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2002-2003
     
       
       
HPfGU #41399

Official Philip Nel Question #10: Class

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

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References:

deathtocapslock: POA: Chapter Two

Aunt Marge's Big Mistake

*As the title implies, she was just asking for it. Everyone is always asking for it in Harry's world. We should be glad that Harry is around to give it to them. As well as his friend Hermione. Never mind the fact that giving somebody what they had coming is NOT an acceptable alibi in court. Muggle Court that is. But then again, muggles are stoopid. Stupid Habeas Corpus.

*This wonderful chapter begins with the narrator gleefully explaining how FAT Dudley is. Let us all laugh at his five wobbling chins. Laughing at evil fat people is good for the soul and expresses all encompassing love.

*Dudley has a brand new TV in the kitchen. Because he is too FAT and lazy to walk from the living room to the kitchen. Because he is soooo FAT and keeps eating. Ummm, isn't it a common practice to have a little TV in the kitchen? You know, to watch the morning news and such? Or is it only FAT people who have TVs in their kitchens? Damn it what am I thinking?...

deathtocapslock: POA: Chapter Three

The Knight Bus

*Harry is at large on the streets of Magnolia Crescent and there is anger burning in his heart. But don't worry the love is there too. Its mixing with the anger to create something really good and is sure to save the world.

*Oh no, Harry's stranded in a muggle world. As if the wizarding world is any safer.

*Damn, Harry is now a fugitive and expelled from Hogwarts! He violated the underage magic rule.

*There is a lack of notices from the MOM. I'm thinking this was still during the years that Fudge was still Dumpeydore's water boy....

slinkhard: Hey. Just a quick

Hey. Just a quick entry now. Tomorrow I'll post my GoF review (yes, I know it came out like, three months ago. Read it or don't, I don't mind!)
Then perhaps some meta posts at long last.
(I got behind on all that pre-HBP release. So at present

deathtocapslock: HBP Chapter 13

*I sense another time-out coming for a Pensieve trip.

*The school is buzzing about Katie, who has been removed to St. Mungo’s. I love that nobody ever seems upset that there’s no actual investigation into this with any updates or anything like that. An unknown assassin targeting students seems unremarkable on the rumor mill. But then remember this is a school where the most popular boy jock is going out with the most popular girl jock is far more interesting than the most popular boy exsanguinating a classmate. . . .

ataniell93: In which JKR serves up another astounding dollop of hypocrisy...

Bitch, please.

If you don't want your young, impressionable readers* to think that there is nothing worse to be than fat, and that appearance counts more than anything, why don't you stop describing half your villains in terms of how fucking FAT AND UGLY they are?. . . .

sistermagpie: The Problem of Muggles

This is sort of an elephant-standing-in-the-room topic for me in HP-fandom, but I was thinking of it today coming across yet another discussion derailed into "Hagrid/the Weasleys are not Death Eaters so stop saying they are." It made me think about the...interesting way the books deal with certain subjects, or don't deal with them after bringing them up. That is, there are definite times in the books where it's unclear if the author is showing that things aren't black and white or just being hypocritical. Often the place this really seems obvious is when people try to discuss

It's a huge topic and I have no set ideas on it, it just seems like it's sometimes hard to try to get to the bottom of it without people demanding that everything be made black and white. . . .

blythely: You got to have the alpha mentality. - [fic]

Corridors of Power: Being An Intermittent Account of the Political Misadventures of the Viscount Northallerton, Lord Malfoy of Wimbledon; and the Honourable Harry J Potter, Member of Parliament for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Liberal Democrat).

the_snarkery: GoF Chapter 2

Well, there really isn’t much to say about this chapter since it’s a) pretty short and b) mostly just a rehash of what happened before. . .

the_snarkery: Chapter 36

*Not too flattering a title, is it, Albus? We were gonna call it "Coolest Bad Ass Wizard Ever" but this sounded more dramatic.

*Thanks for taking care of all those DEs so quickly. Why does the fate of the WW rest on Harry’s shoulders again? Couldn’t you just mop this up yourself?...

dietdudleydiet: Vernon...

This is something I'm much curious about, and for some reason, have been wondering today.

Many of the people in this group, from the posts I've read, seem to be Petunia fans, more so than the other Dursleys. Are there any Vernon fans around? I'm not one, particularly, but I have to wonder if anyone loves Vernon, or if he's just out there in the cold. . . .

the_snarkery: Chapter 29

*Known to some as, "The chapter where Harry proves his mature, compassionate nature by making quick judgments of others while reiterating how wonderful he and his friends are in comparison, just like me!"

*Hermione spent the large part of the day drawing up timetables for the three of them, as is her custom. When I was in college. . . .

the_snarkery: Dumbledore's Army

Happily this chapter is shorter, and the next one is The Lion Versus the Serpent and Teh H/ D!111, maybe to make up for the approaching "Hagrid's Tale."

In which there is a bad 80s training montage and Harry gets a whistle. And the ability to read Voldie's mind. But not to shut up.

Also, I don't usually rec fic here...

A Song of Ice and Fire: Did you miss last night's goings-on too?

the essay I mentioned, whihc argues more or less what A7 is ( I think...).

I don't think it's fair to judge someones political preferences from thier books though (when those books arent overtly political). If JKR says she's a liberal, and thats what she seems to be saying, with the Dursleys, i'll beleive her, rather than point out that deep down, she is a conservative, beacuse it's not relevant.

narcissam: When Character Hate Goes Bad

Many good and beautiful things have been written about character hate. I was there, applauding vigorously, when the astonishing fact was pointed out that fictional characters are incapable of having hurt feelings. I remember vividly the wild declaration that people are entitled to their own emotional reactions. And I was charmed when I read the argument that, if we are allowed to feel positively towards our favourite characters, there seems no reason to forbid negativity towards others.

On that last count....

sistermagpie: Love me, love my flaws

I was thinking about flaws this morning...or more accurately, character flaws, and how characters must have flaws, and how the word has come to be a good thing and thus, to not. . . .