Friday, July 27, 2007

Harry Potter and the Neat Little Bow

In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, three children--Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire--are orphaned by a mysterious fire, and subsequently plunged into an intricate mystery. Over the course of thirteen books they investigate their dead parents' history, the organizations they belonged to and fought against, the friendships, enmities, and love affairs they witnessed or were embroiled in, and the secrets they kept and revealed. Throughout their journey, the Baudelaires encounter many adults--guardians, friends, and acquaintances--some of whom are sinister, but most of whom are simply benevolent yet incompetent, too caught up in simple, one-sentence life philosophies such as 'He who hesitates is lost!' to be much more than hindrances, although they do teach the children about the existence of complexity and shades of gray. At the end of the series, the Baudelaires arrive at something like an adulthood, through the discovery that they have been subsumed into the web of relationships that has been responsible for so much of their suffering.

Rather than unraveling the past, laying it out neatly before the readers, and then putting it away, the Baudelaires, who have arrived at only a partial understanding of their personal and communal history (a full understanding being, the series strongly suggests, all but impossible), finally accept that their lives are to a certain extent governed by that past, and that the child they have been entrusted with will, in her turn, take up her place as yet another link in that chain. There's been some criticism of Snicket for performing what some fans view as a bait and switch--promising a mystery and delivering a story to which neat solutions are antithetical--and there is no denying that, spread out as it is over so many books, the novelty of the exercise wears a little thin, as does Snicket's trademark gothic-twee voice, but I don't think the power and importance of his final conclusion can be denied.

It's the kind of ending that is not delivered by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (and in case the post title wasn't enough of a giveaway, yes, there are spoilers coming up). Throughout the Potter series, we are repeatedly confronted by characters whose history--personal, familial, and communal--influences and directs not only their own present-day choices, but the choices of their children and grandchildren. The past is a palpable presence in the series, often emerging into the present through stored memories. Deathly Hallows puts that past cleanly away. When the smoke clears at the end of the book, most of the parent generation--excepting Mr. and Mrs. Weasley--and all of the 'grandparent' generation--Dumbledore, Voldemort, Grindlewald and Moody--have been killed off, leaving the younger generation free to make their own way in life unencumbered by the past. The deaths of Lupin and Tonks, and of Snape, put paid to the tricky questions of their post-war life--would wizarding society have learned to tolerate the Lupins' mixed-race marriage? What kind of man would Snape have become without his mission to drive him?

In the book's epilogue, we discover that the darkness of the past has not been allowed to infect Harry's future, or that of his children. Harry's orphan analogue, Teddy Lupin, avoids his godfather's sad fate of growing up family-less, and may be on the cusp of marrying into his adoptive family. The Malfoys are de-clawed, with the possibility of friendship between Ron and Draco's children. The memory of Snape, of his terrible courage and his service to Hogwarts, is made part of the Potter/Evans legacy, while the more problematic aspects of his personality are left by the wayside. The Potter series's ending is both tragic and uplifting, but it's also a great deal neater than the one I had expected.

It's been said before, but wizarding society as Harry discovers it throughout the series bears a close resemblance to England between the two World Wars. Although rocked by a catastrophe in whose wake new ideas and social philosophies begin gaining public acceptance, it remains fundamentally class-conscious, conservative, and militaristic (by which I mean not only that wizards solve many of their problems through violence, but that they buy into notions of the glory and grandeur of war). There's even a parallel to be drawn between the Black sisters and the Mitford sisters, and Lucius Malfoy is plainly Rowling's Oswald Mosely analogue. The events described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are blatantly intended to recall WWII, from Fred and George Weasley mimicking De Gaulle on the BBC to echoes of the Holocaust, but the effect that this war has on the wizarding world is nowhere near as profound as the one that the real war had on the real Britain.

At the end of the book, the corrupt regime at the Ministry of Magic is ousted, and in interviews Rowling has said that Harry, Ron and Hermione take up positions within the ministry and transform the wizarding world into a kinder, gentler place (let's not lose sight of the fact that Rowling presents this transformation as a completed act, not a work in--perhaps perpetual--progress). The impression conveyed by the epilogue, however, is of the kind of quaint conservatism that the novels had previously militated against--family and tradition and community triumphant, with nothing ugly beneath the surface. What Harry, Ron and Hermione have accomplished, in other words, is to bring modern notions of equality and justice to the wizarding world without subjecting it to any of the social effects of modernism, chiefly the collapse of traditional institutions and worldviews. That's not just neat. It's dishonest, and disappointing given that the series had seemed to recognize how problematic those institutions were even as it glorified them. I hadn't expected Rowling to bring the wizarding world into the 21st century--she is, at heart, a conservative writer--but I did think that she would show us Harry and his friends engaged in a struggle for progress, still fighting against prejudice and a love of violence, honoring Dumbledore's legacy while still being influenced by their communal history, for better and worse.

This criticism aside--and I freely admit that my feelings on this subject may have more to do with my expectations of where Rowling was going to take her story than with what she actually delivered--Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the usual mixture of good and bad. It is repetitive and overlong--both of the flashback chapters towards the end of the novel needed to be cut down to a few pages each, and although I can give "The Prince's Tale" a pass because it makes sense to me that Snape, after twenty years of bottling up his feelings, would want to shout them out as his last act instead of just telling Harry what he needed to know, there's really no excuse for Dumbledore, in "King's Cross", to repeat the same story related by Aberforth only a few chapters previously. I've also lost count of the number of times characters tell each other things the readers have already witnessed or been told.

Deathly Hallows also goes far beyond the previous books' discomforting treatment of gender and into disturbing territory. Fleur is described as staring at Bill 'slavishly'. When Ron feels uncomfortable about clutching the now-married Tonks in a non-sexual manner, it's her husband that he glances at, not the woman herself. It's automatically accepted that, only a few weeks into her pregnancy, Tonks will stay home with her mother rather than go to work. Finally, while it's obviously very, very cool that Mrs. Weasley can wipe the floor with Bellatrix Lestrange, may I ask why the only role that the Order of the Phoenix could find for a woman with such mad dueling skills involved cooking and cleaning?

There are, however, also some exceptionally fine and touching scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--Ron's break with Harry and Hermione, all of "The Silver Doe", Potterwatch, Lupin finally being called out for his pathological desire to be liked, Percy's reunion with the Weasleys, Ron finally earning Hermione's love by embracing house-elf rights, Neville striding out in the face of certain death to complete the task left to him by Harry, Albus's middle name--and in spite of my problems with her ending, Rowling hasn't abandoned messiness and complexity. Percy may realize that he's been a fool and come back to the family fold, but nineteen years later he's still a pompous ass whom Harry would rather avoid. Snape may have loved Lily for nearly his whole life, but that love doesn't make him a better person, or worthy of its being returned. I'm particularly pleased with the fact that Rowling avoids 'redeeming' either Dudley or Draco. The former finally acknowledges Harry's worth and genuinely wishes him well, but I think this is probably the last time the cousins ever see each other. The latter still doesn't have the stomach for killing, but when faced with the choice to either save or doom Harry, Ron and Hermione the best he can do is recuse himself.

Most importantly, in spite of the fact that I was never in any real doubt about Harry's survival (I was a great deal more nervous about Snape, although realistically I knew that he didn't have much of a chance), and in spite of the fact that Rowling's spiritual/philosophical conclusion isn't nearly as profound as she seems to think it is--it hinges on an over-literal, almost materialistic, concept of what the soul is--I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows feeling drained, overwhelmed, and as if I'd just had a good cry. The kind of feeling you get, in other words, at the end of a huge, sprawling story, when you suddenly realize that the door into that particular imaginary world has closed for the last time. For all its failings, the Harry Potter series never stopped being a story that I could immerse myself in, and I am both saddened and exhilarated by its ending.


Matt said...

With the book itself, I have only minor quibbles. Like most hyper-successful authors Rowling doesn't seem to have anyone who's able to say, "This section is too long" and the pacing suffers accordingly, but it is hardly crippling. I found the metaphysics of the end to be somewhat unsatisfying--not enough groundwork had been laid for the wand-related mechanics for my tastes...the magic system in general is so dimly sketched out throughout the series that for me at least it sabotages any attempt to present an "Ah-ha!" moment at the end. Finally, death as a phenomenon in this universe is very incompletely dealt with, which is odd since Voldemort is obsessed with it and it turns out to somehow or other be the mechanism of his defeat.

It's still an impressive series, all the more so because Rowling appears to have finished it to general acclaim for her fans. Compare that to the backlashes from fans of the Matrix, Sopranos, the Dark Tower series, etc.

It's ultimately not the series I hoped it would be. When I read the first book years ago I was shocked at how exploitive it was. It seemed to be saying to kids that "mundane" life isn't just ordinary but hellish and non-special people ought to be treated with contempt. When I saw Rowling steadily softening this in books 3 and 4, I got excited and thought maybe the idea was to attract readers with wish-fulfillment exploitation and then teach them better values. Based on this, my prediction was Harry would defeat Voldemort but in the process be stripped of his powers and turned into a muggle and in the process reconcile the two worlds.

I guess I'm guilty of writing a different book in my head and then getting mad when she didn't write it for me. By the end of book 6 I knew it wasn't happening since there wasn't nearly enough detail in wizard-muggle relations. In the end, Rowling closes up shop immediately (relative to the length of the series) after Voldemort's defeat. That's too bad. For all of his many faults, JMS had one thing right with Babylon 5. You can't really show a war without also showing the postwar world. Tolkien understood this too and the lengthy coda to Lord of the Rings is crucial to book's emotional impact. Tolkien said his book was about "death and the pursuit of deathlessness" and I agree, even though this theme is for the most part dealt with totally implicitly. Rowling, in Voldemort's character and in the King's Cross scene, appears to be making a gesture towards similar themes, but ultimately she sets her mark lower. We're left with an extremely entertaining series with some interesting things to say about growing up and courage but it could have been more.

Shahar said...

There's a discussion in "Godel, Escher & Bach" (I think), of the inherent problem in books having a finite well-defined end, since we all know how many pages are left before the book's end, the discussion ends with Hofstatder saying that in order to avoid this problem an author will be forced to write some extra pages or chapters to the book, just to fool the readers, so they won't know when exactly the end is to arrive. To also avoid the reader observing those extra chapters by a quick glance at the book they must be written in similar style to the entire book, and make some sense. The problem now becomes how will the readers know they have reached the end, if the book actually continues in similar style and with the same characters?
I guess Dumbledore's saying at King's Cross that it all happens in Harry's head can serve exactly this purpose.
Yes, I know this is a saying about the power of fiction and imagination, but I also tend to think of it as telling us that the book actually ended a few pages back with Harry sacrificing himself, and we are now being fooled.

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