Ways to Read the Harry Potter Series… Part 1

This post originally appeared in an area of the Chamber of Secrets forum that is not open to the public. My answers to the questionnaire tell you more about me as a reader of Harry Potter than anything else. :)

Feel free to use the comments thread to post your own responses to the questionnaire (or to my answers).

1. What do you think of the Harry filter?

Well, when I read the books, I had no experience of communities of fan readers with strong points of view. I just read the books based upon my experience of literature. Early in my reading of PS/SS I realized that the book was written mostly from a limited 3rd person POV (an omniscient opener, occasional forays into omniscience during Quidditch matches, but generally limited to what Harry sees, experiences, and understands – and no access ever to any consciousness other than Harry’s).

With limited point of view, the reading technique I’m most familiar with is to take into consideration the extent to which the narrative is informed by the limits of what the character knows and understands, as well as the character’s biases. It’s true for reading Henry James and – since JKR uses similar POV techniques – I just assumed as I was reading that it should be true of the HP novels as well.

But at the same time, Harry’s factual perceptions are pretty reliable. He is a rational being. He is not Benjy in The Sound and the Fury or Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. LOL. Consequently, we can generally believe what he sees. What we cannot always take at face value, imo, are his opinions about what he sees… and those opinions do at times get embedded in the narrator’s voice (eg. in PS/SS, the narrator’s voice tells us that Snape was on his way to steal the Stone – a point which we later learn is objectively counter-factual).

I personally would think any objectively counter-factual information coming through the narrator’s voice to be an indicator that JKR at least occasionally uses what fan readers have called a “Harry filter” – particularly when she is setting up a red herring.

2. Would you say that ‘reading between the lines’ goes too far sometimes?

Oh definitely. I’ve always believed that reading should be grounded in the text, not in a theoretical position – whether that theoretical position is a critical ideology (such as Marxism or Feminism or Deconstructionism) or whether it is a fan-driven ideology (such as, proving that my ship is better than your ship; or proving that Dumbledore is a polyjuiced Snape; or proving that Snape is TEHEVOL or TEHGUD). The text, imo, should never be skewed in order to arrive at a pre-defined outcome. At the same time, theory can offer interesting insights into texts.

At any rate, I don’t usually theorize before I have sufficient information on which to base theories. Quite honestly, if I had been involved in fandom while the books were coming out, I probably would have avoided CoS rather than engage in mass theorizing.

As for symbolism (a point that [another poster] brings up) – I don’t have an issue with symbolism per se, except when it is stretched and strained. For example, if I’m reading a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins or William Shakespeare or Percy Shelley, there will be an interplay between the rhyme, the rhythm, the patterns of assonance, consonance, and alliteration, the poem’s structure, and (yes) the symbolism – just as surely as there will be protons, electrons, and neutrons in an atom. If the poet of a traditional sonnet mentions one of the seasons, for example, the seasons do typically have traditional symbolic meanings. That’s not a stretch. That’s cultural tradition.

I personally have never really looked much for symbolism in JKR’s work… probably because I’m not as focused on symbolism when I read fiction (which has very different origins from poetry). When I read fiction, I’m more focused on narratological issues. Do I think it’s possible that JKR was being symbolically strategic with the mention of Asphodel and Wormwood in “The Potions Master”? Sure, I think it’s possible, particularly given the depth of her own reading. I just don’t put a lot of emphasis on it, and it doesn’t have any serious impact on my reading. I do, however, find such discussions entertaining.

But as for “reading between the lines,” I remember when I was teaching poetry at UCLA, I would occasionally have students who provided really outlandish readings – i.e., readings that had no basis at all in the actual words of the text. My response would always be: “Okay. Just show me HOW you got that from the text.” (Students don’t always realize that there actually are techniques for addressing texts. It’s not an interpretive free-for-all… unless we’re doing Stanley Fish, that is LOL).

3. To what extent should logical deductions based on one fact or scene feed into interpretations of other scenes?

Wow. I never thought about that question. Let’s just say that I take it for granted as a potentially legitimate reading technique – so long as the single fact or scene is not over-interpreted to the extent that it becomes a sort of monomania consuming the entire text.

In other words, so long as the reader doesn’t become a Captain Ahab and allow that single fact or scene to become a white whale, then making those sorts of connections between scenes can be useful.

4. Do you read the series from the point of view of a character other than Harry?

No. But I did have a bit of fun in one of the contests writing a scene from Dumbledore’s limited POV.

5. To what extent is it desirable to scrutinise certain actions/story lines that might be purely plot-driven (e.g. was Peter’s betrayal only possible because JKR needed for this to happen or does in-depth analysis of his motives provide a satisfactory explanation for the events)? And in that line, is criticism of JKR in regard to plot weaknesses and inconsistencies acceptable to you?

I find such readings entertaining. I do not typically get strongly/emotionally invested in such readings, but I certainly consider them within bounds of critical interpretation of the text. I would guess, actually, that some people are currently writing dissertations or conference papers dealing with those very sorts of issues in the HP books. :)

6. Do you always approach the characters and events as if they were real or do you allow the constructed nature of the narrative to affect your interpretation?

I primarily consider text to be constructed. At the same time, JKR has a talent for allowing her characters to live and breathe. So I find some characters’ actions repugnant; some characters’ actions noble; most characters’ actions varying between (or lying between) the two poles – like the actions of 99.99999999% of all human beings. LOL. I just don’t usually take characters’ actions personally. There are occasional exceptions, of course. Two or three incidents do push my buttons. But overall, I’m more an analytical reader than an emotional one.

The Chamber of Secrets Is Closing (sad fandom news…)

The Chamber of Secrets forum – site of some of the most famous debates in the HP fandom – will be closing sometime around July. The closing of CoS will mark the end of an era for the fandom.

I have been posting on CoS since December 24, 2009… and have actually spent a lot more time (and done a lot more writing) over there than I have done on my own blog. To tell the truth, probably some of my best writing is currently over there.

I am about to rectify that. I’m going to work on salvaging my favorite posts by migrating them over here.

Expecto Patronum! is official back from (long) holiday… I hope you enjoy.