Identity Formed by Choices in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a Novel Series by J.K. Rowling
While the entire Harry Potter series works to establish the identity of the main character, the first installment in J.K. Rowling’s bestselling books, entitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, clearly presents a pattern which begins early on in the life of the protagonist, Harry Potter. Contrary to works which might emphasize the influence of coincidence or destiny, it is evident that Harry chooses what his identity will be, rather than letting fate and circumstance determine it for him. As Rowling is introducing readers to the young protagonist, she follows a pattern, especially throughout the first book of the series, in order to illustrate how Harry takes that act of shaping his identity into his own hands.
Upon beginning the novel, readers immediately discover that little eleven-year-old Harry Potter lives with his unsavory Aunt and Uncle Dursley. It is also made apparent that he is rather unloved by his caretakers and is forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs. He is abused and neglected, while his cousin is spoiled and fattened. Come his eleventh birthday, Harry learns he is a wizard and is taken to a whole new magical world with a friendly half-giant named Hagrid. Now he is faced with a choice. Will he choose to trust this new world and these new people, or will he approach this with apprehension and distrust because of the way he has been treated for his entire childhood?
In a psychological study on the behavior effects associated with child abuse by Carrie A. Moylan et al, it was found that “children exposed to domestic violence and/or child abuse are more likely to experience a wide range of adverse psychosocial and behavioral outcomes” (Moylan et al 53). Child abuse is an action that comes with many adverse consequences. It is generally known that many child abuse situations do not end well and cause long term issues for the victim such as trust issues, low self-esteem, and anger as well as much more severe issues like suicidal depression and anxiety. Abuse changes the behavior of the victim both internally and externally. After many trials of observing a wide variety of children, the study found that “youths…who had been direct victims of child abuse were more consistently at risk for the entire range or internalizing and externalizing behavior problems” (59).
With the previous information taken into consideration, it is easy to assume that Harry would face his new world with as much animosity as he was given in his old world. Readers would not blame Harry for approaching everything with caution and distrust since he has been shown nothing but cruelty for the majority of his childhood. However, Harry reacts in the opposite manner. He immediately receives everyone in the magical world with eagerness and gratitude. He willingly plunges into the quirky magical village and presents many questions about the new world he is apart of. The morning he leaves for Hogwarts, he is overcome with excitement: “Harry woke at five o’clock the next morning and was too excited and nervous to go back to sleep” (Rowling 90). When arriving at school, he never shows fear, but instead exudes excitement. He partakes of the welcoming feast without any hesitation or questioning of the motive behind the presentation of the extravagant meal. When Harry is faced with the choice of letting his past despair write his future or break out of that cycle to make a new life, he chooses happiness, refusing to let his circumstances define him.
After being introduced to the new magical world, Harry is presented with a piece of information that would seem to alter his view of himself. He learns that he alone survived an attack from the most dangerous and dark wizard of their time, Lord Voldemort. Not only did Harry survive the attack that killed his parents with only a scar to show at one year of age, but also he manages to make Voldemort disappear without a trace. Harry carries the nickname “The Boy Who Lived” from his infancy. He also is credited with being a hero for getting the evil wizard out of society. If one were to be told that they were responsible for all of these good acts after being brought into a society where everyone only knows them because of that, it would be easy to take advantage of these titles and develop a hero complex.
Hubris, according to Dictionary.com, is defined as “excessive pride or self-confidence” (hubris). This type of self-image can lead to thoughts that one is better then others or worthy of being called a hero. In an article in a psychiatry journal about the dangers of hubris, Dianne Trumball brings to the attention of the reader the idea that people with hubris as a defining personality trait “see themselves as embodying the standards of archetypal, action-oriented heroes who can change destiny” (Trumball 343). It would be rather easy for Harry to assume this personality trait if he just accepted what the other wizards and witches were telling him about who he was. It would be much simpler for him to accept that fact that he is a prominent, superior hero and proceed in this manner in his new life than it would be for him to start from the bottom and establish his identity.
However, Harry does not do this. Harry’s personality is the opposite of hubris. He does not initially believe that he was responsible for the heroic act of defeating Lord Voldemort because he sees himself as not capable of these actions. He seems himself in a much humbler light than the people of the magical society view him. This is best displayed when he and Hagrid are eating dinner after a long trip to Diagon Alley:
“Everyone thinks I’m special,” he said at last. “All those people in the Leaky Cauldron, Professor Quirrell, Mr. Ollivander…but I don’t know anything about magic at all. How can they expect great things? I’m famous and I can’t even remember what I’m famous for. I don’t know what happened when Vol-, sorry – I mean, the night my parents died.” (Rowling 86)
This bit of dialogue in the novel shows that Harry does not see confidence in himself, and he does not understand how the people of the magical world could see him as so important to society. This self-perception carries over to when Harry is finally brought to Hogwarts and surrounded by his peers. When he finally finds out what house he is to join within Hogwarts, he is simply happy to be a part of a “family,” and he does not notice any special treatment: “He was so relieved to have been chosen and not put into Slytherin, he hardly noticed that he was getting the loudest cheer yet. Percy the prefect got up and shook his hand vigorously, while the Weasley twins yelled, ‘We’ve got Potter! We’ve got Potter’” (121-122). On the contrary, Harry chooses to define himself as a hero through his actions in his new surroundings without just accepting the title. He actively seeks out to live up to the title of a hero by proving himself worthy.
Throughout his entire first year at Hogwarts, Harry partakes in actions that allow him to earn the title of a hero. He does this through being kind to others, becoming an active participant in school activities, and even breaking rules when it means a better outcome for others. His first chance to show his true heart is when a rich and highborn student named Draco Malfoy offends the first friend Harry has made, the half-giant caretaker Hagrid that came to take him away from his aunt and uncle: “‘I heard he’s a sort of savage – lives in a hut on the school grounds and every now and then he gets drunk, tries to do magic, and ends up setting fire to his bed.’ ‘I think he’s brilliant,’ said Harry coldly” (78). This show of defense for the first kind person Harry had met is only the beginning of the start of actions that lead him to earn his title. Harry mostly partakes in actions that are technically breaking school rules, but he knows they must be broken in order to help or protect someone else.
Very early on in the school year, Harry is presented with his first decision and opportunity to break the rules. In the middle of a broom-flying lesson, the bully Draco has stolen a possession from a much quieter boy, Neville Longbottom, and Harry tries to get it back for him. The students were told to stay grounded and not fly the brooms without the instructor but when Draco takes the other boy’s possession up into the air, Harry decides it is better to stand up for Neville and chase after Draco instead of standing back idly. He breaks the rule of staying grounded and is caught by a professor, but the other students rejoice his actions and revere him. In another instance, he and Ron venture into a bathroom to face a deadly troll in order to save their other friend, Hermione, when all students were told to go to their house common rooms and stay there for safety. Though points were taken away for not being where they were supposed to be, points were also given to Gryffindor house because Harry and Ron were able to defeat the troll and save another student from her death. Though it was essentially very dangerous and broke school rules, Harry became respected by his other students, especially Hermione and his head of house, Professor McGonagall. Arguably most importantly, Harry disobeys school rules by entering a restricted area in order to stop the sorcerer’s stone, a stone that provides immortality, from falling into the wrong hands. Though he did not expect to, Harry also defeated Voldemort for a second time by destroying the body his spirit had been using as a host. With the consequences of his actions taken into consideration, all punishment for breaking the rules is dissolved and Harry is rewarded with house points for potentially saving the wizarding world for a second time.
These are all examples of something called civil disobedience. In an article by R.P. Churchill in the Value Inquiry Book Series, civil disobedience is defined as “an attempt to bring about a change in the law or in the government policy through the violation of a law that is believed to be immoral, unconstitutional, or irreligious” (Churchill 66). While the school rules by themselves may not be considered immoral or unconstitutional, when placed into each specific situation, the rules become less than savory. Harry understands this and knows that he must choose to break the rules in order to do what is right. Even though he is technically doing something that is wrong, the good that comes from his actions overshadows the bad, and he gains respect and love from others. While the magical world already gave him these things, Harry earns them for himself by choosing to be a good person and stand up for what is right instead of just sitting in the glory of the given title of a hero.
Rowling demonstrates through this first novel in her magical series that a person’s identity is formed by the choices that they make. She does this by putting her own protagonist through a series of trials and giving him decisions to make. This pattern that she establishes in her writing is easy to find and can help the reader understand the point she is trying to make. Through her storytelling, Rowling conveys that a person’s identity is not determined by our circumstances or by fate, but by the choices that a person makes throughout their life. It is the reader’s choice what they do with the premise that Rowling has presented.
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