The Many Forms and Effects of Imprisonment as Presented by The Handmaid’s Tale and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Prison, in its most basic interpretation, is an institution or building made for individuals who broke the law and committed crime. It serves as a punishment or penalty by isolating them from the rest of the “free” world and confining them within the space that the structure provides. However, the term imprisonment can extend beyond simple physical walls, fences, or jail cells. The feeling of imprisonment can take and manifest in countless forms and its effects may also apply to individuals other than criminals. In fact, these are issues that some, if not most people face in a daily basis. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, both authors use their respective characters in order to illustrate these. In Rowling’s book, she uses Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew to show that people are and can be imprisoned in many ways, whereas Atwood uses the Handmaids particularly Offred, the Wives, the Commanders to do the exact same thing. On the other hand, the very distinct settings of “Hogwarts” and the “Republic of Gilead” along with the unique plots that each novel gives help depict the effects of imprisonment both to the mind and the body. As a result of the similar function of the characters and the differences between the settings and plots, J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood are able to prove that imprisonment takes place beyond buildings and its effects can affect a wide variety of people.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black portrays a man who is convicted of crimes he did not commit. As is explained in the novel, “…the magical community lives in fear of a massacre like that of twelve years ago, when Black murdered thirteen people with a single curse” (Rowling 34). Not only did this false accusation, along with many others, destroy Black’s reputation with the general populace, but also with his closest friends and godson, Harry. Although Sirius was eventually able to show the truth to the people that mattered most to him, he is still seen as a vicious criminal by everyone else. Here, a prison is clearly portrayed – one made out of and established by lies. It is precisely this that forces Black into hiding. In addition to Sirius, another character who experiences a kind of confinement within the text is Remus Lupin. Lupin tells Harry, “This time tomorrow, the owls will start arriving from parents – they will not want a werewolf teaching their children” (Rowling 309). This particular excerpt depicts Lupin as a man trapped by his flawed identity and the prejudice of society. Being a werewolf in the magical world is similar to being an outcast. So, when Lupin’s secret is leaked to the public, not even his standing as one of the best teachers to have ever taught in Hogwarts could save him. Lastly, Peter Pettigrew – the real culprit behind the crimes Sirius Black is convicted of – proves that a person can also be imprisoned by the truth. Despite not being placed in an actual prison unlike Black, Pettigrew was forced to assume the form of a rat for 12 years. He confined and degraded himself for the sake of escaping the authorities and saving his own life.

With regards to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, imprisonment is much more evident. After one of the ceremonies that Offred performs with her Commander and his Wife, she asks herself, “Which of us is it worse for, her [Wife] or me?” (Atwood 109). The significance of this quote is that it exhibits the fact that Offred, her Commander, and the Commander’s Wife all share a common lack of choice. They have no choice but to perform the ceremony as it is required by the law – the same law that turned their country into one big penitentiary. This denial of the right to choose is what creates a prison for these characters. There is no freedom as it is not an option of theirs. Additionally, as the story progresses, Offred’s relationship with her Commander eventually begins to complicate. As she feels the risks and dangers of such a situation, she states, “My presence here is illegal. It is forbidden for us [Handmaids] to be alone with Commanders. We are for breeding purposes…We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (Atwood 157). This quote emphasizes the same point by telling the audience that everyone in the republic has their own respective roles – hers being a simple means of reproduction. Their life and lifestyle revolve around these roles and so they are bound to it whether they would like to be or not. They are all imprisoned by the duties that have been placed upon each and every one of them. Just as the characters of Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were forced to do things that they did not want to, the same predicament falls upon those of Atwood’s in The Handmaid’s Tale.

While both novels may share similarities regarding their use of characters, it is undeniable that the settings with which each story takes place in cannot be any more different than the other. The events within Rowling’s novel all take place in the “Wizarding” world where magic is involved in everything. From flying broomsticks in the wizarding sport called “Quidditch” to magical and enchanted sweets, it is as if the setting can be a character of its own as it possesses a great number of positive traits and light-hearted features. However, it is also within this mainly cheerful world that the author J.K. Rowling inserts some dull and very contrasting parts which, in turn, create distinctions that help highlight what the prison-like places are from those that are not. For example, whenever Harry spoke about the Dursleys’ home, he would always do so with some special loathing. In a conversation between Harry and Sirius where Harry is asked if he would like to live with his godfather and move homes, Harry could not hold his excitement. He says, “Of course I want to leave the Dursleys! Have you got a house? When can I move in?” (Rowling 278). The desire to leave that Harry expresses here is the same desire that a prisoner would most likely show if asked whether he or she would like to be freed from prison. Here, an effect of imprisonment that is clearly being portrayed is impatience and the sense of an increased longing for liberation. Another example of deliberate distinction within the world is wherever the “dementors” are placed in particularly Azkaban. During another conversation, Lupin tells Harry exactly what dementors are. He says, “Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them” (Rowling 140). Azkaban is the maximum-security prison within the wizarding world and with the fact that it is where most dementors reside; the author is clearly providing a very strong statement about the effects that imprisonment causes some individuals. Imprisonment can result in despair and endless other negative emotions.

In comparison with Rowling’s wizarding world where certain places are made utterly distinct to deliberately stand out among the rest of the lively world, Atwood, on the other hand, turns her Republic of Gilead into the prison. She does not use contrasting places as the whole world that she created is the penitentiary itself. It deprives most, if not everyone in the novel of their basic rights and liberties. This is a world where people dress based on their roles, jobs, and function and where all recreational activities are either prohibited completely or hugely frowned upon. As they were on their way home from shopping for food, Offred and her partner at the time, Ofglen, meet foreigners visiting Gilead. Offred is overwhelmed by the sight. The novel writes, “Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed… Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom” (Atwood 32). This quote is significant as it not only reinforces the fact that even luxuries as minor as fashion are taken from the characters, but also it gives the audience an illustration of yet another effect that imprisonment can cause. Imprisonment can change a person’s perspective from the norm. This is especially true for prisoners who have been sentenced for very long years. A person who has remained in jail for even as long as a decade is guaranteed to have a very different view of the world once he finally gets out because during that period of time, that same person is unaware of the happenings outside of his cell. The conditions he will face outside compared to those of the inside will greatly differ and consequently put him in shock. This is precisely what occurred when Offred and Ofglen interacted with people outside the Republic of Gilead for the first time in quite a while. Also, within this much harsher prison called Gilead, violence is magnified and very present in it. Again, during Offred and Ofglen’s trip home from the market, they decide to pass by the wall. Offred describes the sight they see, “Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks…We’re supposed to look: that is what they are for, hanging on the Wall…they are meant to scare” (Atwood 36). As these bodies are used by authorities to instill fear upon the rest of the people of Gilead, one realizes that this is also another effect of imprisonment.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the dementors are responsible for filling people especially prisoners with negative emotions that drive most of them insane in Azkaban, whereas it is the brutal actions that the authorities of Gilead commit that does the exact same thing in The Handmaid’s Tale. While the dementors are only a small “evil” part of the vast wizarding world, the brutal actions within Gilead, however, is present everywhere in the republic. These contrasting settings are what help audiences perceive the many effects of imprisonment that both novels attempt to deliver and convey. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’s plot tells a journey of redemption and freedom. The story greatly revolves around Harry finding out the truth about his godfather Sirius Black and what really took place twelve years in the past when his parents were murdered. Throughout the most of the novel, even the truth about Harry’s relationship Black is concealed from him by others. This creates a type of prison that holds him back from reaching the right to the truth. Once he eventually figures this out, a surge of emotions well up inside him. Anger and rage comes out. This gives another statement towards what unjust imprisonment can cause to those who are innocent and undeserving of such a situation. However, the fact that he did eventually find out the honest answers to his questions, two major problems are solved. Sirius Black is able to clarify his name and reputation toward his loved one, Harry and Harry, in turn, is able to break out of the prison that was barricading him from the truth. Both situations lead to a positive outcome which clearly conveys that for some who are imprisoned, there is hope. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the plot revolves around the conditions within the prison which is the Republic of Gilead. The fear that the place instills upon its people leads them to question their every move. In turn, this gives a factual statement among actual prisons in the real world. Danger is very imminent in physical prisons. For some, if not most, actions and the people they choose to side with in these places can often lead to matters of life and death. So, prisoners often have to gamble and take caution with the choices they make just as how Offred does in Margaret Atwood’s novel. This is very evident in the quote, “Why am I frightened? I’ve crossed no boundaries, I’ve given no trust, takes no risk, all is safe. It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way out, salvation” (Atwood 69).

The similar use of characters combined with the very distinct settings and contrasting plots all contribute toward the delivery of the issues that come with imprisonment. They are able to give various examples and ways of imprisonment and show the novels’ readers the various consequences and effects that come with it. With their help, one realizes that imprisonment truly does extend beyond the walls of penitentiaries and that its victims can also be people who are innocent and not just criminals.

Emotional Development in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban is an important book in the series due to its transitional nature, both in the maturity of the overall plot of the series, and in Harry Potter’s emotional state. While both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were generally very lighthearted, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the point in which the story begins to mature. Similarly, the character of Harry Potter turns thirteen in Prisoner of Azkaban, officially entering adolescence. Harry and his friends begin to experience various emotional changes in this book, such as mental illnesses and overcoming phobias. This signifies a major step in the series’ progression from childhood to adulthood.

One of the major emotional changes that new teenagers often experience are mental illnesses such as depression. Depression is often described as “a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest…You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living” (“Depression (major depressive disorder)”). According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, approximately twenty percent of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and between twenty and thirty percent of adolescents have one major depressive episode before they reach adulthood (“Adolescent Mental Health in the United States”). If one considers the connections between adolescence and depression, it is no surprise that one of the first major signs of the Harry Potter series beginning to mature in this novel is the appearance of the Dementors. Dementors, as described by new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Professor Remus Lupin, are …among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. (Rowling 178) As the effects of the Dementors and the effects of depression are extremely similar, it is clear that the Dementors were written by Rowling as a metaphor for depression. Some people have depression so intense it starts to ruin their life, which is similar to those in Azkaban who become “trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought” (Rowling 188) due to the effects of the Dementors. The Dementors are merciless and attack anyone who gets in their way, just as depression can strike anyone without warning, even those undeserving of such a burden. Sirius Black, the titular Prisoner of Azkaban who has been surrounded by dementors for nearly half of his life even though he ultimately turns out to be innocent of his crimes, has the ability to turn into a black dog. It is no coincidence that the black dog is a literary motif commonly associated with suicide and depression (Quaile 38-39) as Sirius is the character most heavily associated with the dementors and their effects.

Harry, being old enough in this book to begin experiencing depression, has a very intense reaction to the Dementors, the wizarding equivalent. This results in Professor Lupin teaching Harry the Patronus Charm, a way to repel Dementors, just as a depressed teen would seek help from a trusted adult. The Patronus Charm is cast by “…concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory” (Rowling 237). Just as the Dementors represent depression, the Patronus Charm represents hope, faith, and love. Such positive thoughts and memories can often help negate the real life effects of depression.

Another sign of the characters growing and developing in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban can be found in the theme of overcoming fear. Many individuals gain certain fears during their childhood, such as heights, the dark, enclosed spaces, or animals/insects, that stay with them well into adolescence and even adulthood. Confronting and overcoming these fears is an overarching theme throughout the entirety of the Harry Potter series, but the clearest evidence of this theme is seen in Professor Lupin’s boggart lesson. Remus Lupin, being the excellent mentor that he is, wants to give those students who are entering adolescence the tools to start overcoming any childhood fears they might have, and decides to teach them how to defeat a boggart. Boggarts, as described by Hermione, are creatures who possess the ability to “take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most” (Rowling 133). Lupin then teaches the students the Riddikulus Charm, which transforms the boggart from their worst fears into a humorous parody of them. If one considers Prisoner of Azkaban to be Harry’s entrance into adolescence, than one could consider the Riddikulus Charm to be a metaphor for gaining maturity and realizing that a childhood fear is not actually as scary as originally believed, something many teenagers and young adults experience.

The final major theme in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that has to do with emotional development is dealing with stress. According to a study by Professor Krishan Lal, the vast majority of high school students consider academic stress such as tests, grades, homework, and expectations from parents and teachers, to be one of their greatest stressors (Lal 124). An example of this in the novel can be found in Hermione and her significant academic stress. Near the beginning of the novel, Hermione, being exceptionally smart for her age, is given a Time-Turner (a device that manipulates time) by Professor McGonagall, in order to take more classes than time would allow. Although Harry and Ron do not learn exactly how Hermione is accomplishing everything on her impossible schedule until the end of the book, they do observe firsthand how her extensive amount of work is affecting her mentally: Even so, he wasn’t showing the strain nearly as much as Hermione, whose immense workload finally seemed to be getting to her. Every night, without fail, Hermione was to be seen in a corner of the common room, several tables spread with books, Arithmancy charts, Rune dictionaries, diagrams of Muggles lifting heavy objects, and file upon file of extensive notes; she barely spoke to anybody, and snapped when she was interrupted. (Rowling 244) Hermione’s stress becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on, resulting in her arguing with Professor Trelawney and dropping Divination class out of frustration (Rowling 298-299) and the boggart taking the form of Professor McGonagall giving her a failing grade when she sees it (Rowling 319). At the end of the book, Hermione finally admits to herself that she is working too hard and goes back to a normal course load, returning the Time-Turner to McGonagall. The fact that Hermione is able to make this decision for herself shows that Hermione has grown, and learned how to better handle work and stress.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban marks the beginning of an important transitional period in the Harry Potter series that continues throughout the next few books. The main characters move away from the more childish conflicts from the first two books, and their problems begin to mature. Emotionally, Harry and his friends deal with more issues than they’ve ever had to before. Although these issues increase in intensity as the series continues, the lessons learned in this novel equip the characters with the tools to succeed in dealing with their emotions in the future.

Works Cited

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999. Print.

“Depression (Major Depressive Disorder).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 Feb. 2018,

Lal, Krishan. “Academic Stress Among Adolescents in Relation to Intelligence and Demographic Factors.” American International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, International Association of Scientific Innovation and Research, 2014,

Quaile, Sheilagh. “‘The Black Dog That Worries You at Home’: The Black Dog Motif in Modern English Folklore and Literary Culture.” The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History, Vol. 1 : Iss. 1 , Article 3, 2013,

Schwarz, Susan Wile. “Adolescent Mental Health in the United States.” NCCP | Child Poverty, June 2009,