The ramblings of a freelance writer, novelist and avid reader.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Harry Potter Friday – Book 7: Deconstructing Mother Love

I started this Harry Potter book club idea on my blog two years ago for multi-faceted reasons. First, it was a good excuse to re-read a series that has some staying power in a genre I choose to write in. Second, it was a good excuse to build a YA platform for myself (I’m selfish this way but then hey, it’s my blog). Third, the book to movie conundrum is one that hits close to my own heart; I love books and my husband loves movies but we both make an effort to enjoy the other medium so we have something to do together. Fourth, originally I thought the writing got better while the plot went down hill in the series and I wanted to see if on re-reading my opinion stayed the same. Finally, I noticed people have severely strong opinions about this series – from writing fan songs to book burning and everything in between; I just wanted to figure out why people have these strong ties. Selfishly again, if I can somehow harness these reasons I could be a world famous author…or really, I’d settle for a published author.

I think trying to resolve all of these reasons may be why it’s taken me so long to write about this last book. What amazes me the most about the re-read is just how my opinions have changed. I may keep harping on how concise JK Rowling is; but that’s only because I’m completely surprised that my opinions of her writing prowess are so different then on the first read. Seriously! This is exciting stuff for me, and probably only me.

On that note, I’m ready to have some serious discussions about HP 7. Yes, really! Let’s do this thing. Many of you have showed some interest in a feminine read of HP; more precisely the lack of a good, strong female character. I realized something about myself while trying to souse out the great feminist character in Harry Potter: I’m really not a feminist. I’m all about women power and dig me some Buffy and Veronica Mars; I want to write fiction for young adults because of literary characters like Nancy Drew and Anne Shirley; but as a literary critique, I’m crap at the feminine mystique. I’m really more of a deconstructionist. So, try as I might, I don’t see anything wrong with Hermione, Ginny, or Tonks. Considering just how many characters exist and have reoccurring roles in the Potter-verse, I think most are well developed. I have actual feelings about Mrs. Malfoy at the beginning of this book – and who is she really? I mean all of these characters have a first and last name, which you remember. I can’t imagine the notes Rowling must have kept to keep the continuity going through 7 books.

I’m getting ahead of myself. For this blog post I mostly wanted to talk about mothers and how there is one in each opening scene. I’m not sure if this helps or hinders a feminist critique; I guess you could say Rowling only knows how to write one type of female and thinks that motherhood is the most important thing in each one’s life. Who knows, maybe it is? I’m not a mother, so I’d have to defer to those who are. From a deconstructionist standpoint, all of these mothers are intriguing and thought pondering: What does ‘mother’ even mean? Is Rowling trying to make every mother the same?

To start with, it’s amazing plot braiding to juxtapose Narcissa Malfoy, Petunia Dursley, Andromeda Tonks and Molly Weasley. Obviously some of it is foreshadowing, Narcissa Malfoy and Molly Weasley are both pivotal to the plot towards the end – and also again because they are mothers. I don’t just think it is foreshadowing or plot braiding though. It’s more because Rowling doesn’t need these mothers to create the scenes, but they are all pivotal to each, separate scene. Maybe pivotal isn’t the right word, they each advance the plot by defining the character of motherhood.

Narcissa Malfoy
Narcissa is clearly the one Malfoy with her senses intact in the first chapter. She stands out by looking downcast yet clearly being in charge of her household; she keeps her son and husband in line and alive with firm glances and nudges.
MOTHER LOVE MOMENT: The last we read of Narcissa in chapter one is, “Draco Malfoy looked in terror at his father, who was starring down into is own lap, then caught his mother’s eye. She shook her head almost imperceptibly, then resumed her own deadpan stare at the opposite wall.” She is showing her family exactly how to act and what to do; clearly she is already prepared to make her family survive by any means necessary.

Petunia Dursley
Petunia Dursley remains her steadfast self when it comes to her son Dudley; she’s in three or four pages of this massive novel, yet she still manages to call her son Diddy, Dudders and Popkin in that space. Her life is her family; and like Narcissa, she is quite single-minded in her protection of them.
MOTHER LOVE MOMENT: Rowling peppers Petunia’s exit from the series with these final words, “She gave him an odd, tremulous look and seemed to teeter on the edge of speech, but then, with a little jerk of her head, she bustled out of the room after her husband and son.”

Andromeda Tonks
Harry could have gone straight to the Burrow when he leaves Privet Drive, but Rowling sends him to the Tonks’ first. Although she is talked about quite a bit, Andromeda Tonks hasn’t appeared before this book; we already know she is sister to Narcissa and Bellatrix. Here’s yet another mother, and also a sister (like Petunia and Lily); one who is going to extreme lengths for the sake of her daughter.
MOTHER LOVE MOMENT: Although she’s talked about and referred to quite a bit in this book, she appears only once, briefly to ask, “What happened to our daughter? Hagrid said you were ambushed; where is Nymphadora?” We know she’s a pure-blood, a healer, a strong female who resembles her sister Bellatrix in many ways, but she only speaks one line – and it’s about concern for her daughter, the Auror who married a werewolf.

Molly Weasley
Molly is Harry’s surrogate mother – also mother of his best friend and his girlfriend. She is as worried about Harry as she is for the rest of her family; there really is no distinction anymore. Not once do you see her regret the friendship that’s sprung up between her family and Harry. The Weasleys (minus that prat Percy) are all loyal toward Harry and the Order. Molly is different from the other mothers we’ve seen so far – they are all worried about one child, she is worried about ten (counting Harry, Hermione, and Fleur too). We’ve seen Molly a lot in the series, she is the most complete, well-rounded mother character; she gets a full range of emotions including scatter-brained and sometimes ridiculous. I like this about Molly; it makes her into many mothers I’ve known, not just the outline of a mother-type character. And let’s be honest, at the end she gets the best line of the entire series!
MOTHER LOVE MOMENT: In the opening scene at the Burrow, Harry, already feeling horrible about putting others in danger, can’t quite figure out why she doesn’t hate him yet. “He could hear the self-justifying note in his voice, the plea for her to understand why he did not know what had happened to her sons, but –
‘Thank goodness you’re all right,’ she said, pulling him into a hug he did not feel he deserved.”

Kendra Dumbledore
Brilliant! No, seriously! Dumbledore is dead and now he gets a mother and more face-time than when he was alive. Why put Kendra in here now? I have no idea what kind of mother Kendra Dumbledore is. Through conjecture and hearsay she appears to be quite a bad one, but how do you explain the goodness of Albus and even Aberforth Dumbledore? At least some of it has to be nurture.

Lily Potter
The mother all other mothers must me compared to throughout the series. She’s here at the beginning…and in the middle…and at the end. I think Lily’s note to Sirius separates her from the Lily & James Potter duo in the scene at Grimmauld Place; stressing her ultimate sacrifice more than James’.

Appoline Delocour & Tonks
We also meet the mother of the bride, Appoline Delocour, who must be at least half Veela – a mythical creature and not just a wizard. And finally, we find out Tonks is pregnant with a baby who will also be more than a wizard – his dad being a werewolf and all. It’s sort of like tying up all the loose ends. We see mothers at very important, life moments and we get yet another dose of magical-creature-unity-and-equality vs. magic-is-might-dark-wizard mentality: A true good vs. evil moment.

I definitely think Rowling pulled the women into the foreground during the first quarter of the book. No, not necessarily in a feminist way, but in a sort of roto-scope, look-at-this sort of way to emphasize what’s coming, what’s been, what’s most important, and inevitably what’s dark magic conquering: LOVE. Yes, it’s so simple and obvious, but I really do admire the way in which it occurs.

I so want opinions in the comments on all of this. Also, feel free to add in your feminist reading – or any other literary theory you’d like to. Of course, coincidentally it is Mothers Day on Sunday. The picture attached to this blog is all my own. (Yay, no copyright infringement this week!) It’s a picture of me and my mom – she’s a much better person than I am, so I know all of my good parts are from her nurturing. Happy Moms Day to all of you mothers. And in case you don’t think I’m excited enough about the arrival next week: Mara Corey you are going to be an awe-inspiring, remarkable mother! Matt, you of course will be an amazing dad too!


  1. Okay, so I give you a hard time about the feminism thing. My mom marched, picketed, petitioned, and worked in a man's world for less money; so I have a lifetime of practice. If it matters, I tend to think of myself as more of a gender aestheticist. The plight of men stuck with too much responsibility by femmy, weak-willed women interests me as well.

    And color me impressed with your account of all the ways Rowling--a mother herself who lost her mother to MS while she was writing the books--made mothers central characters. I had considered mother-love as powerful, important, and affecting in the books. You took it deeper to make me consider peripheral mother figures. Lily Potter and Molly Weasley were the givens (and I love that Harry shares his mother's eyes, and eyes are the windows to the soul, and he sacrificed himself for others in the same way his mother did--a very soulful act). On the other hand, Narcissa's actions, Andromeda Tonks, and Kendra Dumbledore didn't stand out to me when I was reading. By taking a highlighter to their behavior, you made me see the complexity of the pattern.

    My point, and I promise to stop harping on this after my last essay on the topic, is that motherhood is GREAT (trust me, I now know! one week, and I'm the expert). Motherhood is significant. Motherhood moves mountains. But motherhood is only ONE type of power. Why do the guys get to be clowns, heroes, wise men, villains, foils, orphans, Christ-figures?

    I know what you're thinking. Wait, isn't Lily a Christ-Figure? Not even a little bit. A mother willing to sacrifice her life for her child's is essential to the archetype. What Harry does is so much bigger, so much grander, so much more selfless and noble. One of the reasons mothers of all species stand in harm's way to protect their offspring is egotistical, to maintain their lineage, to ensure a biological future. On the contrary, to give up oneself for the greater good of the world is entirely without peer. What female character gets the joys of playing the fool? The swashbuckler? The trickster?

    I love my mother. I love BEING a mother. I love the idea of motherhood. I love being a fully-rounded human being more.

  2. Oh, Mara. I want to continue to argue with you on this point, but alas, we mostly have the same opinion. Yes, I see what you are saying; motherhood IS only one aspect of the female persona. And how foretelling of you to know that my next blog post in entitled, “The Eyes have It”! I’ll try to get that posted today. My biggest issue: I know Harry’s a boy and all, but I don’t see that his being a boy has anything to do with who he is. I think this series could have been called Mary Potter and it would have been the same. He is the sum of both of his parents either way. I don’t see his gender as playing a big role in his life – except he would have been the girl who lived instead. Don’t get me wrong, I think gender and lack of strong female leads occurs a lot in literature and I understand why there IS a feminine critique; I think it’s important. And I’m quite proud to be a well-rounded female myself, but I just can’t make the case with HP; I honestly don’t think his gender matters in the series.

    Look, apparently I did continue to argue with you…and quite possibly pissed off a lot of blog readers at the same time. Go me!

    Feel free to remark and prove me wrong with more comments everyone!

  3. There’s been some facebook chatter about this blog post – which is exciting and makes me happy – I do wish that it would make it onto the blog itself, but a girl has to keep dreaming. Anywho, I just wanted to catch others up on the ‘Does Harry’s gender matter?’ debate. Questions raised: Would the Dursley’s have treated Harry differently if he were a girl? Would he be too similar to his mum? Is a male protagonist easier to empathize with, especially for children? Would others have treated Harry differently if he were a girl (i.e. Dumbledore who lost a sister in his youth, The Weasleys or Hermione, other professors)? Would events that unfold later in his life make it harder to write if Harry were a girl? Good questions all! I found myself trying to figure out how to make all of these things work with Mary Potter.

    Wow, see how much thought. I keep pondering the question, and I still think Harry’s gender is not that important. Upon further consideration, I do think – from a writing standpoint – that Harry as a boy is a little easier to write. The flow of the narrative may be smoother; most of those questions above are easily eliminated when Harry is a boy. It’s not the same as say Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games trilogy, who to me HAS to be a girl – it’s integral to the plot on many levels and I think Suzanne Collins is absolutely saying something about girl power. I do wonder, if Harry started out in Rowling’s mind as a girl, what scene she had to write that made her go – oh, just make her a boy, it’s all so much easier then. And if that were the case, then maybe it does matter what gender he is, even if it is not an imperative point for the general plot.