Somewhere I broached this topic but I can’t find it on my blog so here I go.
Literary critics take a novelist’s work and assume that behind the words’ ordinary semantic load lies a sense conveyed beyond the literal meanings of the words, a metameaning. Once I attended a discussion by Aldous Huxley and a student asked him about the symbolism of the Indian boy in Brave New World. He replied that he just thought it was a good idea. We all laughed but a good many doctoral dissertations have been written on just why an author chose this trop and not another. What does that choice reflect?
So I thought I’d try my hand with Harry Potter. Mind you I’m only in Chapter 6, but I already sense a deep undercurrent only Fenichel could elucidate (Otto wrote a book of psychoanalysis in the Freudian tradition that tells us that every cigar really is just what it looks like, a penis. The whaky psychiatrist I worked with would rub his hands together in glee as he launched into a labyrinthine analysis of some patient’s delusions, crying, “Let’s wax Fenichelian.”). All I’m doing is a fly-over of themes and tropes in H.P. so far to see how they line up with contemporary concerns.
The first setting puts Harry in a family not his but his aunt’s. Having been schlepped around from relative to relative as a kid (not to mention complete strangers), I have fond memories of staying with various family members. But poor Harry is a foundling of sorts. His aunt doesn’t want him and hates his mother, even though she’s dead along with Harry’s father. So here we have the classic story of the orphan, housed with uncaring brutes and made to clean the chimney every day and bullied by the other, favored family members. The stuff of fairy tales.
But the family he stays with is not just a normal family but the epitome of disgusting social climbers, horrified at the idea of violating some social norm and ruining their status. Mr. Dursley, Uncle Vernon, operates as the crassest and more boorish of business types, while his wife, Harry’s aunt, is a grubby social climber passing on bits of gossip to her husband. Both despise anyone who is different, but they get their come-uppance when they are inundated with very strange people, Harry’s people, it turns out.
As do so many abused and neglected children, they dream of their real parents. In Harry’s case, they were indeed noble and famous….. and witches. You see, that magical dream world actually exists, full of amazing adventures and personalities. The epitome of good is here, Dumbledore, the headmaster at the school of wizardry, Hogwarts; and the epitome of evil is here, Voldemort, so bad people even fear to say his name. To emphasize how important Harry’s parents were, it was none other than Voldemort himself who killed them.
How is Harry to be saved? We know there is magic involved b/c the book opens with Dumbledore and Prof. McGonnagal meeting up outside the Dursley home (and evincing their disgust for the couple and their horrid child, Dudley) and waiting for Hagrid. Harry doesn’t know this b/c he is yet an infant being brought to his family, his aunt and uncle, after miraculously escaping what no one else could: death by Voldemort. In fact, his escape was so unheard of, so astounding, that many attribute Voldemort’s disappearance not only to his failure to kill Harry but to some mysterious force Harry possesses that not even his parents could bring to bear against Voldemort. So now we have a magical child, another trope.
Hagrid is the one who introduces Harry into this magical world. He shows up to pluck Harry out of his miserable existence with the Dursleys and take him to the world apart from the Muggles (us normal folk), Harry’s world, his people. That reminded me of the time I was living with my dad and his new wife, a woman quite similar to Harry’s Aunt Petunia. Absolutely miserable, I was. And one day my uncle and aunt and grandfather showed up and took me to Tijuana for a bullfight (where I saw John Wayne). I seldom saw my grandfather, so it was a real treat. I was 12.
Books and bookstores and magical writing appear to remind us what the good life consists of. So different from the Dursleys and Mr. Dursley’s harrumphing newspaper reading, the carping about “things these days” so many of us remember from our childhood.
Other than Voldemort, there is not much truly bad things in Harry’s life with the Dursleys, just a conforming meanness, utterly boring. At times when Harry is upset, strange things happen and these are the clues that Hagrid evokes to prove to Harry that he truly does have magical powers. That does put me in mind of those teachers who pointed out my good points (my family pointed out many more, some of which may not have existed). Also, Hagrid represents the Good Adult, the person outside the family circle, much like a teacher or a coach, who offers a young person a more objective view of himself, based on merit and accomplishment rather than the ascribed status of a Golden Child.
As the story wears on, we will have to see how Harry proves himself rather than relying on his inborn gifts and famous parents.
June 16 Now Harry has found the family he may have been looking for. It didn’t hit me until and friend and I were discussing H.P. and she pointed that out, this ready-made family with a roly-poly mom, a little sister, and 5 brothers to compete with and have fun with and who look after each other as well as their mom and sister. On top of that, all of them have magical powers. Enter Hermione Granger, upsetting the natural order by being as smart and aggressive as the males.
July 3, 2018 I found it here so I’m patching onto this blog entry:
I’ve read H.P. twice and am in Chapter 5 now reading it again. As I do so, several features of the narrative strike me. Literary critics break down novels and so on into parts that supposedly represent features of the world. This does not always work as when I attended a small college group talking with Aldous Huxley and some bright young man asked him what the Indian boy in Brave New World represented (maybe he asked that b/c we were in AZ). Huxley chuckled and said he just thought it would be fun.
However, to wax serious for this blog entry, I would point out how Moby Dick can be seen as the whale as penis and the ship as vagina (someone must have perceived that at some time), and other possible – what? analogies? The masts and sails of the ship, the seamen as semen, and so forth.
So I will launch my own interpretation of H.P and it will rise or fall based entirely on my own estimation of it.
Harry is clearly any ten year old boy. His aunt and uncle are clearly the bug-a-boo bougie family holding back the adventurous creative types.
May 6, 2018 As we finish up Harry’s shopping for Hogwarts just before he leaves from the 93/4 platform we see the fascinating stores kids like, not Kohls or Dillards or Steinmarts or Macys and all the other ladies’ stores that so bore kids when they get dragged off to them. Harry’s stores are like a gun show, mineral show, joke store, a model store combined. Everything to fascinate a kid.
July 7, 2018 Watching trailers from H.P. films I note the trio, Harry, Ron and Hermione, kind of classic: the hero, his sidekick and the girl. Later on, apparently, it is Ron and Hermione who hook up and have kids (one note says pointedly there is no evidence they got married). Interestingly, a Black South African played Hermione in some production and was very well received. Black actors do appear in the movies.
Voldemort looms large and seems to be a foreshadowing of Trump.
broken escalator up to an “ordinary” street