Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Harry Potter" and the Intercourse of Marx

J.K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is among the most-read books written in recent memory. As with any cultural touchstone, its success relied heavily on timing, but was not a complete fluke. The novel is so widely enjoyed because it addresses issues common to human experience, despite variations in culture. These experiences necessarily include class, power, and labor, issues of particular concern to a Marxist critic.

Given the novel’s placement among the children’s literature genre, it is hardly surprising to find the most basic elements of the dominant capitalist ideology reinforced, or generously, the dominant ideology subverted in outlandish ways. For example, one of the characters, Ron Weasley, is a member of a large family that must stretch the income of the breadwinning father. The mundane issue of family budgeting seems ironic juxtaposed with the intrigues of the magical world. In this way, Rowling acknowledges a limited amount of class consciousness.

Writing that poor people are poor is hardly interesting, but Rowling goes a step further in the creation of "magic"- an additional metric that determines an individual's societal worth. Marx and Engels posit that “the difference between the individual as a person and what is accidental to him is not a conceptual difference but a historical fact” (19), and Harry Potter’s accidental magical acumen is a prime example of such an historic fact.

Magic exists in a similar capacity to physical appearance, albeit greatly exaggerated: In the world of Harry Potter, one’s magical aptitude is an essential trait. It is also suggested that magical aptitude is inherited, further likening it to the power structure created by bloodlines. As power is consolidated in aristocratic families, so too does stratification occur in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: There are overt references to “blood purity,” the degree to which one’s family has exclusively incorporated wizards. Since one of the novel’s most eminent young wizards, Hermione Granger, is a “Mudblood”- a wizard with no magical relatives- this concept seems to be a social construct entirely without merit.

Marx and Engels affirm that the social existence of labor is “as yet concealed: for instance a nobleman always remains a nobleman, a commoner always a commoner, apart from his other relationships, a quality inseparable from his individuality. “ For as long as labor has carried social connotations, there have likely been stories created that oppose this cultural rite. In this sense, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is not much different from the stories of Horatio Alger in the 19th Century. Alger’s stories, also widely popular in their era, similarly contradicted the typical trends of labor relations by suggesting that a commoner need not remain a commoner.

While Alger’s protagonists relied solely on hard work and determination, Harry Potter deviates a bit: He shows pluck and determination, to be sure, but is also benefited by the accidental magical potency he possesses. In fact, the titular hero is treated as a miracle for having his “rightful” status restored to him. Hagrid, one of Harry’s wizard mentors, explains the class distinction to Harry’s non-magical uncle as thus: “[Harry’s] name’s been down ever since he was born. He’s off ter the finest school of witchcraft and wizardry in the world. Seven years there and he won’t know himself. He’ll be with youngsters of his own sort, for a change.” This sort of disdain is usually portrayed negatively in children’s media, but here, it is spoken from one of the most sympathetic characters. While it is in bad taste to speak ill of those whose economic class is lower, there is no such etiquette governing those who don’t use magic. “I don’t know how the Muggles manage without magic,”Hagrid later sighs.

1 comment:

  1. Very nicely done--nice balance between the theory and the text, and I like the connection to Alger at the end. I do notice that this is more a general analysis of the 'world' of Harry Potter and doesn't rely on specific moments from the books to illustrate its point. Keep working on that.