Suffer the Little Children: Why Harry Potter Must Be Punished
It turns out that Umbridge was doing the right thing. Not for Harry, of course – that poor kid had enough on his plate – but for the story.
Our blood boils when we think of the torments and indignities forced upon young heroes like Ender Wiggin, Sara Crewe, Matilda Wormwood, Pip and countless others…yet their stories are the ones to which we return. The most beloved child protagonists are also the ones who suffer the most, and Harry Potter is no exception. The truth is that he would never have achieved such status in the hearts and minds of readers had JK Rowling not tormented him with all the relish of a sadistic kitten.
4 steps to Healthier Abuse
1. Neglect & Psychological Abuse
Mr and Mrs Dursley didn’t just make Harry sleep in the cupboard under the stairs; they forced him to wear hand-me-down rags, gave him humiliating haircuts, and made sure he knew, always, that he was unwanted and unloved. Oh, and they also starved him. It’s all cloaked in JK Rowling’s bright, humorous prose, but Harry suffered neglect and psychological abuse on a truly Dickensian scale.
2. Physical Pain
Few wizards experienced pain like Harry Potter, and that’s saying something. Between Bludgers and Blast-Ended Screwts, Harry acquired a list of injuries as long as his deboned arm. He also served as the poster-boy for migraines, AND he found himself at the mercy of some truly terrifying abusers (who could forget Dolores Umbridge and her vicious quill, not to mention Voldemort himself). Even before he entered the wizarding world, the young Harry endured regular beatings from Dudley. This means that there was barely a time in Harry’s life when he wasn’t being punched, cursed, smashed, bitten, burned, cut or tortured.
3. Public Humiliation & Ridicule
Harry’s public humiliation began way back in the Philosopher’s Stone, when he first walked into Snape’s Potions class. By the time he got to Chamber of Secrets, Harry was being shunned by the entire school; two years later, in The Goblet of Fire, his unpopularity had spread to most of the wizarding world. Throughout the entire series, every looming Quidditch match made Harry a target for intimidation tactics…and let’s not forget Rita Skeeter, who gleefully and vindictively attacked Harry with yet another vicious quill.
There’s pain in loss. For Harry, it was the loss of his parents, loss of Sirius, loss of Dumbledore, loss of friends and eventually, loss of life.
Why are we drawn to these stories?
Stories like Harry Potter are filled with grief, suffering and pain, so why do we keep returning for punishment? Here’s what I think.
1. We Connect
We’ve all been children at some point. Most of us remember just how powerless that felt, so when we see a young protagonist suffering under the yoke of buffoons and bullies, we feel more than just sympathy; we feel empathy. Of course, the individual details of our life experiences might be different, but the fundamental issues remain the same. It’s only natural that we should want to stick around and see how they fare…
2. We’re Inspired
We aren’t always heroic. We aren’t always strong. But when we read about people who refuse to be crushed, we draw inspiration from their battles and their strength. Most of us need all the help we can get, and so we return to these stories for much-needed sustenance.
3. We’re Reassured
We want to believe that if we’re good and decent and honorable, a greater triumph is in store. This goes much deeper than inspiration. When we read about good children who withstand the storm and emerge victorious, it tells us what we very much want to believe; whatever happens to us, good will triumph over evil.
When you look at these factors, it’s easy to see why we keep returning to these stories: they mirror the narrative we have for ourselves. We’re the abused child forced to endure countless insults, who keeps putting one foot in front of the other, who fights to maintain integrity and dignity in the face of countless obstacles. And because we’re that child, these stories deliver what we so badly crave; a positive resolution, in which all our sacrifice and hardship is rewarded with the ultimate triumph – one which vindicates our lives, our choices, and all our hard work.
No wonder we’re hooked on them.
All of this makes it seem obscenely easy to craft a sympathetic hero – make him an underdog, pile on the abuse, and voila! You have your protagonist. However, there are some serious gotchas when it comes to this approach, ones that can damage and even break your story.
1. Hostility MUST BE PLAUSIBLE
Sympathetic heros are usually met with a high degree of hostility, but this doesn’t mean you can just create an army of haters. As with anything, it’s how you build this hostility that matters.
Take Severus Snape, for example. From the very beginning, Snape’s attitude towards Harry Potter was ridiculously hostile, and, in the wrong hands, would have been utterly implausible (seriously, what grown man would treat a child in such a manner?). J.K Rowling remedied this in two ways.
Firstly, she made sure that there was some merit in Snape’s complaints. Snape repeatedly accused Harry of arrogance, and given that Harry didn’t respect authority, didn’t take his work seriously, and didn’t do as he was told, one could argue that Snape had a point. Secondly – and this is the master stroke – Rowling revealed at the end of Book 1 that Snape had a ‘history’ with Harry’s father…and it wasn’t a good one. This provided a possible motive for Snape’s behaviour, and a reason this otherwise brilliant man was blind to all but Harry’s paternal traits.
Not all writers, unfortunately, share Rowling’s sensitivity…which brings me to the gotcha. Many writers go overboard, bombarding their hero with open hostility in a rather obvious attempt to garner audience sympathy/empathy. This is particularly obvious in the high-pressure environment of TV writing, and can be found in shows like Agent Carter and The Doctor Blake Mysteries (I’m aware that I’m switching to adult protagonists here, but I believe the principles still hold).
For example, Marvel’s Agent Carter was a show that clearly wanted to show the plight of working women in the 1940’s; but even taking historical context into account, Agent Carter’s co-workers were bizarrely hostile, treating her with such coordinated aggression that I suspected a massive conspiracy (spoiler alert: there wasn’t). This heavy-handed hostility smacked of writerly manipulation, and robbed the story of so much credibility that I stopped caring about Agent Carter altogether.
The Doctor Blake Mysteries on Australia’s ABC suffers from a similar problem. The titular protagonist is handsome, charming, respected, and rather gifted at solving murder mysteries. Yet he is met with such animosity, rudeness, and disrespect – even from his friends – that it becomes tiresome. Yes, we need to see our protagonist pushing on the face of adversity…but again, this adversity seems horribly contrived. Surely even Ballarat has one or two normal people? The lack of plausibility makes it almost impossible to buy the story, and therefore genuinely care about the hero.
2. Suffering MUST BE RELATIVE
The amount of suffering must be tonally appropriate; the higher the pressure, the greater the suffering. As tempting as it may be to submit Jane Austen’s Emma to the Cruciatus Curse, it wouldn’t serve the story well. Within the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling was sensitive to the age of her readers, and the stakes and the suffering increased with the maturity of her audience.
3. We must have PUBLIC VINDICATION
The hero’s vindication must be as public as their humiliation. This was one of my complaints about the film ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2’. In the book, Harry’s final victory took place in the crucible of the Great Hall. This is where Harry finally became a man, where all his knowledge and understanding finally bore fruit. Full satisfaction could only be had if everyone witnessed this victory, and shared in it. The film, in setting the final showdown outside the Great Hall and removing all witnesses (or at least obvious ones), robbed the story of this complete resolution. The Voldy-turning-to-ash effect was great, but it didn’t make up for that loss. Again, J.K. Rowling understood the importance of giving Harry his very public win, and it’s partly what made the end of her 7 book saga so satisfying.
When handled well, it seems that these poor, suffering, tormented child-heroes are like catnip for readers. Of course it’s not the suffering we’re after – it’s the triumph, and enormous emotional high that comes with it. However, there can be no great highs without great lows. To that end, the writer must be utterly ruthless in placing hard, heavy burdens upon the hero’s young shoulders.
It’s for the Greater Good.