• Gregory Loselle

Harry Potter and conspicuously thoughtful consumption

Last night, engaging in my Covid isolation activity of lying awake in bed and listening to Stephen Fry reading (by now) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the penny dropped--or one of them did, at least. I came to myself at the mention of a problem faced by Harry, Hermione and Ron, as they've taken to the road and are 'camping out' in a tent, on the run from Voldemort: they are struggling to find food.

The last book in the series is much--perhaps a full third?--longer than any previous volume, and contains many passages that could have been cut (the entire first chapter, I suggest), with necessary information folded into exposition. Even so, the exposition itself is often clunky, with sentences of explanatory fact stuck awkwardly into action scenes (Bill and Fleur Weasley's wedding, a few chapters back, was studded with them), and so it was no surprise to hear a long, plodding discussion among Ron, Hermione and Harry about how wizards simply cannot summon food out of thin air--something surely already known to all present, even as they rehearse it for our benefit. (The fact that we've seen Ron's mother Molly do what appears to be just that, in the previous book, is not accounted for.) But if this was necessary to stress the privations of their plight, another revision of previous information stood out as much more significant to me:

This was their [Ron and Hermione's] first encounter with the fact that a full stomach meant good spirits; an empty one, bickering and gloom. Harry was least surprised by this, because he had suffered periods of near starvation at the Dursleys’.

This is the first time it's said explicitly--though it has surely been hinted at, earlier--that Harry was not just underfed by the Dursleys, as they were wont to disregard his needs, but actually starved. Yes, the evidence had been there: he was described by Rowling as notably thin, particularly in the first book (where others also comment on his frail appearance), and as much was hinted at by how ill-fitting his clothing (cast-offs from the stouter Dudley) was; he was also previously shown being fed a meal consisting of only a few sections of a grapefruit--as a sort of whipping-boy, one supposes, because Dudley is on a diet; and he hoards food (including a whole birthday cake) for future consumption, under the floorboards of his room in the Dursley home--a behavior no child raised with adequate food would normally engage in (though in this instance it's also part of plan to avoid social contact his family at meal times). But even though Oliver Twist is waving from the wings, we are unlikely to register this as actual starvation, if only because Harry thrives in spite of it, and we are aware that, book by book, he is provided with increasingly greater resources which, at least partially, compensate. But if I have noted elsewhere that Harry has suffered these privations with little complaint, which had me balancing whether the Dursleys were actually evil or simply dismissive to the point of unintentional cruelty, it is here made clear that he was deliberately abused.

So far, this had been a function of the environment in which Harry was raised. The Dursleys themselves are characterized too broadly to allow us to consider very much whether they actually intend to abuse Harry--they are disdainful of him, and morbidly averse to what they see as the abnormality of his background, but they are also stupidly petty, simple comic props with little interior life, and we understand that they are meant to be stingy as a device to dramatize Harry's ascent to freedom and autonomy. So we accept them as they are without a second thought about the plight of their souls. In fact, in only one instance (when Petunia Dursley admits, under duress, that she knows what a dementor is--a fact that goes tantalizingly unexamined) they are rigidly mechanical in their mean-spiritedness, without any hint of self-awareness.

Harry, for his part, is also oddly unreactive to--oddly uncritical of--the situation. (For a consideration of Harry's strange acceptance of the status quo at the start of the books, see this entry, on that subject, considered as a flaw in his characterization. One of the problems of the early books, which are much less rich in nuance and feeling than their successors, is that Harry is comparatively unresponsive to what we might otherwise feel is genuine abuse.) He doesn't make known to us his sufferings in any demonstrative way--and we need, as readers, to understand him through his actions and thoughts, given the mechanism of first person limited narration: in order to comprehend his miseries fully, we needed him to experience them for us--and, at least at first, he simply doesn't object or dwell on his miseries in any great detail. That is why this bit of narrative information, that Harry "had suffered periods of near starvation," is so unusual: for the first time, he admits, through the voice of Rowling's narrative persona, that he understands the quality of his experience for what it was.

Part of this is attributable to the growth Harry undergoes in the course of the

series. In earlier entries, I've speculated that Rowling's abilities grew in accordance with Harry's developing psyche: in the first books, she writes of an 11-year-old from the standpoint of his undeveloped preadolescent perspective, but enriches that perspective, book by book after the second volume, as Harry matures and his emotional world takes on greater nuance. By the end of the series, he is a young adult, after all; it would be strange indeed if, by now, he didn't see his upbringing for what it was. On the other hand, as Rowling's skills increase and she continues along Harry's story, there is simply more to report--and each successive book grows longer, swelled by deepening and sharpening perception of her character's inner life. There is simply more of Harry--and of other characters--to describe. This culminates in her cumulative portrayals of Snape and Dumbledore, her most ambiguous and richest creations.

The critical contrast we're presented with by the end of the series--of a simply observed, simple character who grows into a richly-observed, complex one--is not inevitable. We could have had a richer Harry at the start--or a simpler one at the end--had the author not allowed herself the inconsistency that comes with a broadening range of skills. Rowling, it needs to be acknowledged, has also been on a personal, and authentically epic, journey all this time as well.

And it is Harry, speaking for the author (as it were) who demonstrates this: if before he was only hungry, now he is not only aware that it was starvation, but he is also self-aware of the effect of his experiences on his ability to survive privation and to put it into perspective. He knows that starvation has an emotional dimension, a dimension he could not, as a child drawn with less insight, articulate. Harry is not only hungry in the bleak present, but he starves; he not only starves but suffers; and he suffers with an awareness of the affects his suffering has given to him.

©2019 by Gregory Loselle

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