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It has long been obvious to me that the Harry Potter series may be profitably read as an extended meditation on economic class and class mobility. What is intriguing about this reading of the texts is that doing so provides not a single clear answer as to the nature of class dynamics and economics, likely because the themes are inadvertent on Rowling’s part. But, by my way of thinking, that only makes them more honest. So if you like, come along with me, and we shall together explore the myriad ways in which Harry Potter describes both the dream and the nightmare of the disintegration of economic class.
Michael What Are You Talking About This Is a Story of Magic and Wonder How Does Class Come into It
Well it’s quite simple, really. A cursory glance at the Potter books should be enough to make the theme of class obvious. The first antagonists of the series are the Dursleys, who are characterized almost entirely by their bourgeois excess. The family’s insistence on propriety and material wealth is a characteristic of the materialistic upper-middle class; they are concerned only with doing what is right or what is expected, in the interest of appearing normal. The final result of such an life, Rowling’s texts suggest, is Dudley, who is spoiled and cruel.
But the Dursleys are only comic-grotesque versions of the true villains of the series, Voldemort and his Death Eaters. The Death Eaters are, by and large, degenerate aristocrats; this is also mostly true of the Slytherins, who remain quite malevolent even as exceptions like Snape and Malfoy garner our sympathy. The Death Eaters are concerned with maintaining an oligarchic blood-purity over the wizarding world, a grim mirror of the Dursley’s own insistence on keeping up appearances. But while the Dursleys only yield oafish Dudley, Voldemort’s designs yield death and destruction.
Stop Being Stupid, Michael
Let us take a moment to consider Voldemort himself. His anxieties as a villain are fueled in large part by his own feelings of inadequacy brought about by his class history; he is a descendant of the once-powerful Gaunt wizarding family, whose insistence on purity brought about their total decadence and degeneration. The desire of Voldemort’s mother Merope for the muggle Tom Riddle, Sr — an aristocrat, with all the material and economic comfort and security therewith associated — brought her to charm Riddle by way of a love potion. The false union engendered Tom Riddle, Jr — that is, Voldemort — and the death of Merope in childbirth.
With the loss of the love potion, Riddle the Elder abandoned his son to an orphanage, leaving young Tom with only the barest notions of what he could have been. As Voldemort-to-be grew older, his entrance into the wizarding world allowed him to search into his family history and discover what had been denied him: not only the Gaunt legacy, lost before his time, but the muggle Riddle legacy as well. The rage resulting from his comfortless and loveless life led to a strongly classist/racist stance. (And here we see the close ties historical notions of class such as aristocracy have with bloodline in the UK, as opposed to the more fluid conception in the US.) If Riddle could not have the legacies lost, he would take them by force, by murder and by magic. Thus the creation of the pure-blooded, aristocratic Death Eaters and the implicit delusion that Voldemort himself is not only one of them, but their lord.
In this way Harry is in fact the best possible foil to Voldemort. Born into a historically affluent wizarding family — but, notably, not pure-blooded, as Lily Potter was muggle-born — Harry is robbed of his own legacy by Voldemort’s murder of James and Lily. Like Voldemort, Harry is raised in relative squalor and misery, pressed below his class by the gross Dursleys. This is, I suspect, what saves Harry; though the Dursleys’ treatment could just as easily breed in Harry a desire to perpetuate their cruelty, Harry instead learns to live a stoic and simple life in the cupboard under the stairs. In the first book, upon discovering the hoard left for him by his parents in Gringotts, Harry does not rush to claim his inheritance and lord it over everyone, as Voldemort would, for his exposure to the excesses of the Dursleys — and especially his bully Dudley — has already made him conscious of material comfort’s negative influence.
Harry struggles throughout the series with his own ties to Voldemort, for his own capacity for evil; the Sorting Hat even wants to place him in Slytherin. Given his pedigree, he could easily fit in — but instead he opts for Gryffindor, the more inclusive House, after his instinctively negative reaction to the mode of snobbery exhibited by Malfoy & Co. Harry instead makes friends with Hermione — middle class, indeed, but from a muggle family — and with the Ron — whose family, though pure-blooded, is not degenerate, quite poor, and portrayed fondly by the novels. In fact, the most negative portrayal of a Weasley is Percy, who aspires toward a bureaucratic role that requires him to act somewhat above his station; by contrast (to both Percy and the Slytherin families) the Weasleys are generally respectful of if not outright interested in muggles.
Michael You Are Dumb and This Is Dumb I Am Only Reading the Bold Headings
This brings me to the point that the wizards themselves are a separate class from muggles, though the difference is not established in normal economic terms but through a cipher: magic. Magic is its own economic signifier, in that it allows even a family as poor as the Weasleys to live in relative comfort; it is a resource to which muggles have no access. Until we are told in book seven that we cannot summon food, gold, or resurrect the dead, it might seem that magic is key to some sort of post-scarcity utopia. This, however, is not the case; magic does have limits, and these limits cause some people to desire to surpass or control them, just as Voldemort desires to rewrite his own class history.
Consider the origin of the Deathly Hallows, in book 7. The tale concerns three brothers who, in their quest for unlimited magical power, murder each other in bizarre and tragic ways. Rowling knows her English lit; this story is very obviously lifted from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, in which three drunkards set off to conquer death but instead find a pile of gold beneath a tree by the side of the road. Each, in his haste to claim the gold for himself, kills the other two. The moral of the story is Radix malorum est cupiditas — the root of evil is the love of money, to give a clumsy translation that sidesteps the truism. Rowling simply replaces money with magic, and we’re off to the races.
So magic is another economic and class signifier. For Voldemort, et al, a lack of a magical bloodline is an abomination, a cause for purgation. For the Dursleys (and historically, other muggles), the opposite is true: magic is an abomination, and the solution is an old-fashioned burning at the stake, or at least ostracism. This is when the progressivism of Harry Potter as a series really shines, as the most positive characters are always those inclined to learn more about the muggle world and be more accepting of muggle-born wizards and witches.
This desire to break down class distinctions is most readily exemplified by the marital statuses of the main characters by the end of the series. Ginny, a pureblood, marries Harry, who has a pedigree but is not pure-blooded; Ron marries Hermione, a muggle-born. Contrast that with Malfoy, who remains aloof and aristocratic; likewise, the main trio of the books is still recognizably middle class, but not nearly as bourgeois as the Dursleys. The intensity of the classism of the prior books — and of the prior generations of wizards — has been scaled back.
Oh My God Will You Just SHUT UP
But it may serve our purposes just to take a look at those prior
NO NO NO NO STOP IT
take a look at those prior gener
MICHAEL I SWEAR, YOU ADENOIDAL PEDANT, IF YOU DON’T SHUT UP
TAKE A LOOK AT THE PRIOR GENERATIONS OF WIZARDS AND CONSIDER ROWLING’S SURPRISING CAVEAT FOR THIS PROGRESSIVE TURN TO THE SERIES, WHICH SEEMS VERY SIMILAR IN TENOR TO AYN RAND
wait what ayn rand
Seriously, are you taking this there.
Well I Am Still Unhappy But Now Sort of Grossly Fascinated, Continue
As I was saying, the arc of the Harry Potter series throws class divisions into a distinctly negative light, and the plot is broadly about how the pursuit of either becoming a member of a different (higher) class or the sequestering of those of a perceived lower class leads to ruin. The slow degeneration of these class distinctions is an overall positive development.
But it has consequences.
Think for a moment about the Hogwarts Harry’s parents — and Lupin, and Sirius, and Peter Pettigrew, and so on — would have known. A time of magic and adventure, as you might expect, but what sort of adventure? Well, for one thing, pretty goddamn awesome adventure. Consider the things the earlier generation did:
- Illegally taught themselves to be animagi
- Created the fucking Marauder’s Map, if you can believe it
- Snape wrote his own completely badass dismemberment and mutilation spells IN THE MARGINS OF HIS TEXTBOOK
- Fought a long, brutal and bloody war only matched in the past by Wizard World War II (in which Dumbledore single-handedly defeated Wizard-Hitler)
Now think about what Harry and his friends do:
- Fight a war that basically lasted for a year and had one major battle
- Rely on systems put in place by their parents, Dumbledore, and a house elf to win said war
- Sneak out of their dorms a lot
- Brew polyjuice potion about 75,000 times
The point to be taken from this is that there is indeed a definite decline in the way the generations of the wizarding world played out, from Dumbledore to the parent generation to the generation of our protagonists. The closest any of the ‘modern’ characters come to the old ingenuity are Fred and George, whose tricks and gags echo the Marauder’s Map in tone and Snape’s mutilation spells in technical accomplishment. But alas, the duo are forever crippled when Fred dies in the Battle of Hogwarts.
Ayn Rand would say this is a terrible thing. The movers and shakers of the past — the ingenius giants — have given away to relatively insignificant moochers who rely on the accomplishments of those who came before to get anything done. Consider how much Harry does is orchestrated by Dumbledore; consider how his final triumph against Voldemort comes from his mother’s overpowering love. What does Harry actually do?
Nothing. He’s quite boring, actually, and not a very good student. It’s a miracle he manages to become an Auror at all. He’s very middle-of-the-road, honestly, and even the things that make him exceptional — his wealth, the privilege he has to just do whatever the fuck he wants so long as he saves the world — are things that at times sit uneasily with him.
This is not a bad thing, though, for what makes Harry important is not who he is per se, but rather the relationships he cultivates with others. Without Hermione and Ron, or even Neville and Luna or Lupin and Tonks and Mad-Eye or whoever, we’d be hard pressed to give a doxy’s ass about Harry. His relationships, the communities the characters form, the ways in which they live and act in concert, are the true lifeblood of the series. The community of Hogwarts lives and breathes; it is what we’re interested in, and Harry is simply our gateway.
That amazing individual talent, that startling innovation, that egoistic single-mindedness that characterized the earlier wizarding generations didn’t only give us Dumbledore and the Marauder’s Map — it gave us Voldemort, and the sick philosophy he peddled.
In Harry Potter’s universe, it is better to be unexceptional but loved and loving than it is to be exceptional and terrifying. This is achieved through equity — material, economic, and social. At the end of the series, though the wizarding world is still separated from the muggle world, though there is an air of snobbishness still clinging to Malfoy, we seem to be heading toward a new, more just, classless society.
This Was Such a Goddamn Waste of Time