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July 14, 2002 - July 20, 2002

RE: Official Philip Nel Question #10: Class


Porphyria wrote:

The way I see it, class is one of those fault lines along which the HP series is inherently conflicted.

I see strong ambivalence here as well, and I agree with Porphyria's implication that most of the internal contradictions of the Harry Potter books cluster around the core concept of elitism — elitism based on class, on race, on heritage, on "blood," on ability, and even on a certain type of social confomism, of "normalcy." If the tensions created by internal thematic contradiction and authorial ambivalence may be read as the "fault lines" of a text, then elitism is this particular text's epicenter. It is the ground zero, the point from which the vast majority of shakings and rumblings of reader discontent and reader resistance seem to emanate.

This is a huge topic, though, and it encompasses a number of different manifestations of elitist, narrow, or class-bound thinking. For the purposes of simplicity, therefore, in this message I would like to narrow my focus to look at only one of these fault lines: the text's attitude toward social class proper, and particularly toward the social values of a very particular group: the nostalgic and conservative English middle class.

Porphyria summarized Richard Adams' excellent article, "Harry Potter and the Closet Conservative," with:

Adams discusses how the HP series espouses a mix of both progressive and nostalgic ideas. Hogwarts is racially diverse and coed, yet recreates the old-fashioned dream of conservative Britain through its many allusions to the stereotypical British public school, notions reinforced by the quaintly anachronistic Wizarding culture at large.

Yes, it does. I would go even further, though, and say that the particular nostalgic dream that the series espouses is not even a generalized English (or even British) one. It strikes me as even more specifically the nostalgic conservatism of a particular social class, ironically the very same social class which JKR takes such delight in excoriating in the form of Harry's horrid guardians, the Dursleys.

Dr. Nel's question was this:

Do the novels critique or sustain a class system?

The rub here, of course, is that they do both. On the one hand, through their depiction of the Dursleys, they explicitly critique the values of a very particular social group: conservative, middle class, flag-waving, insular, hopelessly nostalgic Tory Old England.

The Dursleys may be parvenu, but the opinions that they express nonetheless belong firmly to this group, and their allegiance is made even more explicit in _PoA,_ through the introduction of the dreadful Aunt Marge. Marge, with her bulldogs and her barking and her tweeds, and her friendship with good old "retired Colonel Fubster," is about as blatantly stereotyped a representative of this class as one could hope for. Her introduction serves to offset any lingering doubts about what the Dursleys are truly meant to represent. Arriviste and insecure in their place in the social hierarchy the Dursleys may be, but they nonetheless stand firmly aligned with the values and the prejudices of the more jingoistic and backwards-looking segments of the conservative English middle class.

This is the milieu which is initially set forth as the epitome of all things "Muggle," the milieu against which the wizarding world is presented as an alternative, or even as an escape route. And yet throughout the series, the books implicitly support and sustain many of the assumptions and biases of this very same social group. I agree that this is troubling. It is unsettling, and it is is inconsistent and I would say that it is indeed one of the major "fault lines" of the series, one of the points on which the text itself seems so deeply ambivalent that it both troubles and intrigues its readers.

Although JKR lambasts the conservative middle class through her depiction of the Dursleys, her writing itself nonetheless promulgates many of this group's particular social values, mores and judgements, particularly when it comes to their view of the social classes above and below their own. In this respect, JKR often reminds me of no one quite so much as Agatha Christie, whose depiction of social hierarchy is similarly rooted in a highly conservative, insular, nostalgic, and middle class world view.

Good people, in JKR as in Christie, are sensible and down to earth, but they are also properly educated, speak with the right accents, and conform to certain social expectations. They fall firmly within a specific range of social class. The occasional rustic may, like Hagrid, be viewed with great affection as a kind of noble savage, a diamond in the rough, but the urban proles are a different matter altogether. At best, they are rather stupid. Their role in the text is either to serve as comic relief (Stan, Ernie), or to serve their betters with kindly cheer (the lunch trolley witch). For the most part, however, they are simply not worthy of notice. In the HP series, they generally fall outside of the sphere of the text's attention.

Eileen touched on this when she wrote:

The wizarding world is represented as one where everyone knows each other. However, on closer inspection, this is not true. People like Ernie Prang or Stan Shunpike we only meet when we fall out of the class in which Harry moves, a class to which one is admitted on basis of one's having attended Hogwarts. Not everyone in the Potterverse can work at the Ministry, and other such high profile jobs. However, everyone in the Hogwarts' circle does. While we do not know the background of countless wizarding students at Hogwarts, if we do know the background, it's upperclass.

Yes. Or at the very least (as Eileen herself qualified later in her message), it is middle-class. Lower eschelon Ministry workers are a part of the magic circle. Even clerks may well be included. But people like Stan and Ernie, or the lunch trolley witch, or the shopkeepers of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley are not. The working classes are simply not encompassed by the vision of the series as a whole. Only Muggle-born students, who are obviously a special case, have parents who do not come from the middle classes or above.

Indeed, there are things in the text itself which strongly suggest that Hogwarts is not in fact, as JKR has stated in interview, the only wizarding school in Great Britain. Hermione refers to it as the "best" school of its kind. Neville talks about his family's relief that he has been deemed "magical enough for Hogwarts" as a separate issue than their earlier joy at his proving himself to be capable of magic at all.

The result of this discrepancy between what the author says and what she writes is to further the impression of ambivalence, even of a certain degree of dishonesty. The books simply do not deal with the lower classes. They fall outside of their purview and outside of their scope. The social range that does fall within the attention of the text is a far narrower one: it generally encompasses only the respectable (if sometimes impoverished) middle classes and above.

If the lower social ranks fall outside of the scope of authorial interest, though, the upper ranks most certainly do not. The aristocracy is definitely represented in the text, but mainly as the target of suspicion and hostility. Again, very much as in the writings of the similarly conservative and middle class Christie, the upper end of acceptability within the world view of these books comes to an end somewhere around the rank of baronet. The country squire is admired and respected; the upper ranks of the aristocracy, on the other hand, are viewed with the gravest of suspicion. Peers are dubious people: unsavory, suspect, Not To Be Trusted. They have perverse tastes and shadowy interests. They are inbred. They are unwholesome. And they're not even really English at all, you know. They're foreigners. Continentals. Dare we even say that they are...French?

This is damning indeed, because within the strangely conservative middle class world view which really does often seem to me to be informing these books, good people are above all else English — or perhaps, as this is JKR, we ought to say "British?" ;-)

Compare, for example, the impoverished but virtuous old Weasley family with the "Dark" Malfoys. Richard Adams' article mentions the fact that the names "Malfoy" and "Voldemort" both speak to Norman origins, while "Salazar Slytherin" similarly derives its sinister connotations largely by virtue of its very foreigness. Porphyria has already pointed out the extent to which the text so often equates foreign or continental European sounding names—Rosier, Dolohov—with allegiance to Dark powers. Foreigners, you know, are really not to be trusted. And neither is the aristocracy.

The Weasleys, on the other hand, come across as properly native. In spite of the hints of Irish descent implied by their red hair and penchant for large families, they are nonetheless "ours" in a way that the ancient aristocracy of the Norman conquest simply is not. There is a sense of almost intolerably cozy home-spun Englishness surrounding the Weasleys. They live near the village of Ottery St. Catchpole, in a house called "The Burrow." They have names like Molly and Arthur and Fred and George. Molly is plump, and she has rosy cheeks, and she cooks her large family fry-ups for breakfast and shepherd's pie for supper.

Really, it's all just a little bit twee, isn't it? It's almost enough to make you crave a nice spicy Vindaloo — a dish which I feel almost certain (the Patil sisters notwithstanding)would be nowhere to be found in the fine village of Ottery St. Catchpole, even though these days it very often would be in many of that village's real world equivalents.

JKR is a nostalgic writer, but her nostalgia is not merely nostalgia per se. It is of a particularly conservative and middle class flavor, a flavor which tastes awfully strange when combined with the progressive views that she elsewhere seems to wish very badly to espouse. Much like orange juice and toothpaste, the combination leaves a bitter taste in ones mouth.

Many of JKR's approaches to social class do seem to me to reflect precisely the same mind-set that she so loudly and shrilly denounces in her depiction of the Dursleys. People like the Dursleys, JKR tells us, are wickedly regressive -- brutish, even. They and their ilk should be scorned, as should the things that they tend to believe in. Things like corporal punishment. Things like the death penalty. Things like disdain for the lower classes. Things like suspicion of the aristocracy. Things like jingoism, and law-and-orderism, and political paranoia, and the belief that foreigners are intrinsically dubious, not to be trusted. Things like "blood will tell."

We are treated to this at the beginning of each novel, almost as if JKR wants to establish her progressive credentials from the very outset. Once we move on to the meat of the text, however, it can sometimes become a bit difficult to avoid the suspicion that in some indefinable way, the spirit of Aunt Marge is pushing the hand that holds the pen. Blood really does seem to tell in the Potterverse, and foreign names do often serve as a marker of dark allegiance. The lower classes are stupid and beneath notice; the aristocracy is sinister, and very likely sexually perverse as well. Corporal punishment is precisely what children like Draco Malfoy deserve, and although Hogwarts does not itself permit this, the narrative voice positively exults whenever the little brat gets physically smacked down. The political approach of Crouch Sr. was regrettable, of course -- but all the same, you know, his son really was guilty...and besides, Fudge is ever so much worse. And Sirius Black, whom Vernon Dursley so brutishly classifies as gallows-bait, was innocent all along. Pettigrew was the real culprit -- and the narrative voice rather gives us the impression that the author believes that he really does "deserve to die."

It is troubling, this, and it casts the Dursley sequences which open each novel in a strange and somewhat disturbing light. The broad slapstick viciousness of these passages—often strikingly stylistically out of kilter with the more subtle shadings of the rest of the text—almost begin to read like expressions of authorial self-hatred, or perhaps even as failed authorial attempts at self-exorcism. JKR rings her little bell and lights her single candle: she sneers at Vernon; she blows up Aunt Marge. But the values that these characters represent cannot be so easily dismissed. Their personifications may receive all manner of public thrashing in the first chapter or two of each novel, but it would seem that their spirits are lodged somewhere deep within the author's very soul.

When it comes to the Dursleys, the closet conservative doth protest too much. The result—much like the homophobic rantings of those trapped in a somewhat different closet—is strangely unconvincing. On some fundamental level, we simply do not believe in the Dursleys in at all the same way that we believe in the rest of the fictive world. The explicit condemnation of their values doesn't carry the same weight as the implicit approval that these same values are granted by the rest of the text -- in very much the same way that JKR's use of stereotypes as a form of humor so often fails to quite convince readers that she really doesn't, deep down in her heart of hearts, genuinely believe the things that she passes off as "nothing but a joke." JKR wants to be a progressive. But there's a rock-solid streak of conservatism in her writing, and even though she herself seems to dislike it, she nonetheless seems incapable of banishing it even from her very own text.

—Elkins

 

RE: Official Philip Nel Question #10: Class


David wrote:

I think possibly there is a difference between the Dursleys' Toryism and JKR's values. Adams describes her as an old fashioned 'one-nation' Tory, while (I think) the Dursleys are more in the mould of the modern Thatcherite.

Well, I wouldn't really presume to pass judgement on JKR's personal politics, but I think that you are quite correct that the Dursleys are a satire of a far more contemporary political type than the type whose values are personified by Aunt Marge—and whose values I also perceive as subtly reinforced by the rest of the text.

One of the really interesting things about the nature of the HP books' nostalgia, IMO, is that it is not only "archaic" in the sense of being nostalgia, but also rather archaic in its very expression. The books "look backwards" on more than one level. On the one hand, the wizarding world is quite consciously and deliberately set forth as anachronistic: it is itself to some extent portrayed as an escape from the mundanity of modern life. Yet this anachronistic quality seems at times almost to "leak," to rub off on the fictive world as a whole. It is not just the wizarding world that seems to exist in a somewhat romanticized version of the past. The text as a whole seems to live there as well, as many on this list have noted when they have written about the series' "innocence," particularly when it comes to sexual matters. Darrin has identified the books as "1950sish." Adams alludes to its "between the wars" quality. Even the genres which comprise the series' "genre soup"—the Golden Age detective story, the Boarding School tale—are rather archaic types of fiction.

This aspect of the series often leaves me with an overall impression of a kind of "double nostalgia." The wizarding world is deliberately anachronistic, yet even its anachronism is set within the context of a series that itself in many ways "looks backwards." (This may in fact be part of why I am so often and so forcibly reminded of Christie while reading Rowling: Christie's writings also partook of a kind of "double nostalgia." Many of her books give the impression that their author is a Victorian, or at least an Edwardian, when in fact, she was born too late to lay any legitimate claim to either of these designations.)

Aunt Marge, for example, is really a very dated stereotype. Like the Dursleys, she's a broad caricature of a representative of a very specific social class, but unlike the Dursleys, she's not really a caricature of contemporary type at all. She seems to me in many ways to belong far more to the cosily antiquated England that the Weasleys inhabit than she does to the world of Thatcherites and playstations. Indeed, the interactions between the Dursleys and Aunt Marge strike me as quite humorous for just that reason: Aunt Marge just seems so terribly incongruous when plunked down in the middle of the Dursleys' modern suburban home. She is as out of place there as the Weasleys are; she is herself a bit of an anachronism.

In some ways, though, I think that this is a necessary part of her narrative function. By depicting an alliance (albeit a somewhat strained one) between the Dursleys and Aunt Marge, the text seems to me to be implying a certain political parallelism between these two broadly caricatured social "types." This is necessary in part because of the discrepancy that Richard alludes to here:

In today's Britain, I suspect that those views are far more those of the aspiring classes rather than the true middle class.

Hence the significance of that textual alliance between the post-Thatcher caricature of the Dursleys and the pre-WWII caricature of Aunt Marge, no?

—Elkins

 

RE: Official Philip Nel Question #10: Class


Note: I've rearranged the text of Pip's message in this response in an attempt to make my reply somewhat less repetitive and more coherent. I have really tried not to do any damage to Pip's authorial intent in the process; if she feels that I have nonetheless somehow misrepresented her, then I offer my most sincere apologies.

About my class analysis of the HP books, which I likened in some ways to the works of Agatha Christie, Pip wrote:

This is an oversimplification of Christie. . . .It is also an oversimplification of JKR...

Yes, of course it is. But when we talk about class (or gender, for that matter) in either a series or an ouvre, then we are by necessity going to be speaking in terms of gestalt. Of course there are a few clever representatives of the lower classes to be found in Christie's eighty-some-odd novels. But her works are overwhelmingly dominated by the stock characters of the adenoidal housemaid, the unbelievably stupid "working girl" secretary, the mean-spirited gold-digger, the brutish slattern, and so on.

Similarly, when we talk about class in the works of JKR, we are going to be looking at the overall scope of the series, not evaluating each and every character to see whether the author's use of the stock in that particular case is justified or realistic, or whether it serves a useful narrative function. Of course stocks serve a useful narrative function! If they didn't, then writers wouldn't use them. But the particular types of stock and stereotype that authors do use, and the precise ways in which they use them, are significant. They affect the overall slant of the writing; they produce a gestalt impression in the mind of the reader. They convey meaning.

...since at the moment we have seen very little of the Wizarding World outside of Hogwarts.

Well, as I read it, that was rather the point that Eileen was making in post 37420: that Hogwarts exists to serve a specific segment of the wizarding world, one which does not include the working classes or the urban poor. We therefore only meet people from those backgrounds when we leave the milieu of Hogwarts.

Where cause and effect come into this equation, of course, is a matter of dispute. On the one hand, as Eileen wrote:

If some students are admitted from the wizarding lower classes, they must soon pick it [the proper accent] up. They would not, after a Hogwarts education, talk as the two learned custodians of the Knight Bus.

She then went on to speak of an "aristocracy of education." This is the same possibility, I think, that you yourself suggested here:

The problem with detecting working class students is, that an education beyond 18 in Britain (and in many ways Hogwarts has a 'university' ethos) dumps you firmly into the middle classes anyway, whether you have working class parents or not. Anyone who studies at Hogwarts is going to find themselves a middle-class wizard (and will probably be very nicely spoken, too, whether their mother takes the trolley up the Hogwarts Express or not ;-) ).

Agreed. This was the very possibility that I was trying to suggest when I expressed my doubts about JKR's claim in interview that Hogwarts is in fact the only school for magical students in the UK.

I wrote:

Indeed, there are things in the text itself which strongly suggest that Hogwarts is not in fact, as JKR has stated in interview, the only wizarding school in Great Britain. Hermione refers to it as the "best" school of its kind.

Pip:

"It's the very best school of witchcraft there is, I've heard...(PS/SS p.79) - which implies more 'the best in the world' rather than 'the best in the UK'.

Well...it might. I find it rather ambiguous myself. Hermione immediately prefaces the statement with this expression of pleasure:

'Nobody in my family's magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it's the very best school of witchcraft there is, I've heard—'

Now, she could just be saying that she was "ever so pleased" to discover that she had magical talent at all—and then doubly pleased to learn that, because she is fortunate enough to live in the UK, she is therefore entitled to attend the very best school of witchcraft in the world.

She could. It's possible. To my mind, though, that line of dialogue seems to suggest that Hermione herself, at any rate, believes that there do exist other, less prestigious schools of witchcraft to which she might well have been relegated.

This touches on the possibility that you raise here:

Can Stan and Ernie do enough magic to become 'fully qualified wizards'? There's a huge difference between being musical enough to be taught an instrument and being musically talented enough to get into, say, Cheetham's School of Music (a specialist secondary school).

Yes, there is a difference, and here again, I think that we are compelled to consider the possibility that there do exist far less prestigious schools than Hogwarts in the UK, schools to which those not magically talented enough to attend Hogwarts, yet still too magically apt to be designated "Squibs," might be sent. This would be consistent with Neville's description of his family's joy to learn that he had indeed been deemed "magical enough" for Hogwarts.

So yes. There is certainly textual evidence to suggest that education—and thus social standing—within the wizarding world might be determined by innate magical talent, rather than by the class of ones parents.

On the other hand, as Eileen's message also points out, every single one of the wizard-born Hogwarts students whose parental occupation we actually know is the child of either a ministry official or an idle aristocrat. (Lucius Malfoy may also hold some form of government sinecure in addition to all of his, er, philanthropic and unpaid positions: I am told that the trading cards, which I myself have not seen, list some type of "underminister" position as his occupation.)

It is also implied that many of the children whose parents' jobs we don't know were acquainted with one another even before starting school, which rather suggests that their families moved in the same social strata.

Furthermore, we have never once heard even a first-year student at Hogwarts speak with the "wrong" sort of accent. The only Hogwarts-educated character we have ever heard speak "improperly" is Hagrid, who also, er, can't spell. I tend to agree with Eileen that this does not seem particularly believable, and that it can probably be read as comedic trope. If the children of the lower classes of the wizarding world are indeed assimilating, then either they're doing so awfully quickly, or JKR has simply never bothered to show us any evidence that they attend Hogwarts at all.

I wrote:

Only Muggle-born students, who are obviously a special case, have parents who do not come from the middle classes or above.

Pip asked:

How do you know this?

Er, because that's what's in the text. Because of all of the students whose parents' occupations we have been told, only the Muggle-born Creevey brothers and the Muggle-born Tom Riddle have parents who do not come from the middle classes or above. (Well...actually, I suppose that Riddle's father actually was wealthy, but for purposes of this discussion, I would consider the orphanage in which he was raised to serve the relevant "parental" function.)

I think that we may be talking past one another here. I am describing what the author has actually chosen to show us in the text. This is obviously not the same thing as what may be "true" in the fictive world as the author imagines it or, for that matter, as we the readers choose to imagine it. When we look at what's actually given us by the text, though, then so far this is simply the fact of the matter: no wizard-raised child at Hogwarts that we know of has a father who is not either independently wealthy or working in the civil service.

We haven't been introduced to a student with the signal that 'they were from a working class wizard family', no.

No, we haven't. This doesn't mean that they don't exist in the fictive world, of course. But it does mean that they do not exist in the text. And I do view that as significant. The author chooses what to focus on when she writes, and those choices in and of themselves convey meaning.

We've been introduced to the Weasley's, who have a good Hogwarts education but absolutely no money.

And who, it is strongly implied, have been having large families and strained resources, while nonetheless travelling in circles noticable to the likes of Lucius Malfoy, for more than one generation. "My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles and more children than they can afford." Lucius also takes Arthur to task for the "company he keeps." I read the Weasleys' social class to be coded as impoverished minor aristocracy, or at the very least as "impoverished but genteel."

Oh, and on the topic of aristocracy, in response to my description of the "peers are not to be trusted" attitude, Pip wrote:

Incidentally, I seem to have missed Lucius Malfoy's elevation to the peerage - when did it happen? :-)

It happened in analogy. ;-)

As far as I can tell, there is no "aristocracy" in the sense of an actual peerage in the wizarding world at all (although it would not surprise me in the least if we were to learn in future canon that there had been one once, but that at some point in history it had been dissolved). But we are naturally dealing with analogy and parallel whenever we talk about social class as reflected in the wizarding world, and it seems quite clear to me that Lucius Malfoy may be read as analagous to a member of that social class. I don't really think that we're ever going to see the Weasleys attend Mass either, but I do think that Richard Adams' reading of them as analogous to an old Anglo-Catholic family is perfectly defensible.

As someone from a working class background, my main interest is to ask 'would I have been admitted to Hogwarts if I had had magical abilities?' And the answer JKR gives me is 'yes'.

Okay. So your chief question, then, would be this: "Is the wizarding world's class system more of a meritocracy, or more of an aristocracy?" Would that be a fair assessment?

It's an interesting question in its own right, and for what it's worth, I'd say that it's impossible to say for sure at this point. As outlined above, I can see canonical support for either answer to that particular question. As JKR herself does seem fairly strongly committed to egalitarian principles, though, then I would say that the answer, in terms of how the author herself is imagining the system working, would indeed very likely be "yes."

In terms of what the text actually shows us, though? In those terms, the wizarding working classes are not represented at Hogwarts. They simply aren't.

Why should the books deal with the working classes!!!

There's no particular reason why they should. As, indeed, they don't, which was rather my point.

What particularly interests me about this in the context of the Nel discussion is what it reveals about the text's ambivalence, its inconsitency, when it comes to the subject of social class. What I perceive about this series is that it simply does not concern itself very much with the working classes. It concerns itself with a ruling elite. Even if that ruling elite for which Hogwarts is the appropriate educational preparation is a meritocracy of sorts, we are nonetheless never actually shown any signs of lower than middle class origins among its wizard-born student body. If such a population exists, then it is invisible to the reader. Members of the wizarding world's lower-than-middle-classes who are depicted in the text are only seen outside of Hogwarts, and outside of the circles in which Harry usually travels; they are unimportant characters, and they are roughly sketched as "stocks."

About those stocks...

Personally I don't much like Stan Shunpike - but I have met lads like him in real life. He's not unrealistic. Nor is the cheery trolley lady.

Well, most character stocks have their roots in real generalizations, don't they? Stereotypes don't come out of thin air.

And how do you know she regards the students as her 'betters' anyway?

I don't. In fact, as someone who works in a service profession myself, I feel virtually convinced that the lunch trolley witch wouldn't really regard the students on the Hogwarts Express as her "betters" at all. ;-)

Nor, for that matter, do I think that Harry and Ron view her as an inferior (although I'm almost certain that nasty class-conscious little Draco Malfoy would). They are children, and she is the friendly and kindly adult who brings the food 'round on the train, and from their perspective, that's probably about as far as they ever really think about her at all.

From a class perspective, though, she does occupy a lower social standing than they do. They are attending the school which churns out the ruling elite of the wizarding world. She's selling them snacks and sandwiches. Her role in the text, like the roles of the various shopkeepers of Diagon Alley, is merely to serve a function, and her descriptors—"plump," "cheerful," "smiling"—are just stock shorthand for the stereotypical plump and cheerful service woman who calls you "luv" or "dear" (or, in this country, "hon") when she brings you your tea.

There's nothing wrong with that at all, of course. It would be a very tedious series indeed if the reader were forced to learn all about the private lives of every single unimportant character who wandered on by. I was just pointing out the extent to which all of the members of a certain social class are sketched by type on route to making a rather larger point about the class focus of the series as a whole, and what assumptions that class focus serves to convey to readers of the work.

What makes this interesting, to my mind, is that the particular kinds of stocks which are being used are emblematic of a literary approach to social class that is strongly aligned with a certain set of values and mores and judgements, a certain way of viewing the world, and that it is a way of viewing the world that elsewhere in the text, JKR seems to be going very far out of her way to critique and even to deride.

So there is an inconsistency here, a "fault line," if you will. It is one of the points on which the text (or its author) comes across as ambivalent, or even as somewhat conflicted.

Textual "fault lines" of this sort tend to create tension in readers, tension which can manifest itself both positively or negatively. On the one hand, they can encourage "reader resistance," which is a term used to describe the phenomenon of readers deliberately choosing to interpret a text against the grain, so to speak -- reading in violation of what even they suspect to be the author's true intent (slash readings are a good example of this phenomenon).

On the other hand, tension also helps to fuel reader interest and emotional engagement. Your own emotional investment in the question of whether or not the wizarding world is at all meritocatic might serve as an example of this one. Honestly, if there were no tension or inconsistency implicit in the text on this point, then it is unlikely that so many of us would bother to spend so much time and energy debating the point. ;-) Books that cause no tension in their readers are usually pretty insipid. They don't encourage active reader engagement; because they inspire no anxiety, they inspire little in the way of irritation, but neither do they inspire much in the way of curiosity, of of love. They therefore don't tend to stand the test of time very well. Fiction with fault lines is fiction that breathes.

-----------

A few last words on some points on which I seem to have caused offense.

Perhaps you simply haven't met many small 'c' conservative, mddle class people, who nonetheless think that racism, classism, sexism are bad things, that there should be equal opportunity for all, and that it was a good day when they abolished the death penalty. However, they do exist.

Of course they do. As, I assure you, do a number of Guardian-reading "chattering classes" type people who nonetheless hold some astonishingly anti-egalitarian views.

But we're talking about broad general types here, and honestly now, did it really surprise you when Vernon Dursley started shooting his mouth off about how hanging's too good for people like that? I mean, did it take you aback? Did it strike you as in any way out of keeping for the (admittedly incredibly broadly caricatured) stereotype that the Dursleys represent? For that matter, were you shocked when Aunt Marge started drawing parallels between poor Harry and an sickly, ill-bred bulldog pup?

Because I have to tell you, I really wasn't gaping in the stunned amazement of a reader whose preconceptions had just been shattered when either of those things happened in the text. JKR does often go out of her way to mess with reader expectation by breaking type. But she's not done that (yet) with the Dursleys.

Could I point out that I find the very term 'lower classes' disdainful? It implies to me that I am some species of insect, or something equally lower than human. ;-) Presumably you are using it in an ironic sense? ;-)

I'm terribly sorry. I was speaking within the context of the very metaphor in which the term "middle class" is framed in the first place, a spatial metaphor which views the "middle" as sandwiched somewhere between the classes above it ("upper") and the classes below it ("lower").

Of course, it is rather a vile paradigm to begin with (and besides, the "middle class" isn't even in the middle at all, economically and statistically speaking). But the metaphor is rather difficult to avoid when one chooses to discuss class hierarchy. I absolutely do not believe that there is anything inferior or lowly about people who hold certain jobs, and I do regret it if I gave that impression.

Some of the comments made appear to imply a belief that someone with an apparently subservient job (the trolley lady) is automatically inferior to Hogwarts students - which may be the reader's interpretation of the text rather than the author's.

The author doesn't get to interpret the text. That's the reader's privilege. ;-)

I certainly don't think that a woman who sells food and beverages on a train is in any way inferior to a Hogwarts student, and I highly doubt that JKR does either -- not, at any rate, on any conscious level. I do think, though, that she has written a fiction that concerns itself primarily with the ruling elite of an imaginary culture, while simultaneously revealing a great deal of authorial ambivalence over to what extent that ruling elite is determined by rights of inheritance. I also think that she has chosen to make use of a number of stereotypes, stocks, and genre conventions which give tacit implicit approval to many of the very ideas and attitudes which she derides in more explicit ways. In short, I see a good deal of inconsistency, a good deal of ambivalence in this text, much of which seems to center around the issue of class.

For all we know the trolley lady could be a working-class research witch who does the six times yearly job for some extra cash to buy the rare herbs she needs. [grin]

Are you saying that if this were the case, then she would be in some way superior to an ordinary run-of-the-mill trolley lady who had no such intellectual ambitions? [exceptionally evil grin]

—Elkins, who must now run off to work to, er, serve her social betters.