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Ana Knudsen, Emory UniversityFollow

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Date

4-30-2020

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Recent interpretations of Muriel Spark's 1961 novel "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" have focused on the ethical implications of its omniscient narrator: throughout the novel, an authoritative voice assigns superficial labels to the Brodie girls, reducing identities to symbols; arguably, this effect challenges the reader to consider how dehumanizing mistaking signifier for signified can be. However, this interpretation ignores the agency that the Brodie set ultimately derive from their collective identity, as each girl repurposes her assigned identity as a rule from which to depart, thus achieving exceptionalism by exceeding the label given to her. Analyzing the novel through the lens of sovereign exception put forth by Carl Schmitt in his "Political Theology," I argue that the power inherent to the balance between exception and norm comprises the primary conflict of the novel: the necessary exchange between individualism and collectivism. To be an exception, it is not enough to be an outsider; rather, Schmitt posits that exceptionalism is achieved by being simultaneously above, yet subject to, a rule. I argue that Brodie set membership affords the girls a means of excepting themselves from the rule of their larger school; and, further, provides each with a superficial identifier they can then surmount, becoming exceptions to themselves and achieving individualism by thwarting their own definitions. Ultimately, my analysis illustrates that Spark's novel offers not an ethical prescription for how we might perceive others, but an empowering way of seeing ourselves: capable of surmounting others' definitions, and of manufacturing our own agency.

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Apr 30th, 12:00 AM

The Power of Real Life: Exceptionalism in Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"

Recent interpretations of Muriel Spark's 1961 novel "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" have focused on the ethical implications of its omniscient narrator: throughout the novel, an authoritative voice assigns superficial labels to the Brodie girls, reducing identities to symbols; arguably, this effect challenges the reader to consider how dehumanizing mistaking signifier for signified can be. However, this interpretation ignores the agency that the Brodie set ultimately derive from their collective identity, as each girl repurposes her assigned identity as a rule from which to depart, thus achieving exceptionalism by exceeding the label given to her. Analyzing the novel through the lens of sovereign exception put forth by Carl Schmitt in his "Political Theology," I argue that the power inherent to the balance between exception and norm comprises the primary conflict of the novel: the necessary exchange between individualism and collectivism. To be an exception, it is not enough to be an outsider; rather, Schmitt posits that exceptionalism is achieved by being simultaneously above, yet subject to, a rule. I argue that Brodie set membership affords the girls a means of excepting themselves from the rule of their larger school; and, further, provides each with a superficial identifier they can then surmount, becoming exceptions to themselves and achieving individualism by thwarting their own definitions. Ultimately, my analysis illustrates that Spark's novel offers not an ethical prescription for how we might perceive others, but an empowering way of seeing ourselves: capable of surmounting others' definitions, and of manufacturing our own agency.