This post is a composite of two separate posts that originally appeared in an area of the Chamber of Secrets forum that is not open to the public. My answers to the questionnaire (once again!) 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).
7. When do you think does critical character analysis cross the line and becomes character bashing/racist/sexist/other?
I don’t see a lot of racism and sexism in HP character analysis. (And I steer completely clear of the rancorous Severus vs. Lily debate because I love both characters). I do suppose, though, that analysis dismissing the possibility that Molly might be able to duel effectively because she’s a mother and housewife could be construed as verging on sexism – if not crossing the line into it.
As for bashing, well…
Let’s say, hypothetically, that we’re analyzing a character who does some things that are mean spirited and some things that help in the fight against Voldemort. And let’s say, hypothetically, that someone does not like the character because of the mean spirited things the character does.
Disliking the character is not bashing. Indicating that the mean spirited things the character does are distasteful is not bashing.
However, let’s say that dislike for the character leads to an analysis that automatically pre-defines all of the character’s actions and motives as “bad” – even actions and motives that would be considered “good” if the person’s favorite characters did them. I would consider that to be bashing.
Let me use James as an example. I dislike James. That is not bashing. I am appalled by his actions in SWM. That is not bashing.
However, if I defined James’s actions on the night Voldemort comes to Godric’s Hollow in terms of James’s actions in SWM… and then decided based upon SWM that nothing James ever does could possibly be construed in a positive light – and that therefore his brave and selfless actions on the night of his death must by definition be analyzed negatively – that would be bashing.
It’s sort of the character analysis equivalent of the ad hominen attack. Basically, this is a form of analysis that imposes a pre-defined analytical outcome based almost exclusively on dislike of the character and that then manipulates the text in order to arrive at that pre-defined outcome.
I can think of other characters besides James who could be subject to this sort of analysis. ;)
8. To what extent do you allow your opinions of the characters to be swayed by the opinions of other characters?
Very little, in the end.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not influenced while I’m reading by characters’ opinions. Reacting to and testing characters’ opinions against other evidence is part of the reading experience imo. Basically, I always leave open the option to revise a character opinion based on additional information that I’m shown.
Until I read SWM, I didn’t put any stock at all in Snape’s opinions of Marauders. But for some reason, before I read TPT, I put pretty close to absolute trust in what Sirius had said about Snape. My final opinions were influenced more by what I was shown than by what I was told.
I do think that Harry’s a bit of a special case because he’s the Hero of a monomyth. It is inherent to the structure of the monomyth that the Hero have great wisdom at the end of the tale. So I do put a lot of stock in Harry’s final opinions… but that’s due to the mythic structure of the tale.
And speaking of the monomyth, etc. – I made some comments earlier about symbolism. Basically, I will engage in symbolism if the symbolism is obvious… or is suggested by JKR. But I’m not big on just combing through the text trying to force symbolic readings on it.
In Pottermore Rowling revealed her reasoning behind giving the Dursleys the number “4” in their address. She says that she sees “4” as a “hard” and “unforgiving” number, hence it winds up in the Dursley street address.
But that leaves open the question of why she creates 4 Houses at Hogwarts and 4 founders of those Houses. Is she using the same logic in creating 4 Houses as she used in assigning 4 to the Dursley address? Or is she using an entirely different logic (for example, the number of elements)? In other words, is it merely coincidental that there are also 4 Houses or does it have some kind of significance in relation to her opinion of the number 4?
Since JKR herself brings up the issue of number 4, I think this type of exploration is fairly natural and organic, not forced. But I can guarantee that if she hadn’t brought it up in the first place, I certainly would not be picking through the text looking for groups of 4 and applying some sort of symbolic approach to them! (actually, I’m not picking through the text even now!)
Speaking of the 4 Elements… JKR has stated explicitly that each House is associated with one of the Elements:
Gryffindor – Fire
Hufflepuff – Earth
Ravenclaw – Air
Slytherin – Water
So, since the Elements are pretty obviously important to JKR’s conception of the Houses, I think it’s fairly natural to explore the meanings of each of the elements and see how each House’s element applies to the House.
So yeah, I do think that there are reasonable applications of symbolism in the text.