Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2681

Manipulation and redemption are two prominent themes in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Major characters present dual natures, reflecting both deceitful and empathetic traits. Some deceptions are benign and initiated to avoid confrontations or intrusiveness, such as Harry's pretence to be Neville Longbottom when he does not want...

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Manipulation and redemption are two prominent themes in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Major characters present dual natures, reflecting both deceitful and empathetic traits. Some deceptions are benign and initiated to avoid confrontations or intrusiveness, such as Harry's pretence to be Neville Longbottom when he does not want the Knight Bus' driver and conductor to recognize him. Other impostors have malignant intentions, wanting to mislead people in order to take advantage of them and sometimes harm them. Although Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is primarily plot driven, the characters are essential in propelling the plot forward through their selfish motivations and machinations of each other and reactions to circumstances, both contrived and naturally occurring. Rowling's characters are archetypes representing heroes, helpers, villains, and other essential roles. These archetypal characters represent extremes of good and evil, and the battle between those two forces is the basic theme of the Harry Potter saga.

Although some characters seem stereotypical and derivative, their predictability aids readers in understanding their purpose. Many characters are polar opposites, such as Harry and Peter Pettigrew, yet they paradoxically share some traits and, like some settings, experience opposing characteristics within themselves, presenting an amalgam of good and bad. Readers are familiar with many of the recurring characters—humans, ghosts, creatures, and enchanted objects—in the third Harry Potter novel. These characters are important to plot development in the third book as well as the plot of the overall saga. New characters are introduced to elaborate on information previously presented in the first two books, especially details concerning Harry's parents.

Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, are entering adolescence in the third Harry Potter novel. The magical trio is connected by their friendship and faith in each other's unique abilities. Their teamwork is essential for them to vanquish foes effectively. Although Ron and Hermione are pivotal to plot development, Harry is the hero of the saga. One of the stages experienced by archetypal heroes is learning to use a tool or a way of thinking to conquer a foe and/or help others. Harry achieves this by using his reasoning skills to interpret Black's and Pettigrew's narratives in the Shrieking Shack. Such unbiased thinking and acquisition of knowledge are crucial for Harry to proceed on his overall heroic quest. The combination of his innate goodness empowered by his enlightenment in his third adventure will help him ultimately to defeat wickedness.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is constantly reminded of his parents' tragic demise because he hears their traumatized voices whenever the Dementors are near him. Sacrifice is a major theme of this novel, as well as the entire saga, and Harry knows that he survived Voldemort's assault only because his mother sacrificed her life in exchange for his. Harry, as a result, feels obligated to be worthy of Lily's selfless action. Although he is anxious to enact vengeance on his parents' enemies, Harry learns to distinguish between reality and falsehoods in order to remain good himself and insure that justice is achieved. Ironically, Harry is an enigma who keeps secrets from others and even himself. He gradually recognizes truths about his abilities and admits to himself what he is capable of enduring and performing. The theme that goodness is often an unconscious response while malevolence is a deliberate action is always evident in the third Harry Potter novel. He discovers that the news is often an unreliable source of truth and accuracy and that sometimes the most obvious conclusions are incorrect.

Most characters surrounding Harry are unchanged. The Dursleys are as loathsome as ever. Snape is cruel, and McGonagall strict. Dumbledore exudes wisdom. Hermione is still an overachiever and even convinces Dumbledore and McGonagall to make an exception for her so that she can study more subjects than normal students. Ron is the same apathetic pupil who does not take his homework seriously and criticizes Hermione for studying too much. In order to be the center of attention, he embellishes his role in repulsing Black's attack in the dormitory and expresses his irritation at Hermione's cat for attacking his rat. He begins to exhibit maturation when he admires the voluptuous Madam Rosmerta at the Three Broomsticks and acts stoically despite his fractured leg, which symbolizes the splintering of truths that the children have believed. Similar to the first novel, Hermione participates in solving the adventure and helping Black and Buckbeak escape. Despite her overwhelming schedule, Hermione devotedly helps Hagrid with Buckbeak's defense and provides the brainpower that saves both Black and Buckbeak. The Weasley twins are still active pranksters and provide Harry with a means to escape Hogwarts and pursue the book's mystery. The constancy of these characters symbolizes the normal aspects of Harry's life and emphasizes how extraordinary he is in comparison.

In the first two Harry Potter books, Voldemort appeared through the bodies of Professor Quirrell and Tom Riddle before being defeated and retreating to recuperate and scheme how to destroy Harry. In contrast, Voldemort is absent in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and is represented only by his ineffectual crony Peter Pettigrew who is seemingly insignificant during most of the book when he is disguised as Scabbers but then has a great impact when he is forcibly exposed in the Shrieking Shack prior to escaping. Pettigrew's missing finger (self-amputated, which horrifyingly reveals his disregard for self and his diabolical nature) symbolizes his inability to make his point effectively. The distancing between Harry and Voldemort in this book intensifies tension because Harry alarmingly realizes how vast Voldemort's network of allies is and what they are willing to do to serve their master.

Although he is initially cast as a villain, the innocuous Sirius Black is the most significant adult wizard that Harry knows. As Harry's godfather and James Potter's best friend, Black is even more important to Harry than Dumbledore and Hagrid. Black's name suggests his importance and also conveys the sense that he has a dark side; Rowling might have derived his name from Scotland Yard's Black Museum featuring notorious criminal artifacts and documents. Astronomically, the name Sirius also refers to the dog star (part of the constellation, Canis Major, meaning the great dog), emphasizing his importance to Harry's destiny, his role as a guide, and his lofty stature to Harry. Able to transform into a large black dog, Black exhibits canine tendencies such as companionship, devotion, and loyalty. Falsely accused of and imprisoned for Pettigrew's crime in which Pettigrew betrayed the Potters and massacred thirteen people with one curse, Black seeks redemption for enduring malicious rumors about his character and alleged abuse of his position as the Potters' Secret Keeper. Only cognizant of Black from contrasting images in television footage and photographs from his parents' wedding pasted in his album, Harry eventually provides Black this spiritual deliverance. In this novel, Black symbolizes the themes of forgiveness and second chances and also represents how happiness often seems unobtainable for Harry. Black is a refugee, eluding his tormentors, much like Harry is running away from his unhappy home. Pettigrew emphasizes the theme of betrayal in the Harry Potter series, and his dual nature as a rat, whether in human or animal form, and cowardice contrast starkly with Black's boldness and ingenuity either as man or dog.
Remus Lupin is the most successful Defense Against the Dark Arts professor in the saga. Harry, Hermione, and Ron discover Lupin sleeping on the Hogwarts Express, which is unusual because teachers usually travel to Hogwarts by other means. The children observe Lupin's unconscious form and ponder if he will be a good teacher. Oblivious to the stares and comments, Lupin awakens to defend Harry from a Dementor that enters their train car. Lupin's intervention and concern impresses Harry and his friends and establishes a bond between them. Like Harry, Lupin arrives at Hogwarts lacking new clothing and materialistic items. He is drained of energy. Lupin stoically endures Draco's taunts and does not misuse his power to punish or belittle Draco in class. Instead, Lupin nurtures and encourages his pupils. He refuses to react to Snape's attacks on his character and teaching methods when he substitutes while Lupin is ill (even drinking a potion Snape prepared him much to Harry's dismay) and shocks Harry by saying Voldemort's name aloud. The names Remus and Lupin represent Professor Lupin's wolf-like tendencies, recalling the Roman child Remus suckled by wolves and the Latin term for those beasts. Lupin is also similar to the fictional character Uncle Remus who knows how to outsmart wily creatures the same way Lupin manages to outwit Grindylows and Kappas. Because Lupin knew Harry's father when they attended Hogwarts, he generously tells Harry information that no one else has divulged. Lupin devotes time outside class, almost like a father figure or uncle, to teach Harry how to summon his inner resources to protect himself from his fears which arise whenever the Dementors are near Harry.

Rubeus Hagrid, the Hogwarts' gamekeeper, is assigned the responsibility of teaching the Care for Magical Creatures class. As shown in the first two Harry Potter books, Hagrid's primary flaw is not recognizing the dangers posed by monstrous creatures. Excited and proud about his new position, Hagrid overestimates his students' abilities, even assigning a monster book that must be tamed. Hagrid's first class initiates a sub-plot that interweaves with Harry's pursuit of Black. When Draco insults the Hippogriff Buckbeak and is injured, Hagrid desperately tries to save Buckbeak's life and his job. He also speaks frankly to Harry and Ron, chastising them for being inconsiderate of Hermione's feelings.

Perhaps more ineffectual than Hagrid, the Divination Professor Sibyll Trelawney is less respected by the majority of her students. Trelawney's first name tells that she is a fortuneteller, like the mythical Sibyl of Cumae, although Trelawney is not a consistent prophet like her namesake. Trelawney unfairly selects favored students to dote on in class while skeptically dismisses others such as Hermione and Ron. Uncharacteristically, Hermione is so incensed at Trelawney's behavior that she quits taking the class. Harry resents Trelawney's constant over dramatic forecasts of his impending death. Ironically, when Trelawney later makes an accurate prediction while in a trance, she does not believe her own words, indicating that her character is as flimsy as the veils she drapes over lamps in her turret classroom. Trelawney relies on perfumes and mists to sweeten and conceal her uselessness.

Draco Malfoy, Harry's nemesis, is Hogwarts's most sinister student. Resembling a vampire because of his sharp, bloodless face and icy grey eyes, Draco is descended from powerful elite wizards. His first name suggests Draco, the ancient Athenian lawyer, whose harsh law code inspired the word Draconian. The surname Malfoy hints of malfeasance. Draco is a Slytherin, like his constant companions, Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle, their names suggesting people who are crabby and grotesque like a gargoyle. They help Malfoy commit his hateful deeds, and although Malfoy exhibits intelligence, albeit evilly applied, Crabbe and Goyle are dim-witted oafs with more brawn than brains that are easily duped and scared by Harry's floating head at the Shrieking Shack. At times Harry alarmingly thinks that Draco better understands his rage at Black than Ron and Hermione. Also bumbling but benign, Neville Longbottom, Harry's Gryffindor dormitory roommate, is like a jester because he is accident-prone and forgetful. His carelessness sometimes exposes his friends to risks such as when he loses his list of passwords, which Black uses to enter the Gryffindor house quarters. Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil are the only students that Professor Trelawney thinks have psychic promise, and they cannot understand why Harry does not take Trelawney's warnings seriously, goading him to be more careful. These students are significant as contrasts to Harry's, Ron's, and Hermione's strengths and weaknesses as they cope within the Hogwarts community.

Cornelius Fudge, the inept Minister of Magic, reassures Harry that he will not be stripped of his powers for using a magical spell on Aunt Marge, yet does not seem empathetic to Harry's feelings about the Dursleys. Often "fudging" or messing up his duties, Fudge seems more concerned about appeasing Hogwarts' governors and wizard bureaucrats than assuring that justice is secured. He refuses to believe Snape's accusations that Harry freed Black and Buckbeak. Other supporting characters include wizard store clerks, the Knight Bus driver Ernie Prang and conductor Stan Shunpike (who often does ignore roads) who are crucial for telling Harry information, albeit often distorted, about his past and the present. James and Lily Potter are significant characters in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because of their legacy. Aunt Marge, in direct contrast, needles Harry to behave uncharacteristically. A large, loud, mustached woman, Marjorie Dursley has no use for people and animals that she considers inferior. Colonel Fubster (hinting that he might have mobster tendencies) drowns bulldog puppies she deems worthless like Walden Macnair, the wizard executioner, destroys magical creatures considered hazardous.

Animals are important characters in the third book. Scabbers, the hand-me-down rodent, proves to be a rat in more ways than one. Scabbers's idle existence and mutilated body offer clues about his previous activities and future intentions. Hermione's cat Crookshanks, introduced in this book, is also unpleasant but demonstrates that he is more loyal than contrary. His actions cause readers to wonder whether Crookshanks is truly a feline or perhaps an Animagus, the ambiguous human-animals into which James Potter, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew transformed. The stag that James Potter becomes represents the grace and fleetness of mythical deer. Dogs are symbolic because both Black and Harry are underdogs. Harry fears the canine Grim, and Aunt Marge's favorite bulldog, Ripper, loathes Harry and represents the Dursleys' brutish nature. The Hippogriffs' name suggests a kindredness with the Gryffindors. Buckbeak is a helpful, obedient beast despite the Malfoys' accusations that he is dangerous. An amalgam of dutiful horse and cunning eagle (and lacking the centaurs' intellectual reasoning skills), Buckbeak, whose name is derived from the beasts that form him, refuses to tolerate insults and is able to take revenge against Draco that Harry is forbidden to pursue.

As in the previous novels, the Hogwarts's ghosts, particularly the poltergeist Peeves, annoy and assist Harry. They represent parallel images of the school's students and professors. The Boggarts are manifestations of peoples' worries and can be deflected with humor or happiness. In extreme cases, such as Harry's confrontations with the Dementors, a Patronus is created from joyfulness and love. This wispy protector is a screen between a victim and his or her tormentor. Although Harry's parents do not appear as ghosts in the stories, his thoughts of them are the basis of the Patronuses he successfully conjures to counter the Dementors. These guards, resembling the Grim Reaper, are tail, hooded figures that are eager to suck out peoples' souls (somewhat like the Mafia's kiss of death), and, as their name implies, seem demented, are demanding, and wreak havoc. They conflict with Harry's equilibrium and symbolize his childhood's horrors and deficiencies.

Enchanted and personified artifacts are also significant characters. The Pocket Sneakoscope alerts Harry to possible dangers, especially potentially harmful people lurking in disguise. The Marauder's Map, which plots where everybody is located at Hogwarts and its surroundings, offers Harry an escape from reality but also delivers him to face his worst fears in the Shrieking Shack. The Time-Turner, used correctly, can offer the user more time but not does restore their energy; Hermione was constantly exhausted by her extra hours. Figures in portraits and moving photographs either guide or mislead characters. The monster textbook requires stroking to tame it so that readers can use it. Harry's new Firebolt broomstick is a paradox because it promises to sweep to victory in Quidditch matches but also represents danger because of its anonymous donor. This limbo accentuates Harry's in-between status as an apprentice wizard who is old enough to go to Hogsmeade but still too young to practice magic autonomously. These fantastical elements and motifs balance the realistic aspects and themes in the third Harry Potter book, enhancing its appeal to readers.

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