A Witch’s Analysis of the Harry Potter Series
August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Just something fun from university… 🙂
The Harry Potter books are the most successful franchise of all time, with seven successful novels and eight very successful movies. A huge success in both print and movies, the series is a crucial item of popular culture. With the final movie still in theatres, the final chapter alone has broken several box office records worldwide – best opening weekend with $168.6 million (beating The Dark Knight), grossing $307 million internationally (beating Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), biggest three-day opening in the U.K. with $36.6 million, and the biggest one-day opening in North America with $92 million (beating The Twilight Sage: New Moon – thank Godric Gryffindor!). There is no question about how enormous the impact of these books have been on the current generation of both children and adults all across the globe. In fact, it is almost impossible to overstate how successful the series has been in both the movie and book mediums. Of course, with such a successful story there also arise questions ranging from why it has become so successful, how her writing has influenced the readers, and what symbolism and themes the author uses – whether unknowingly or knowingly. With some of these questions in mind, many people with specific beliefs question and analyze, and sometimes criticize this series. Some of these analysis’ are based on feminist, marxist, visual rhetorical, psychoanalytical, dramatistic and narrative, media, and culture-centered views.
From a feminist perspective, the readers can see that the Harry Potter books support females in a very positive manner. The female characters of the books couldn’t have been portrayed in a more positive and equal way. They are not second-class citizens; nor are they held higher than their male peers. They are simply equal. The story is told in a way in which the average reader doesn’t question gender roles. When reading, the question of gender never crossed my mind. Somehow, Jo Rowling has accurately portrayed our magical world, where everyone is entirely equal based on the kind of person they are, what choices they make, and each character’s equal opportunity to choose between good and evil.
In the Muggle world, a professional sports team is ideally male dominant without any female athletes. Sports that include professional female teams aren’t mixed with males and are of lesser interest to the general population. Here in the Wizarding World, there is equal opportunity when it comes to the international sport of Quidditch. Our teams consist of both females and males, and the sexes are not even separated!
For every female character, there is an equal male counterpart. There are both female and male Professors, Death Eaters, evil-doers, flaky characters, intelligent characters, and athletes. When it comes to Professors, equality between teachers is immediately evident with the usage of “Professor.” The term is unisex as opposed to “Miss” and “Mister” or “Madam” and “Sir.” In the case of top-notch Professors, Professor McGonagall is the most prominent female character. The male character equal to her is Albus Dumbledore. The two are the most respectable teachers at Hogwarts and it has nothing to do with their gender. In fact, the typical gender stereotypes seem to be reversed in this situation. While McGonagall is described as an incredibly serious and strict person, as Harry notices from his first impression. “The door swung open at once. A tall, black-haired witch in emerald-green robes stood there. She had a very stern face and Harry’s first thought was that she was not someone to cross.” Dumbledore, on the other hand, comes off as a cheery, joyous man. From his beginning school years at Hogwarts, to his title as Headmaster, he has been known for his kindness and uncommon willingness to find inner beauty in everyone. In contrast to the impression McGonagall gives, a more feminine description of Dumbledore describes his eyes as being a soul-piercing and brilliant shade of blue, and to twinkle with kindness. Traditionally, a male would be more stern and much less of a ‘softy.’ However, Professor McGonagall upholds the stern characteristics of a serious Professor. There is no description of her feminine characteristics – physical curves or even a male character’s attraction to her. She is not an object of someone’s desires. Simply, she is an empowering female figure in the world of Professors. In the Muggle world, many female teachers are thought to be ditzy girls who couldn’t think of a career choice when it came to choosing a degree in college. In high school, even the male students may notice this and hit on their more attractive teachers. More recently, a ditzy and blonde Muggle singer Britney Spears admitted that she would have chosen to be a teacher if it weren’t for her singing career. With this image in the media, it encourages the stereotypical dumb-blonde teacher. Fortunately, the Wizards and Witches live in a much more equal society where these stereotypes have not developed. Professor McGonagall represents an intelligent group of educators in the real world who deserve recognition of their abilities rather than an incorrect image driven by media. While McGonagall is such a strong character, she is still not above her equal character, Dumbledore. As Headmaster, he is slightly above her when it comes to leading the school. However, she is second in command to him as Deputy Headmistress and takes over as Headmistress following Dumbledore’s death. Both Dumbledore and McGonagall also share a strong trait of bravery, having been members of the Gryffindor House while attending the school as students: “You might belong in Gryffindor, where dwell the brave at heart; Their daring, nerve and chivalry set Gryffindors apart.” In addition, she is Head of Gryffindor House. Another characteristic separating McGonagall is her first name – Minerva. Her name is shared with the Roman goddess of Wisdom, which is generally a trait found in the house of Ravenclaw. A strong supporting character of the novels, Hermione Granger is the main representation of female equality as one of the three main characters.
The strongest female character is Hermione Granger, who is equally as important as Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. The trio exemplifies the importance of a female friend amongst two boys. Traditionally, main characters who consist of two people or have a sidekick are boys. For instance, The Hardy Boys are teenage stars in a series of detective novels. There are also superheroes such has Batman and Robin, who again are both male characters. In a traditional story, the male hero saves the helpless and timid damsel in distress. Hermione is anything but helpless or timid. It would be unfair to judge Hermione based on only one of the books, because each character grows so much throughout their seven years at Hogwarts. Throughout the series, we see her intelligence, wisdom, logic, morals, and maturity grow as she progresses through the challenges of school and life. In the first couple of books, Hermione is seen as being a bossy know-it-all. Harry and Ron’s first impression on the train to Hogwarts in their first year is that she is obnoxious and self-centered. Being made fun of by Harry and Ron, she isn’t yet seen as belonging to the trio. She doesn’t help how the two boys see her, as she bests them in every class. However, when Harry and Ron save her from a troll in the girl’s bathroom, their bond begins to strengthen. When the three of them get into trouble, she takes the blame for everyone. Throughout the books she is always studying, excelling in her assignments, assisting Harry and Ron with their assignments, and earning points for Gryffindor because she knows the answers in class or is able to be first to perform spells perfectly. In some ways, she seems to be better than Harry; but in other ways, Harry excels where she cannot. For instance, things that Harry is good at come naturally for him. Because of this, much of the time he is extremely humble, but also fights himself because he doesn’t feel as if he has earned his skills and expertise. On the other hand, Hermione has earned everything she is good at because of her endless studying and application of what she learns. One obvious difference between the two characters is Harry’s skill at Quidditch and handling a broomstick. Hermione seems to be afraid of flying and also isn’t very good with Divination. These appear to be her only challenges, as she is constantly assisting Harry and Ron with their schoolwork. Finishing her homework ahead of time and usually overachieving, her two friends often ask for her help at the very least, or even ask for her to do her homework for them. Sometimes she is nice enough to write a couple of paragraphs for them! Even though she is incredibly smart and sometimes a know-it-all, she doesn’t stick her nose in the air about it. She wants Harry and Ron to do well and makes that clear when urging them to study and helping them when they need a kick to get started. A strong female, she is the more logical of the three. She understands girls and why they’re emotional, but doesn’t show that emotion often. More often than not, Ron or Harry are the ones to get emotional – whether with anger, jealousy, or romance. Hermione is there to pull things together. When Ron is so jealous of Harry’s successes that they aren’t talking to each other, Hermione is the messenger between the two and must explain to each of them why the other feels the way they do. Explaining Ron’s jealousy to Harry, she tells him that he is always praised for everything and gets all sorts of attention for everything that he does. When Harry wants to send back a message to Ron, she tells him to tell him on his own; that’s the only way anything will be solved between the two of them. Hermione is also more logical than Harry when he learns that he can see into Voldemort’s mind and vice-versa. Wanting to take advantage of this for personal and emotional reasons, Harry doesn’t always fight accessing what Voldemort is doing. However, Hermione knows better and is constantly urging Harry to fight it and not let him into his head. In the end, her logic wins when Voldemort learns of this connection and uses it to his advantage. Including a female heroin among two male heroes of the story is an essential part of this story. She is everything positive that a female could be. Girls are stereotyped to be illogical, emotional and timid. Hermione counters these stereotypes by studying extremely hard in school, simply understanding common sense and logic, keeping her emotions in check, and kicking butt when she needs to stand up for herself. There is never a point in the story when she is the helpless damsel in distress.
The female characters are justly presented in these stories from the very beginning. Equality seems to be established with the very first chapter of the very first book. Harry’s aunt and uncle are both shown to be equally as cruel and disapproving of Harry. Generally, a mother figure is shown in a positive light, even if the father figure is not. However, since she is shown to be equally as vile toward Harry as his uncle and cousin, the equality between genders is set and never questioned again. Another important observation is that there are evil characters portrayed as men and women. Lord Voldemort is no doubt the main villain and meant to be the most feared of them all (You-Know-Who, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named). However, two additional female characters stick out. Bellatrix Lestrange may be even more terrifying than Voldemort, as she was voted most terrifying in an online poll. Obsessed with torture and thought by some to be in love with Voldemort, she is his most loyal follower. Unlike most Death Eaters who went back to their normal lives when Voldemort vanished, Lestrange remained loyal to Voldemort and spent the years in Azkaban because of her allegiance. When Dolores Umbridge is introduced in the fifth book, she is almost equally terrifying, even according to the Muggle author, Stephen King: “The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.” Even though she is not a known Death Eater or follower of Voldemort, Umbridge has a similar fascination with torture. When teaching at Hogwarts, her form of detention is torturous and in the form of cutting sentences into students’ hands. Further along in the year she is even prepared to perform the Cruciatus Curse on Harry, which is an illegal torturing spell (one of the Unforgivable Curses). The mix of female and male characters sharing important parts of the story is key to creating a perfect world of equality.
Another way to look at the writing of Rowling is through a Marxist interpretation of her work. The series is most definitely about power – who has it and who doesn’t. Being in a magical world, Muggles assume that magic should fix all problems that we wizards have. Unfortunately, it does not. Power depends on how one uses their magic – the choices they make when it comes to confrontation. In the modern Muggle world, power tends to come from money and who you know. In the Harry Potter novels, however, power is based on fear. Many wizards and witches are wealthy, both on the good and the evil sides. The most powerful and feared wizard of them all has no money and nothing more than a spirit until the end of the fourth book.
At the very beginning of book one, the readers learn of a powerful wizard who has suddenly lost all power and vanished without a trace. By the ecstatic celebrations happening around Britain following his disappearance, it is assumed that the evil wizard has been in control of the Wizarding World for quite a while. When Harry turns eleven and goes to Hogwarts, the reader sees the beginning of Voldemort’s struggle back to power, progressing through the entire series. What has kept him powerful, even when he is unable to take human form, no more than a lingering spirit? The loyalty of his followers (Death Eaters) is what has kept him strong throughout the years. When wizards and witches are faced with the choice to join him or die, the cowardly and unworthy choose to serve him and expand his loyal band of followers. Only after Voldemort’s disappearance resulting from attempting to kill Harry does the true loyalty show. Many Death Eaters returned to their normal lives and forgot about their former Lord, but the true followers of Voldemort continued to wreak havoc in his name and search for him (or end up in Azkaban). Before Voldemort regains his physical body in book four, he feeds off other wizards and witches in order to continue causing fear in his name. In some ways, it is because his victim is a selfish coward, scared and hoping to be rewarded in the end (Professor Quirrel). Other times, it is because he has tricked an innocent girl into trusting his spirit (Ginny Weasley). What is almost more fearful than Voldemort himself, is his ability to take control of even the most innocent girl and make her act in his name without knowing it.
Even though Voldemort is the most feared wizard in the novels, he is not the only one with power. On the good side, there is power as well. The most power lies in Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts. His wisdom, honesty and charm hold him above others and he easily keeps the respect of the professors and students. His name, magical powers, and reputation (Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Grand Sorcerer, Order of Merlin – First Class) are essential when it comes to maintaining his power. At one point Dumbledore so humbly states that he doesn’t have the power that Voldemort has; Professor McGonagall points out that he would have the power if he chose to use it in such a dark way as Voldemort has. As the greatest wizard of his time, his character is very successful because of his humble traits. Without them, he would be a horrible Headmaster tangled in his vanity. A very talented man, ha can cast spells without a wand, become invisible without a cloak, send messages via Patronus, and speak Mermish. He was also Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot and Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards. In addition, he is also famous for discovering the 12 uses for dragon blood and defeating Grindelwald, a dark wizard, in 1945. Of course if all this went to his head, he would be an entirely different person and be less respected by others.
Below Dumbledore, some students have more power than their peers. Harry has the most power, with Hermione and Ron close behind him. Even though Harry is not always liked by everyone and sometimes hated by most, he has remained the most looked up to in the novels. Having grown up with absolutely nothing, he is humble, trustworthy and grateful. He holds good qualities, and is relatively average at his schoolwork and excellent at other things. Being mediocre with his schoolwork, he is still able to relate to his fellow classmates better than someone like Hermione is able to. He is at a similar skill level of students, unless it comes to Defense of the Dark Arts or Quidditch, where he excels. He is able to use this to his advantage and help teach students how to use spells that are useful in battle. Having a powerful leader on both sides and at different levels of the good and evil sides is important, but it is easy to see that they get their power very differently. The good people generally are more able of sharing power amongst others, whereas there is one dominant force of evil on the other side.
Now, when it comes to an extreme analysis of Harry Potter, Rowling’s writings can be interpreted in a very different way. Looking at it from this extreme, the Wizarding World may be seen as a land of Communism. Slytherins are the Pure-Bred of the characters, believing that only the privileged and perfect should have magical powers. This makes them the aristocrats of society – the elite. The intelligent, clever Ravenclaws would represent the bourgeois. They’re the middle class who would collaborate with the aristocrats to suppress the petty-bourgeois Hufflepuffs – the lower middle social classes. The Hufflepuffs then are at the same level as the proletariat House Elves, who are the working class below all the wizards. When it comes to Gryffindor, it represents the Red Army – partly resembled by the gold and red colours. Dumbledore’s Army is an addition to the Red Army, the army of the proletariats. Separate from symbolism, there are also physical similarities between the magical characters and Muggles in history. Dumbledore has a long, white beard so he could be a resemblance of Karl Marx himself. Lord Voldemort would represent Tsar Nicholas II, so Lucious Malfoy would be a representation of Rasputin. On the good side of characters, Harry Potter would resemble Leon Trotsky (with glasses and black hair). Of course, these are only the most extreme resemblances between Marxism and the Harry Potter books. Looking at most books, anyone could find a way to relate the book to a historical event in world history.
There are many different ways to analyze Rowling’s writing – philosophically, psychologically, psychoanalytically, etc. Many questions remain about Rowling’s intentions for her writings, and one will only know if their analysis holds any truth if they were to ask her. For instance, how much of Hermione is based on Rowling herself? Do Feminism or Marxism actually play a part in the books or her perceptions of life in general? As a pop culture piece of today, many questions have developed based on analysis and few will be answered – giving great writers room for exploration in these topics.