J. K. Rowling

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J. K. Rowling Long Fiction Analysis

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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...

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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 wordpater, 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 manipulation of time itself via Hermione’s magic amulet.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

In the next volume, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the children are no longer as sheltered as they once were from the intricacies and machinations of the commercial world around them. The book starts with the massively merchandised sporting event the World Quidditch Cup. Although still at school, Fred and George, Ron’s older brothers, keep attempting to collect a large wager on the tournament so that they can finance a business. Competition among three schools, conducted with repeated reference to prize money and betting, also involves publicity and a spying reporter, Rita Skeeter, who lies and twists facts to help her newspaper sell copies. This systematic distortion is worse than the occasional injustices exposed by the previous book.

The first books in the Harry Potter series thus present typical stages of human development that most modern people undergo: in the first book, the rise from isolation to companionship; in the second, the transition from dependence to independence; in the third, movement from defiance of law to learning how to deal with its inequities while preserving one’s integrity; and in the fourth, the transition from innocence to understanding of the machinations of the modern, commercial world. The remaining books present still more complex visions of human development.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry, terrorized by nightmares that merge with the external world, must comprehend the intricate interrelationship of subjective and objective. He has reached an advanced developmental stage, recognizing that each person views the world through a unique subjective perspective, so people are not all experiencing precisely the same world but rather subtly different ones, shaped and colored by their viewpoints. Appropriate to this insight is appreciation of diversity. The Order of the Phoenix has a broad membership: a thief and members of the magical police, a magicless “squib” and professors of magic, a bureaucrat and a werewolf. This volume shows that cooperation among the members of this diverse group is essential if they are to avoid domination by the reactionary “purebloods”—the enemies of diversity. Both the sorting hat and Hermione preach this moral. The brightest of the group, she had already some signs of this stage in the previous volume, but now she campaigns for an alliance of all the school’s houses, and her crusade for oppressed house elves intensifies. Agreeing with her, Dumbledore condemns the arrogance that results in the tyranny of one magical race over the others. Although not every character achieves this tolerant perspective, the last two books present even less common understandings.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

At the core of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is what Hermione calls Golpalott’s Third Law: To counteract a mixture of poisons, an antidote must be more than a sum of antidotes to each poison; the cure must have something to catalyze the individual ingredients into a whole. This lesson in systems dynamics belongs to advanced studies that most of the students do not grasp at first—Harry among them—but it is the metaphor running throughout much of the book. As in the battle at the climax of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, members of that Order have been in individual duels with Voldemort’s supporters—that is, have been separate antidotes. To counteract the figurative mixture of poisons with which Voldemort has been corrupting society, something more than such an accumulation is needed. Dumbledore’s death becomes a catalyst, transforming the situation and (in the next book) inspiring his followers to equal self-sacrifice.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is the application of the complex teachings of the preceding book, as a way to make the wizarding community hale and whole again. To achieve this unification, each of the main characters must undergo some deathlike loss of self, so that all can better meld with the community. Snape, Lupin, Dobby, and Fred Weasley are among those giving their lives. Hermione hides her parents and disappears from their memory, thus eradicating one foundation for her identity. In a baptism-like plunge, Ron, in dark, cold waters, purges his previous selfishness, a transformation completed only when he overcomes all the nagging fears of being second best that have limited him. Harry has a near-death experience in which he talks to Dumbledore (or imagines himself doing so) at King’s Cross. He comes back from this with the authority and charisma of a self-sacrificing leader (group catalyst), ready to grant magnanimous forgiveness to any repentant enemy and thus to end the divisions of the society.

This final volume is an inconclusive conclusion built around the idea of the Elder Wand (which, at one point, Rowling considered mentioning in the book’s title). Dumbledore admits to having wasted much of his life in dreams about possessing it, and Harry must also resist that temptation. It guarantees its rightful master victory in any duel, but this does not keep its possessors from losing—a fact that Voldemort ignores arrogantly, imagining himself somehow pure, immortal, and all-powerful: a personification of stasis. Rowling uses her paradox of the vulnerability of the seemingly unconquerable to show that no power, however magical, can control life, which is fluid, unpredictable, and constantly changing. This is a feature not only of this book’s plot but also of the series—a vast river of words, flowing from one surprise to another and interconnected to a sea of publicity.

As she was writing the series, Rowling engaged with her readers through the Internet, giving clues to each future volume; fans of the books tried to guess what would happen next or wrote their own additional sections of the story. Thereby, they participated in Harry’s education. The fans’ interest intensified near the time of the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it did not stop after the book appeared. In interviews, Rowling continued to add to that book’s epilogue, providing the further fates of characters as well as additional background information—for example, she revealed Dumbledore’s homosexuality. Rowling thus significantly modified the closure that had long been assumed to be a characteristic of the novel genre.


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