Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Sexism or over analyzing
Back in 1997, J. K Rowling released the first novel of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and over the following ten years the remaining six additions to the series rolled out, ending with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Throughout those ten years, and for quite some time after, the fan base grew enormously, but as the size of the series’ fan base grew, so did the list of the series’ critics. As with any work there is always criticism, and while this was true in regards to Harry Potter, one main topic for criticism was that of sexism, more specifically the “poor” or “underrepresentation” of women within the Harry Potter series. While I must admit, I finished reading the series at age eleven and at the time, the topic of sexism was something I had never heard of, looking back and rereading the Deathly Hallows I still fail to agree with Rowling’s critics and their claims of sexism within the Harry Potter series. From what I have gathered from reevaluating the novel I consider this claims farfetched and slanderous to the quality of Rowling’s work.
One critic to comment on the alleged sexism within the Harry Potter universe is Rivka Temima Kellner. In her essay, “J.K. Rowling’s Ambivalence Towards Feminism: House Elves — Women in Disguise — in the “Harry Potter” Books,” Kellner takes the enslaved house elves (predominantly in the second novel, The Chamber of Secrets) and argues that they are an “indirect and perhaps unintentional representations of unemancipated and unempowered women of the past, and those in oppressive societies today.” (367). This claim is one that appears to be quite a reach and quite honestly seems more of an attempt to twist and create new information for the sexism argument rather than actually finding evidence within the series to support this claim. First of all, most of the house elves that receive significant roles, or at least have a known name to the reader, are male.
This includes Dobby, a house elf who Harry frees from his servitude of Lucius Malfoy. If anything, the fact that Dobby essentially escapes his slave life and is no longer “unemancipated” could be considered a direct opposition to Kellner’s claim. In addition, as a former enslaved house elf, Dobby goes on to be a rather important character to the plot of Harry Potter and quickly displays a defiant side to his personality, so quickly that this first display of defiance happens immediately upon Dobby receiving his freedom.
One very common critique I observed when reviewing the critics’ works was the concept behind Hermione’s character. More specifically, Hermione’s character development throughout the series. The article, A Postscript to “Heteronormative Heroism and Queering the School Story in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series”, mentions Hermione’s role within the seventh book, but mostly focuses on “the issues of gender, sexuality, and the development of Harry’s manhood that we raised previously to explore the continued operation of heteronormativity in the books,” (Pugh & Wallace, 188). What I wish to focus on is where Pugh and Wallace discuss the “critical question that the series ultimately asks is, what kind of man does Harry become?” (189) and while they do not discuss Hermione in this regard, I ask why the similar form of character development shared between the two is considered sexist when discussing Hermione, while nobody thinks twice when it applies to Harry. As stated by Pugh and Wallace, “Harry does not metamorphose into the typical incarnation of an alpha-male, solitary action hero, as the trajectory of his character in the first six books suggested he might,” (189) of which the meek and slave-like persona Harry displays in the first book of the series sets Harry’s character up for a growth to grandeur, of which Harry reaches, but in a more underwhelming way than readers expected. Hermione, on the other hand, begins in a meager position due to it being her first year at Hogwarts as well, but always manages to one up Harry and Ron for most of the series. Even when Harry and Ron begin to catch up to Hermione, her intelligence and vast knowledge of magic always gives her the edge she needs and does a fine job of proving her role throughout the series. In addition, while Ron may take the title of Harry’s best friend, Hermione tends to be present for most plot significant events, while Ron tends to be absent (this example is displayed very clearly with Ron’s abandonment in the Deathly Hallows) or left behind.
For example, when challenging the trials protecting the sorcerer’s stone in the first novel, Ron is left behind after the life sized magic chess game while Harry and Hermione move on to finish the trials, including Snape’s trial of which Hermione’s assistance is crucial. This trial also happens to be the most plot significant of them all. Another example takes place in the third novel, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Here Ron is incapacitated after their encounter with the whomping willow and it is Hermione who displays that she has received special treatment in the form of a pendent that allows the wearer to go back in time and replay events. This moment in the third novel is pivotal, as this is how Harry saves his godfather, Sirius Black. As we discover in the Deathly Hallows is also an important piece to the plot revolving around Snape. Both of these examples occur within the first half of the series, which is contrary to the statements made by Rowling’s critics, who claim that Hermione was an overall underdeveloped character until the fifth novel. Clearly, Hermione fills her role as the main heroine rather nicely and the true issue is not Hermione’s character, but the lack of appreciation and acknowledgment from Rowling’s critics.
Still focusing on Hermione, Pugh and Wallace admit, “Hermione’s role in helping Harry to resist the temptation of the Deathly Hallows and to adhere to the horcrux quest is central to the seventh novel’s plot,” which shows how Hermione has always been significant throughout the entire series. Pugh and Wallace also claim that, “In this regard only men — Dumbledore, Harry, Ron Weasley, and Neville Longbottom, who represent “true Gryffindors” claiming their founding hero’s sword — participate in the destruction of Voldemort and his horcruxes,” (189). However, this is a false statement as Ron tells us “Hermione stabbed it (referring to the remains of Hufflepuff’s cup, a horcrux). Thought she should. She hasn’t had the pleasure yet,” (623) during the battle of Hogwarts. Pugh and Wallace use this statement to conclude that while women do prove their importance to the plot, their contribution is outshined by the accomplishments of the male characters within the series. However, the above quote from Ron within the Deathly Hallows proves their argument wrong and shows another moment where Hermione proves her importance, and that of other women as well, to the plot of the Harry Potter series.
Throughout all my research and reading of Rowling’s critics, I have noticed not a single one discusses one female character who may actually be the most important of them all. This character is Harry’s mother, Lily Potter. Out of Harry’s parents, Lily plays a much more significant role within the plot of the series, while Harry’s father, James, is rarely referenced throughout the series. As we learn during the first novel, Harry is called the boy who lived due to the fact that he survived an attack by Voldemort when he was an infant.
The reason for Harry’s survival is his mother’s sacrifice. This sacrifice not only spares Harry from Voldemort’s initial attempt on his life, but also creates a powerful magical protection fueled by the love of a mother for her child. It was so strong it had left Voldemort incapacitated until the conclusion of the fourth novel, fourteen years after the failed attempt at Harry’s life. Another reference to Lily Potter also occurs multiple times within the first novel. Upon Harry’s arrival to Hogwarts, many people who had known Harry’s parents recognize and accept Harry as being a Potter (and the boy who lived) due to his eyes, stating “You have your mother’s eyes,” of which, one of these people is Snape.
While the reader does not discover the significance behind Snape being one of many to say this until the finale of the series, the reader explores the highly complex relationship between Harry and Snape. Generally, Snape shows a strong discontent for Harry and takes no attempts to hide his opinion, however, Snape also defends Harry occasionally throughout the series. Thus Snape develops into this complex character whom the reader assumes despises Harry, yet will occasionally go out of his way to protect Harry. What makes Snape even more confusing is the fact that Snape used to be a Death Eater, which was the title of a faithful servant of Lord Voldemort. Even with this fact out for all to see, Dumbledore still displays unwavering trust in Snape and Snape’s actions become even more confusing since Harry is the cause of his former master’s temporary demise. Snape goes on to kill Dumbledore in front of Harry in the conclusion of the sixth novel, yet he refuses to kill Harry when Harry chases him down immediately after. While most considered the confusion of Snape’s character resolved at this point, in truth it only depended further until we finally receive our answer in the finale of the series.
During the finale of the series, Harry, Ron, and Hermione eavesdrop on a conversation between Lord Voldemort and Snape. This conversation ends in Voldemort killing Snape, claiming it necessary for the elder wand to fully respond to Voldemort. After Voldemort’s departure, the trio approach the dying Snape. At this moment Snape gives Harry a wisp of his memories. This wisp holds the answer to why Snape had both hated and secretly doted on Harry. Harry takes the wisp to the basin within the headmaster’s chambers so that he could explore Snape’s final thoughts. The memories begin with Snape, around age nine or ten, spying on both Lily and her older sister Petunia, who was Harry’s legal guardian after his parents’ deaths. After the course of this first memory, being Snape’s first interaction with Lily, Harry discovered that Snape had a crush on his mother when they were kids. The next memory shows Snape telling Lily about Hogwarts and the wizarding world as a whole. In addition, if Snape’s crush on Lily was not obvious already, Snape responds to Lily’s concerns for the punishment for using magic outside school saying, “They wouldn’t give you to the dementors for that! Dementors are for people who do really bad stuff. They guard the wizard prison, Azkaban. You’re not going to end up in Azkaban, you’re too -” (667). The following text says, “He turned red again…” (667) showing that Snape caught himself from saying something that would show his feelings for Lily, something he was not ready for yet.
Another memory appears where Snape and Lily are arguing. The significance of this memory is how this memory begins the rivalry between Snape and James, as Snape says, “He fancies you, James Potter fancies you!” (674) showing that they both like the same girl. Snape’s next memory shows that even after James had won, how important Lily was to him. Snape had failed to convince Lord Voldemort to spare Lily as Voldemort went to kill Harry to prevent the prophecy, so as a last resort, Snape, a Death Eater at the time, asked Dumbledore for help as a last resort.
The next memory is after the deaths of Lily and James Potter and it is at this moment that we discover why Dumbledore trusted Snape and why Snape protected Harry without ever revealing his true objective, “Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and color of Lily Evans’s eyes, I am sure?” “DON’T!” bellowed Snape. “Gone…dead…” “Is this remorse, Severus?” “I wish…I wish I were dead…” “And what use would that be to anyone?” said Dumbledore coldly. “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear… You know how and why she died. Make sure it was not in vain. Help me protect Lily’s son.” There was a long pause, and slowly Snape regained control of himself, mastered his own breathing. At last he said, “Very well. Very well. But never — never tell, Dumbledore! This must be between us! Swear it! I cannot bear…especially Potter’s son…I want your word!” “My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?” Dumbledore sighed, looking down into Snape’s ferocious, anguished face. “If you insist…” (678–679, my italics). Here we see just how important Lily was to Snape that he would devote his life to Dumbledore to protect Harry, the son of the love of his life and the man he despised the most.
One final memory, another conversation between Dumbledore and Snape that reveals Snape’s true feelings towards Harry, “Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter — ” “But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” “For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!” From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears. “After all this time?” “Always,” said Snape.” (687). Here it is shown that Snape has come to care for Harry and that the person truly responsible for saving Sirius Black in the third novel was actually Snape, and not Harry. The proceeding memories show Snape’s behind the scenes involvement throughout the seventh novel, all of which are actions to either protect or aid Harry in his quest.
After Harry finishes viewing Snape’s final memories, it is clear that Lily Potter may be the most important character in the Harry Potter series. In both life and death, she played a massive role and is the sole reason Harry was able to succeed and defeat Voldemort. Her sacrifice gave Harry the opportunity to grow and prepare for his fateful encounter with Voldemort, and it is because of Lily Potter’s importance to Snape that he found the motivation to protect and support Harry until his final breath. Without Snape’s contributions within the Deathly Hallows Harry would have never been able to succeed in his mission and the only reason Snape helped at all was because of his love for Lily.
While it is safe to say that the role of male characters in the Harry Potter series and predominate over female characters, it would be an injustice not to acknowledge their contribution in its entirety and refer to them as “unempowered”. Women were always present and played a significant role throughout the entire series whether this significance was shown directly or in the background. Hermione was present since the beginning and never slacked in her duties as the story’s main heroine and while she may have died before the story began, Lily Potter is the catalyst that set everything in motion to guide Harry to his successful victory over Lord Voldemort. From the looks of the critics’ works, it appears they have underappreciated the women they ridiculed so much and judged Rowling’s work too quickly and harshly.
At first my initial thoughts were to discuss J. K. Rowling’s writing as a whole and through this explain why the Harry Potter series had such a large popularity. However, after some consideration and speaking with my professor I discovered that I lacked a conversation to contribute to. I had no real stance and if I had written that paper it would have been nothing but praise to Rowling. Through my research I noticed many critiques claiming that the Harry Potter series was rather sexist and underrepresented female characters. These claims did not sit well with me so I decided to write my essay contributing to the subject of sexism within the Harry Potter series. After reviewing both the text and the critics’ claims I began to notice how they made rather valid points if you did not know the books. I found that many of the critics left out details related to their specific argument that would discredit their work, so they could discredit Rowling’s work. I also noticed that no critic ever mentioned Harry’s mother, Lily, who is a pivotal character even though she is dead before the novels take place. Through my examples I hope my essay successfully defends the Harry Potter series and the new subject of the role of Lily Potter to the plot of the series provokes others to do some research themselves and learn that women are not as underrepresented as they seem.
First off, I would like to thank my fellow classmate Shannon for her work in peer revising my essay. Thanks to her assistance I was able to locate sections of my essay that needed work done. This helped enhance the overall quality of my work and I am grateful for her assistance in making it so. I would also like to thank my English professor, Professor Harris for his guidance and assistance in finding direction for my essay. He was also an invaluable source of information in correcting my essay. My final thanks go to my parents for getting me to read Harry Potter. I enjoyed reading all of the books at a young age and every movie was a great memory. I would also like to thank my parents for taking the effort to special order Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for me so I would be able to get it immediately upon release even though I was away in summer camp at the time. Once again, thank you again to everybody for all you help and support.
Kellner, Rivka, T. 2010. “J.K. Rowling’s Ambivalence Towards Feminism: House Elves — Women in Disguise — in the “Harry Potter” Books” The Midwest Quarterly 51.4: 367- 385. http://search.proquest.com/openview/6044ed064ee6306e7e917bf81fcfe841/1?pq- origsite=gscholar.
Pugh, Tison and Wallace, David. 2008. “A Postscript to “Heteronormative Heroism and Queering the School Story in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series”” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly Volume 33 Number 2: 188–192. DOI: 10.1353/chq.0.0009.
Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” New York: Scholastic Inc. 2007.