Who Was Harry Potter Written For?

I can remember very clearly the countless nights of my childhood in which I stayed awake, hidden beneath blankets with a flashlight, reading Harry Potter. I remember begging my parents to let me have a pet owl, and I remember my heartbreak when my eleventh birthday went by without an invitation to Hogwarts. I pored over every word of all seven novels, each time finding something new within the pages. On each birthday, I read the book that corresponded with my new age, as they all begin with Harry’s birthday. I wasn’t the only one in my grade who was this in love with Harry, as I ran into half my class at the midnight release for Book 7.

A gathering for the midnight release of Book 7. I attended one of these at a different location, but this is true in showing the volume of people lined up outside for multiple hours.

As an adult, I have reread the novels and still find the same enjoyment as I found when I was a child. However, the perspective has definitely changed the story for me a little bit. I understand the characters because I grew up with them, but not every reader had that experience. I had a personal connection with all of the people in the story that carried through for each book. For example, 15 year old angst-ridden Harry Potter made perfect sense to me as I read it; but would it make the same sense to someone in their 40’s? My experience was always seeing Harry and his friends as peers and being able to relate their lives to my own. The thoughts and behaviors of a magical young teenager could seem completely foreign and convoluted to a first-time adult reader.

A topic of interest with Harry Potter was always the audience — who was this book written for? Marketed and targeted towards children, the book has an incredibly large following in the adult world. It has been a source of confusion for the readers, who are unsure if they are reading something that is age-appropriate. The contrast between adult novel and child’s novel for some people comes with the change of Harry’s age.

Once Harry starts to make the inevitable change in maturity, the writing changes and the mood begins to shift. As one blogger writes, “As Harry gets older, the books start to feel more like young adult than middle grade (2014).” I am now able to notice where the child-like magic slows and takes a turn for deeper, more adult characteristics; but this is never something that I realized when I first read these books. I don’t think this was apparent to me as a child because I was focused on other things, such as the magic in the world around them. I think that my growing age has made me realize things that I wouldn’t have noticed as a kid because I simply wasn’t aware that they existed. My 11 year-old self didn’t understand relationships or what it was like to be an angst-filled teen, so I tended to ignore those aspects.

Reading as an adult, I find that this shift in attitudes really comes for me during the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. At the end of the previous novel, Harry witnessed Lord Voldemort return in full form in a horrific séance of Death Eaters (Voldemort’s followers) and sees his classmate murdered. He barely makes it out alive, and spends every following night saturated in horrible feelings and torturous nightmares. This really takes a toll, and Harry feels angry at his friends for not understanding. Harry’s increasingly angry and erratic behavior nearly estranges him from Ron and Hermione (Yusuf, 2010).

Harry is seen here in the midst of a battle against Lord Voldemort in the fourth movie, just moments after his classmate Cedric Diggory is killed (2005).

Harry is angry, guilty, frustrated, and feeling betrayed. He has been exiled from his friends and wizarding family in an attempt to ‘keep him safe.’ Harry has no knowledge of what is happening in the wizarding world, no way to get there, and is only receiving oddly empty letters from his friends. He is stuck at his aunt and uncle’s home for the summer with no sign of change until school begins term in September.

While Harry maintains his personality and spirit throughout most of the series, there is a clear change when Harry’s adolescence kicks in and he feels a more complicated emotional turmoil. Book Five is when we really see how much the taxation of his youth has affected Harry’s mental health. For the first time in the series, Harry is bitter, untrusting, and enraged. Before, the story has been seen through slightly rose-colored glasses because Harry has been so happy to be surrounded by magic and the people that he calls friends.

Even though the world of magic is very dreamy, it can seem more like a nightmare in some of Harry’s experiences. Harry is an orphan whose parents were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort, who some compare to be the magical echo of a Hitler in this world. There are constant conflicts surrounding the young Harry, who spends each book dealing with a different traumatic event.

The root of all of Harry’s issues comes from the acts of Voldemort and the dark side of the magical community swarming around him. In this community, he finds himself in a world where everyone, good and evil, recognizes his importance, and tries either to protect or destroy him (Byatt, 2003). Harry faces a lot of serious issues that other wizards in this series could never imagine.

There is a lot of focus on the emotional energy of Harry Potter and that makes the story feel much more realistic and relatable to its young teenage audience. But how does this make the character appear to an older first-time reader?

A. S. Byatt, a writer featured in the New York Times, published an article in 2003 (shortly after the release of Book Five) harshly critiquing the story. She discussed her opinion of finding the main character to be way too childish, making the writing seem weak. She says that Harry’s anger is immature, and that its shows no signs of Harry growing into an adult. I think that this is the sort of opinion that can take place when the story is held at arms-length, and not really scrutinized or thought in depth about.

If looking at the very surface of the story, then yes, Harry could be mistaken for childish and Rowling’s prose mistaken for weak. Byatt’s main issue is that Harry’s anger and pain makes him behave in childish ways, and I can see her point. However, I know that these emotions are merely a projection of an even more complicated backstory. Also, I don’t see anything wrong with Harry being childish because at the core; that’s exactly what he should be. Harry is only 15 in this book, so it makes sense for him to act his age. I think that his childish projection and the negative reaction from critics brings to light the different opinions that are actually based on age. Of course it could be more difficult for Byatt to relate to the character, because he’s only 15 and is acting like a stereotypical ‘troubled teen’ which doesn’t always make sense to adults.

Showing off some of his typical teenage sass to one of his classmates (2005). In the books, Harry always exhibited more sarcasm and wit than his character in the movies did. Perhaps this was to make him seem more pleasant to the movie audiences?

Byatt also mentions things that she sees as immature that are most certainly explainable. I think with a more careful reading of the story, the reasons behind the acts of ‘immaturity’ would be very clear. Byatt specifically references Harry Potter’s first date with a female wizard, which takes place in the Order of the Phoenix. She calls his experience “unbelievably limp, [and] filled with an 8-year-old’s conversational maneuvers (2003).” To me, that really shows the extent to which Byatt is not looking closely enough at the story.

The witch that Harry dates is actually the previous girlfriend of Cedric Diggory, the student who died at the hands of Death Eaters and whose face has been haunting Harry’s dreams. Cho Chang was still Cedric’s girlfriend at the time of his murder, so it can be understandable why a date with the person who watched her boyfriend die would be awkward at first. The relationship between Harry and Cho is a very miniscule part of Book Five, but it stands out to readers because it’s the first time we see him expressing any romantic feelings. Harry also feels like he was competing with Cedric in a way, so the mention of Cedric makes him uncomfortable and sad. Cho and Harry simply were not a good match, but that doesn’t diminish Harry’s entire character.

Harry and Cho expressing some connection in a still from the fifth movie (2007).

Faulting Rowling’s writing for being why the scene is awkward doesn’t quite make sense; because she of course intended it. To judge maturity based on what happened on someone’s first date would prove to be impossible for anyone to look good, even Harry Potter. However, the ordeal with Harry’s first relationship has certainly drawn the attention of others.

Kaustav Chanda also comments on the interactions between Harry and Cho, detailing Harry’s bizarre response to some of Cho’s actions. Harry behaves in a childish way because he considers himself Cho’s second chance, which hurts him and causes him to behave erratically (Chanda, 2014). Harry had liked her before Diggory died, but since Cho was so infatuated with her boyfriend, Harry was not seen as an option for her. Rowling chooses to depict Harry in this way to show that he is still so affected by Diggory’s death that he can’t really move on, which is why he and Cho Chang didn’t work out. I find this commentary to be well on the mark, because it details the reason behind the action. I think this writer’s interpretation of Harry’s behavior makes a lot of sense, and can easily be understood as truth. In this source, the critic looks deeply at Harry’s behavioral and mental processes to find what emotional hardship is causing it. I love that way of thinking, and I think it casts Harry in a very realistic light.

The Harry Potter series is incredibly successful, and it is undeniable that a lot of the traction comes from adults. But again, what makes the children’s series so interesting to many adults? Catherine Conte, a contributing writer for The Artifice, has a great opinion of the novels and she’s positive that they are perfect for both adults and children. She writes, “The careful thought Rowling put into every line of her stories can only be truly appreciated by people who are older than the children and pre-teens that the books are meant to be for… she knew adults were starving for something well written, something that deviated from the mundanity that can be experienced after reading too many novels deemed fit for adults (The Artifice, 2015).” This is exactly in line with my own thoughts with this book, because I have noticed the same thing as an adult reader. I have found equal amounts of enjoyment from these novels while reading as a nine-year old and a nineteen-year old.

I agree with Conte in her statement that adults were desperate for a unique and well written piece, and you can still see that today. A common phenomenon that swept across the world was a lack of enjoyment for reading anything after the Harry Potter novels, a side-effect that I still suffer from (much to my book-loving mother’s dismay). If you simply Google ‘what to read after Harry Potter’ you find a plethora of articles that are practically self-help guides. J. K. Rowling was able to write something so fresh and unique, complex and thrilling, yet made it so that both adults and children can have enjoyment from it. “As there is, sadly, no literal magic world that we can tap three bricks on the left of a pub’s wall in order to enter, adults turn to the magic of Rowling’s words [so] the works act as brief escapes into Harry’s world…(The Artifice, 2015).” Her writing has created something that is widely craved, the magical world where Harry and his community live.

I will always be a Harry Potter fan. I was able to grow up witnessing the fantastic success of both the novels and the movie franchise, and it will always be a part of my childhood. That makes it even more special to me as an adult, who can use these books as a mental transport to simpler times. It has become clear to me throughout the course of my writing that many people feel the same way. Although there are very clear critics of the stories, the accomplishments that J. K. Rowling and the books hold speak for themselves. I hope that I will be able to read these books to my own children someday, and keep the magic going.

Alan Rickman, who recently passed, made this comment about the series that resonates strongly with everyone who grew up loving the series.

Author’s Note

My younger self would be so excited for me right now. To be writing a college essay on the Harry Potter Series felt so fun and it was definitely right up my alley. In the writing of this piece I definitely encountered some hardships. I thought it would be a breeze to write, but I actually found this topic challenging and thought-provoking. I was very unsure of the prompt at first, so I developed an essay that wasn’t really exciting, a little off the mark, and not like something that I enjoy producing. I’ve noticed that my creative process takes a little bit to start working, but once I have that ‘Aha! Moment’, I write something that I’m really proud of. I was originally going to write about the psychology behind the actions of Harry Potter, which proved to be very difficult and unappealing to read. During a conference with my professor, I had my idea for fine-tuning the essay into a commentary about the ages of its readers. That was really what made me feel inspired, and produce the final essay that (I hope) was enjoyable.

Acknowledgements

Firstly, I would like to thank a peer of mine that helped me edit my final draft, Alexandria Miller. She had really amazing feedback for me and gave suggestions that I believe will help me to succeed in this assignment. I thank her for her thoroughness and her ingenuity. I would also like to thank Professor Harris for his assistance. I originally had low expectations for this required E110; I didn’t think I would learn much or do anything interesting. At first, I felt some resistance to both of our essay prompts, thinking they were too hard and complicated for a boring English course. It wasn’t until recently as I was thinking back on my semester that I realized how much this class impacted me. I feel that I was brought to an entirely new level of higher thinking. My writing was taken to a place of success where it has never been before. I thank Professor Harris profusely for pushing me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to succeed. Of course, I also want to thank my mother for her immeasurable support and assistance in decoding my jumbled thoughts. She has always encouraged my writing, and I have a new-found appreciation for her as a writer and professor. Lastly, I want to mention a word for J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter Series. Thank you for growing up with me and for being a tangible part of my childhood. These books have a very special place in my heart, and they will continue to be important to me as I continue to grow older. Always.

Works Cited

A.S. Byatt. (2003). Harry Potter and the Childish Adult. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/07/opinion/harry-potter-and-the-childish-adult.html

Conte, Catherine. (2015). Why Harry Potter Appeals to Adults as well as Younger Audiences. The Artifice. Retrieved from: http://the-artifice.com/why-harry-potter-appeals-to-adults-as-well-as-younger-audiences/

Kaustav Chanda. (2014). What Lies Deep in the Unconscious: A Psychoanalytical Scrutiny of Harry Potter in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. Academia.edu. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/10229411/What_Lies_Deep_in_the_Unconscious_A_Psychoanalytical_Scrutiny_of_Harry_Potter_in_J._K._Rowling_s_Harry_Potter_Series

Lutfiyah Yusuf. (2010). Analysis of Harry’s Dreams in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Novel Viewed from Psychoanalysis Theory by Sigmund Freud. Retrieved from http://repository.uinjkt.ac.id/dspace/bitstream/123456789/3417/1/94441-LUTFIYAH%20YUSUF-FAH.pdf

Nosegraze.com. (2014). Why I Can’t Reread the First Three Harry Potter Books. Retrieved from https://www.nosegraze.com/cant-reread-first-3-harry-potter-books/

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000. Print.