Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

British novelist J. K. Rowling has penned a saga that is the story of a young orphan whose magical abilities and status as the sole survivor of Lord Voldemort’s attacks propel him on a journey of confrontation and self-discovery. Scholars have noted that Harry Potter’s character follows the pattern of the epic hero: born to relatively typical parents, orphaned young, then mentored and deserted by a succession of mentors or surrogates. Harry reluctantly accepts his great destiny and repeatedly distinguishes himself.

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Most of the series’ major themes begin early. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone introduces the quest for immortality driving Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort as well as the protective power of a mother’s love, personified in Lily Potter, Molly Weasley, and Narcissa Malfoy.

The theme of blood purity and race prejudice is raised during Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, when Draco Malfoy insults Hermione Granger with the racist word “Mudblood.” Book 2 also continues the concept of one person exercising overreaching control or outright possession of another, a theme introduced in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with Voldemort’s parasitic occupation of Quirrell. The theme continues in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with the petrifications and with Ginny Weasley’s brainwashing by Tom Riddle’s diary. Later, the theme resurfaces in Barty Crouch, Jr., who impersonates Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and in Harry’s sharing Voldemort’s thoughts in the last three books.

A major theme concerns destiny and choice. After Harry begs the Sorting Hat to avoid Slytherin, it places him in Gryffindor. Harry is told by Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Harry’s decision in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to spare the life of Peter Pettigrew is one such choice. Another is Voldemort’s assumption that the prophecy in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix concerns Harry, not Neville Longbottom.

One of Rowling’s great achievements is the characterization of Severus Snape, who remains unpredictable through seven books. This remarkable portrait of the complexity of human nature makes Snape one of recent fiction’s great characters.

The Harry Potter series has been a significant commercial and cultural phenomenon. For young readers, waiting in bookstores until midnight for the latest published volume is an integral part of the Harry Potter experience. The novels have been published in more than sixty languages and have had sales of hundreds of millions of dollars. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published in 2007, sold close to seven million copies in twenty-four hours. The popularity of the series led The New York Times to start a children’s best-sellers list.

Debates continue about whether Rowling’s work has inspired young people to read, and about whether they are doing so in record numbers since the series began in 1997. Finally, the Harry Potter films are on the all-time box-office-revenue list, with three of the films in the top ten. The books have been popular reading for adults as well, and they continue to draw the attention of literary scholars.

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