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What Harry Potter really says about us
Published on May 1, 2007 By Sugar High Elf In Books
Instead of writing two very boring papers for my lit theory class, I decided to write a fun paper on....drum roll.... Harry Potter. I know, you're shocked.

And, while I'm not asking for help writing this paper, because that would be wrong, I thought I would put some of my notes up here to see what ya'll thought. I think it's pretty interesting stuff (I would) and I thought someone else might also find it interesting.

The focus of the paper is how does JK Rowling, by writing about a subculture in our modern culture, really comment on our modern culture. It's a "culture studies" lens which, if you ask me is total crap, but it makes for easy BS... and that's another good reason to choose this topic.

So, here goes:

The Value of Humility:
Harry is raised away from the wizarding world because Dumbledore thinks it will be best for Harry to grow up away from the spotlight. At the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Dumbledore tells Harry, "You see, only one who wanted to find the stone -- find it, but not use it -- would be able to get it, otherwise they'd just see themselves making gold or drinking Elixir of Life." Harry was not so proud that he wanted to be rich or immortal, he simply wanted to prevent the stone from falling in evil hands.

The Danger of Desire
Desire is not good or bad. However, overblown desire is destructive. We first see desire in the piggish behavior of Dudley... desire that will be mirrored in Voldemort. In order to be a good person, one must learn what to want, and to not let desire take over one's life. Dumbledore tells Harry, It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our heats. (...) However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what is shows is real or even possible. (...) I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared." Harry will not only be prepared to face the mirror, but to face his own desires.

Tolerance of People who are different:
This is a continuous theme. At the beginning of HP&TPS (or TSS), The Dursleys have zero tolerance for things that are "different". Harry then runs into Malfoy, who is "pure blood" and has hatred for any wizard that has muggle parentage. Of course, Rowling describes all of the Slytherins as inbred -- large, stupid, strange looking, mean... you get the point. Later, we see Hagrid as singled out for unleashing the monster on Hogwarts because he is half giant. Book 3 shows hateful distrust of Prof. Lupin because he is a werewolf. Again, in book 4, Hagrid's and Madam Maxime have a fight when he suggests that she is also half-giant. She is very determined to hide her heritage. (Though, really, you can't hide the fact that you tower above everyone). The list, obviously, goes on.

Importance of choices
This shows up first in that, despite their muggle blood, Hermione and Harry are better wizards than Malfoy because they work hard and study. They don't rely on "blood" to make them good wizards. Dumbledore even tells Harry that it is our choices that matter, not our abilities. (CoS) Harry chose to be in Gryffindor and not Slytherin. This leads right into...

Education as Empowerment.
Concerned, the students take learning Defense into their own hands, forming a secret study group, the D.A., and spending the semester meeting privately to learn and practice Defense spells. Ultimately, their hard work and practice save them at the end of the novel, where they use their newly developed skills to escape the Death Eaters unharmed. Had the students not been so stubbornly proactive, they might not have survived, and they can appreciate the true importance of what they are learning at Hogwarts in an entirely new way.

Well, that's not everything I could talk about... but I do need to actually write the paper now. I really wish I had some magic to help me out... a time turner would be great. Oh well.

on May 01, 2007
Some neat ideas. Looks like it will be a huge paper. i was thinking of some stuff when I was reading your notes. I don't know if it will help or not but I LOVE brainstorming so I couldn't resist! Re: Importance of Choices

I just finished reading Half Blood Prince.

There is a section before Dumbledore and Harry go to search for Horcruxes where they are discussing how Voldemort and Harry are different even though the prophecy says that they will never be able to coexist. It's about attitudes to battles. Voldemort creates his own worst enemy by marking Harry as his equal when he could as easily have chosen Neville Longbottom (Neville meets some requirements of the prophecy because of his birthday and his parents also fighting Voldemort 3x.) Also discusses reasons why Harry would not chose to walk away from his battle with Voldemort.

Re: Humility (HBP)
Harry refuses to be the poster-boy for the Ministry of Magic because of how the ministry treated him before and secondly because he doesn't like how they are doing things that are wrong (arresting Stan Shunpike) just to be seen to do something. While Harry's stance is his due to his personal philosophy, he doesn't abandon his views just to become even more famous or increase his celebrity.

Here's another issue you might want to examine:
The role of celebrity in society. Making heros or goats vs. being a hero or a coward.

I also thought Order of the Pheonix was an interesting sub plot of over involvement of government in education.

I don't know if this will be useful for you. Interesting to get a HP fix though!

Personally, I don't think that the "cultural studies" lens is bull. Lots of people choose to comment on culture by creating a separate world. Then again, I think psycho-analyzing characters is kind of bull. So I guess it's all personal preference.
on May 01, 2007
Great ideas! Some of those are going to come in very handy, Thanks!

And I say it's bull because every piece of literature comments on society in some way or another... so it's a pretty open field with no rules and no guidelines. It's basically a free-for-all. Too broad to be of any real use. However, it makes it easy to write a ten-page paper, so I'm all for it these days.
on May 01, 2007
Ok. See where you're coming from on the bull statement.

Glad some of the ideas might be useful. It was fun. Thanks.
on May 01, 2007
Glad you liked it. Now, I just need to stop goofing off and write the thing. There's just so much fun, pointless goofing off things to do!
on May 01, 2007
Here's a quote you might like on the importance of choices and the nature of prophecies. It's from JK Rowling's website:

“Yet I was making what I felt was a significant point about Harry and Voldemort, and about prophecies themselves, in showing Neville as the also-ran. If neither was ‘pre-ordained’ before Voldemort’s attack to become his possible vanquisher, then the prophecy (like the one the Witches make to Macbeth, if anyone has read the play of the same name) becomes the catalyst for a situation that would never have occurred if it had not been made. (…) Destiny is a name often given in retrospect to choices that had dramatic consequences.”
on May 02, 2007
Rowling's comment is really interesting.

I've taught Macbeth for a couple of year at high school. It's my favorite play by Shakespeare. I think it's relevant today for students because it gives them a chance to examine ideas of free will, temptation and downfall. Really like how Rowling connected to it. I will definitely remember that if I have another chance to teach Macbeth again.

Thanks for the quotation.

on May 02, 2007
In my experience, every time someone tries to avoid the fate told to them by an oracle or something, they usually end up causing that fate.

And here's the final result of my paper. I really hope this is what she was expecting:

Of Wizards and Muggles
What Harry Potter really says about us

Witches, goblins, orcs and magic swords usually belong to the world of children. However, many professionals and critics are taking fantasy literature seriously because of its ability to comment on society. Harry Potter may not seem like it is overly concerned with the social behaviors of the “muggle” world, but the situations and people Harry encounters are similar to those of the non-magical world, but dissimilar enough that the reader can feel distanced enough to take an objective look. By not directly addressing problems in modern society by describing that society, but choosing to focus on a subculture, the study of that subculture allows the reader or scholar to see what issues are important enough to be written about and included in the description of a subculture. J.K. Rowling explores such themes as the value of humility, the dangers of desire, tolerance of people who are different, the importance of choices and education as empowerment.

Heroes and villains have a traditional look and appearance. John Fiske wrote in his book Television Culture that heroes and heroines are “more attractive and more successful than villains” (1278). He also wrote that the heroes clothes would be richer and finer than the clothes of the villain. However, in the Harry Potter books, the heroes are not the best dressed nor the most attractive. Harry must wear his cousin’s old and oversized clothes, and his hair is always sticking out from his head. Ron and the rest of the Weasley family are poorer than most wizards and have bright red hair that is usually reserved for villains. Hermione Granger is described as buck-toothed and frizzy haired. Yet these three children are the heroes of the tale while the sharply dressed Malfoys and Dursleys are quite the opposite.

When Harry’s parents are killed by the evil lord Voldemort, Professor Dumbledore decides to leave Harry with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. In front of the Dursley’s house, Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall discuss leaving Harry with is aunt and uncle in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“‘He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!’ ‘Exactly,’ said Dumbleodore, looking very serious over his half-moon glasses. ‘It would be enough to turn any boy’s head. Famous before he can walk and talk! Famous for something he won’t even remember! Can’t you see how much better off he’ll be, growing up away from all that until he’s ready to take it?’” (13)
Harry then spends the next ten years of his life in a home where he is ignored, made to feel like an outsider and where he sees how his cousin Dudley is spoiled by his aunt and uncle. He grows up to be a very humble young man. When he finds out that he is a wizard, he is taken into the subculture and is immediately recognized as a hero. Strange witches and wizards come forward to shake his hand with a sense of awe or reverence. Harry, confused, asks Hagrid how everyone seems to know who he is. Reluctantly, Hagrid tells Harry that Harry is responsible for the destruction of the evil Lord Voldemort. However, even with this knowledge, Harry does not get a “big head” but goes to Hogwarts with his humility intact.

Once at Hogwarts, Harry and his friends become involved in a mystery and quest. Together, not alone, they must keep Voldemort from stealing the Philosopher’s Stone and becoming restored. They face many trials: flying keys, strangling plants, wizard’s chess and magic potions. At the end, Harry must, alone, face Voldemort. Harry is able to obtain the stone because of his humility and his lack of desire. He does not seek the stone so he can make gold, or so that he can have eternal life. Harry’s only desire is to keep Voldemort from rising to power again.

Harry gets a chance that most of us never get. He gets to see his desire as plainly as he sees himself in a normal mirror. When Harry first looks into the Mirror of Erised, he sees himself surrounded by his family. Dumbledore discovers Harry sitting before the mirror, and warns him against excessive desire,
It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our heats. (...) However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what is shows is real or even possible. (...) I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. (213)
Harry doesn’t need too much of a warning, for he has already seen the dangers of desire. He easily remembers his cousin and his selfish and outrageous demands for multiple televisions. Dudley’s greed, however, is just a precursor or prefiguration of the greed Harry will encounter in the wizarding world. Voldemort’s desires go beyond simple wealth but to the greatest power. When Voldemort, inhabiting Professor Quirrell, looks into the mirror, he sees nothing but himself using the stone to become wealthy and powerful again, but cannot figure out how to find the stone. When Harry looks into the mirror, he sees the stone in his own pocket. After Harry has recovered in the hospital wing, he asks Dumbledore how the stone ended up in his pocket. “You see, only one who wanted to find the Stone – find it, but not use it – would be able to get it, otherwise they’d just see themselves making gold or drinking Elixir of Life.” (300).

While it’s true that the average muggle is not going to find a Philosopher’s Stone and have to choose between everlasting life and defeating a great evil and we might be more familiar with Dudley’s form of greed. However, Dudley’s greed isn’t as dramatic or destructive as Voldemort’s on the surface, Rowling shows that Voldemort was not so different from Dudley when he was a child. Both were bullies and thieves. Given the ability and intelligence, Dudley would be no better than Voldemort’s self. Rowling shows that it isn’t magic that makes one evil or good, but one’s character. It is easy to see how Voldemort is evil, but it takes several books to see just how bad Dudley becomes.

Dudley and Voldemort have another thing in common, they each refuse to tolerate people who are different from them. They are not alone in this prejudice – many of the characters fear, hate or distrust anyone different from them. The Dursleys are described as “perfectly normal, thank you very much” (1) and hate things that are different. Vernon and Petunia lives in horror of different people, and from their neighbors from finding out that they nephew is “strange.” They are nosey and ill-tempered, and yet extremely proud of themselves for being, in their opinion, normal.

Once Harry gets to Hogwarts, his problems with prejudice do not end, but are magnified. Harry’s first friend from Hogwarts is the keeper of the keys and grounds, Hagrid. Hagrid does not attempt to hid the fact that his mother was one of the giants while his father was a human wizard. Hagrid is a big man with a love for creatures that other people would view as monsters. Hagrid is the first person suspected by the Ministry of Magic when children are attacked. He is arrested, not because of any proof, but because of his history and who he is. He was framed by Tom Riddle when Riddle opened the Chamber of Secrets fifty years ago, and is easily suspected again because of his mixed blood.

Harry’s favorite professor, Professor Lupin, is another character that is mistreated because of his differences. Lupin was unfortunate to be bitten by a werewolf when he was a child, and has grown up trying to hid his peculiarity. His condition was kept from everyone during his student days at Hogwarts – everyone but his closest friends. Later, when he comes back to Hogwarts to teach, he again conceals his unfortunate habit of changing into a werewolf at each full moon. Hermione is intelligent enough to figure out his secret, but keeps it until she believes he has betrayed Harry. Once Professor Snape lets Lupin’s condition slip out, Lupin immediately packs his bags and prepares to leave Hogwarts. “This time tomorrow, the owls will start arriving from parents… they will not want a werewolf teaching their children” (423).

While Hagrid’s heritage is genetic and could be best compared to someone of mixed races, Lupin’s condition is medical. Lupin was bitten and infected and became a werewolf at a young age. Some people would look at Lupin as representative of the plight of the homosexual or the AIDS patient. Their situations are similar in that each could lose reputation and perhaps their job if the truth about them were to get out. Some people still view homosexuality as a disease – one that could be passed on. Homosexual teachers must be careful of their identity, despite the laws in place to protect their jobs. Some parents, those afraid of people that are different, would fear that their impressionable children might be turned gay at the influence of a teacher. Lupin realizes that the parents will not want someone like him to teach their children, and resigns his position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher before the owls can arrive. Harry points out to Lupin that Lupin is the best teacher the students have ever had. However, while this is meaningful and touching to Lupin, he realizes that his qualifications will not matter to the angry students who fear their children’s safety.
Prejudice of blood is not only limited to those who have mixed species parentage or to those who have a transforming illness. Some wizards, mostly those from Slytherin house, despise those wizards whose blood is not pure. Draco Malfoy, a wormy boy, tries to befriend Harry by warning him about hanging out with the wrong sort of wizard. Draco comes from a full blood wizard family, and looks down on any wizard with muggle blood. He sees Ron’s family, a family of purebloods, as traitors to their blood because they willingly associate with muggles and mudbloods. For wizards like Malfoy, pure blood equals power and wealth – much like an economic class. However, pure blood does not guarantee ability.

When Rowling describes the Slytherin students, she makes them all sound as though they are inbred, which, they would have to be in order to keep their blood lines pure and free of muggle blood. Nearly all of the Slytherins are oversized, strange-looking, mean and unintelligent. Their blood is pure, but their abilities are usually limited. They rarely seem to mind, since their pure blood is what matters most to them, and is their final slur when they have nothing else to win their battles. Harry and Hermione, however, are better wizards than Malfoy, who is from a family of pure wizard blood. This shows that dedication and work, rather than genetic heritage, are the important factors in guaranteeing success. Ron’s mediocrity despite his wizard background reminds the reader that success at Hogwarts is based on talent and hard work, and not on family connections.

Some people have objected to the Harry Potter books because they believe that magic is evil, but Rowling takes great care to make it clear to the reader that it is the choices one makes that makes them who they are. It is true that each wizard and witch is born with natural skill and initial ability, learning how to use their abilities, and choosing which path to take is ultimately more important. In The Chamber of Secrets, Harry learns that he shares many abilities and characteristics with Lord Voldemort. Each were orphaned as children. Each can speak Parseltongue. Harry is worried by these similarities and speaks to Dumbledore about them,
‘Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized (…), Parseltongue – resourcefulness – determination – a certain disregard for rules. Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.’ ‘It only put me in Gryffindor’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’ ‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’ (333)
Harry’s choices define his character far more than his ability to speak to snakes. His repeated performances of kindness, bravery, courage and loyalty make him far different from the boy who would eventually become the dark Lord Voldemort.

Harry’s destiny is also the result of choice and not fate. Many characters in the books believe that Harry is destined to defeat Voldemort, or to be killed by him. The prophecy reads, “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches” (841) and goes on to give a few details about the coming child, but does not call Harry by name. In fact, Dumbledore tells Harry that there was another boy born that could have been the child in the prophecy. “One, of course, was you. The other was Neville Longbottom” (842). Because of Voldemort’s choice in boys, Harry becomes the one given the powers to defeat Voldemort. On her website, J.K. Rowling answered a question about the fallibility of prophecies,

Yet I was making what I felt was a significant point about Harry and Voldemort, and about prophecies themselves, in showing Neville as the also-ran. If neither was ‘pre-ordained’ before Voldemort’s attack to become his possible vanquisher, then the prophecy (like the one the Witches make to Macbeth, if anyone has read the play of the same name) becomes the catalyst for a situation that would never have occurred if it had not been made. (…) Destiny is a name often given in retrospect to choices that had dramatic consequences.
Harry becomes the “chosen one” because of Voldemort’s choices and not because of a mystical fate. Because Voldemort acted on incomplete knowledge, he does not prevent the prophecy, but makes it become true. Only after the publication of the seventh book will the readers finally know how the prophecy comes fully true, for, “either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives” (841).

In book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the students learn two lessons: the occasional need for rebellion, and the empowerment of education. Professor Umbridge, a woman hired by the Ministry of Magic, comes to Hogwarts and begins making rules to “protect” the students from the “lies” spread by Harry and Dumbledore. Umbridge decides that the students have no need to practice any Defense Against the Dark Arts magic, because they will never need it. “‘Using defensive spells?’ Professor Umbridge repeated with a little laugh. ‘Why, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger. You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked during class?’” (242) Worried not only about their upcoming exams where they will have to demonstrate defense spells, but also about the resurrection of Voldemort, the students take learning Defense into their own hands, forming a secret study group, the D.A., and spending the semester meeting privately to learn and practice Defense spells. This work saves their lives at the end of the novel as they must fight dark wizards at the Ministry of Magic. It also saves their lives in the next book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when dark wizards attack the school. While normal students will not face a powerful and magical dark lord bent on destroying them and their world, they can still see the importance of education when they read how a group of students, by stubbornly learning despite oppression, are able to save themselves. Rowling’s point is that students must be active in their acquisition of knowledge, and not simple, passive absorbers of the information fed to them by their schools. Students must be aware of censorship at any level and fight to get as much knowledge as is possible for them.

The lessons Harry and his friends learn while at Hogwarts are not exclusive to wizards and witches. When taken out of their supernatural context, these lessons are easily applicable to the lives of many “muggles.” These books not only show that there are problems in the real world, but that there are problems in a fantastical world like Hogwarts as well. Magic does not solve everything. Going off to Hogwarts, Harry does not leave behind his Muggle existence forever. The same qualities that make the Muggles objectionable are present among wizards as well. Mrs. Dursley’s snobbery is fully apparent in Malfoy’s snooty name-dropping. Dudley’s self-centered and uncaring greed is present in a more grandiose and powerful way in the evil Voldemort’s greed. And Hogwarts itself is composed of students from wizard and Muggle backgrounds alike, as well as “half-breeds” that must face prejudice just as people in the non-magic world. The choices that the characters make have consequences just choices have consequences in the rest of the world.

on Jun 04, 2007
Even though your paper is done, I'm a HUGE HP kid (book 7 has been reserved since January) so I wanted to throw my two cents in about one particular topic. Tolerance of People who are different as well as The Danger of Desire, in the case of Sirius and his family. Black's family is the epitome of 'pure-blood' discrimination, with the painting of Sirius's mother going crazy at traitors and mud bloods in her house and the family tree tapestry with names burned out of it for examples. Sirius wanted so desperately to break free of that and show how different he was from his family that he was willing to make very irrational decisions and go against Dumbledore's orders. This desire to prove that he is good ultimately leads to his demise. If he had not been so blinded by his desires he might have seen what he was doing was hurting Harry and the order.
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