Harry Potter: Reading Without Nostalgia

  • Author: J.K. Rowling
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury [UK], Scholastic [US]
  • Published Date: 1997 [UK], 1998 [US]

Potential spoilers Ahead (all quotations are from the Kindle-in-Motion version illustrated by Jim Kay unless otherwise noted)

I just read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone again. I read the Jim Kay illustrated edition in physical format and finished it at the end of December. Then in February, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jim Dale. These were probably my sixth or seventh times reading this book. So not a lot compared to some but still a fair few. And I kind of fell out of love.

I didn’t grow up reading Harry Potter in the sense that it defined my childhood. I read them. I thought they were good. I thought the world was magical. And with each reread I would look on them with an intense nostalgia filter on. For some reason, that didn’t happen with these last two rereads. There were just a lot of things I had failed to notice before.

The Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s if you will) is a classic Cinderella story that’s mixed a bit with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We have an orphaned child who must live with his abusive relatives and his ugly cousin. He is forced to do practically all of the chores and receives not a lick of thanks. Then, a great opportunity presents itself: a chance to get away. But his relatives deny him; that is until his fairy godmother comes crashing in to the tune of a giant man named Hagrid. Here, we enter into Oz territory, what with each chapter basically being a series of very loosely connected adventures with their own dangers and pitfalls. But of course, the magic runs out at midnight (in a sense), and the child must return to the real world. Of course, the magical world is still there, so he can return.

I want to talk about the good first. The idea of Hogwarts is fantastic. It’s wonderful. It’s magical. As Uncle Vernon says, “GIVE ME THAT LETTER!” And the concept of a magic school in general helps to show that in this world, wizards/witches must train and aren’t just automatically great sorcerers. It’s a subtle bit of worldbuilding that works out great.

There’s also the idea of getting away from a nasty situation, creating a better one, and remaining a good person. I think this is incredibly admirable. Harry certainly doesn’t like living with the Dursleys; however, it’s clear that he is good at heart and doesn’t truly wish ill-will toward them either.

Basically, I like a lot of the ideas in the book. I like the idea of Harry. The idea of Ron. The idea of Hermione, etc. But in actual practice, things start to fall apart, and that’s where the problems creep in.

The first problem is how anyone bad or antagonistic is described as being physically unattractive. It’s such a common thing in other places that Jen Campbell has made an entire video about the subject, even touching upon Harry Potter. So here are the character descriptions:

  • Vernon Dursley: “A big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache”
  • Petunia Dursley: “thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck”
  • Dudley Dursley: “looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets”

Just so you know we aren’t supposed to be on their side. In the sequels, Petunia is described as having a horse face. Dudley can’t fit into a chair. Vernon’s sister Marge looks like Vernon, complete with her own mustache. Furthermore are the descriptions of most of the Slytherins, including Snape. One of the first things we’re told about the House is how it produces evil witches and wizards. “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one.” Gotta drive home that point.

And of course there’s Voldemort who looks hideous on the back of Quirrell’s head. “Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It as chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.” And Quirrell isn’t entirely safe from the bad-description = bad person either. Granted, it’s more subtle at least with him. He stutters a lot, and his turban smells really bad. Cool.

Update Feb. 16, 2018: And whether intentional or not, there is a certain amount of fat-shaming in the series. Characters who are described as larger are more likely to be antagonists of a sort.

As seen just above, Dudley; Vernon; and Margaret Dursley are all heavyset. Millicent Bulstrode in Chamber of Secrets is described thus: “[She was] a Slytherin girl who reminded Harry of a picture he’d seen in Holidays with Hags. She was large and square and her heavy jaw jutted aggressively” (COS, 191).

Dolores Umbridge, one of the most hated characters of all time, is first introduced to us through this description: “[Harry] thought she looked just like a large, pale toad. She was rather squat with a broad, flabby face, as little neck as Uncle Vernon, and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round, and slightly bulging. Even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue” (OOTP, 146).

Quite the description! We can tell from the get-go that Dolores Umbridge is an evil person based solely on that description. Her actions later on help to solidify this.

Do I think that Rowling herself is of the opinion that if you aren’t good-looking, you’re a bad person? Or that if you’re larger, you’re either an antagonistic person or (in the case of Hagrid, Grawp, and even Neville to an extent) not all that bright? No, I don’t. I don’t think she believes that at all. What I do think, however, is that she’s fallen into the unfortunate shorthand that ugly inside = ugly outside.

What about Hermione, though? She’s not described in a flattering way: buckteeth, bushy hair. That’s right. She shrinks her teeth and tames her hair in the fourth book, however, revealing that she was beautiful all along. Finally, the good inside = good outside.

These less-than-flattering characters’ actions show that they are antagonistic. Neutral or good characters are described better or simply in passing.

Interestingly enough, Rowling also tends to describe good/neutral characters’ hair color a lot: the Weasleys red hair in general, Harry’s jet black hair, Hermione’s “bushy brown hair” (SS, 105), McGonagall’s black hair, “sandy-haired” Seamus Finnegan (SS, 120), Snape’s greasy black hair, Hagrid’s “bushy black hair” (SS, 14), Dumbledore’s silver hair/beard, and that’s only in the first book. That being said, we do also learn about the Dursleys’ hair color, but they end up being more neutral in the end, albeit entirely antagonistic at first. This hair description = good person might not be fool proof of course. It’s something that I suspect might fall apart when given more scrutiny. But it is fun to think about.

Update Feb. 21, 2018: The point could be brought up about how certain characters, mainly Lockhart and Tom Riddle, don’t look ugly or disfigured but aren’t good characters. However, I would argue that the basic principle is still the same. Firstly, Lockhart is such an extreme narcissist when it comes to his looks that his beauty is treated almost like a bad thing. Secondly, the underlying with Lockhart (and Riddle) seems to be that overly beautiful people can be bad, too. Essentially, it’s still basing moral goodness on looks. With Tom Riddle, he goes through a reverse Beast transformation in that the “ugliness” inside appears as the “ugliness” outside when he completely becomes Lord Voldemort.

I also want to add here that I am not saying all of the good characters are depicted as the epitome of beauty. However, they are at most described as maybe a little threadbare, like Lupin. Sirius is described as looking matted and sunken face and unpleasant when we think he’s the villain. Arthur Weasley has a receding hairline. Molly Weasley gets described as plump occasionally. But plump is not the same thing as being likened to a large toad with no neck who also looks like your uncle.


Another problem I have is that Hogwarts in the first book feels very much like a set piece. It doesn’t feel real. We don’t actually get to see much of the learning. We’re in a few classes for minutes and in random areas of the castle for the rest of the time. I’m also a bit confused on why the Sorting Hat was apparently some big secret. I don’t remember Dumbledore telling the students not to spoil the fun for future first years. But even Ron Weasley, who has a lot of older brothers, doesn’t know what the sorting ceremony entails.

But enough of that tangent. Hogwarts and even the characters feel like cardboard cutouts. The characters are just so one-dimensional. Harry’s defining trait is that he’s a slightly above average, sarcastic student. But even after reading the book twice in a row (basically), I still find Harry himself to be bland, forgettable, and boring. Hermione is a know-it-all with big hair and a big heart that’s in the right place. And then Ron has a big family and freckles. Oh and he’s good at chess.

Snape is greasy. Dumbledore has a long beard and likes to spout random words. McGonagall is stern. And Flitwick squeaks. There’s just not a lot of substance to the majority of these characters in my eyes.

And finally (but quickly), the pacing itself is a bit odd. The book goes entire chapters of random exploring and adventuring before it gets to the big-bad. The effect that it seemed to be going for was a culmination of everything from before to be used in the end. But it all felt so forced and unnatural. (At least it’s not like in the second book where they just happen to be working with Mandrakes, which just happen to be the main ingredient of the cure for petrification.)

I get it. It’s a children’s book. But children’s books shouldn’t be devoid of good characters and world. A children’s book especially should avoid making evil synonymous with ugly. The themes that are focused on are brilliantly shown in the Houses themselves: loyalty, bravery, cunning, and wisdom. I don’t think the book is bad. It’s good, but it could be a lot better while still remaining a children’s book. Because quite frankly, a book written for a younger audience shouldn’t have to have the disclaimer, It’s good for a children’s book. It should be a good book period. The Sorcerer’s Stone has the potential. I personally don’t think it lived up to it.

Yes, I’ve fallen out of love. I still greatly enjoy the series. I have four whole sets of the books plus other incomplete ones. It’s wonderful escapism. But it’s something I find I need to appreciate from afar. The first book at least. Get too close, and the cracks in the magic start to show.

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