Pride and Prejudice

There are many themes in Harry Potter, but there is one theme that stands out directly, with no equivocation at all and runs as a constant from beginning to end of the story. The world of Harry Potter is filled with prejudice on all sides. Out of prejudice a variety of evils emerge.

We encounter prejudice from the very first chapter of the first book. Petunia Dursley, Harry Potter's aunt, has not spoken to the Potter's in years "because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be." It wasn't just James and Lily Potter either: "they didn't want Dudley mixing with a child like that." We quickly find out that the Dursleys don't mix with the Potters because the Potters are Wizards and the Dursleys are not. When the baby Harry is left with the Dursleys, that prejudice spills over onto Harry and leads to a miserable childhood for a boy who has done nothing to deserve such treatment.

We usually think of prejudice of that type to be an irrational attitude based on nothing more than superficial and insignificant differences. But, the source of Petunia's prejudice, like most prejudice, runs deeper than that. We discover that source after Harry receives his letter from Hogwarts and is told his mother was a witch. When Harry asks about his mother, Petunia declares:

"Oh, I was the only one who saw her for what she was -- a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!"

In The Deathly Hallows, we find out that Petunia's anger is not simply that Lily was a witch and therefore adored by her parents, a simple case of sibling rivalry. When Lily was invited to Hogwarts, Petunia applied for admission there as well, but was told that she would not be allowed to attend since she was not born with magical ability. Her sister, because of an innate magical ability, is treated as something special, praised by their parents, and then ultimately separated from Petunia. Petunia's response is to turn her hurt into contempt for all Wizards. This is typical of prejudice. We see someone who has an ability we covet, but when we cannot obtain the same ability, we mentally turn things around in our mind and treat the other as a "freak." It preserves the self-centered ego, in other words, to treat the special abilities of others with disdain. In addition, Petunia's loss of companionship with her sister intensifies her disdain for those who are different, blaming them for the loss of that companionship. It's a typical selfish attitude where the actions of others are evaluated only in terms of how they affect oneself, without regard for what is best for another. Petunia's attitudes express a simple but powerful theme. Put simply, self-centered ego leads to prejudice and prejudice leads to misery for oneself and others.

The prejudice of some Muggles, exemplified by the Dursleys, is mirrored by the attitudes of some Wizards. We encounter this first in the character of Draco Malfoy. As we later learn, Draco is the son of a powerful, wealthy, aristocratic wizard family and has been indoctrinated his whole life to believe in the innate superiority of pure-blood Wizards. In their first encounter, Draco remarks to Harry, "They're just not the same, they've never been brought up to know our ways." Draco's prejudice extends not to just Muggles but to other Wizards as well. In their next encounter on the train to Hogwarts, Draco tells Harry, "You'll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don't want to go making friends with the wrong sort."

Unlike Petunia Dursley, Draco's prejudice is not a result of jealousy for the ability of others, but results from indoctrinated disdain for those he considers of lesser heritage. The Malfoy's are typical of the followers of Voldemort; they want to rid the world of those they regard as "mudbloods." This represents the all too common attitude of racial prejudice. It is a prejudice born out of false pride. The truth is that in Harry Potter, the muggle-born wizards and half-blood wizards are every bit as capable as the pure-blood Wizards. But, the pure-blood Wizards' prejudice blinds them to this fact. In order to maintain their sense of superiority, they must resort to invention and lies. In The Deathly Hallows, after the followers of Voldemort have seized control of the Ministry of Magic, they begin making the claim that muggle-born and half-blood wizards must steal knowledge of magic from the pure-bloods. That claim blatantly ignores the truth in order to preserve the self-serving claims of the pure-bloods. As Ron Weasly says, "It's mental." In other words, racial prejudice is insane, but those who believe that way must preserve their false pride by inventing even more incredible lies and seeking to destroy those who would show the lie for what it is.

We find another example of prejudice in the character of Severus Snape, although it is not immediately apparent that it is prejudice. From their first encounter, Snape treats Harry with disdain. He demands that Harry be far better than the other students, and when Harry cannot live up to those expectations, Snape berates and dismisses Harry, often giving him much lower marks that Harry deserves. Yet, from time to time we see Snape working diligently in the background to help and guard Harry. Snape turns out to be the most complex and ambiguous character in the entire story. His behavior towards Harry is sometimes kind, sometimes inordinately harsh, and seems to have no rhyme or reason to it.

As the story unfolds over the course of the seven books, the motivation for Snape's behavior towards Harry is slowly revealed. First we find that Snape was at school with Harry's parents, James and Lily. But, where Snape and James were continuously at odds with each other, Snape and Lily have been close friends and companions since childhood. What is first only hinted at becomes explicit in the seventh book. Snape has always been in love with Lily. Her choice to marry Snape's enemy James Potter is what will drive Snape to a horrible act of betrayal. Thinking that he can get rid of James and have Lily to himself, Snape reveals the prophecy about Harry to Voldemort. But, Snape's plan backfires and Lily, not Harry is the one who is killed. Snape's subsequent remorse is what leads to his activities as a double agent for Dumbledore, but also leaves him a tortured soul.

In light of that we can understand Snape's attitudes toward Harry. He sees in Harry an image of both James and Lily. The image of James is despicable to Snape, but his love for Lily drives him to always seek to protect her child. It is the only way Snape can hope to redeem himself. Snape's actions toward Harry have very little to do with Harry, but are motivated by his own projection of attitudes about Harry's parents onto Harry combined with his own vow to help Dumbledore. It is another example of prejudice somewhat similar to that of Petunia Dursley. In the case of Snape, prejudice is born from jealousy and loss of love. It tortures his soul and manifests itself in the form of prejudice towards another, sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial. But, overall, Snape's prejudice blinds him to the true character of Harry such that he helps out of obligation, but never comes to know Harry.

Harry responds to Snape's disdain with his own prejudicial attitudes towards Snape. Because he does not understand why Snape treats him so harshly, Harry merely assumes that Snape is working for Voldemort and against Harry. Hagrid and Dumbledore's reassurances notwithstanding, Harry does not trust Snape, and that mistrust seems to be justified. However, Harry's prejudice towards Snape causes him and his friends to miss important clues and make nearly fatal mistakes beginning with The Sorcerer's Stone and continuing through to The Deathly Hallows. Harry also misses the opportunity to protect his mind from intrusion when he stops taking Occulmancy lessons from Snape. Harry's disdain for Snape, and Snape's disdain for Harry make it impossible for them to work together, even though both would potentially benefit from that cooperation. Prejudice, by blinding us to the truth, causes us to miss beneficial opportunities.

This same type of cyclic prejudice shows up in the character of Riddle/Voldemort. As Riddle explains to Harry in The Chamber of Secrets:

"You think I was going to use my filthy Muggle father's name forever? I, in whose veins runs the blood of Salazar Slythein himself, through my mother's side? I, keep the name of a foul, common Muggle, who abandoned me even before I was born, just because he found out his wife was a witch? No, Harry -- I fashioned myself a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I had become the greatest sorcerer in the world!"

Voldemort combines the dual aspects of prejudice we see in others. He has the racial prejudice of the pure-blood Wizard combined with the hurt of having been abandoned. His father's rejection leads to his complementary disdain for Muggles. His pride of his mother's heritage combines with that disdain and turns inward to produce a blind arrogance where his only desire is to be considered the most powerful and feared wizard in the world.

Voldemort is the epitome of pride and prejudice and its danger. His political program, gathering him followers and increasing his power, is based on feeding prejudicial attitudes. He promises his followers that they will eliminate the "mudbloods" from the wizarding society and then rule over the non-magical Muggles as all-powerful tyrants. But, throughout the story, Voldemort is just as likely to turn on his followers and destroy them when they disappoint or fail in their missions. Voldemort's prejudice is not just against those who are different, but against anyone who stands in his way. His pride has consumed him to the point where it is only Voldemort that counts for anything, and others are only valuable to the extent they serve his needs.

There are many more examples of prejudicial attitudes and behavior in Harry Potter, but these few examples are enough to get the point across. What we see in all of these situations is the vicious cycle of destruction that arises from prejudice of all kinds. One person's prejudice leads to harm of another, and that harm leads to prejudicial blindness in regards to others as well. Ultimately, prejudice is an outgrowth of false pride, jealousy of those who are stronger and disdain for those who are weaker. Arrogant false pride strives to find something of lesser value to compare itself to and will imagine another to be lower in value if need be. Its central characteristic is that it is always self-serving at the expense of others.

Voldemort, as the personification of evil, expresses very well the dangers of pride and prejudice. Prejudice, born out of pride, is an evil parasite that feeds on irrational hatred towards others in order to accomplish its own self-centered desires. It blinds one to the truth, and ultimately leads to destruction. Pride goeth before a fall.


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