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Tom Riddle and the Faustian Pact
By Canis sapiens

To while away those inevitable boring moments of everyday life, I often like to conjure imaginary scenarios in my mind. One of my favourites is the following: What if there were to be an international convention of famous fictional characters and one’s job as the convener was to place like-minded characters together on the same table – who would be placed in whose company? Clearly, no literary convention would be complete without the legendary medieval figure of Doctor Faustus, in all his literary guises, whose pact with the Devil, either literal or symbolic, has been an enduring literary theme. It is, dare I say, in such “illustrious” company as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Goethe’s Faust, Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn, Klaus Mann’s Hendrik Höfgen and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray that J.K. Rowling’s Tom Riddle would find his literary kin. The choice of this seating arrangement is not intended as a comment one way or another on the literary merit of the Harry Potter series in relation to the aforementioned works. Suffice to say, it seems to me that an understanding of Tom Riddle’s actions in Faustian terms can help shed light on the some of themes the books deal with and maybe even hint at certain plausible outcomes for the seventh book by comparing the Harry Potter series’ arch sinner with his table mates.

As both Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto show, it is not necessary for there to be a direct reference to a pact with the Devil per se for the Faustian themes to be clear; neither is there such a reference in the Harry Potter series. The crucial element is that the Faustian figure engages with some evil or corrupt agent in order to attain power, usually through access to forbidden knowledge; and in doing so, he clearly bargains with his soul. Consider this speech made by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus close to the beginning of the play:

These metaphysics of magicians,

And necromantic books are heavenly;

Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;

Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.

O, what a world of profit and delight,

Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,

Is promis’d to the studious artizan!

All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command: emperors and kings

Are but obeyed in their several provinces,

Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;

But his dominion that exceeds in this,

Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;

A sound magician is a mighty god:

Here, Faustus, tire thy brains to gain a deity. 1

Would not Harry Potter’s arch villain perhaps concur with these sentiments? Earlier on, Doctor Faustus, having pursued every avenue of traditional knowledge, is dissatisfied with the limitations of each and turns towards the knowledge of magic to lift him up above the realm of the common man in scholarship and to “gain a deity.” Likewise, Goethe’s Faust, also a scholar frustrated by the limitations of traditional knowledge, turns to magic in the pursuit of knowledge of nature’s innermost workings.

And so to magic my soul I’ve given,

If, haply, by spirits’ mouth and might,

Some mysteries may not be brought to light;

That to teach, no longer may be my lot,

With bitter sweat, what I need to be taught;

That I may know what the world contains

In its innermost heart and finer veins,

See all its energies and seeds

And deal no more in words but in deeds. 2

Both men, in seeking to gain knowledge through the study of magic, summon Lucifer’s servant – Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust and Mephistophilis in Marlowe – and they enter into a bargain, sealed with blood. The terms of the contract are that Mephisto will accompany Faust/Faustus and induct him into that knowledge he so craves and then with his death, at the end of twenty-four years, his soul will be claimed by Hell. According to the medieval world-view at the time, when the Faust legend had its genesis, it was not man’s place to interrogate nature’s innermost workings. This knowledge was seen to be the sole province of God and to seek it out, especially through magic, amounted to heresy and a turning away from God, in essence a pact with the Devil.

Clearly, the very path Tom Riddle takes in his quest to conquer death is the path of forbidden knowledge, that is by an exploration of the Dark Arts. An important quote that points especially to Tom Riddle’s Faustian credentials is the following: “I have experimented; I have pushed the boundaries of magic further, perhaps, than they have ever been pushed –” 3 Then there is Nagini, Voldemort’s familiar (a spirit, usually taking the form of an animal, that attends a witch or wizard) – who mirrors the serpent that tempted Eve with forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. In many ways, Tom Riddle’s investigation into Horcruxes stands in the same relationship to the concept of forbidden knowledge as necromancy and magic do in the works of Goethe and Marlowe. The topic of Horcruxes, as we learn in Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, is a banned subject, one that Dumbledore is “particularly fierce about.” 4

Adrian Leverkühn, the central figure and composer of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, also has “visions” of forbidden knowledge. When Adrian Leverkühn speaks to his friend and the narrator of the novel, Serenus Zeitblom, of an imaginary journey to the depths of the oceans and the far reaches of the cosmos, Mann is alluding to the link that was often made in Medieval times, when the Faust legend had its genesis, to the fears the Church had about scientific exploration, equating it with the evils of magic. This novel is set in the earlier part of the twentieth century when new discoveries in science were pushing man ever further away from the centre of the universe and opening up hitherto unknown worlds where time and space were no longer seen as absolutes. This revolution in scientific theory was seen by many as deeply disturbing, as unsettling as Galileo’s displacement of Earth from the centre of the universe was to the church authorities in his time. These “imaginary journeys” of Leverkühn’s disturb the humanist Serenus Zeitblom, causing him to fear for the health of Adrian’s soul. From Zeitblom’s perspective, both Adrian’s delving into that “to which the human mind cannot relate at all” 5 (i.e., his pursuit of the outer limits of scientific knowledge) and the bemusement Adrian seems to feel in relation to the uncanniness of it all is akin to the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, practised by both Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Goethe’s Faust (i.e., their investigations of nature “in her innermost heart and finer veins” 6). Adrian’s descriptions of the grotesque life forms he observes in the ocean depths cause Zeitblom to comment “that one was exposing to sight what had never been seen, was not to be seen, had never been expected to be seen.” 7 Likewise when Leverkühn speaks of his journey through the billions of Milky Ways revealed to him, Zeitblom protests, “this whole phantasm of numbers ending in nothingness could not possibly excite a feeling for God’s splendour or instil any sense of moral elevation. Instead, it all looked like a devilish prank.” 8 Zeitblom later insists, “Piety, reverence, decency of soul – these are possible only in terms of man and through man, only when restricted to what is earthly and human.” 9 Tom Riddle in his creation of Horcruxes is in effect exposing the soul, that most sacred part of man which should never be tampered with; for to do so is to expose what “what had never been seen, was not to be seen, had never been expected to be seen.” 10 His delving into forbidden territory parallels, in some sense, Leverkühn’s “forbidden and uncanny visions,” his creation of Horcruxes indeed “a devilish prank.”

All the Faustian figures, save Dorian Gray, believe that they are in some sense superior to their more humble origins and this exaggerates their desire to stand out from the common mould. As poor scholars, both Goethe’s Faust and Marlowe’s Faustus feel that society has not accorded them the status they feel is their due given their superior intellects. Even Adrian Leverkühn, while not exactly resenting his simple farming background, cultivates from an early age a sense of being apart from the ordinary rung of humanity. And of course, Tom deeply resents his half-blood origins. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore says of Tom Riddle when he first encounters him in the orphanage, “There he showed his contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary. Even then he wished to be different, separate, notorious.” 11 Likewise, Klaus Mann’s Hendrik Höfgen never ceases to be embarrassed by his petit-bourgeois background and this is exemplified in the fact that he even changes his birth name from Heinz to the more patrician Hendrik. In this respect, he is just like Tom Riddle who resents his Muggle name and assumes the name of Lord Voldemort. Perhaps it is in the arrogance of the Faustian figures’ belief in their own superiority, be that brilliance of mind, exceptional talent or beauty, that makes them so vulnerable to Mephisto’s temptations. However unpleasant, to put it mildly, Tom Riddle may be, he is undoubtedly, in wizarding terms, a genius. Tom Riddle, as he informs us in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was a talented student. “On the one hand, Tom Riddle, poor but brilliant, parentless but so brave, school prefect, model student.” 12 His own estimation of his brilliance is also confirmed by Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

As an unusually talented and very good-looking orphan, he naturally drew attention and sympathy from the staff almost from the moment of his arrival. He seemed polite, quiet and thirsty for knowledge. Nearly all were most favourably impressed by him. 13

Likewise, both Sirius Black and James Potter were exceptionally talented students and even rather arrogant in their teens, as Sirius quite freely admits in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix; but where they differ so completely from Tom Riddle is that they recognize their common humanity with other wizards – and Muggles too – and have no desire to coldly separate themselves off from other people as proof of their specialness. It is ultimately Tom Riddle’s denial of his humanity that leads him on his diabolical path.

As Hagrid tells Harry of Voldemort, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, “Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.” 14 I believe that this statement of Hagrid’s sums up more than any other the essential link between being human and being mortal. To deny one’s mortality and seek to overcome it, as Voldemort has done, clearly necessitates a renouncement of one’s very own humanness. At least symbolically, this would appear to be tantamount to a pact with the devil. And of course mortality is something Tom Riddle sees as a weakness: “My mother can’t have been magic, or she wouldn’t have died.” 15 Wizards and witches, as we well know, are mortal and this is something they also share with Muggles. No wonder Tom Riddle, who so resents his Muggle origins, is so keen to overcome it. For what could vindicate him in his belief that he is indeed special more that inducting his Death Eaters, whose pure-blood origins he undoubtedly envies, into the secrets of immortality? But there is a price to be paid and that is the denial of love. And it is this denial of love that also can be seen in the fates of Tom Riddle’s tablemates. In various forms, one of the most significant clauses in the Faustian contract is – thou shalt not love.

In the Harry Potter series there are many references to Tom Riddle’s coldness. This is a characteristic he also shares with Adrian Leverkühn, who maintains a consistently ironic and emotionally distant relationship to others. Quite early on, he speaks of wishing to strip music of its “cow warmth – kuhwärme,” in other words, its sensuousness. Put simply, his later works are often criticised as soulless and coldly intellectual, even sinister. His attempt to win the love of a woman, Marie Godeau, ends tragically and when he dares love his charming little nephew, Nepomuk, the boy dies horribly of meningitis. Goethe’s Faust’s seduction of the simple country girl, Gretchen, likewise ends tragically. Dorian Gray’s callous rejection of the beautiful young actress, Sybille, results in her suicide; and it is after this incident that Dorian Gray’s portrait reveals the first signs of the growing corruption of his soul. Hendrik Höfgen sacrifices his black mistress, Julietta, to his growing ambition and she is banished from Germany by the Nazis, with whom he has bargained for his soul.

Each of these characters sees the beloved only in terms of how they gratify their own selfish desires, and this necessarily precludes the idea of love as concern for another’s well being, i.e., the true meaning of love. These Faustian figures ill-fated “loves” have a grotesque parallel in the way Tom Riddle charms Hepzibah Smith into showing him her treasured heirlooms. Clearly, there is no “love story” in an obvious sense, but the poor old girl pretties herself up in anticipation of his visit, clearly flattered that this handsome youth shows her any attention. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince it seems pretty obvious that the young Tom Riddle well knew how to use his good looks and charm to seduce, in a manner of speaking, those who could be of use to him. In fact, it may not be too far fetched to imagine that young Riddle may have even been quite capable of seduction in the more literal sense – if a fetching young witch could wittingly or unwittingly lead him further along the path he sought. Of course, this scenario seems unlikely after his full transformation into Lord Voldemort – then he would make even Vernon Dursley seem sexually alluring by comparison!

If there is one thing above all others that separates the “good” characters from the “bad” in Harry Potter it is not that the good are so unerringly noble but rather that for all their powers they value above all their relationships with others. Both in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore informs Harry that the one power he possesses that Voldemort does not is his capacity to love. And, of course, it is Lily’s sacrifice that protects Harry on the fateful night when Voldemort kills his parents (Harry, we also know, is conceived in love, Tom through trickery). The capacity for love also entails an acceptance of the other as your equal, thus an overriding sense of personal superiority makes love impossible. Though you may have associates, you cannot have friends. Dumbledore doubts that Tom Riddle, even in his youth ever had friends. “ ‘I am glad to hear that you consider them friends’ said Dumbledore. ‘I was under the impression that they are more in the order of servants.’ ” 16

There have been many speculations on the nature of the prophecy revealed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This prophecy, it would seem, is more in the line of the prophecies made by the witches to Macbeth; in other words, it is somewhat self-fulfilling. Just as Macbeth’s belief in the prophecy conditions his actions, so too Tom Riddle’s chosen belief that Harry would be the one most dangerous to him conditions his actions on that fateful night at Godric’s Hollow. Dumbledore certainly illuminates certain aspects of it further in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. “Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him – and in doing so, he made you the person who would be most dangerous to him!” 17

This comment of Dumbledore’s makes me suspect that Tom Riddle may have actually been colluding in his own demise when he unwittingly marked Harry as his equal; and I mean Tom Riddle not Voldemort. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps part of the key to the series has to do with distinguishing between the two. Could it be telling that Dumbledore never addresses Voldemort as anything but Tom; for as Tom, redemption may still be possible. Could Tom have perhaps had a sliver of remorse, knowing the terrible price he has paid in his bid for immortality?

If we are to interpret Tom Riddle as a Faustian figure then there is the literary precedent for the Faustian figure’s at least momentarily flirting with the possibility of repentance. For example, both Dorian Gray and Hendrik Hoefgen have their moments of doubt regarding the paths they have chosen; however, neither is prepared to make the sacrifices that a full repentance would entail. It seems that in order to completely seal the deal and become irrevocably Lord Voldemort, Tom must not falter even ever so slightly from his chosen path. Could it be Lily’s sacrifice that causes him to falter?

The idea that a mere “Mudblood” could show such courage born of love when Voldemort’s own mother, Slytherin’s direct descendant no less, is inadequate to the task of protecting her child may have caused him to doubt, albeit for a split second, his whole philosophy. Perhaps this small seed of doubt distracts him from the absolute fixedness of purpose and concentration, necessary for the spell to take full effect, so instead of killing Harry, as is his intention, he creates another half-blood orphan, in a sense another self, endowing him with his own powers. As we see, this child will grow up to mock the bargain that Tom Riddle has made because, to borrow a metaphor from Wuthering Heights, this tree does not grow as crooked even with the same wind to twist it. Harry, as a living testimony to the fact that there is indeed another path, must pose a direct challenge to all that Voldemort stands for both in terms of the man himself and what his name represents, i.e., flight from death – literally. No wonder he cannot possess Harry for long without enduring mortal agony, because love must be an anathema to him. As Adrian Leverkühn confesses, “it [the terms of the pact] being conditional that I might love no human creature.” 18 In fact, the adulation and absolute obedience Voldemort exacts from his Death Eaters can be seen as a perverse substitute for love, an inversion of all that love means. Harry, in contrast, never equates adulation with love. Indeed, he shuns it. Having closed off all alternative paths when he first split his soul, Voldemort is thus condemned to the torment of an insatiable lust for power that possibly no longer affords him any gratification but without which he would cease to exist.

With the exception of Goethe’s Faust, each of the other figures descends into hell of one kind or another: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, literally so; Adrian Leverkühn descends into madness and dies soon after; Hendrik Höfgen faces the utter emptiness of a life without personal or professional integrity; and Dorian Gray dies in horror as he slashes at the portrait that reveals the corruption of his own soul. So what of Tom Riddle/Voldemort’s demise? In Harry Potter there is no reference to a pact with the Devil as such; therefore the passing of the four and twenty years allotted to “Faust,” as stated in the contract, does not apply here. The fate of Dorian Gray is probably that which could most parallel that of Tom Riddle/Voldemort. Just as Dorian Gray is destroyed when he can no longer bear “the living death of his own soul” 19 revealed in the portrait, so too may Tom Riddle meet his end by similar means. Without at least some whisper of a conscience left, Dorian Gray would not even be sensible to the horror of “the living death of his own soul.” And I believe this will also prove true in the case of Tom Riddle. This is where, it would seem, that the distinction between Tom and Voldemort could be important. Could it be that in his failure to kill Harry as a baby, some trace of the human Tom Riddle is left, even in his second incarnation as the apparently inhuman Lord Voldemort? Tom is, in a sense, Voldemort’s weakest point, for only Tom would be capable of recognising the hideous extent of the mutilation of his own soul. I am not suggesting that there will be any repentance on Tom’s behalf, and neither is repentance an option for the other Faustian figures. The damage to their souls is too great. They may have flirted with it, but ultimately they are unable to conceive of what form such repentance should take. However, they are cognisant of the horror of the choice they have made. Will Harry, by way of making him finally understand “the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole,” 20 make Tom cognisant of this horror in the final confrontation? Could Tom finally see that Dumbledore was right – there are worse things than death? If so, Tom will die, as befits a mortal, and Voldemort will be vanquished.


1. Marlowe, Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

2. Goethe, Faust, Prologue.

3. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 415.

4. Ibid., 466. And what about Tom Riddle’s Patronus? An inverted one to be sure, but I think it would take the form of a black poodle (Mephisto’s “Animagus,” according to Goethe).

5. Mann, Doctor Faustus, 282.

6. Goethe, Faust, Prologue.

7. Mann, Doctor Faustus, 283.

8. Ibid., 284.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 283.

11. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 259.

12. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 229-30.

13. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 337.

14. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 46.

15. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 257.

16. Ibid., 416.

17. Ibid., 476.

18. Mann, Doctor Faustus, 525.

19. Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray, 251.

20. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 478.


Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books Ltd., 1975.

Goethe, J.W. Faust. München: Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, 1987., translated by E. Theil.

Mann, Klaus. Mephisto, Roman einer Karriere. Hamburg: Rowoldt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1989.

Mann, Thomas. Doctor Faustus, translated by J.E. Woods. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. (accessed 6/10/06).

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.

———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.

———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

———. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Plays, Prose Writings and Poems. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1975.

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