In various interviews, J. K. Rowling has discussed her intention to furnish her child characters with increasingly complex abilities and mature emotions with each successive volume. Although various authors—for example, James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)—have experimented with changing style to depict a protagonist’s maturing consciousness, the Harry Potter series does so at extraordinary length and with considerable subtlety while alternating between comedy and adventure in a manner that prevents the author’s psychological explorations and moralizing from being intrusive.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins with its title character extremely isolated. He has no friends or sympathy from his foster parents, the Dursleys. He lives in a closet under the stairs, and the closest he comes to social life is playing with hand-me-down toys from his bullying cousin Dudley. Despite the fact that Harry is eleven, his psychological situation is typical of someone much younger, who has not yet fully bonded with parents and has not yet begun to have real companions. For Harry, growing up happens suddenly, as he is on the way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He acquires the first of a number of benign parental figures in the person of the giant Hagrid as well as acquaintance with the two children who are to become his closest friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. For the first time, he is in the care of adults worthy of trust, but also of some (notably the potions professor, Snape) who arouse suspicion, so that Harry and friends fall into another of the normal activities of childhood, learning to break suspect rules. He meets his chief obstacle in Rowling’s favorite chapter, “The Mirror of Erised,” in which he resists the temptation to withdraw from his friends and regress to being alone with his daydreams. His victory at the end of the book depends on aid he receives from the school’s headmaster, Dumbledore, as well as from Ron and Hermione.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Whereas the first book in the series demonstrates the importance of finding one’s group, the next three—each in a darker and more alarming way—show Harry the fallibility of groups despite the need for them. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, betrayed by his best friend’s sister, Ginny Weasley, he also finds less direct aid from Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore than in the previous ending (although they contribute to the victory). At the climax, Harry fights as a sword-wielding hero against a dragonlike basilisk to save an imprisoned maiden. This is, of course, the realization of a typical adolescent fantasy, which teaches courage and self-reliance.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, these virtues (even when augmented with teamwork) turn out to be insufficient for total victory in a society where legal processes have become somewhat confused and corrupt. Near the opening, Harry is a fleeing criminal, expecting to be occupying a cell in the wizard’s prison Azkaban for fighting back illegally against a viciously harassing aunt. His godfather, Sirius Black, despite being innocent of the mass murder for which he was convicted, has spent years in that prison, escaped, and now might lose his soul if caught.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling offers a special lesson in dealing with fears so intense that they lead toward depression, personified as Dementors. As one remedy for such fears, Professor Lupin (who has struggled with the terror that the beast within him will overpower him) teaches children to reimagine whatever they fear most into a ridiculous form. To counter Harry’s vulnerability to despair, Lupin trains him to employ the even more powerful spell of the “Patronus” (a word derived from the Latin word pater, which means father). It requires Harry to remember an intense joy, in his case connected to his parents. It takes the form of the animal into which his father used to transform. Since the book is about overcoming depression by reconnecting with the past, its plot hinges on the...
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