Ways to Read the Harry Potter Series, Part 3

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.

For example:

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.

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.