Emerging Voices

Thomas Crisp, editor

I May Not Know Who I Am, But I Know Who I'm Not: Self-Awareness and Actualization in the Harry Potter Series

Brandy Isaacs

Brandy Isaacs studied British and American literature with an emphasis on children and adolescent fiction at Kansas State University. She currently teaches English Composition at Eastern Kentucky University while continuing her research in fantasy fiction.

There is little doubt that the Harry Potter series demonstrates the classic struggle of good and evil for which many critics applaud; readers can easily identify Harry as the embodiment of good and Voldemort as the embodiment of evil. While there has been much discussion of Harry's role exemplifying a good and moral character, little has been written of Voldemort's development. As Mercedes Lackey declares in her introduction to Mapping the World of Harry Potter, "[a]t a point in time where kids are getting repetitive stress problems from mousing and joysticking, to discover that the increasingly weighty books are giving kids neck strain from reading in bed—it's astonishing and, if you ask me, rather wonderful" (3). While the success and popularity of J. K. Rowling's series can hardly be denied, the literary value of the novels inspires heated debates among both readers and critics. It is my belief that the greatest asset of the series rests in the relationships and development of the characters. Not only is the psychological development of the characters and the interaction between the characters hauntingly realistic, but it is also masterfully presented through the narration, plot, and dialogue. The skill with which the characters' relationships and development are portrayed not only offers a powerful and entertaining read, it exemplifies one of the most important aspects of the series: individual choice.

When examining the series in terms of character development through life choices, it is appropriate to begin with Voldemort due to the fact that his choices set the entire series into motion. Critics Catherine and Jack Deavel have sought to explain Voldemort's actions through religious and social morality, often claiming that Voldemort's commitment to evil is responsible for the choices that he makes throughout the series. While I do not disagree that Voldemort may represent an immoral character, I feel that the Deavels may have overlooked the development, or lack of development, of these morals. Clearly, the Deavels are attempting to defend the series from critics who would like to condemn it for its alleged potential to corrupt the youth of the world by leading them astray from Christian ethics. Their defense of the series is clear in their essay "Character, Choice and Harry Potter" (2002), when they assert, "[t]o the extent that the Harry Potter books promote true moral principles and bring them to life for children, these books further Christian teachings and a culture of life" (62). I applaud the Deavels' defense of the series in the face of tough criticism, but also believe that Voldemort's actions are not based primarily upon a deviation from Christian moral teachings. The Deavels are attempting to assign Christian principles where there is little precedence for such attributions. Instead, Voldemort's (lack of) morality is based primarily upon his psychological development when compared to that of Harry. Rather than looking for theological or social justification, I believe the answers to questions concerning character choice can be found in psychoanalytic theories of development, such as Julia Kristeva's theories of abjection. Kristeva's theory of abjection refers to the feelings that develop when we exclude a part of ourselves that does not fit within the symbolic order, or the conventions of society. The deployment of this theory can inform discussions of characters' motivations for choice, but the series also carries Kristeva's ideas beyond their original boundaries.

Critics such as the Deavels may be willing to argue that traditional Christian ideals are interconnected and linked to psychological development. These same people would insist that the human subject develops within a Christianized world, that Christianity exists first and the subject must be accepted into the theological world. It is my contention, however, that one's development occurs before one can accept the conventions of the Christianized society. In fact, Rowling seems to carefully exclude any direct and obvious religious principles. This is most obvious in The Order of the Phoenix (2003) when Harry, distraught over the death of his godfather, searches for and hopes that Sirius will return to him, even if as a ghost. He questions the ghost of Gryffindor, Nearly Headless Nick, about life after death, asking, "Listen—what happens when you die, anyway? Where do you go?" (861). Nick's response is less than helpful: "I am neither here nor there…I know nothing of the secrets of death" (861). Nick never offers a name for "there," nor (unlike Christian philosophy) does he offer any theories as to the secrets of death. While it would be easy for Rowling to recognize, even promote, Christian values by having Nick name and explain a concrete and ideal afterlife for Harry, she carefully avoids doing so, which suggests she is making a conscious effort to steer clear of promoting specific religious ethics or orthodoxy to readers. It is not my intention to condemn or condone Rowling's lack of religious conventions within her series. Instead, I wish to offer a more complete and objective explanation of Voldemort's development, relationships, and choices throughout the series. I believe that the most effective and powerful means to understand the characters' choices is through theories of abjection, developed by Kristeva [1]. By examining the series through this lens, I will offer a picture of the psychological status of the characters, in an effort to uncover the motivations behind and explanations of the characters' choices. In examining the series through the lens of psychoanalysis, we discover that Voldemort is an abject character, reacting to his own tenuous position within his society.

To develop a clear picture of Voldemort's psychological development, his relationships, and to identify his abjection, I will first examine the texts in relation to Kristeva's theories of abjection. As outlined in Powers of Horror (1982), for Kristeva, abjection is the relationship between the subject's identity and social environment. The abjection results when an external threat to the subject's identity becomes an internal threat and the abject character recognizes that the external threat is a reflection of his/her own flawed conception of self-identity. For example, Voldemort feels threatened by Harry because Harry is a half-blood wizard, a characteristic Voldemort views as inferior. Harry, in turn, reminds Voldemort of his own half-blood status; Voldemort attacks Harry, symbolically attacking his own perceived weakness. As with any abject subject, Voldemort's social environment is first shaped by his family history. The sixth book of the series, The Half-Blood Prince (2005), reveals the history of the Gaunt family and offers readers the roots of Voldemort's abjection, which explicate the choices he makes as a result of his abject status.

Dumbledore assists in the opposition to Voldemort by presenting Harry with memories that illustrate Voldemort and his family's history, memories that are not only useful for presenting Voldemort's story, but for understanding the roots of his abjection as well. The memories Harry views clearly outline Voldemort's psychological development and the resulting state of abjection that characterizes his life actions. By viewing Voldemort's family history, the state of his psychological development becomes clear and readers begin to understand how his mental development has been shaped by his mother's death (in childbirth) and his father's abandonment. His status as an orphan is in large part responsible for the choices that he makes, as the orphaned child is not able to become fully psychologically developed without a complete Oedipal triangle. Denied proper psychological development, and thus unable to integrate into society, Voldemort's choices reflect the influences of his family history.

Kristeva argues that the mother, and her relationship with the patriarchal world around her, is vital to the subject's entrance into his or her society. She explains that the source for abjection can be identified as being located within the subject's relation to his or her maternal influence. She writes, "[w]hat he [the abject] has swallowed up instead of maternal love is an emptiness, or rather a maternal hatred without a word for the words of the father; that [maternal emptiness] is what he tries to cleanse himself of, tirelessly" (6). In Kristeva's theory, the mother acts as the bridge for the child to assume "words of the father," or the society that is dominated by and created by the patriarchy. In this relationship, the bond with the mother acts as the strongest tie to, and the foundation of the child's integration into, the world of the father. The emptiness of the loss of the bonds with the mother results in being unable to integrate into the symbolic world of the Father. This loss weakens the Oedipal Triangle, which consists of the mother, the father, and the subject. Without a complete Oedipal Triangle, the subject is himself at a loss within his own world, and attempts to rid himself—often violently—of the weaknesses that result from this loss. By reacting violently against those that remind him of his own weaknesses and losses, the abject symbolically attempts to rid himself of what he perceives as an inferior part of himself. A mature and Oedipalized subject performs within his social world based upon his or her relationship with the mother and father; a loss of the mother or the father creates abjection for the subject through an inability to reconcile him/herself within their environment.

Harry views a memory that allows him to witness the beginnings of Voldemort's failed Oedipalization, which in turn motivates Voldemort's future choices. In the memory, Harry witnesses Voldemort's mother Merope and the treatment that she suffers at the hands of her father, thus illustrating her inability to function within the patriarchy. While repressed in Marvolo's house, Merope and her brother Morphin exhibit little magical talent. Dumbledore explains her apparent lack of powers: "I do not believe that her magical powers appeared to their best advantage when she was being terrorized by her father" (213). Obsessed with the importance of being pure-blooded and living in virtual poverty as the result of poor financial management, Marvolo is a tyrant within his house and beastly to those outside of it. Never is his contempt for non-magical beings more apparent than when, upon discovering his daughter's feelings for Voldemort's father, he exclaims "My daughter—pure-blooded descendant of Salazar Slytherin—hankering after a filthy, dirt-veined Muggle?" (210, emphasis in original). His domination and ethnocentric values leave Merope struggling to find autonomy and happiness under a deplorable patriarchy.

Once Marvolo and Morphin are incarcerated in Azkaban prison, Merope is finally free from her father's tyranny and attempts to find her own autonomy outside of patriarchal domination. Dumbledore tells Harry, "once she was alone and free for the first time in her life, I am sure, she was able to give full rein to her abilities and to plot her escape from the desperate life she had led for eighteen years" (213). With her new-found freedom, Merope enters into a relationship with Tom Riddle and for the first time, it seems, Merope finds her own identity and autonomy, establishing the life that she desired [2]. Merope's unfulfilled desire for acceptance from either her father or her beloved, initiates Voldemort's own inability to function within his society. Merope's choice to die in spite of her child inspires Voldemort to seek the power he feels his mother never had. He sees her choice to die instead of using magic to save herself as an act of weakness. The root of the choices that Voldemort makes in his quest for power begins in his mother's choice to die. If Merope's dreams had come true, and she had lived happily ever after with Riddle and the child she was soon to bear, Voldemort's life (and the lives of everyone else) might have turned out quite differently; however, the chance for a "normal," well-adjusted life in the magical world was not to be: Riddle left Merope, presumably after she stopped using magic in order to have a relationship with him, and she died in childbirth, leaving Voldemort in the care of a muggle orphanage. Upon his birth, and in the early stages of his childhood, Voldemort was left with incomplete developmental tools due to the death of his mother, resulting in his inability to assimilate into society.

Kristeva's focus on the mother or the maternal illustrates the role of the Oedipal complex in childhood development which, she suggests, is the root of abjection. When maternal influence is lacking, the subject misses tools that are central in the developmental process of childhood. Without the complete Oedipal triangle, the subject is incapable of finding a proper identity within the Symbolic Order of the father. Kristeva clarifies the significance of the non-Oedipalized subject, stating,

When psychoanalysts speak of an object they speak of the object of desire as it is elaborated within the Oedipian triangle. According to that trope, the father is the mainstay of the law and the mother the prototype of the object. Toward the mother there is convergence not only of survival needs but of the first mimetic yearnings. She is the other subject, an object that guarantees my being as subject. The mother is my first object—both desiring and signifiable. (32)

Voldemort, never having had a mother, is left without a "signifiable body" which will enable him to enter into the law of the father. When told that he is magic, the young Voldemort asks, "Was my father a wizard? He was called Tom Riddle too, they've [the orphanage] told me" (275). Without his mother, Voldemort is left with only the name of his father and no connection to the Order, or law, of the father. Because of his mother's death, he is left with unexplained words which offer no understanding of who his father is or was and that would enable him to assume the Order of his father. Without an understanding of his father's Order, Voldemort is a psychologically weak character and his feelings of powerlessness within the Order and fears about his own perceived weaknesses cause him to act out against those who are able to integrate into the Order due to their connections to their family unit. Voldemort's choices exemplify his desperate search for power; he chooses to act violently against others in order to inspire them to fear him. Voldemort's choices cause him to be one of the most feared wizards in the magical world and this fear enables him to feel powerful in a world that he does not feel a part of.

Karen Coats' claims lend support for the influence that Voldemort's mother has upon his psychological development. She devotes a great amount of time to the study of the mother and her influence upon the abjection of the child character. Drawing from Kristeva's theories, she states, "[s]ince a child's primary caregiver is usually a mother, the mother, who through giving birth and feeding is already intimately connected with the body, is also, Kristeva emphasized, the first arbiter of cultural convention and law, the first embodiment of the other that the child has to contend with" (139). Here, Coats outlines the importance of the mother, due to the fact that the mother, in her close connection with the child, symbolizes for that child the social order which she or he will have to enter. The mother's body represents the Real; it is not a symbolic connection because it is based upon real qualities such as birth, milk, and physical care. While the mother/child relationship is vital, this relationship must be turned away and denied in order to enter the symbolic Order of the father. According to both Coats and Kristeva, the mother acts as a stepping stone that enables the child to enter the world of the father: "Hence the Real of her own body is what must first be excluded for the baby to achieve autonomy" (Coats 140). The Oedipalized child must give up the Real of his mother, his physical connection, in order to connect with his father, who is his eventual ticket into the Symbolic.

Voldemort never formed this connection with the mother and therefore he never had a maternal caregiver with whom to identify, and from whom eventually to turn away. As a result, he also lacks connection to the world of the Father, which motivates Voldemort's choice to oppose the society into which he was never granted acceptance. As Coats points out, "The paternal presence, because of its prohibitions against the incestuous union and also because of our attraction to its phallic power…enable[s] separation to occur; the maternal body as Thing is repressed, and the baby begins the process of becoming an oedipalized subject" (140). Voldemort blames his mother for her own death and wishes to identify with his father (whom he assumes is his magical parent) in order to assume the power offered by the father. Again, he is unable to find this power because the loss of his mother left him with no connection to the symbolic order of his father. When Dumbledore visits him in the orphanage, Voldemort clearly reveals his opinion of his mother: "Was my father a wizard?...My mother can't have been magic, or she wouldn't have died" (275). His excitement at finding out that he is a wizard is clear, as "there was a wild happiness upon [his face]" when he learned that he had magical powers (271). Voldemort wishes to deny any possibility of his mother having power or ability because she has left him alone in the world. To him, it was his mother who left him, alone and miserable in a cold and dreary orphanage; the sense of abandonment and of exclusion creates a Voldemort who chooses to act against the society for which he feels inadequately prepared.

Coats' theory also explains Voldemort's inability to coexist with his peers once he has joined the magical community. She echoes the claims made by Kristeva who theorizes that abjection "disturbs [the] identity, system and order" of the subject (4). Any person, thing, or situation that disrupts the subject's conception of self creates abjection. As Coats argues, the "dead or dying mother" is a common trope of young adult literature and has significant influence upon the child's ability, or inability, to interact with others their age (144). This inability to interact with others in his or her community becomes abjection when it leads the child to a hatred of those with whom the child is not able to socialize; this outward-directed hatred becomes inward-directed when the child recognizes aspects of those he hates within himself.

Once Voldemort enters the magical world, with no mother with whom to identify or to spur him to identification with the Name of the Father, he searches for others with whom to identify. As Coats explains of the adolescent child, "the dual relationships are not the mother and the child anymore, but the teen and his peer group, or the teen and a media hero who functions for him as an ideal image" (144). Upon arrival at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Voldemort immediately begins to search for his father. As Dumbledore explains to Harry, "It seems that he searched in vain for some trace of Tom Riddle senior on the shields in the trophy room, on the lists of prefects in the old school records, even in the books of Wizarding history" (The Half-Blood Prince, 362). When he faces the undeniable fact that his father was not magical, Voldemort instead turns to his famous ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, thus establishing a connection to his patriarchal ancestors. The power and renown of Slytherin undoubtedly impresses the young Voldemort, and their shared status as parseltongues (persons with the ability to speak to snakes) "can only have excited him and increased his sense of self-importance" (The Half-Blood Prince 360). Having never had a mother or father, Voldemort turns to Salazar Slytherin, the magical world's version of a "media hero" or popular icon. Slytherin, while often thought of as cruel, was also powerful and important and, in many circles, considered a noble man meriting reverence. Voldemort's adoration of Slytherin paradoxically stimulates him to privilege pure-bloods over others. Voldemort rejects his parents and the Order within which he was unable to integrate and instead turns to an alternative community that exists outside the Order. Voldemort substitutes Slytherin for the parents that he never knew and recreates himself in the image of Slytherin, a powerful pure-blood wizard. Voldemort's choices are governed by his hero's valuing of pure-bloods over half-bloods or those of muggle birth and offer him a sense of power that he is unable to find within the conventional Order.

Voldemort, a subject not fully Oedipalized, makes choices that are influenced by the disadvantages that he had as a child. Dumbledore reveals to Harry, "their [Voldemort and his followers] seven years at Hogwarts were marked by a number of nasty incidents to which they were never satisfactorily linked, the most serious of which was of course the opening of the Chamber of Secrets, which resulted in the death of a girl" (The Half-Blood Prince 362). The girl Voldemort chose to attack was, much like himself, not of pure blood. While still in school, Voldemort already began to act violently against those who offer reminders of what he perceives as his own unacceptability. When a subject like Voldemort lacks a true parental relationship, (s)he lacks the ability to function in relation to others within their society. Voldemort's incomplete Oedipal Triangle influences his choice to dominate those he considers inferior in an attempt to conquer what he considers inferior about himself.

In relation to the other students at Hogwarts, Voldemort's sense of abjection increases as he initiates his search for (and makes choices in search of) power. As Coats explains, "the adolescent looks around, he fantasizes that the disconnection he feels toward the group, reminiscent of his experience of the fragmented body, is not felt by the visually coherent others that he wishes to mirror" (144). For Voldemort, the loss of his mother's body and his father's Order leads to his being unable to develop relationships with the other students at the school. According to Dumbledore, "Riddle [Voldemort] undoubtedly felt no affection for any of [his friends at school]," and this lack of affection continues even after he has left school (The Half-Blood Prince 361). When questioning Voldemort about his companions, Dumbledore recalls, "I was under the impression that they are more in the order of servants," indicating that Voldemort has placed himself above those he calls friends (444). He feels unable to bond on an equal level with the others because of the inferiority he feels concerning his half-blood status. This inferiority is heightened when he is placed within the Slytherin house at Hogwarts, which strongly favors pure-blood wizards and witches. Upon learning that his father must have been a muggle, Voldemort is denied the opportunity to enhance his own importance based on blood and subsequently feels antagonism toward his fellow students. While most other students, and even more prominently, students in the Slytherin house, have magical parents with whom to identify, Voldemort feels excluded from this community because his father was a muggle and his magical mother died in childbirth.

As revealed through Dumbledore and others' memories, Voldemort's status as an abject character became more pronounced at Hogwarts. He sought power and control over others, and also sought to conquer his greatest fear: his fear of death. He tells his Death Eaters in The Goblet of Fire (2000), "I…have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality" (653). Kristeva identifies the influence of death, or the fear of death, as the strongest instigator of abjection: "[death] is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us" (4). Death is the greatest fear, and therefore the greatest source for abjection since nobody can escape death. For a normally Oedipalized subject, the mother is the bond to life: she births, feeds, and protects the child. The mother/child bond comforts the child with the knowledge that he will survive. However, a subject who is missing this bond does not have these assurances of safety, stability, or nurturance. The child's loss of confidence is especially true when the mother has died in the child's early infancy, because the mother's death has not only left the child with no assurances of life, but also is indisputable proof that death is a possibility for all. For the un-Oedipalized subject, like Voldemort, the fear of death increases his feelings of abjection because the threat of death is a reminder to the child of his or her own tenuous hold upon life.

Voldemort's choices are responses to fears concerning his own mortality; he sees death as his greatest threat because no power, or magic, can bring the dead back to life. Indeed, in The Order of the Phoenix, he reveals his belief that death is his own greatest weakness, telling Dumbledore, "There is nothing worse than death" (814). For Voldemort, death is the greatest weakness, and his mother's death reminds him of both her unacceptable weaknesses and of the fact that even the magical can die. Without the assurances of life his mother could have offered, Voldemort feels the threat to his own mortality and seeks to conquer the ultimate weakness: death. Dumbledore, by contrast, reflects the viewpoint on death characteristic of the well-adjusted person: "For the well-organized mind, Death is merely the next adventure" (The Sorcerer's Stone 297)

Voldemort's ultimate goal is to escape death and the steps he takes in order to gain immortality fully signify his role as an abject character because he is acting in response to his own perceived weaknesses. In his attempt to defeat death, Voldemort begins creating Horcruxes. Professor Slughorn tells the young Voldemort, "A Horcrux is the word used for an object in which a person has concealed part of their soul" (The Deathly Hallows 497). He further explains, "'you split your soul, you see . . . . and hide part of it in an object outside the body'" (497). When asked how Horcruxes are made, their truly vile nature becomes clear: "Splitting [the soul] is an act of violation, it is against nature…the supreme act of evil. [Horcruxes are produced…] by committing murder" (497-8). Voldemort's commitment to escaping death is clear in the fact that he is interested in splitting his soul not once, but seven times. As Slughorn exclaims, "Seven! Isn't it bad enough to think of killing one person?" (498). Voldemort is so desperate to evade death that he is willing to commit a supreme act against nature. Not only is he willing to commit multiple murders, he is prepared to fracture his own soul in order to avoid the weakness that he feels in his state of abjection. His own perception of himself as an individual with the capacity for weakness motivates him to choose extreme measures in order to recreate himself as a powerful individual he is able to accept.

By engaging in a series of murders in order to become all-powerful, Voldemort finalizes his exile from society and becomes truly abject. Paradoxically, Voldemort's choices result from the abjection that he feels and ultimately fully place him on the fringe of society. Voldemort wishes to gain power that he feels he is missing by becoming immortal and chooses to pursue this immortality at all costs, even if it means making himself less human. He must make the very choices that set him apart from society and humanity in order to gain a sense of power (immortality) over those whom he despises. Separating himself from those who make him feel inadequate is the only solace he finds in response to the pains of his inadequacies. Voldemort cements his separation from society because he feels he has no other choice in order to save himself from the threat that is presented by the society from which he strays. He is not able to fully integrate and act as a member of the community because he is not a fully Oedipalized, or fully developed, individual. In trying to overcome the weakness that he sees within himself, he chooses to further cast himself outside of the very same community to which he wishes to belong.

Voldemort bolsters his status as an abject character when he attempts to kill Harry, another half-blood wizard who reminds him of himself. After learning of a prophesy that foretells his downfall by a boy who will be born at the end of July to parents who have defied him three times, Voldemort attempts to kill Harry in order to save himself. He fails in his attempt, but is successful in killing Harry's parents. In The Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore informs Harry that he was not the only boy to whom the prophesy could have applied: "Sibyll's prophecy could have applied to two boys, both born at the end of July that year, both of whom had parents in the Order of the Phoenix, both sets of parents having narrowly escaped Voldemort three times. One, of course, was you. The other was Neville Longbottom" (842). Voldemort faces a decision between two boys, and he chooses Harry. In deciding to kill Harry, Voldemort reveals his belief that Harry is more of a threat, which is extremely significant in understanding Voldemort's role as an abject character. Voldemort privileges pure-blood wizards over others who are not of pure-blood. Harry is a half-blood, just as Voldemort is himself, whereas Neville is a pure-blood. According to the values to which Voldemort subscribes, Neville should have presented more of a threat; however, Voldemort's actions suggest a belief that the boy who would have to power to defeat him would be another half-blood like himself.

In deciding that the half-blood wizard presented more of a threat to himself, Voldemort offers what may be the most convincing evidence of his status as an abject character. When Harry questions why Voldemort chose him instead of Neville, Dumbledore explains Voldemort's motivations:

He chose the boy he thought most likely to be a danger to him…And notice this, Harry. He chose, not the pureblood (which, according to his creed, is the only kind of wizard worth being or knowing), but the half-blood like himself. He saw himself in you before he had ever seen you, and in marking you with that scar, he did not kill you, as he intended, but gave you powers, and a future, which have fitted you to escape him not once, but four times so far—something that neither your parents, nor Neville's, ever achieved. (842)

Voldemort feels the most threat from someone in whom he sees similarities to himself. Kristeva's theories highlight such recognition as indicative of abjection: "Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it [the external/internal threat] literally beside himself" (Powers of Horror 1). The power that he believes Harry to possess haunts Voldemort because it holds up a mirror in which Voldemort is able to see himself. He has thus far been attempting to rid himself or deny his own lack of acceptable identity in his society; Harry reminds him of the weaknesses that he wishes to destroy and deny, and this reminder is the key to the abjection that he feels. Voldemort feels threatened by Harry because Harry forces him to face his own perceived weaknesses and his ambiguous choices are a reaction to this threat.

Just as Voldemort's status as an evil character results from his choices, Harry's status as good, likewise, results from his choice of good. In "What Would Harry Do?," Lana Whited and M. Catherine Grimes argue that the merit of the Harry Potter series resides in Harry's choices and subsequent development toward the social conventions of morality. Whited and Grimes compare Harry's moral development to the theories developed by Lawrence Kohlberg, who, in his theories of moral stages and development argued in the 1960s and 1970s that moral development was established through three stages: the preconventional, the conventional, and the postconventional. While Whited and Grimes' claims have some merit, I believe that they rely too exclusively on social influence. Harry's decisions may reflect a concern for his social environment, but they also rely on a more individualized search for identity. Harry attempts to establish his own autonomy, basing his decisions not upon what he believes society expects from him, but upon what he does not want to be.

Harry's decision to not be evil can be seen early in the series as he is being sorted into his house upon arrival at Hogwarts. As the sorting hat sits on his head Harry thinks "Not Slytherin, not Slytherin" (The Sorcerer's Stone 121). The sorting hat obliges, "Not Slytherin, eh?...Well if you're sure—better be GRYFFINDOR!" (121). Harry is aware of the reputation of Slytherin producing witches and wizards who have went bad and his desire to be a "good" wizard is demonstrated through his adamant desire to not be in Slytherin.

The differences between Harry and Voldemort are further established by the fact that Harry was raised by his mother's family. Despite an upbringing that may be, to say the least, "lacking," Harry was raised in a family that conformed to a "traditional" model by including both a mother and a father. Furthermore, the mother figure that Petunia represents is a direct connection to his own mother, a fact that occasionally offers comfort to Harry. On the verge of being kicked out of his home and left unprotected from Voldemort, "for the very first time in his life, Harry fully appreciated that Aunt Petunia was his mother's sister. He could not have said why this hit him so powerfully at this moment. All he knew was that he was not the only person in the room who had an inkling of what Lord Voldemort being back might mean" (The Order of the Phoenix 38). Unlike Voldemort, Harry has a family that enables him to avoid the abject state that Voldemort experiences. Through being an oedipalized character Harry is able to integrate into the Symbolic Order, or conventional society.

Harry and Voldemort both exemplify the psychological development of individuals in relation to their community. As the Deavels claim, Voldemort may represent a character that either has or doesn't have moral attributes. However, their claims and arguments fail to account for how Voldemort may have, or may have not, acquired morals that enable and motivate him to make the decisions that drive the plot of the Harry Potter series. I contend that Deavels place too much emphasis on Harry's Christianity-based ethics and that instead, Harry and Voldemort both make decisions based upon their psychological relationships with others. Voldemort's behavior is most strongly influenced by his family and his relationship with Harry. Voldemort, while clearly a despicable character, acts in response to the situations that have shaped his life. While both the prophecy and Voldemort's psychological status seem to weaken an argument against free will, both, in fact, still rely on the power of choice. The individual must choose how he or she will react in response to his or her history. While both scenarios provide a stimulus to action, neither forces the subject to act in any predetermined manner and the theory developed by Kristeva helps expose this dynamic. By understanding Voldemort's motivations and actions, readers may better appreciate that Harry makes the decisions he does in order to fight the evil that Voldemort has become. While Harry may be the main focus of the series, it is ultimately undeniable that Harry is able to become the popular hero that he is due, in large part, to the choices made by Voldemort.


1. Karen Coats, in her book Looking Glasses and Neverlands (2004), also examines children’s literature through the scope of psychoanalysis.  She uses the theories of abjection in order to explicate a variety of children’s literature.  She points out the importance of psychoanalytic theories in relation to adolescent fiction in stating, “Adolescence is a time of cultivating group identity; socially abject figures cannot seem to manage either the material conditions and habits or the identifications necessary to sustain a position in a social group” (138).  This characterization is an important identification of the abject character.  While Coats does not directly study Rowling’s series, her contribution to the field of psychoanalytic criticism is a vital one, and can be aptly applied to Rowling’s series in future studies.

2. Dumbledore provides an explanation for Merope’s newfound abilities, “…once she was alone and free for the first time in her life, then, I am sure, she was able to give full rein to her abilities and to plot her escape from the desperate life she had led for eighteen years….‘Can you not think of any measure Merope could have taken to make Tom Riddle forget his Muggle companion, and fall in love with her instead?’”  Free from her father’s tyranny Merope is finally able to seek her own independence

Works Cited

Coats, Karen. Looking Glasses and Neverlands. Iowa: Iowa UP, 2004. Print.

Deavel, David and Catherine. "A Skewed Reflection: The Nature of Evil." Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. Chicago: Open Court, 2004. Print.

---. "Character, Choice and Harry Potter." Logos 5.4 (2002): 49-64. Print.

Lackey, Mercedes. "Introduction." Mapping the World of Harry Potter. Ed. Mercedes Lackey. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2005. 1-6. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997. Print.

---. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Print.

---. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000. Print.

---. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003. Print.

---. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005. Print.

Whited, Lana and M. Catherine Grimes. "What Would Harry Do." The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon. Columbia: Missouri UP, 2002. 182-210.



Brandy Isaacs

Volume 16, Issue 1 The Looking Glass,May/June 2012

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"I May Not Know Who I Am, But I Know Who I'm Not: Self-Awareness and Actualization in the Harry Potter Series
" © Brandy Isaacs, 2012
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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