The Moral Universe of Harry Potter

I began writing this three years ago; it was meant to be an epic, but I lost steam fairly quickly.  Visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter last week has rekindled enough enthusiasm to post the fragment that I finished now.


Like so many others, I am a giant “Harry Potter” nerd.  With the release of the final film, I’ve been embroiled in some discussions — and read some articles — about various facets of the Potterverse, much of which revolve around the usual meat of this blog: ethics, narrative structures, social justice and political identity.  So I thought I’d go ahead and, rather than respond piecemeal to different sources, collate all my thoughts in a single post here.  There’s a lot to cover, so I’ve tried to impose a structure that keeps things pretty clear.


First principles: “Harry Potter” is written for kids.  That’s not a slam — I love (and sold) kidlit — but it is an important rebuttal to two common complaints against the series.  Firstly, there’s the writing style.  JK Rowling’s prose is not revelatory, but it does the job well, maintains an appropriate reading level, and gets in a great deal of wordplay (what other book has contributed so many inventive new words to common language in the last fifty years?).  Rowling’s a better storyteller than she is prose stylist, and while the very best writers are both in equal measure, children’s literature tends to lean more heavily on the former than the latter.  I’m not going to pile on the series for using too many adverbs or ellipses (even though it kinda does).


The second complaint often leveled against the series is the simplicity of its moral universe, which is what I’ll be deconstructing for pretty much the rest of this post, but I’d like to begin that process by pointing out the obvious: “Harry Potter” is told from the perspective of Harry Potter (almost the entire series, save a few expositional scenes, are in third-person limited, in Harry’s voice).  Harry Potter is a kid.  We meet him when he is eleven years old and part with him at seventeen.  Adolescents are wonderful and capable creatures, but their moral compass is still very much under development.  As such, in order to fully understand the ethical complexity of the Potterverse, we have to read past Harry himself.  Readers encounter the wizarding world as Harry Potter encounters it, but hey, this is a post-Nabokov literary moment — trusting that our narrator, however heroic he may be, is correct or complete in his perceptions is just being a lazy reader.


The last premise I’d like to establish before getting into specifics is my reference point for authorial intent.  Authorial intent is kind of a twitchy thing to lean on, and my aim isn’t to find things that aren’t actually present within the text but rather to backstop textual interpretation with a sense of Rowling’s own attitudes and politics.  I’ve read several interviews with her but the most extended and thought-provoking speech I’ve seen from her was at the Harvard commencement in 2008 — my brother was graduating with his PhD and although I, barely employed and couch-surfing in Los Angeles, could not afford the cross-country trip both he and my parents insisted that I not miss the video of her address, which celebrated the dual importance of both imagination and failure (the latter of which was quite reassuring, as I watched with a cup of ramen noodles from my temporary home on a friend’s floor).  Imagination’s import is not presented frivolously but rather as the groundwork for empathy and political action: prior to writing Rowling worked with human rights refugees, and in the speech she interpolates a causal relationship between the literary imagination and the compassionate courage necessary to engage in positive changemaking.  It’s a powerful idea, and I’ll revisit it herein.


So, without further ado, I’ll run through my thoughts character by character, in an order that I think makes the most sense.


Harry — Although it’s his name on the cover of every book, Harry can be easy enough to dismiss as a hero: he’s blessed with athleticism, good looks, and a frankly absurd amount of money, and that’s before we even start in on the whole “Chosen One” thing.  We’ll get back to the prophecy stuff in a bit (and won’t really bother trying to decipher the wizarding economy, because really, that… is a whole ‘nother can of worms), but I’d like to bring up a point that’s relevant to his narrative reliability — in addition to being an adolescent boy, in addition to being tasked with a tremendous burden, he is also recovering from a full decade of abuse.  If Hagrid hadn’t shown up and whisked Harry off to Hogwarts at age eleven, then one could only hope that the boy might’ve encountered a sympathetic teacher to report the Dursleys to social services — kids who have experienced what his aunt and uncle do to Harry are the kind of kids who wind up wards of the state.  I don’t say that to be facile, either; I say that because, about six years ago, my father — who teaches severe behaviorally handicapped students at a residential school run by the county — had a student whose parents also used to lock him under the stairs (in a crawlspace, not a cupboard), where he would befriend insects and spiders to pass the time.  Like Harry, the kid was resilient, but he was also messed up.  Harry’s inability to see flaws in Sirius; his petulant anger at Dumbledore’s unrevealed past during the entire first half of book seven; his immediate judgment of Snape after being treated poorly by the man; the fact that Harry can never shut up about his dead parents — y’all, this kid is needy.  Yes, it can be a little irritating at times, and occasionally obscure some important points (as we’ll discuss regarding Sirius), but given what she stuck the boy with as a premise Rowling does about the best she can at striking a middle ground between a tolerable narrator and the psychological reality of a teenage boy coping with a history of serious abuse at the same time he’s also trying to, like, save the world and shit.  The Potterverse is not entirely unproblematic but to lay those problems at the feet of Harry himself is, I think, incorrect — after all, if anyone wields genuine power in the Potterverse it is not Harry but rather his mentor, which brings us to…


Dumbledore — The AV Club write-up of the entire HP saga took JK Rowling to task for her comment that Dumbledore is gay; they found it “opportunistic.”  Which is a head-scratcher to me — how is Dumbledore being gay any more or less opportunistic than his being straight?  There are those who feel that his homosexuality should have been more overt, that he should have had some kind of romantic entanglement, that more evidence is necessary to justify his sexual orientation, but this response disregards the created reality of the wizarding world, which is, plainly, heteronormative, perhaps even more so than muggle society.  Dumbledore holds a great deal of power and prestige, but even he is not immune to the undemocratic manipulations and machinations of his (numerous) enemies; were he to come out publicly there would surely be repercussions, particularly given his past history with the dark wizard Grindelwald (wouldn’t Rita Skeeter love to report THAT story!).  It might not be the most courageous option, but Dumbledore’s pragmatism in not coming out publicly has served him well in leading the effort against Voldemort.  Revealing this part of his identity privately to Harry, with whom he was fairly close, would be less scandalous but also entirely irrelevant — the entire first half of book seven goes to great lengths to point out how little Harry actually knew about his mentor, because their relationship was always focused on either a) Harry or b) Voldemort.  For Dumbledore to suddenly bring up his sexuality would have been rather Catholic-priestly of him, and, well, isn’t it better for everyone that the series didn’t go there?  Moreover, for those who found no precedent for Dumbledore’s orientation, I suggest looking to his generous outlook towards house-elves, muggles, giants, centaurs, and all the other manner of creatures discriminated against as a matter of course within the wizarding world.  Dumbledore is not an agent for systemic change (which fits with his closeted sexuality) but he does express a consistent solidarity with oppressed classes, suggesting that underneath his power and privilege there is some experience with marginalization.  This is why, although he is a closer mentor to Harry, the young wizard who most echoes Dumbledore is in fact…


Hermione — Dumbledore aside, Hermione is the best thing the good guys have going for ’em; when Sirius calls her “the brightest witch of [her] age” he could be referring either to her class at Hogwarts, or to her entire generation.  Without Hermione on their side, Harry and Ron die in their first year of wizardschool and Voldemort comes back into power without much issue.  In short, Hermione is AWESOME, and as others have pointed out, she deserves her name on the cover of the books at least as much as Harry — her heroic efforts happen not by happenstance or prophecy but arise from intelligence and hard work, and on top of all those smarts she also demonstrates the most well-developed conscience of any of the Hogwarts students; her love of rules is not so great that she can’t see past them to recognize the many structural injustices of the wizarding world.  


And that’s all I managed to finish — mostly because there’s just too damn much to say about Hermione, her experience of marginalization, her solidarity with house-elves (and the flaws in her allyship, and the pushback she receives from other wizards for even making an effort) — and then the great revelation that Hermione could be black (as, indeed, she is in the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) — well, that’s a lot to unpack, and most of it is already there in bits and pieces on Tumblr.  


(Also, for those of you who are noticing a pattern: yes, this is the week in which I dig out old writing that’s sitting unloved on my hard drive and send it into the digital ether.)

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