Wed Nov 20, 2002

Harry Potter, Again

Mark A. R. Kleiman responds to Chris Sullentrop’s attack on Harry Potter’s character, which I wrote about, and partly joined, here. Mark suggests that I “earnestly agree” with Sullentrop’s smears. I wouldn’t go so far. Although I’ve read the books (purely in my capacity as a sociologist of culture, you understand) I hadn’t thought of Sullentrop’s angle before, and I just thought it was well done and funny.

But now I’ve been cast in this role—- Mark suggests (perhaps with some accuracy, alas) that I brim with “deep resentment of the ‘cool kids’ who do so much to make life a misery for everyone else in high school”—- I can stick with it for a while.

I said that we could think of Harry as being the beneficiary of a big dose of moral luck. What appear to be character virtues in fact come either from fortunate circumstances owing to his parents (wealth, fame amongst wizards and magical powers against Voldemort), or from victories over his opponents due to chance, accident or the help of his friends. I added that Harry’s conflict with Draco can be seen as arising from their structurally similar positions: “Who is Harry’s main enemy from day to day? Why, the other glory-hogging, rich, trust-fund kid with all the nice toys: Draco Malfoy.”

Mark objects:

But the defining characteristics of the “cool kids” is their relentless drive to differentiate themselves from, and lord it over, the uncool, a drive Harry simply doesn’t share. In his first encounter with Malfoy, Harry is put off by Malfoy’s snobbery. Not only Harry is generous with his inherited wealth, he is delicate in his generosity, sensitive to his friend Ron Weasley’s touchiness about his family’s poverty. He never has a harsh word for the hopelessly incompetent Neville Longbottom or the annoyingly hero-worshipping Colin Creevey. Nor does he exploit their admiration for him to make them his errand-runners and accomplices; contrast Malfoy’s relationship with Crabbe and Goyle.

Well, isn’t this begging the question? Mark wants to make Harry’s differences from Malfoy a matter of “defining characteristics” and “drives”—- of character, in other words. But this is precisely what’s at issue. It’s easy to be generous when you’re horrendously lucky, and Malfoy’s actions could be seen largely as the pettish responses of someone who finds he is no longer the wealthiest, most important boy in the school. It may be true that Harry’s immense good fortune is just “life in the big city”, as Mark says, but he can’t have it both ways: luck is still luck, not character.

Mark goes on to argue that “Harry’s luck is hardly unmixed… he is an orphan almost from birth, and raised in a physically and emotionally abusive home.” So, he continues,

I can’t agree that Harry Potter is a bad character for kids to admire. He resembles an epic hero far more than he does a “boy’s book” hero: rather than being a mere target for wish-fulfillment projection, he reflects a mix of glory and pain, including pain he brings on himself. You wouldn’t really want to be Harry Potter, any more than you’d really want to be Achilles or Odysseus.

I don’t think this is right. As Mark himself notes, Harry’s “level-headedness, maturity, and good humor are not plausible outcomes of the sort of upbringing Rowling describes.” Harry’s boy-scout-like qualities are the least convincing thing about the book. The (literary) reason for this, I think, is that it allows him to be a target for wish-fulfillment. If Harry were a true product of his upbringing, we might feel pity for him but could not identify with him. By making him mature, sensible and basically good, Rowling allows readers to preserve a fantasy: “That’s just how I’d act in Harry’s shoes—- I’m a good person who’s underrated and badly treated by my Muggle family and peers, and all that wealth, fame and magical power is just what I deserve. But, just like Harry, that stuff wouldn’t change me. I’d only use my abilities for good, I’d be kind to all my friends and I’d really show that Malfoy a thing or two.” Harry’s treatment by the Dursleys is just a cartoonish version of the oppression children often feel they suffer at the hands of their parents. It isn’t an antidote to the wish-fulfillment, it enables it.

You don’t have to identify with Harry, of course. Rowling gives you Hermione and Ron as well, and in many ways their relationship with Harry is more complex than his with them. Ron feels resentment and anger at Harry’s wealth and good fortune, for example. But all we ever get from Harry is blank incomprehension about this—- “But I’m a good person!”, in other words.

Incidentally, Mark provides the perfect example of a reader who falls for the wish-fulfillment fantasy completely, though on behalf of someone else.

All that said, this interpretation didn’t occur to me until I read Sullentrop’s piece, so he gets all the credit (and all the blame, if necessary, hem hem).