A Discovery of Witches

by Deborah Harkness

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Written by Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches is a historical fantasy novel which was published in 2011. It tells the story of Diana Bishop, a professor of history of science at Yale University, who is researching the history of alchemy. After she finds an old, long forgotten manuscript, she unlocks its spell and must accept the gift for magic she has been trying to deny.


Perhaps the most significant theme in the novel is that of prejudice. The main groups in the novel are witches, vampires, demons, and humans. Each of these groups judges one another prejudicially:

Demons were perpetual teenagers who couldn't be trusted.

. . .

Vampires were well below cats and at least one step below mutts.

Identity and Acceptance

Another theme is that of self-identity and accepting yourself for who you are. Diana has been trying to deny her heritage as she believes that that is the reason why her mother and father were killed. At the beginning of the novel, Diana does not want to be a witch. Not only does she want to feel she has achieved her goals without the use of witchcraft, she also considers that isn’t safe to be a creature “in a world dominated by humans”.


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Fear of Difference

The negative relationships among the vampires, daemons, and witches seem to point to the idea that any kind of human creatures are going to find themselves at odds with those who are different from them. Each group harbors a basic distrust of the others, and they try to manipulate one another in order to gain power and knowledge. It isn't completely clear whether this distrust is somehow inherent or innate to these groups or if it is merely learned, but it seems to reflect the kinds of conflicts that real-world groups might have, be they religious, racial, ethnic, and so on.

The Transcendence of Love

The book also seems to convey the idea that the heart wants what it wants. Witches and vampires fall in love, despite the rules, and Diana's Aunt Sarah raises Diana with Sarah's partner, Emily. No one chooses with whom they fall in love, and the book seems to recognize and praise the validity of all loving and egalitarian relationships, be they vampire/witch, lesbian, straight, or otherwise.

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