Laura Baker Shearer
Shearer holds a Ph.D. in American literature and works as an English professor and freelance writer. In this essay, Shearer examines character complexity in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and questions elite scholars who discount the text's literary worthiness.
As Rowling completes each installment in her "Harry Potter" series, and as these novels draw more and more readers the world over, substantial scholarship about the popular literature grows. For the most part, critics have become increasingly willing to take the texts seriously, developing numerous literary strategies to interpret and evaluate what were originally considered mere children's books. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix offers a similarly wide landscape for literary analysis, especially in the area of character development. By this fifth year in Harry Potter's education at Hogwarts, readers may feel they know the main characters on a deep level. Rowling does not fail, however, to thwart expectations regarding most of the main characters, leaving Harry's world much less secure than in past books in the series.
It is this unexpected complexity that adds rich texture to what may otherwise have been a predictable storyline. A few members of the academic elite still refuse to recognize genuine literary merit in the popular series—possibly because of its very popularity—and ignore the elements that "Harry Potter" books share with the novels of great literature. While their evaluations have some credibility, the wholesale dismissal of a large adult readership as juvenile and regressive raises red flags and calls for a closer inspection. The true genius of Rowling's latest "Harry Potter" adventure reveals itself in her relentless attention to character complexity, which indicates a level of writing worthy of literary merit. Intelligent adult readers may justify their love of these books in Rowling's mature and elaborate character development.
The vivid characters and compelling story-line in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix provide a magnetic, energetic, and engrossing literary experience that overcomes the few artistic flaws some critics address. Suspicious of the series' large readership, prominent critics such as Harold Bloom, William Safire, and A. S. Byatt believe many adult fans do not use an adequately critical eye when reading "Harry Potter" books. Contrary to these criticisms, the fifth "Harry Potter" novel presents itself as good literature not simply because numerous readers enjoy it but because it provides many avenues for literary inquiry. For instance, Kathleen McEvoy in Topic locates merit in the intricate "architectural" plot Rowling unravels within and across each book. John Leonard of the New York Times finds the literary spark in the veritable "cluster bombs" of creative curses, creatures, and characters with which the book overflows. One may extend literary analysis of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by appreciating the extensive and surprising character development within the story, which sees many of the main characters change in ways that create complexity not only in themselves but in plot development and reader expectations.
The series hero, Harry Potter, undergoes an extensive character transformation during his fifteenth year. In addition to the bravery and courage readers expect to find in their favorite boy wizard, they also encounter some less-than-appealing personality traits as he enters the heart of his adolescence. A certain moodiness associated with teenage years is to be expected, but Harry's erratic emotions may strain reader sympathy. Harry lashes out at his best friends, Ron and Hermione, and ultimately at his beloved mentor, Albus Dumbledore. His behavior causes readers, for the first time, to question the series' protagonist. Readers' skepticism is justified when, in the end, Harry ignores all warnings and endangers his closest friends. Leading toward the final battle at the Ministry of Magic, readers recognize the mistakes Harry makes as he disengages with his school community and withdraws into the world of his dark dreams.
Readers' sympathy is stretched the farthest when they discover Harry enjoying his ventures into Voldemort's mind: "The truth was that he was so intensely curious about what was hidden in that room full of dusty orbs that he was quite keen for the dreams to continue." Even though a certain level of curiosity seems normal, Harry quickly falls into the traps of vanity and self-importance as he chases after Voldemort's thoughts. Voldemort capitalizes on Harry's mistakes and, in the process, Harry causes permanent damage to the wizarding community. Harry had certainly made mistakes in his previous years at Hogwarts, but it is not until his fifth year that his own ego begins to affect his otherwise generally selfless decision-making. Presenting her hero in this more negative light allows Rowling to add depth and drama to her narrative. Harry's actions also become more difficult for readers to predict, adding...
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In the following excerpt, Byam argues that the Harry Potter series compares favorably with other classic British novels, and deserves attention and respect for its "adult" literary merits.
Often, great success brings controversy: such is the case for the Harry Potter series. After the first two novels in the series had been published, it was already very clear that their author, J. K. Rowling, had engaged a new generation of readers, especially among the elementary-school-age crowd. It was also apparent that adults were reading the books in huge numbers, and I became interested in this phenomenon—as well as eagerly anticipating each book in the series for my own part.
However, it is the cult status of the series among adults that has drawn much criticism and created controversy since that time. Many debates, inside of the academy and out, have focused on whether or not the Harry Potter books are "just" children's books, and whether they have literary merit. This controversy erupted most spectacularly in the New York Times's placing of the Harry Potter books on its "Best Seller List."
Because the huge, long-term success of the Harry Potter books placed the books in the series atop the list and left little room for books aimed strictly at adult readers, the New York Times decided to put them into a newly created children's best-seller list. Commenting on this decision in July of 2000, Charles McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, stated:
The sales and popularity of children's books can rival and, in the case of the Harry Potter books, even exceed those of adult books … With a separate children's list we can more fully represent what people are reading, and we can clear more room on the adult list for adult books.
Some regarded this as an attempt to quash adult interest in the series by sending out a message to readers that the Harry Potter books are really children's fiction and that adults were not supposed to read the series. Also, placement on the new children's list did a disservice to the series by not reflecting how many copies of each book sold each week compared to "adult" best-sellers.
At the very least, the New York Times's decision to create a separate children's bestseller list was a strategy to shift attention away from the Harry Potter series. At this point in time, 7 July 2000, "one or more of the three books in the J. K. Rowling Harry Potter series [had] commanded spots on the adult fiction bestseller list for 81 weeks to date." Removing the Harry Potter books from the adult bestseller list was a marketing decision designed to obscure the fact that the series was still outselling top adult fiction and that no other children's book approached it in sales at the time.
I side with those who believe that the Harry Potter series not only deserves the attention it is getting because of its imaginative qualities and compelling storyline, but also because of its "adult" literary merits. I will argue here that the Harry Potter series fits well into "the great tradition" of British novels that is still taught in college classrooms, beginning with Samuel Richardson, continued by Jane Austen, and culminating in the efforts of Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens.
Perhaps it is the sense of "fun" and the comedic element that we encounter—especially in books one to four of the series—that makes some people think that the books are not for adults, and that they do not fit into the "great tradition" of the novel. In many cases, the problems and even tragedies that Harry encounters are resolved or diminished and not left for readers to ponder, as in many other classic British novels. While this pattern of resolution is less typical of "adult" classics, it should not be used as a reason for knocking the Harry Potter series out of the "adult" fiction category. Critics may have judged the series by the first two or three books, prematurely placing it in the children's literature category. The New York Times's decision came in July 2000, before Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban could be properly digested, and three years before the publication of the most "adult" book—in terms of content—to date, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Another reason some critics think the Harry Potter books are not for adult readers is simply because the hero is not grown up. True, the character of Harry is an adolescent—but so are Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Charles Dickens's Pip and Esther Summerson when we first meet them, to name a few. As of yet, the series has not followed Harry to adulthood, but this should not be a "requirement" for adult fiction either. Furthermore, with the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the...
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