Harry Potter Book Club: On Being Villainous

[Spoiler redacted]
Hail, Muggles and wizards! We're hanging out in chapters 2-4 of Sorcerer's Stone this week, as Christie's post is yet to come. We can't blame her for the delay; she's been off among flutterby bushes and floating champagne bottles, wearing her best dress robes and witnessing a supreme example of that which is stronger than magic.

While we wait, of course, we at least need some things to talk about, and fortunately there's always something to say about Harry Potter. Before I start talking, though, let me direct your attention to Masha's excellent piece about name taboos, and the ensuing discussion:
Rowling does a lovely thing with Harry in allowing him to forget that fear. Because while it’s true that “fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself” it’s also true that speaking the name of another gives, in a vague and magical sense, a hint of power over him. We do not speak the name of God, but when we cast out demons, we do so by name. I like the subtle reminder here, that Harry is unafraid of Voldemort’s name because he has no need to fear. He rests in the power he has only begun to discover.
I should also add that Masha has come up with the first butterbeer recipe for us to try, the concoction of which will require me to make a trip to the grocery store, which is why you don't have pictures of my own attempt in this post. It hasn't happened yet. Wait till next week. :D

Despite his dearth of lines,
there's an image of him on the internet.
By Annezca.
Your resident wand-waver having recently enjoyed Kat Fernandez's beautifully humble and inspiring piece about suddenly finding herself identifying with Javert from Les Misérables, it seemed—since Harry Potter's tale, like Les Mis, is very much a moralistic one—reasonable to take some time to contemplate possible personal similarity to the moral villains of these early chapters. Which, thus far, is mostly the Dursleys, unless you really want to study the soul of Piers Polkiss, the boy with "a face like a rat" and approximately two speaking lines in the series. Voldemort is mentioned, but we don't know much about him yet, other than that he tried to kill Harry, and we're none of us likely to identify much with that, whether or not we like the books.

Here's the thing: The single most dangerous thing I've ever seen come out of Potter fandom, including my own, is a tendency to identify ourselves with the heroes and our principles with theirs to the point of making dissenters into villains and therefore enemies. Black-and-white moral tales carry this danger alongside the good they offer, and even a tale like this one, designed to encourage love and a righting of injustices, can turn into a justification for a complete lack of mercy and empathy toward anyone who can be perceived as an enemy.

The thing is: regardless of whether they're Republican or Democrat (which is where American Potter fans draw the lines surprisingly often), no one with any innate compassion is going to naturally feel much kinship with the Dursleys (or the Malfoys, or the Death Eaters, or Voldemort, or or or...) This is the way a moralistic tale works. We sympathize with the good guys, and despise the bad guys, and find ourselves championing whatever virtue the author wants us to approve. What we tend to forget is that we all do so in the context of our own pre-formed opinions and priorities.

But while it might be fun to let myself go off on a long-suppressed rant* over the mean-spirited nonsense contained in the idea that the American Republican is the epitome of the Dark Side (Star Wars reference? Not entirely; Harry himself uses that term at least once), it seems my time is better spent considering what ultimately makes characters like the Dursleys bad, and whether that ought to teach us anything about ourselves. I'm sure we'll all agree, anyway, that our own minds could use a good Scourgifying from time to time. Mine does. Disclaimer: never use a Vanishing spell to clean out your own mind.

Anyway, the Dursleys (didn't know I could talk about them for three weeks running, did you?):

You're too quick to judge,
Too quick to hate.
Too quick to speculate.
You're too blind to see,
That truth sets you free.
But then again,
You don't know jack about magic or me.**
I don't like the Dursleys—no one ever does, as far as I know. They're child abusers for one thing, and fatally unimaginative to boot. It horrifies me to think that I might have anything in common with them besides the mere situational fact of being middle class (although not high enough in the middle class tier to afford the outlay of presents Dudley received for his eleventh birthday... sheesh). It's certainly possible to argue that Rowling mocks middle-class values through them; if she did, she only jumped on the popular political bandwagon that suggests a correlation between financial status and virtue or lack thereof, with opinions on what financial status correlates to which virtue depending on whether one leans capitalist or socialist, and on one's own set of background difficulties and personal resentments.

But the Dursleys' problems, in the end, rely on internal issues rather than external ones.

This is not the face of a happy Muggle.
Art by Tr1nks1e.
Vernon's capital sin is pride manifested as the need to control. In that one attribute, he is more like Voldemort than—as we'll later see—even some of Voldemort's head Death Eaters, though far be it from me to suggest he's remotely similar in level. He is happiest when his daily life is running hitch-free under his supervision, and when he's handed the unmanageable problem of an adoptive son with uncontrollable powers, he makes a go of pretending the "problem" doesn't exist.

Petunia's moral weakness is envy:
"How could you not be [a wizard], my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that—that school—and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she was—a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!" 
She stopped to draw a deep breath and then went ranting on. It seemed she had been wanting to say all this for years.
It would be spoilerific to say too much more, and we can't have that! But the prim little border-garden flower has, we see, never gotten over the fact that she wasn't the tall, white, eye-catching Lily—she's never submitted to the call of humility, never accepted her own status in life. Her failure to do so has enslaved her to the need to prove herself superior to others, which is presumably why she likes spying on neighbors so much.

Oh, the spoilers...

I don't spy on my neighbors. I promise! Nor do I make my nephews sleep in closets. But if any of you readers can look at Vernon and Petunia and not see at least hints of their sins in yourself—not see the instances when you've made another person's difficulties all about you, the times when you've tried too hard to be attractive or attention-grabbing or likable, the people you've caught yourself judging for their not being as successful as you in some way or other, the times when you've made a point of getting out of an uncomfortable situation even though the discomfort-maker had at least the claim of Christ*** upon you—you're better souls than I.

Oh, and in the spirit of Kat's post... I sincerely hope I never find myself identifying with Bellatrix Lestrange. Because her taste in magic and men... ew. And, she's crazy. But mostly, ew.

Got a post on chapters 2-4 of Harry? Link it in the roundup! And stay tuned over at Christie's blog for her post, possible further thoughts from Masha, and here next week, the next set of readings and—if I can pull it off—butterbeer pictures. :D

* Yes, there's a long-suppressed rant, and I'm not even much of a Republican. I'm disenfranchised. But that bumper sticker and the ideas that go along with it are still mean-spirited nonsense. And that's the truth, so there. Pthththbbth.
** I LOVE that Oliver Boyd and the Remembralls disc, and may link every track by the time this book club ends. Christian Caldeira, you rock.
*** As in, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."


  1. Can I just say [spoiler, spoiler, spoiler!!!] ugh.. The Dursleys..I guess I just wish more Opportunity for goodness was given to the Dursleys..because really, I mean, they DID take in Harry and raise him, which is something..I wish it was shown more as a seed of goodness in them - with the potential to grow! - than an anomaly.

    Suburbia can be a tough place for sainthood..I feel like the flaws that fester in middle-class suburbia are less the active faults of the people living there (as Rowling seems to represent them) and more passive faults (allowing themselves to simply flow with the suburban tide). I wish the Dursley had been given the chance to be the more charitable caricature of middle-class striving: ignorant, fearful, but well-meaning; selfish, weak-minded, but not vicious...

    .I'm assuming that Rowling picked Petunia's name for the resentment symbolism..because that does seem to be a huge struggle for here, but I wish she'd brought in some of the more positive symbolism - the restfulness and the Marian imagery associated with the flower..Not necessarily lived out in full, but as an active pull on her personhood, a tug against the resentment and envy.

    LOVED the bit about not divided the world into "People who think like me" and "Voldemorts"!!!

    1. Yeah, I think Rowling wanted to make more of the Dursleys... in interviews before Deathly Hallows came out, she commented that there's more to Aunt Petunia than meets the eye, but I feel like that wasn't really developed. Rowling was stuck, anyway, with the kind of people would make their nephew sleep in a closet with spiders--the traditional cruel teacher/stepmother/relation from schoolboy stories everywhere. Once you've defined characters that way, it's hard to get them much beyond that.

      One of the reasons I haven't read The Casual Vacancy is that I feel Rowling has a blind spot toward the virtues of the middle class, and a lot of resentment toward their vices. To be fair, I may be getting some of that through media portrayal and popular interpretation of her work.

      I've spent my entire life with suburbia, so I don't have a lot of real wealth or poverty to compare it to apart from a stint doing VBS's and music groups out on one of the local tribal reservations. (And that's a HUGE can of worms that I don't think I dare open on the internet.) I think you're right about the passivity. I don't know about it being a tough place for sainthood exactly; it's hard to be larger than life in the middle class, but with few exceptions, I feel like I've spent my life surrounded by unbelievably good people. Safe, if sometimes blind. Honest and trustworthy. Faithful. Loving and compassionate. It's hard for people outside to see it, because they'll make overgeneralizing comments about, say, panhandlers--but then they'll be the people who always have granola bars to hand out, or they'll stop by the nearest Taco Bell and buy the guy on the street corner a meal. They might savage you emotionally in an argument about you not believing or living the way they do, but once they've had their say, they'll move hell to stay in a relationship with you and will love you faithfully and deeply--and sometimes with surprising acceptance. I wish Rowling could see that.

      Oh, gosh. It's hard to keep the rant down. That's just the barest sliver of it. I didn't even touch fandom. :P

      I loved what you said about Petunia! She breaks my heart... she had the potential to be great, if she'd only been able to accept the way things were. It's hard for a kid to take being surpassed by a younger sibling. I'm not sure I'd have done any better, and honestly, her ultimate response when [spoiler!] was one of the less believable things in the series for me. But [yeah, huge spoiler...]... anyway, she DID take Harry, and there were some important things going on there, and...

      You know, I think if she'd married someone less domineering and unimaginative than Vernon, she could have been a better person. Could have overcome youthful resentments and been the kind of aunt, sister and mother who would have given Muggles a real role in the story.

      Dang it. All of a sudden I'm tempted to write fan fiction. :P

    2. Ooh. A better example of middle-class virtues and blindnesses might be the Lovegoods, if the tabloid thing is not perhaps the most traditional representation thereof. But I can't talk about them without lots of spoilers, so it'll have to wait.

      P.S. Laura, as you see, your style of spoiler redactions is contagious. ;)

  2. Spoilers everywhere! I do know the movie-facts, but I hesitate to say it's okay to mention them in case someone comes along who hasn't read OR seen.

    From my point-of-view, as a first-time reader, Petunia's outburst certainly whet my appetite for further development in the series, at least in the sense of lifting the hood and looking at the mechanics, if not for actual improvement . . . so I'm looking forward to that.

    As for the stereotype closet-bedroom, I get why Rowling did it. It matches the tone of the story, at least early in the series. And she gives us that little glimpse into Petunia and Vernon's psychology in the cabin in the sea almost as if to let us know, like a side wink, "yeah, I know these are stereotypical, two-dimensional archetypes, but bear with me while we get the story underway . . . there is more in store."

    At my first reading, Harry's abuse was status quo-ish for me, but second time around it really affected me. The part about how his birthdays were "celebrated" near broke my heart. :c

    1. Oh, good. Then I'm not making TOO many dangerously-close-to-spoilerific statements. :D

      Yeah, it's funny... there really is a tone shift mid-series, and the first ones are much more prone to caricatures than the latter ones. But she did give us very clear motives for the Dursleys' behavior, with strong glimpses of that in these early chapters.

      Really thinking about what Harry went through is heartbreaking and then some. If the tone of the books wasn't so comical and cartoonish here at the outset, it'd be unbearable.

  3. I've written quite a bit about the psychology of Vernon and Petunia. What's really behind much of their behavior and attitudes is the need to control. We don't know Vernon's background, alas, but Petunia was certainly determined to never be unhappily surprised again or lose control of her world. I can relate to this propensity, if to not the cruel and absurd extremes to which they took it throughout the series.

    There's nothing wrong with suburbia or the people who live there. Self-satisfied people live everywhere, especially in places that look down their noses at suburbia.


  4. I grew up in suburbia, in middle-America, upper-middle-class suburbia, and when I say it's a tough place for sainthood, it's not to disparage the people who live there so much as the particular attitude the flourishes there - the burning desire to be not your own self, but a copy of someone else..the concept of keeping up with the Jones' is nurtured more particularly in suburbia than in many other communities. Now, well outside the suburbs and looking back I can see that the attitudes there stifled me. That's not to say that No Good People live in Suburbia, or even that most people in the suburbs are wrong in their outlook, just that the type of communities that grow up in the suburbs tend to nourish the lukewarm in both vices and virtues and the lukewarm is spat out by Christ. I could happily list off the flaws of the urban and rural..especially the rural, as that's what I see everyday now, and of course lukewarm people live everywhere, but rural life doesn't nurture that temperature the way suburbia does, we tend toward a crabby independence out here..cold, if we're sticking to temperature, whereas urban life tends toward hungers..hot, fast, loud. Both are easier to shake up and out than lukewarm and both are out of place in suburban culture. Just my thoughts though.. It might be nice to have a long talk on Rowling's obvious dislike of middle-class suburbanites and what is right and wrong about it!! :)

  5. Arabella and Masha, I wonder if part of the thing is that suburbia isn't uniform across America. I'm not familiar with the East Coast way, and out here in the West, people are pretty individualistic across the social status board. You can probably find pockets of the keep-up-with-the-Joneses thing, but I've only experienced anything like that in small, insular suburban-church communities, and there, it seems less of a desire to be a copy of someone else than a sort of self-selected uniformity. Of course, I may also just be kind of oblivious to the attitude. I grew up lower middle class and of the do-it-yourselfer lifestyle, which is very different from what you're talking about, Masha.

  6. I would agree, Jenna, being a West Coast girl, too. I found things to be pretty egalitarian, even with people who had more money. But I also agree on the suburban church thing.

    I'm not sure Rowling was critiquing suburbia as much as a type of people who can be found anywhere, including where the Malfoys lived!



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