Family Isn’t Everything: How Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Challenges Our Preconceptions About Family Ties

March 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

J.K. Rowling explores the expression “blood is thicker than water” in her novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The expression leads many to believe that its message is that family is stronger than the relationships that we build in our daily lives. However, when the full expression, “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb” is considered, the true meaning is revealed to be the opposite. J.K. Rowling executes a similar switch with her readers during Philosopher’s stone when she leads the reader to the realization that one’s biological family is often the source of more of their problems than their self-created family, which can heal and support an individual. She shows that an external support network can greatly benefit someone and encourages the reader to reconsider their own definition of “family”. Biological family has a negative impact on the protagonists in Philosopher’s Stone, impeding them from reaching their potential, preventing the development of independence, and being the root of some deeper psychological issues as well. On the contrary, external family figures are all supportive and nurturing to the characters, aiding them to overcome their neuroses and become well functioning members of the community.

Rowling writes the characters this way to impress that blood relation is not everything, and it is more often beneficial to have an external network of people for support. Harry has only the Dursleys as his living biological family, and because his parents are dead, and Harry has no other existing family, Vernon, Petunia, and Dudley are his only support system. In this role, the Dursleys only neglect and abuse Harry, barely providing him with necessities and forcing him to go without food or locking him in his cupboard when they determine he has misbehaved, or even when something goes wrong around him. Harry has “baggy old clothes and broken glasses” (27), which shows that the Dursleys haven’t provided him with adequate clothing over the years, and when the Brazilian boa constrictor escapes (26), Vernon is barely able to vocalize the punishment of “Go-cupboard-stay-no meals” (26) due to his immense anger at something that he can’t actually prove Harry did. In living with the Dursleys, Harry has been fully disconnected from both the wizarding and muggle worlds for his entire life. Dudley facilitates his disconnect from the muggle world, bullying Harry outright and making sure he is unable to make friends or develop healthy relationships outside the home, while Vernon and Petunia are the cause of the disconnect from the wizarding world. They purposely hide the existence of the community from Harry until they are physically unable to continue doing so; that is, when Hagrid arrives and tells Harry the truth against their will. The isolation from both worlds has prevented Harry from being able to establish any sense of self or purpose, a universal quest in life. The Dursleys raised Harry using abuse coupled with a lack of any sort of praise and constant belittlement of him. This was done mostly by emphasizing that Harry is alone in the world. Harry’s Hogwarts letter arrives (29), and causes Vernon to sneer at his nephew and ask him: “Who’d be writing to you?” (30). He asks this question with malice, giving the sense that it is said aloud purely to insult Harry. All this negative treatment that Harry has experienced at the hands of his only family gives him the predisposition to dislike them and to distance himself from them later, which is what lead him to developing as a person.

Despite this, Harry has developed several negative traits as a result of his treatment by the Dursleys. He is always quick to his own defense due to having needed to be for so long, and it interferes with his social interactions. When Hagrid is accusing the Dursleys of keeping the truth from Harry (41), he asks them if Harry “knows nothing about anything”. Even though Hagrid is referring to Hogwarts and what Harry’s parents were capable of, Harry automatically assumes Hagrid intended this as a way of saying he is unintelligent, which he thinks is “going a bit far” (41) because “He had been to school after all, and his marks weren’t bad” (41). Harry immediately jumps to his own defense, when Hagrid’s comment was a way of saying that Harry had been kept in the dark, rather than an insult to him. Harry continues to ask Hagrid questions about the wizarding world, but it dawns on him that he knows virtually nothing. Harry’s lack of knowledge is most clear to him during his interaction with Draco Malfoy in Madam Malkin’s shop. Malfoy begins speaking about brooms and Quidditch, which immediately prompts Harry to feel unintelligent, even though he knows he is not. The lack of knowledge not only about the extremely common topic of Quidditch, but about Hogwarts and its houses causes Harry to scramble to tell Malfoy the only relevant piece of information he knows, that is, that Hagrid is the gamekeeper of Hogwarts (60). He is immediately met with the dismaying reality that Malfoy already knows this and is compelled to divulge everything to Hagrid as soon as the conversation is over so that Hagrid can validate him.

Though Harry is the focus of the story, he is not the only character who has experienced negative consequences due to their relationship with family. Ron Weasley, though a member of a loving family, has developed an inferiority complex and a similar defensiveness to that which Harry displays due to his home life. When Ron and Harry first meet on the way to Hogwarts, where the two discuss family and Ron mentions how he will never meet the expectations that he perceives have been placed upon him by his family. He states that he is expected to do everything his brothers did, but to less acclaim as he would not be the first (75). This complex is shown multiple times throughout the novel, most notably after a charms class where Ron makes fun of Hermione (127). Here, Ron insults Hermione because she upstaged him in class, causing her to run away crying. Ron is bitter with Hermione due to her doing better than him like his brothers have, and lashes out unintentionally, showed by the fact that “he looked a bit uncomfortable” (127) when Harry mentions that Hermione was crying.

Journeying to Hogwarts puts the characters in a position where family has little to no influence on them, especially in Harry’s case. They are able to gain independence at school, taking care of their own schedules and obligations. Each one then develops a different method of handling their daily lives. Hermione plans and organizes precisely, Ron puts in minimal effort to succeed, and Harry strikes a balance that allows him to further explore other aspects of his life and his personality- namely Quidditch and relationships with others. Harry’s friends and professors all step into the roles of various family members, and he finds himself becoming his own person and feeling more at home with their guidance. When in need of help or information, Harry is quick to turn to Ron, Hermione, and Hagrid, who each provide him with the aid he needs, if unintentionally. While away from the Dursleys, Harry allows himself to show vulnerability and individual personality traits which had no opportunity to come through when he was being abused. When he and Ron are sitting on the Hogwarts express, Harry’s first instinct is to be generous and share his sweets with Ron, even though he initially refuses. Despite the fact that Harry “had never had anything to share before or, indeed, anyone to share it with,” (76) he doesn’t think twice about offering, showing for the first time a compassion that he couldn’t show in the past when he was oppressed by the Dursleys. At Hogwarts, Harry shows many symptoms of anxiety, which he seems to have developed due to his treatment by his family. While being sorted, Harry irrationally worries that they have made a mistake designating him as a wizard, in spite of the many affirmations he has received that he is one. He fears that putting on the sorting hat will result in it saying that he doesn’t belong and should be sent home (90). When he is called to speak with Professor McGonagall, she refers to “Wood” and Harry’s mind jumps to the thought that she is going to beat him, wondering for a moment if Wood was “a cane she was going to use on him” (112). Wood turns out to be a student, and though Harry begins to see he is being rewarded in this instance, it still takes him a fair amount of time to calm down, even after it becomes clear that he will not be punished.

Though family is typically thought of to be an eternal comfort for an individual, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone it is the root of psychological and social problems with the characters, causing them to suppress themselves, develop mental illness and even completely impeding them from reaching any kind of potential. Through abuse and extensive expectations, the biological families of the protagonists in Philosopher’s Stone inflict damage on their relatives that is only remedied when the characters distance themselves from their families. Conversely, Rowling presents the characters acting as surrogate family as largely benefitting the protagonists’ development as individuals to challenge what family is viewed as in society, and to provide a more lenient, more accurate definition.

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