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...
(The entire section is 2071 words.)