Social Sensitivity

In a television interview aired in July of 2000-just prior to the release of the much-anticipated fourth Harry Potter book-eminent children’s and young adult literature critic and scholar Jack Zipes described Rowling’s fiction as formulaic and sexist. Because Zipes was not given the chance to fully support his thesis within the format of the televised sound bite, any response to his thesis must be based, in part, on conjecture. Nevertheless, that Rowling’s Harry Potter books should be described as formulaic is problematic. The “Harry Potter” books are, after all, a series, and, at least thus far, the action takes place during the academic year. Aside from some scattered highlights of Harry’s summer holidays, the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone follows the unchanging rhythm of a highly structured educational calendar. While an academic year provides a useful template by which Rowling may structure her fiction, the description of such a template as formulaic seems unfair and a refusal to acknowledge just how reliant a young adult audience is on the academic calendar-or how useful it is to the plot structure of British fantasy. Indeed, Lewis Carroll’s Alice has her adventures while she is not engaged with her studies in both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and throughout C. S. Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles, his young protagonists travel to and from Narnia while on vacation from school.

In terms of Rowling’s potential sexism, it may be likewise argued that, as she follows and departs from a traditional academic structure in her novels, so too does Rowling follow and depart from traditional gender roles. Mrs. Dursley characterizes the standard housewife in the opening pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, while Mr. Dursley presents us with a mock-image of the bowler-capped British businessman. But it should be noted that Mrs. and Mr. Dursley are not beloved characters (certainly not characters after whom young readers would be inclined to model themselves), and that other characters do not always line up according to standard expectations of gender: Professor McGonagall is a witch and a teacher to be respected and admired, Madame Hooch coaches the (co-ed) Quidditch team, Hermione Granger is as capable of getting herself out (or in) trouble as Ron Weasley or Harry himself; Professor Dumbledore is a homebody, Professor Quirrell is a weak and fearful wizard, and Hagrid has undeniably strong mothering instincts. Ultimately, that some of Rowling’s characters inhabit traditional gender roles while others do not may be the best, and most elegant, argument against the enforcement of those roles.

And yet, the defense of Rowling’s fiction as formulaic or sexist does raise some interesting considerations regarding social concerns in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Because the novel follows the British school year, there are few-if any-references to non-Christian faiths and practices. Thus, the witches and wizards at Hogwarts celebrate Christmas-even despite their supposedly pagan history. Harry is able to afford Hogwarts because of the large inheritance left to him by his parents, a detail that can serve to example a limited representation of economic stratification. Due to his last name and his red hair, we might assume that Ron Weasley is of Irish descent; such an assumption would then lead us to argue that the depiction Ron’s family, poor and well-populated, reveals a prejudice against Irish Catholics in Rowling, Great Britain, or both. Similarly, while several referenced characters represent other races and ethnicities (Lee Jordan, for example, is black), the main protagonists of the novel, the characters in whom readers are most invested, are white.

Considering the anxiety that contemporary audiences and critics have regarding the fair and equal representation of peoples in literature-and particularly in literature for children and young adults-these observations are both legitimate and unavoidable. But, too, readers must consider the transcendent possibilities of fantasy novels. If one of the benefits of fantasy is to remove the reader from an oppressive social reality, and thereby to offer a lens through which he or she might critique and resolve social injustices, critics cannot expect fantasy to perform the same instructional modeling as contemporary realism. This is not an excuse or a justification, and it is not because fantasy does not mirror and model life as does all literature (and all art). It is because, as a genre, fantasy behaves according to its own history, tradition, and purpose. Though it is appropriate to expect contemporary fantasy to fairly and accurately represent social diversity, a more appropriate concern for fantasy may be how well it models the readers’ ability to see themselves within their social system and how convincingly it argues for their deserved equality. That Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone does, indeed, reflect and address social diversity, and that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone inspires both young and old readers to see their worlds in new and different ways (ways that may result in social activism and change), offers a strong argument for our acknowledgment of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as fantastic literature worthy of a place in the canon.

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