Saturday, January 28, 2006

What a Tangled Web: Harry Potter and the Problem of Generational Parallels

Note: The first part of this post is a reworked and much-rewritten version of an article I wrote for the discussion group Harry Potter for Grownups in the fall of 2003, not long after the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The second part is a mass of ideas that have been swimming around in my head since I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince six months ago.

The generational parallel bomb exploded within Harry Potter fandom with the publication of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which for the first time took a closer look at, and exposed the juvenile escapades of, the parent generation--specifically James Potter and his three friends, the Marauders, and their fraught relationship with Snape. Fans expanded on the comparisons that the book draws between Harry and his father, and used them to conclude a one-to-one relationship between James' generation and Harry's. As Harry's impulsive best friend, Ron was cast in the role of Sirius, and his more serious companion Hermione was compared to Lupin. The role of the traitor and coward, Peter Pettigrew, was invariably assigned to Neville.

It's the last parallel that tends to discredit the idea of straightforward generational parallels in the Potterverse, although in the years before the publication of Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, I found that misperceptions of Neville's character were pernicious and difficult to counteract. Neville is actually one of the trickiest characters in the series, largely because he does such a good job of misrepresenting himself. "Everyone knows I'm practically a squib", he announces at one point, but his failures at magic are consistently failures of control, not of power. When Neville screws up spells, he melts cauldrons and sends teachers flying across the room. Asked to make a stately hop on his broom, he ends up soaring in the air. Only once in the series is Neville actually compared to Peter--when Harry envisions the death of Peter Pettigrew at Sirius Black's hands. Harry has bought into the myth of Neville as magically weak and in need of protection, but of course Neville is not the only person about whom Harry is misinformed in that scene. Peter is no innocent victim, but he is a sycophant who, as Sirius and Lupin tell us later in the book, hid behind stronger and more popular wizards in school and later in life. Neville has never followed Harry around in the puppyish way that Peter followed James, and when faced with a difficult decision, Neville often chooses an unpopular and possibly dangerous path--when he stands up to his friends in Philosopher's Stone, when he freely admits to losing his passwords in Prisoner of Azkaban, when he chooses to accompany Harry at the end of Order of the Phoenix, and when he answers Hermione's call at the end of Half-Blood Prince. Peter is not a coward, but he always acts in his own self-interest, whereas Neville almost always acts selflessly.

Order of the Phoenix, Azkaban's dark reflection, tears down many of the idols erected in the earlier book. In Azkaban, Harry was thrilled to discover that a piece of his father lived on in him. In Phoenix, following the discovery that James was a braggart and a bully, Harry is horrified at the thought that he might resemble his father. Each and every one of the sympathetic adult characters is revealed as a flawed individual, and they all fail Harry in some way. It is Harry's father, however, and his two adopted fathers, Sirius and Lupin, who come off the worst--Sirius' behavior is sullen and immature, and Lupin constantly defers to others rather than doing what he believes to be right. Order of the Phoenix shatters the straightforward generational parallels established by Prisoner of Azkaban and distributes their fragments among the younger characters. It doesn't actually make any sense to discuss parallels after reading Order of the Phoenix--it's more accurate to say that the younger generation echoes the former, and to examine the limited and confusing ways in which each character recalls the previous generation.

So, for instance, in spite of the (literally) superficial similarities between Harry and James, it's easy to see that in terms of personality the two characters are nothing alike--the reserved, awkward, serious Harry hardly resembles his popular, extroverted, irreverent father. There are more compelling parallels to James in Ron, who like him takes a great deal of pride in his Quidditch skills, brags about them and recounts play-by-plays of successful games to impress others (it's also worth noting that Ron and James both have best friends whose home lives are unbearable, and whom they provide with a surrogate home in the form of their own family). There are also strong echoes of James in the twins, who like James are tricksters and jokers, and in Draco, who like James is a bully who enjoys the sycophantic adoration of his inferiors.

Along those same lines, there are obvious similarities between Lupin and Hermione--both prefects, both studious, both concerned with the plight of the disenfranchised in the wizarding world. Most importantly, Lupin and Hermione are both talented wizards who can 'pass' in regular society, but are discriminated against because their blood is impure. There is, however, a crucial difference between the two characters. Hermione speaks out. Lupin remains silent. Whether it's the rights of house-elves, werewolves, or classmates, Lupin prefers to look the other way. He only speaks out against discrimination when he is among people he knows agree with him. Unlike Hermione, who is willing to make herself thoroughly unlikable in service of a good cause and doesn't give a damn what people think about her, Lupin prefers to be liked.

Most of the adult characters who featured so prominently in Order of the Phoenix are either missing or heavily marginalized in the following book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. As I've said before, the book acts as a mirror to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which Harry struggled, not with issues of his family's past but with the issue of his own character. The cheerful resolution of of Chamber of Secrets is Harry's discovery that, despite his own fears and the obvious parallels between him and the young Voldemort, he is at his heart a true Gryffindor. Half-Blood Prince confuses the issue by drawing more blatant parallels between young Harry and young Tom Riddle--the scene in which in which Dumbledore reveals to the eleven year old Tom that he is a wizard is a twisted, unwholesome recreation of Harry's own joy at that same discovery, as are the details of Tom's life before he comes to Hogwarts. Like Harry, Tom was raised in a loveless environment, and his involuntary displays of power baffled both him and his reluctant guardians. The difference, obviously, is in Harry's innate goodness and in Tom's innate fear (already at the age of eleven he is terrified of death, an obsession that fuels Voldemort's every action), but it is worth noting that Tom's anti-social behavior and his tendency towards bullying and kleptomania represent a more realistic portrait of the kind of child we might have expected Harry to be at the beginning of Philosopher's Stone.

Harry rather steadfastly ignores the similarities between his own life and the young Tom Riddle's (just as he ignored the parallel when the ghost of Tom suggested it to him in Chamber of Secrets). The parallel he does vehemently note is the one between Voldemort and Snape--both half-bloods who hated their Muggle ancestry; both engaged in a self-aggrandizing fantasy that involved a made-up title, their own magical proficiency, and a document of their own 'greatness' left behind for the ages; both, ultimately, obsessed with power. We might question whether the portrait Harry paints of Snape represents the man as he is now (we know, after all, that the James we saw in the Pensieve memory in Order of the Phoenix was a far cry from the man who married Lily, fathered Harry, and died to protect them), but if young Snape mirrors young Voldemort, and if we acknowledge the parallels between Harry and Tom Riddle as Harry will not, where does that leave Harry and Snape?

Although they have different flaws--Harry is frequently impulsive, pig-headed, and not too smart; Snape is unkind, immature, and vindictive--Harry and Snape have very similar personality structures. They are both, fundamentally, similarly hardcore individuals--judgmental, unforgiving of fault, and thoroughly untrusting of the universe's ability to sort itself out without their own input (and let's not forget that Harry has been this way since he was eleven years old). Half-Blood Prince works very hard to point out the ways in which Harry and Snape think alike, in spite of their own inability to acknowledge this similarity. I love the fact that Harry develops a genuine rapport with Snape through the Advanced Potion Making book--he begins to think of the Half-Blood Prince as a friend--but when Snape all but parrots Harry's feelings about Defense Against the Dark Arts training, Harry twists the words around to conform to the negative image he's formed of Snape in his head (the existence of said image, I hasten to point out, is entirely Snape's fault). And, of course, when Snape looks at Harry he sees James, a person who as we've previously said Harry doesn't even remotely resemble.

One of the things that Harry doesn't acknowledge at the end of Half-Blood Prince is his own major role in Dumbledore's death. If Harry hadn't fed Dumbledore the poison and weakened him so severely, there's no question that Dumbledore would have wiped the floor with Draco Malfoy and the other Death Eaters. Whatever his true allegiances, Snape never would have had the opportunity to kill Dumbledore. There are obvious reasons, besides his guilt, why Harry wouldn't dwell on his own responsibility for Dumbledore's death--if we accept that Snape was acting on Voldemort's behalf, then his desire to hurt Dumbledore would seem to outweigh Harry's well-intentioned obedience. If we examine the situation coldly, however, giving no credence to motive, there's no question that Harry and Snape each contributed equally to Dumbledore's death.

Harry did what he did for good and understandable reasons--because he's Dumbledore's man, through and through. In a book in which powerful and influential men constantly try to 'collect' him, Harry staunchly chooses his side and keeps his promises to the person he's sworn himself to--even when those promises break his heart. Given the parallels drawn between Harry and Snape, and the prominence of the Unbreakable Vow (as opposed to the utterly breakable but far more holy and meaningful promise that Harry--and, I believe, Snape--made Dumbldere), I find it aesthetically and thematically pleasing to believe that Snape is also Dumbledore's man, through and through, that he promised to kill Dumbledore and kept that promise as unwillingly as Harry kept his promise to force Dumbledore to drink poison, and that whatever understanding these two men might one day gain will come from the recognition in each other of that same unflinching loyalty.

Which is not to say that I'm right, of course. I've written this before as well, but J.K. Rowling seems wholly uninteresting in writing stories that resolve neatly and aesthetically. I don't think she gives a damn about thematic symmetry, which is probably why we can no longer talk about genuine parallels between the parent and child generation in the series, and why she's shied away from 'satisfying' resolutions such as allowing Snape to resolve his grievances with the men who caused them before they died or providing justice and solace to the many damaged individuals we meet in her books. It may very well be that Snape will turn out to be a traitor to Dumbledore's side, that for all his similarities to Harry it's the differences between them that will carry the day. Or, it may well be that neither he nor Harry will ever see these similarities, and never understand how, within each other, they can find forgiveness for their part in Dumbledore's death. I have no doubt that Rowling will end her series with Harry victorious, but I find great pleasure in the knowledge that the ending she writes will be nothing as neat as a straightforward parallel.


Kate said...

Great post! I've always been intrigued with how the previous generation's story seems connected and yet not connected to Harry's generation.

Anonymous said...

The main symmetry I'm looking at, at the moment is Snape/Draco.

I fully expect Draco to turn traitor to Voldemort in the last book, and for Harry to bring him back, telling everyone they can trust him, but not able to tell them why.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not sure how much Draco/Snape works. Sure, they're both the representative Slytherins of their generations and the main antagonists of the Potter character, but beyond that I don't see the similarity. Draco is a bully; Snape was a victim of bullying. Draco has a group that follows him around; Snape seems to have been, at least in his fifth year, a loner. Draco's parents coddle and indulge him; Snape's home life was, in the brief glimpse we saw of it, unpleasant. Draco is wealthy and entitled; Snape is middle-class at best. Draco is a pure-blood from a long and distinguished line; Snape is a half-blood whose mother doesn't seem to have had a remarkable pedigree.

Most importantly, I don't see similarities in Draco and Snape's personalities. Emotionally and intellectually, Draco has almost no resilience. When faced with a challenge or an emotional trial, he crumbles. To put it simply, there's a reason Draco couldn't kill Dumbledore and Snape could.

After reading OotP, I assumed that Draco's parallel was going to be Regulus Black - the Death Eater who had no problem with a murderous ideology when he wasn't being confronted by its consequences, and who ran away from those consequences only to lose his life. If Regulus does turn out to be the person who stole the Horcrux, I'll have to reevaluate my opinion of him and his tenacity, in which case he may no longer be a match for Draco.

Whatever the parallel, I most certainly don't expect Rowling to do anything as blatant as thoroughly mirroring Snape's situation in Draco, or any other character for that matter - it doesn't seem to be her style.

Anonymous said...

I feel there's a looming 'Lost' style problem for JKR. She has to resolve the issues she has raised, or the whole edifice will be damaged retrospectively. All these suggestive symmetries - will she manage to sustain them, and make them meaningful? I can't imagine the pressure she must be working under. I think she can do it though.

Mike Taylor said...

Hi, Abigail. I've not yet read HBP and don't want to find spoilers. I'd love to read the pre-HBP version of this article that you alluded to but (sadly) didn't like to. Please can you tell me where it is? Email to would save the spoiler-exposure dangers of returning here to check for replies. Thanks!

Liz's Journal said...

["One of the things that Harry doesn't acknowledge at the end of Half-Blood Prince is his own major role in Dumbledore's death. If Harry hadn't fed Dumbledore the poison and weakened him so severely, there's no question that Dumbledore would have wiped the floor with Draco Malfoy and the other Death Eaters."]

I don't understand this comment. One, Dumbledore had ordered Harry to force him to drink that water in order to acquire possession of the locket. Two, Dumbledore would have never harmed Draco. In fact, he and Snape wanted to ensure that the latter would kill him . . . a mercy killing. And three, Dumbledore was dying anyway.

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