Genealogy and Social Class: Prejudice in Harry Potter
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While writing the bestseller Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone J.K. Rowling was struggling on welfare in a coffee shop. Like Rowling, the heros in her novel are social outcasts. Harry is an orphan; Ron comes from poverty; and Hermione comes from a non-wizard family. Harry grows up in the non-magical world, raised by non-magical folk. He is maltreated because he is different, and to an extent an uninvited part of the family. The real world exhibits prejudice due to race, religion, gender and social class on an everyday basis. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone is set in a fantasy world that is far from the ordinary world readers are used to, however; prejudice is a theme that is dealt with throughout the whole story, much like in real life. In her book, Rowling clearly illustrates how prejudice due to genealogy and social class is often unreasonable and always ignorant.
From the beginning of the story, readers are introduced to prejudice by the way Vernon Dursley behaves toward those he sees inferior to his self induced, inflated social class. When he encounters people dressed in cloaks readers see that “Mr.Dursley couldn’t bear people dressed in funny clothes” (8). In his mind they are “weirdos”, immature, and second-class citizens. Harry is raised in this way; the Dursleys hate anyone who is different from them, and Harry is very different. This is why he is forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs, wear Dudley’s scruffy hand-me-downs, stay in hiding when visitors come over, and be Dudley’s human punching bag.
Readers soon discover that the Dursley’s hatred for Harry comes from him having wizard blood. Uncle Vernon swore “when [they] took him in [they’d] put a stop to that rubbish. Swore [they’d] stamp it out of him”(43). The Dursley’s take pride in their “normality” and anything that doesn’t fit their mould must be altered, this is what they tried to do with Harry, but could not. Aunt Petunia shows her resentment for wizards when asked by Harry if she knew he was a wizard: “Knew! Of course we knew! How could you not be, my dratted sister being what she was? I was the only one who saw her for what she was – a freak!… And of course I knew you’d be just the same, just as strange, just as – as – abnormal” (44). Because of the Dursley’s perceived superiority to wizards, it took Harry eleven years to find out the truth about his parent’s death and his inherent gift of wizardry. They tried to mould him into a “normal” boy, one that fits their inflated values but it did not work. He is inferior in the Dursley’s eyes and this is why he was treated in such a cruel manner.
If prejudice from non-magical folk exists, so must prejudice from magical folk. Non-magical people are called “Muggles” by the wizard community. There are no negative implications to the word, unless there is intent. Draco Malfoy is a boy who comes from a pure wizard family who uses the term “Muggle” in a negative connotation; to him anyone who is not pure-blood is inferior. Readers are first confronted with prejudice in this form when Harry meets Malfoy in Diagon Alley and is asked about his family: “…they were our kind weren’t they?… I really don’t think they should let the other sort in do you? They are just not the same, they’ve never been brought up to know our ways” (60-61). Anyone who is not of wizard descent in Malfoy’s view is inferior and unworthy of not only entering Hogwarts but of interacting with wizards at all.
Readers soon see that there is class struggle even within wizard folk. Once Malfoy finds out Harry is friends with Ron he tells him: “You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there” (81). Even within the wizard world there are certain classes. Malfoy and Ron both come from ancient wizard families, but Malfoy believes he is superior to Ron because the Weasley’s “have more children than they can afford”(81). Malfoy’s self produced superiority wrongfully makes him think Harry who is famous in the wizard world will be friends with him, instead of the “inferior” Ronald Weasley.
The various houses as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have a class system in place as well. There are four houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Each have a class connotation attached to it; Gryffindors are brave and loyal; Hufflepuffs are truthful and good-natured; Ravenclaws are witty and highly intelligent; Slytherins are cunning and sneaky. Rowling creates social implications of being in each house. Hufflepuff seems to be the weakest of the houses and when Harry exclaims to Hagrid that he will probably be in Hufflepuff, Hagrid exclaims: “Better Hufflepuff than Slytherin… there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin”(61-62). Slytherins have a negative connotation about them, it seems that all of them have an inherent evilness about them. Slytherins see themselves as superior to all other houses yet when Harry is comforting Neville after an altercation with Malfoy he tells him: “You’re worth twelve of Malfoy…the Sorting Hat chose you for Gryffindor, didn’t it? And where’s Malfoy? In stinking Slytherin” (160). Harry makes Neville feel better by pointing out that he was chosen for Gryffindor, while Malfoy was chosen for Slytherin, the lowest house in Gryffindor’s minds. Rowling creates class struggle even in the houses of Hogwarts, you can clearly see the prejudice and disconnect that even brave Gryffindors exhibit.
Another prejudice in the wizarding world is illustrated when Neville, who comes from an ancient wizarding family, talks about his family experience. There seems to be disappointment, disapproval, worry, anxiety and great embarrassment in wizarding families who have a relative, like Neville, who seems to have no magical powers:
Well, my gran brought me up and she’s a witch… My Great Uncle Algie kept trying to catch me off my guard and force some magic out of me – he pushed me off the end of Blackpool pier once, I nearly drowned but nothing happened until I was eight. Great Uncle Algie came round for dinner, and he was hanging me out of an upstairs window by the ankles when my Great Auntie Enid offered him a meringue and he accidentally let go. But I bounced all the way down the garden and into the road… you should have seen their faces when I got [to Hogwarts] they thought I might not be magic enough to come. (93) Cruel ways of forcing the magic out of them are perfectly acceptable as long as they become a wizard or witch.
Rowling clearly shows how these prejudices are unreasonable and ignorant. Coming from a pure-blood wizarding family makes no difference and does not make you superior to someone who comes from a Muggle family. For example, Neville, who comes from a pure-blood family can barely stand on his feet. Meanwhile, Hermione who comes from a Muggle familyis the top of her class and can perform any spell assigned. By showing how wrong prejudice is in Harry’s fantasy world, Rowling draws a parallel to the readers world. One can see how wrong prejudice on the basis on race, religion, class status, age, or gender is. The characters in this book deal with the same type of discrimination and hatred that still exists in the reader’s everyday life. Rowling clearly illustrates how prejudice is often unreasonable and always ignorant.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. Print.