018. <https://www.livescience.com/57622-fascism.html>.
Wood, James. “The Prime of Ms. Muriel Spark.” November 2004. The Atlantic. Web. 6 November 2018. <https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/11/the-prime-of-ms-muriel-spark/303567/>.