A (Harry Potter) Narrative Manifesto

I interrupt this re-read to bring you this…

Should anything one character says about another be taken as objectively true canon unless otherwise contradicted? For example, should we automatically believe Sirius’ statement that Severus Snape knew more hexes and curses when he arrived at Hogwarts than most older students despite having no corroborating evidence to support Sirius’ statement, and despite the fact that the (objective) memories we see in the Pensieve really show no hint of Severus having an interest in the Dark Arts before arriving at Hogwarts?

This is a question that does come up in discussion of the Harry Potter series, and in my opinion, it gets into the whole issue of narrative reliability and unreliability. So here is my take on this question (from an actual post I wrote on the Chamber of Secrets Forum):

Words put into a character’s mouth by an author are frequently not intended to be taken literally, whether contradicted or not – particularly when the author is as talented as Rowling and as capable of drawing 3-dimensional characters who have their own agendas and biases. When those biases consist of full-blown personal enmities dating back 25 years, the red flag should go off, indicating that nothing this person says about his/her enemy should ever be taken at face value. This is not merely true about the Harry Potter series but about good fiction in general.

If Rowling were using 3rd person omniscient narrator to describe Snape, and the 3rd person omniscient narrator stated in a god-like voice that young Severus came to school armed with hexes and curses more advanced than students much older, then yes we should take it at face value. If Dumbledore had made that statement, then we should believe it unless contradicted. But if Sirius or Remus made that statement, then we should be highly skeptical unless confirmed by a more objective source. And the same goes for anything Severus says about the Marauders.

Rowling does occasionally use 3rd person omniscient with Snape (Spinner’s End and The Dark Lord Ascending come to mind). But curiously, her omniscient paints a decidedly unreliable portrait – and I mean this in a good way. It’s a very clever use of omniscient narration. We see Snape acting as a Death Eater, but since we have no access to his thoughts, we have no real way of knowing that he’s working from the inside to bring Voldemort down. We can only rely on our gut feelings about Snape – and those gut feelings, of course, lead different readers in two completely different directions at this point in the narration.

Yes, Rowling is putting words in characters’ mouths, but that does not mean that their words are the equivalent of omniscient narration. Nearly every scene we have at Hogwarts – of Snape and everyone else – is being processed through Harry’s subjective consciousness and filtered through his perspectives and biases. This means that when Harry sees Snape look at him in a “shrewd and calculating” way, it means that Harry perceives the look to be shrewd and calculating. If Harry sees “hatred and revulsion” etched across the harsh lines of Snape’s face, it means that Harry perceives the look to be one of “hatred and revulsion.” An omniscient narrator might very well describe the scene very differently – or might not. We don’t know because we’re only seeing the scene through Harry’s eyes.

Basically, what I’m saying is that a strong reading must take narrative technique into account. It’s not enough, IMO, to say that “Sirius said it and it’s not contradicted so it must be true.” We also have to take into account who Sirius is, what his perceptions and experiences are, how he regards the subject of his comment, and whether he is capable of delivering an objective statement.

I’m not arguing that what Sirius says is untrue. I’m saying that it’s unconfirmed and therefore – because of Sirius’ history with Severus – it’s unreliable unless confirmed, not reliable unless contradicted.

Okay, so to repeat – unreliable unless confirmed for the old enemies; reliable unless contradicted for characters like Dumbledore. Also, unreliable does not mean untrue. It means not to be taken at face value. I thought readers might like to know my critical assumptions in reading the text.

Okay… we’ll be back to the Harry Potter re-read in a day or two.

One response to “A (Harry Potter) Narrative Manifesto

  1. Pingback: Is Severus Snape a Sociopath? « Expecto Patronum

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