HARRY POTTER’S OEDIPAL ISSUES
by Kelly Noel-Smith
The Harry Potter books are extraordinarily successful. In May 2000, each of the first three books by J. K. Rowling occupied a place within the top five of The Times’ best-sellers’ list. The first edition of the fourth book, published in July 2000, was the largest ever for children’s books: a million hard-back copies were published in the UK and 3.8 million in the US. The books are equally successful elsewhere, having been translated into more than twenty-five languages. The phenomenon of their success has generated debate: in Britain, for example, Anthony Holden, a Whitbread book prize judge, threatened to resign in June 2000 if Rowling received the prize for Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban instead of Seamus Heaney for his translation of Beowulf; Holden wrote a scathing article in The Observer in which he claimed Rowling’s ‘story lines are predictable, the suspense minimal, the sentimental cloying every page (Did Harry, like so many heroes before him, have to be yet another poignant orphan?)’ (The Observer, 25 June 2000). Holden’ s comments triggered one of the largest collections of written responses to an article ever received by the Observer. In America, too, the books’ success has provoked reaction. Some American parents have suggested that the Harry Potter books should be withdrawn from schools because of their content: they believe that identification with Harry Potter and his experiences of death and magic will encourage children to explore violence, murder and the occult.
By adopting a psychoanalytic perspective - and acknowledging that this is only one of many ways of approaching the question of the books’ popularity, or notoriety - it is hoped to show that the extraordinary success of the Harry Potter books is due, in part, to the universal phantasies they contain, in particular, those deriving from the Oedipal period.
Freud suggested that creative writers, whose unconscious often fuels their writing, entice us to read about their creations by offering us the chance to enjoy our phantasies without self-reproach or shame (Freud, 1908). It follows that, the more common the phantasy, the more popular the work of literature will be which allows us to engage with it, whether consciously or not. The author need not be aware that her works contain these phantasies: indeed, J. K. Rowling in a recent article said:
Freud discusses phantasy in detail in his papers on creative writers and daydreaming (Freud, 1908) and in his paper on the formulations of the two principles of mental functioning (Freud, 1911). He suggests that phantasising is what we do when our ego, acting in accordance with the reality principle and taking into account the often frustrating external world, comes into conflict with the pleasure principle, which seeks immediate fulfilment of id demands. Phantasy represents a compromise between the two: it creates an internal world which represents the external world as we should like it to be. Hanna Segal suggests that writers, and other artists, can afford to let their phantasies run free because their art provides them with a secure link to reality (Segal, 1994). Similarly, a book can provide the reader, as well as the writer, with this link to reality, this security. Alice climbing through the looking glass, the back of the wardrobe in an old house providing a doorway into Narnia, flying out of a nursery window then ‘second to the right and straight on till morning’: the reader’s link to reality is the point of entry into a world which does not really exist, from fictional reality to fictional phantasy, from a room in a house to Wonderland, Narnia or Never-Never Land. Works of fiction appease the reality principle-we know that what we are reading about is not really happening-so allow fulfilment of id phantasies, through our immersion in the book, without the danger to the ego which would arise were the phantasies acted out.
In the case of Harry Potter, we know that we are about to enter an unreal world when Harry, who has just learned that he is a wizard, arrives at Kings Cross station to look for Platform 9¾, from which a train will take him to Hogwarts, the school for young witches and wizards, to begin his first term. Worried that he cannot see his platform or his train, he asks a mother of another young wizard how to get to Platform 9¾. He is told that he needs to walk straight through the barrier between platforms 9 and 10 without stopping and without being scared that he will crash into it:
The reality principle by which our ego operates is given two strong reminders that our entry into the Harry Potter world will not jeopardise our relationship with the external world: first, we are aware that we are reading a book; second, we know that Platform 9¾ does not really exist. Each of the four books ends with the train journey back to
London Kings Cross, passing the other way through the barrier back to fictional reality and Harry leaving the station with his step-parents to endure another Summer holiday with them and without magic. So, even within the works of fiction, we are taken from a description of real life (which, in Harry Potter’s case, is grim) into one of magic (which represents life as we would like it to be) and then brought back again. Because of this, we can suspend our reality principle this side of the barrier at Kings Cross, to give full rein to the pleasure principle at Hogwarts.
Hogwarts, Narnia, Wonderland and Never-Never Land are unrealistic representations of the real world. Bettelbeim has made clear how these works of literature which take us into imaginary places provide a place where phantasies can be safely explored. The stories are to do with the psychical world, not the external world:
Harry Potter goes through the barrier to Platform 9¾ for the first time just after his eleventh birthday. Until then, Harry had endured a hellish existence. His parents dead, he lived with his pompous and boorish uncle, Vernon Dursley, who was ‘the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills’, a ‘big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache’, his nosy aunt, Petunia, whose neck was twice as long as normal, helping her to spy on the neighbours, and their son, Dudley Dursley, who was very fat, doted on by his parents and who joined with them in bullying Harry. Harry lived in a cupboard under the stairs. On his eleventh birthday, Harry discovers two things: first, that he is a wizard and has a place to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; second, that his parents did not, as he had been told by his aunt and uncle, die in a car crash when Harry was one, the impact of the crash leaving a scar on Harry’s forehead, but had, in fact, been murdered by Lord Voldemort, an immensely powerful wizard who had gone over to the Dark Side. Harry had survived Voldemort’s attack but was left with a scar, in the shape of a lightning flash on his forehead, Voldemort’ s powers having been almost destroyed when the curse he tried to use to kill Harry rebounded on him.
Harry therefore arrives at Hogwarts as one of the most famous young wizards of all time, his parents, former Head Boy and Head Girl of Hogwarts, having been killed by Lord Voldemort, and Harry being the first wizard ever to survive an attack by the Dark Lord. Harry is slightly built, has dark untidy hair and bright green eyes. He becomes the youngest Hogwarts player for a century to play Quidditch, the school’s sport, for his house. In short, Harry is a hero with whom we can identify. Freud noted that:
Our hero, Harry/our ego, is an orphan: as the quotation with which this essay began shows, his parents gave their lives to save his from an attack by Voldemort. Why would we want to identify with someone who has suffered such an appalling tragedy? Perhaps because the manner of Harry’s parents’ deaths satisfies our unconscious Oedipal wishes. Freud believed that the universal phantasy of children to enjoy exclusive possession of the mother, through the removal of the father, explains the powerful and enduring impact of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus unconsciously fulfils the fate predicted for him by the Oracle by killing his father and marrying his mother: the play’s popularity can be explained in terms of its appeal to our murderous and incestuous phantasies towards our parents. These phantasies are the repressed wishes that once coursed their way through us: ‘falling in love with one parent and hating the other forms part of the permanent stock of psychic impulses which arise in early childhood’ (Freud, 1900). With Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Freud thought that Oedipus Rex was one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time, the common thread running through the works being one of parricide and the motive for the deed being sexual rivalry for a woman (Freud, 1928).
The very first relationship, the mother/baby dyad, is one which constitutes the baby’s world, giving rise to phantasies of omnipotence and exclusive possession of the mother. An awareness of the father, and all that the father represents, generates intense feelings of rejection, exclusion and hatred but, if the knowledge can be tolerated, sees the emergence from the Oedipal crucible of an individual with the capacity to reflect and think and with an identity separate from that of the mother. Although the earlier Oedipal wishes are relinquished, however, such relinquishment involves repression, meaning that we carry within our unconscious phantasies of enjoying again the early fused identity with our mother and exclusive possession of her. This phantasy necessarily involves the removal of the father and the collapse of the Oedipal triangle.
As we saw, the last thing that Harry’s father does is acknowledge the exclusive relationship of Harry and his mother. He gives his life in an attempt to preserve it:
Harry’s mother, Lily, her name and her sacrifice for her son symbolising all that is pure and good, dies to save Harry’s life:
Given that it is every child’s phantasy to remove, by death, his or her father to enjoy exclusive possession of his or her mother (and, inversely, to eliminate one’s mother to take her place with one’s father), the reader of Harry Potter is able to indulge in wish fulfilment of the most basic phantasies without the grief which would ordinarily attach to them: we know, at a conscious level, that the story is not true; unconsciously, the deaths of Harry’s parents represent a wonderful fulfilment of Oedipal phantasies.
The Harry Potter phantasy goes one better than that told by Little Hans, a five-year-old boy analysed by Freud by proxy (Freud, 1909a). Hans phantasises being married to his mother and a generational transfer upwards for his father, whereby his father forms a couple with his own mother, neatly removing Hans’ father without killing him and, one would suppose, providing his father with the same type of pleasurable situation which Hans is seeking.
In Hans’ phantasy there is not the same evidence of the absolute parental love for their child which Harry Potter gets from his parents in their giving their lives to save his. Harry knows that his father died to preserve the exclusive relationship of Harry and his mother; his mother gave her life to save her son. Harry’s mother’s love is what prevented and continues to prevent the damaging impact of Voldemort’ s persecutory attacks on Harry. As the kindly wizard Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, tells Harry:
Harry’s scar is a special mark evidencing the force of the internalised good mother which caused Voldemort’ s curse to rebound on him in his attack on the Potter family when Harry was one year old. This special mark brings to mind other special marks, for example, the scars Oedipus had on his feet, where his parents pierced them before they left him to die, the mark of Cain, who murdered his brother, and the stigmata of Christ, who, being the Son of Man, was murdered by his collective parents.
With a brave father and self-sacrificing mother, J.K. Rowling has created a Family Romance for us to enjoy: although Harry’s parents are dead, he had, for a short period, parents which all of us would like: his parents are perfect parents and allow us, through identification with Harry, fulfilment of a universal wish derived from:
Even Voldemort acknowledges Harry’s parents’ qualities:
It should be noted that Harry is not glad that his parents are dead and necessarily so: such enjoyment of wish fulfilment would be unacceptable to our consciousness. Instead, when Harry sits in front of a magical mirror which he learns later from Dumbledore ‘shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts’, he sees his mother, father and other members of his family. The mirror has an inscription carved around the top: Erised Stra Ehru Oyt Ube Cafru Oyt On Wohsi (that is, a reversal of: ‘I show not your face but your heart’s desire’). The mirror reflects back our wish fulfilment of Harry’s wish fulfilment, that is, we see not slain parents but loving ones:
Harry’s dead parents do not represent his wish fulfilment, but rather fulfilment of the reader’s unconscious fantasies. Harry’s parents are perfect parents in phantasy: father dying to preserve the mother/baby dyad; mother dying, too, but after giving her child such love that he will be protected from evil forever. They are ideal parents.
Idealisation represents one of the most primitive defenses identified by Klein, an unconscious mechanism based on phantasy which is invoked during the paranoid-schizoid position (that is, before resolution of the Oedipus complex) to split an object into good and bad part objects. As a child becomes older, and begins to integrate his or her part objects into whole objects, he or she moves from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position, whereby a more realistic, less idealized, view of the world is adopted. Bion’s concept of container and contained shows how a containing mother facilitates the child’s integration of good and bad part objects and his or her move from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position, by containing the baby’s projected intolerable feelings, processing them and feeding them back to the baby in a more digestible and manageable form. Bion suggests that a third object emerges from the relationship between the container and the contained: where there is a good relationship between the container and contained, this third object is to the advantage of all three; in a bad relationship between the container and the contained, this third object is destructive to all three (Bion, 1970). Britton develops this to suggest that, where a mother is unable to contain her infant’s projected feelings, for whatever reason, the father, unfortunately, often provides a repository for the projected bad feelings that the baby is aware that his or her mother is unable to contain (Britton, 1989). If the third object is the phantasised hostile father/penis, the repository for the infant’s uncontained hostile feelings, the father will be viewed as a persecutory figure characterised by the degree of aggression projected by the child.
If Harry’s dead parents are seen as composite, a phantasised perfect container, there is necessarily someone or something into whom or which the split-off bad parts of Harry’s parents (and of Harry) have been projected. This repository of evil is Lord Voldemort who is destructive: we know that he murdered Harry’s parents, failing to kill Harry during that onslaught but leaving Harry with a scar as a sign of the persecutory attack. In the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling, 2000), Lord Voldemort has recovered sufficient strength to try to murder Harry again.
The defensive mechanism of splitting whole objects into good and bad parts necessarily involves a repudiation of part of reality. Money-Kyrle suggests that one of the most difficult parts of reality to tolerate is the passage of time (Money-Kyrle, 1968). The reality principle demands an acceptance of past, present and future and of our own death. In our unconscious, however, and in phantasy, a timeless universe exists. Time becomes elastic to accommodate Harry Potter, and thus our own phantasies that the real world does not have linear time, twice: once when Harry relives a three-hour period to alter events so that an innocent magical beast and his parents’ best man, second time around, both avoid death (perhaps atoning in some way for the unconscious guilt Harry feels about his parents’ deaths); and once to meet Voldemort fifty years before, when Voldemort was a boy of nearly the same age as Harry.
Towards the end of Harry’s first experience of the three-hour period, Harry is lying on his back by a lake, terrified and confused, about to be annihilated by a Dementor. A Dementor is a horrible, hooded monster, evocative of the worst fears of the Grim Reaper, which feeds upon ‘hope, happiness and the desire to survive’. Harry is saved by someone on the other side of the lake who sends out a powerful Patronus just before the Dementor annihilates Harry by kissing him, a Dementor’s kiss sucking out an individual’s essence but not killing the body. A Patronus is ‘a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon’. This Patronus takes the form of a stag and we know that Harry’s father was one of the few wizards who could change his form and, whilst he was a student at Hogwarts, often transformed into a stag called Prongs.
Just before Harry passes out, after the Dementor has been forced to retreat because of the strength of the Patronus, he watches the Patronus return to the wizard who had sent it and tries to make out the identity of the person who had saved him:
Harry believed the person he had seen to be his dead father. When he travels back through time to save two innocent lives, he runs towards the opposite bank of the lake and hides behind a bush to catch sight of his father. He watches again his other self being approached by the annihilating Dementor. Looking round in desperation for his father, he suddenly becomes aware that no rescuer is going to appear:
After saving his earlier self on the opposite bank, the Patronus, the bright, white stag, returns to Harry who, with trembling fingertips, stretches out towards the creature which then vanishes.
When Harry later tells Dumbledore about this, Dumbledore says:
This incident provides another wonderful example, by analogy, of the power of an introjected good parent. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry’s introjected good mother prevents Voldemort from hurting Harry in the attack during which his parents were killed; in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is able to project his introjected good father as a Patronus to defeat a Dementor, something which would otherwise annihilate him.
The other fulfilment of our phantasies of a timeless universe occurs in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry Potter meets Voldemort. Lord Voldemort is feared so much that most wizards and witches fear to name him and prefer to call him “You-Know-Who” or “He Who Must Not Be Named”. Harry travels back through time to meet Voldemort as Voldemort was fifty years before, that is, when he was a schoolboy, Tom Riddle, who looked remarkably like Harry. Voldemort remarks on their similarities:
Another striking example of the links between Harry and his enemy occurs when Harry buys his first wand. A wand has to be the right wand for the wizard: there has to be a good fit. Harry tries several wands before:
The wand seller says:
In the confrontation between Harry and Tom Riddle, during which Tom Riddle takes Harry’s wand, Harry learns that Tom Riddle is Lord Voldemort as he was fifty years before:
It has been suggested that Harry Potter’s dead parents represent our phantasy of perfect parents and provide an example of the early idealisation of parents which takes place in what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Lord Voldemort is the repository for the split-off bad parts of Harry’s parents. Klein emphasised that, where splitting of whole objects occurs, there is also splitting within the self (Klein, 1958). So, where do Harry’s split-off bad parts go? Into Tom Riddle, the boy who later became Lord Voldemort.
The main characters of the Harry Potter books, then, allow the reader to enjoy a phantasy which denies the reality of the Oedipal configuration. What we have here is not an Oedipal triangle, but a phantasised and fragile triangular situation: in one corner, Harry, the hero (our ego); in another, Harry’s good, dead parents, who live on, through introjection, in Harry (our phantasy of ideal parents); and, in the third, the evil Lord Voldemort, his adult self the repository for the split-off bad parts of Harry’s perfect parents, his boyhood self a repository for similar parts of Harry. A comparison of the similarities between Harry and Voldemort suggests how precarious this configuration is: it is not one which withstands the rigorous scrutiny of an ego functioning under the reality principle. With their ‘brother’ wands, their striking similarity in looks, abilities and backgrounds, and, through time travel, age, Harry and Tom Riddle/Voldemort represent polarised aspects of good and evil: they are split part objects of the same whole object. Each is the other’s ‘past, present and future’. As we saw above, the adult Lord Voldemort is the dark side of Harry’s idealised parents: his boyhood self, Tom Riddle, is Harry’s other half. In this collapse of time, where Lord Voldemort becomes the same age as Harry, we also have a collapse of the perfect parents/Voldemort/Harry Potter configuration. Voldemort, Harry’s parents and Tom Riddle all collapse into Harry, our hero, and we are left alone with His Majesty, the ego, and the Oedipal phantasies it struggles to repress.
This paper appeared in Psychoanalytic Studies 3: 199-207, 2001.
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Freud, S. (1909b) ‘Family Romances’ (PFL 7).
Freud, 5. (1928) ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide’ (PFL 14).
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Rowling, J.K. (1998) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury.
Rowling, J.K. (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomabury.
Rowling, J.K. (2000) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury.
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Abbreviations used: SE: James Strachey (ed), The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, copyright Ltd., the Institute of Psychoanalysis and the Hogarth Press Ltd. PEL: The Penguin Freud Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM