For as long as J.K. Rowling’s novels have been on best-seller lists and up for literary awards, reviewers, critics, and scholars have been attacking the novels and especially the adults who freely acknowledge their love of these “children’s books”. In a New York Times article published in 2000, William Safire clearly states his opinion on Harry Potter: “These are not, however, books for adults.” 1 Safire argues, “the Potter series is not written on two levels” and therefore is not worthy of consideration as literary or even proper reading for adults.2 The well-respected scholar Harold Bloom claims, “one can reasonably doubt that ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone’ is going to prove a classic of children's literature.” 3 After reading comments like these, I wonder if either of these Harry Potter skeptics have actually taken the time to read through the books or examine some of the scholarly essays that have been published about the series in a number of books, journals, and websites. Their dismissal of the Harry Potter books is reminiscent of the initial reactions scholars have had to other books that we now consider classics and are being taught in many university classrooms. More specifically, the dismissal of these books as pure entertainment without depth or multiple levels of meaning remind me of the criticism Gothic novels have received. Yet, Gothic novels have made the transition from novels of pure entertainment with no literary merit to novels that are worthy of study in university classrooms. In this essay, I hope to show how Rowling’s novels have a connection to the Gothic novels that first became popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As with children’s or fantasy literature, the Gothic novel has been criticized since its inception as a form of entertainment with little literary or artistic merit. However, scholar’s views on the Gothic have been changing and the relationship of the Harry Potter books to this genre adds another dimension to the study of Rowling’s novels. Not only does Harry Potter deserve study as a children’s book or fantasy, but also as a part of the long and successful history of the Gothic novel.
Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) was the first novel to be described or labeled as Gothic. Since then, the Gothic has remained a popular genre in a multitude of different forms. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Ann Radcliffe’s novels, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho, were extremely popular. Radcliffe’s Udolpho even inspired Jane Austen’s satire of the Gothic novel, Northanger Abbey. During the Victorian period, the Gothic novel was associated with the sensational novel, like those written by Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. During the mid-nineteenth century in America, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe were writing Gothic tales. At the end of the nineteenth century, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray continued the Gothic tradition. Today, the Gothic remains popular in the novels of Steven King and Anne Rice as well as in films like Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. Despite the popularity of the genre since the eighteenth century, anything Gothic was historically “considered as a serious threat to literary and social values, anything Gothic was also discarded as an idle waste of time.” 4 Not only was the genre seen as nothing more than brainless pleasure, but also “… Gothic texts have generally been marginalized, excluded from the sphere of acceptable literature.” 5 However, these novels managed to survive and are now being studied by scholars and taught in universities. As with Harry Potter, the popular success of Gothic novels caused some people to dismiss them as not literary. Yet, the Gothic’s lasting appeal, the ability of the genre to transform itself over time, and the ease with which it has been adapted to film has meant that the Gothic is a genre that can simultaneously be studied academically and appeal to a large audience.
It would be impossible for me to discuss all of the characteristics and theories about the Gothic novel here. However, I will look at five characteristics of the genre and show how they appear in the Harry Potter series.
1. Atmosphere and Setting
Gothic novels are essentially novels of terror or horror. The atmosphere or mood of the novel is usually dark and threatening. Something horrible could happen at any moment. The setting helps to establish this threatening mood. As Jerrold E. Hogle explains in his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, “a Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space.” 6 Castles, old churches, graveyards, and ancient ruins add to the darkness of the novels. These places are frequently gloomy and isolated. For example, in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Montoni traps Emily in his castle far from civilization. A forest that is a known hideout for dangerous bandits surrounds the castle. Emily is forced to stay in this castle and explore secret passageways and hidden rooms if she hopes to escape unharmed. This castle and its surroundings help to create the creepiness common to the Gothic novel.
In the Harry Potter books, Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, the Riddle House, the graveyard, Grimmauld Place, and the labyrinth from the Triwizard Tournament all evoke the feeling of menace and darkness common to Gothic novels. These spaces are dark and creepy in part because they have an element of the unknown. There is a feeling of menace in these spaces; one never knows what could happen. While in Hogwarts, a staircase could suddenly move or you could find yourself in a mysterious and dangerous room. The forbidden forest is dark and dangerous; all kinds of strange creatures live there. Grimmauld Place is gloomy, dirty, and not welcoming or comfortable, especially with Sirius’s mother screaming all the time and Kreacher lurking around the house.
2. The Past
Gothic novels often deal with the past in some form. This can mean anything from that the plot takes place in previous centuries, that the setting (a castle, graveyard, church, ancient ruins, etc…) evokes a feeling of history or age, or even that all of the problems that the characters face originated in the past. For example, the mistakes of a father come back to harm his daughter years later or old family secrets return to cause family members a number of problems. The past does not just reappear for background information, but it is “secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story.” 7
The entire Harry Potter series hinges on events that occurred in the past. Each book deals with the past and the ways that the past shows up in the present to make Harry’s life even more difficult and complicated. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry and the trio have to research the past (to discover information about Flamel and the Stone). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets delves into the history of the school, the four founders, and Voldemort’s years at Hogwarts. With Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we discover more about Harry’s family through Lupin, Sirius, and Pettigrew. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the past literally returns when Voldemort gains a body and his Death Eaters return to him. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix not only gives readers information about the old Order, but also the fight in the Ministry is over the discovery of an old prophecy about Voldemort and the only one who can defeat him. Finally, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince revolves around memories of Voldemort’s past and the identity of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. Not only do the plots and mysteries of each book relate directly to events that occurred in the past, but there are also a number of elements emphasized in the books to make the reader focus on the past. The Pensieve and the memories it contains have become important to understanding Voldemort and discovering what he is attempting to do. Ghosts roam around the castle and can give students information about the past (Moaning Myrtle, for example). Portraits of dead headmasters can comment on current activities. Even the Horcruxes have connections to the past through the four founders. Many of the questions fans have about the series and the seventh book revolve around events that occurred in the past. We are still hoping to discover exactly what happened at Godric’s Hollow, how Snape gained Dumbledore’s trust, and about Dumbledore’s defeat of Grindelwald, just to name a few.
3. The Supernatural
Ghosts, haunted castles, and seemingly magical events abound in Gothic tales. Tzvetan Todorov separates the supernatural occurrences in the Gothic novel into two types. With “the supernatural explained” events are rationally explained as not supernatural at the end of the novel, and in “the supernatural accepted” events appear to be actually supernatural.8 Typically, Ann Radcliffe explains away the supernatural events in her novels. In other words, what the reader thought was a ghost was really someone dressed up as a ghost. On the other hand, Horace Walpole does not reason away the supernatural in The Castle of Otranto. Instead, the reader is never given a rational explanation for why a giant helmet falls out of the sky and kills Manfred’s son in the novel. With the last category, the reader must accept that supernatural events were responsible for what happened in the novel and not look for a rational or true-to-life explanation.
When the Harry Potter books are examined as Gothic novels, the supernatural events fall into Todorov’s second category of “the supernatural accepted.” 9 As with fairy tales, the readers do not question the supernatural events in the books. Nobody wonders if there is an alternative explanation for the student’s interactions with ghosts or Harry’s ability to summon an object with the Accio spell. Instead, readers accept magic and the supernatural as valid explanations for what occurs. Therefore, Harry Potter would be closer to Horace Walpole’s use of the supernatural than Ann Radcliffe’s.
4. Heroes, Heroines, and Villains
Gothic novels usually have a hero or heroine, but do not always have a clear-cut villain. Frequently, the heroes and heroines do not choose to become heroes or heroines. Instead, their circumstances force them to act in brave or heroic ways that they would normally avoid. For example, Jonathan Harker travels to Dracula’s castle for his job, not to look for adventure or the supernatural. Quite unwillingly, Harker and his friends back at home are drawn into the mysteries surrounding Dracula and end up defeating him. While the reader usually knows who the villain is in an Ann Radcliffe novel, in other Gothic novels the villain can be harder to determine. In other words, boundaries between good and evil can be fuzzy. For example, who is the true villain in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Should we call Victor Frankenstein or his creation the monster? In addition, Gothic villains adapt to each new reader. On the surface, most readers fear Dracula because he is a vampire with the ability to kill people and turn them into vampires. Yet, subconsciously the reason Bram Stoker’s readers in the late nineteenth century were frightened of Dracula are different from the reasons we are so frightened of him today. The historical and cultural problems and fears of the nineteenth century appear through the idea of an outsider invading England and attacking its citizens. Yet subconsciously, twentieth and twenty-first century readers, who live with different historical and cultural problems, might be more concerned about the transfer of blood between Dracula and his victims and the possible spread of diseases like AIDS.
Harry Potter is very similar to the reluctant heroes and heroines found in Gothic novels. Harry never chooses to be a hero; he hates the fame and attention his accomplishments have brought him. Yet, his circumstances force him into action. Harry does not go out looking for mysteries to solve or villains to defeat. Instead, those things seem to come to him. As with Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland, who is unceremoniously kicked out of General Tilney’s house and forced to go on a long journey home alone or Ann Radcliffe’s Emily St. Aubert, who has to fight against the uncle who has imprisoned her, Harry has no choice but to become the hero who adapts to his circumstances. With some of her villains, Rowling blurs the boundary between good and evil. Dolores Umbridge may be on the good side, but she is also a terrible person who is very willing to torture her students. Similarly, Snape is horrible to his students, but he has tried to protect Harry. Much like a boggart, the monsters and villains of a Gothic novel change with each person reading the book. While it is beyond the ability of any of us to predict how readers in a century will react to Harry Potter, even now we can see how Voldemort and the Death Eaters can represent different fears to different people. In a world where we strive for diversity and acceptance, Voldemort’s emphasis on pure-bloods and his destruction of those from different backgrounds or with opposing beliefs is very frightening. More historically speaking, Voldemort could remind readers of Hitler and the horrors associated with World War II. Voldemort also plays into our current fears about terrorism. What are his Death Eaters if not a group of terrorists attacking witches and wizards at random? With Voldemort, Rowling has created a villain that each new generation of readers will be able to fear for a different reason.
Finally, Gothic novels usually have some sort of mystery that must be solved by the hero or heroine. The villain may have a secret about their past that must be uncovered before they can be defeated. Even secrets about the hero or heroine’s past or family may help them defeat the villain, protect themselves from harm, or even give them previously unknown information about their parentage.
With Harry Potter, the trio usually ends up solving a mystery that relates to Voldemort. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are probably the best examples in the series of the trio working together to solve an important mystery that leads to Harry’s triumph over Voldemort at the end of the novel. Throughout the series, mysteries involving the past, dreams, and current events must be solved for the trio to triumph against Voldemort or his Death Eaters.
Gothic novels have made the transition from novels of pure entertainment to classics in part because they tell us about the time in which they were created. For example, Frankenstein came out of a time when technology and science were opening up new and often frightening possibilities. In addition, the issues raised in these novels still seem current today. Today’s readers of Frankenstein belong to a society that sometimes struggles to balance the benefits and horrors new technology can bring. Gothic novels still have the ability to scare us and at the same time reveal something about the fears of the society that created them. Radcliffe’s or Walpole’s Gothic novels may seem too far fetched to cause much of a fearful reaction from modern readers, but we can still identify with characters whose lives seem to be out of their own control. Books survive after centuries because they still have something to say to readers. While times have changed, the human condition has not. We still have hopes, fears, and desires. The Gothic novels that have made the transition from pure entertainment to classics still seem relevant for what they tell us about life, people, and the forces controlling all of us.
I cannot predict the future, but I must say that I would not be surprised if the Harry Potter series is still being read in two hundred years. The popularity of the books may scare some academics away; yet, their appeal must also say something about the ability of the books to touch and be meaningful to a wide variety of people. The books are complex enough for people in different circumstances and with different backgrounds to take away different messages. As with Gothic novels written two centuries ago, the books have the potential to say something about the time in which they were written, but to also address the fears and concerns of countless readers both young and old in the future. On the most basic level, Harry Potter is about good and evil, friendship, love, sacrifice, and growing up. All of these themes change very little over time and will be meaningful to readers in the generations to come.
While William Safire and Harold Bloom would certainly disagree, the Harry Potter books are great works of literature in part because of Rowling’s use of multiple genres. The books defy attempts for easy classification and operate on multiple levels. She integrates elements of fantasy, Gothic, mystery, myth, comedy, and history to develop unique books. While young readers focus on the major plot elements and not the multiple levels of meaning, adults are able to examine the larger themes of the books and make connections to myths, history, and other books. While elements of fantasy literature are frequently used to study the books or make predictions (e.g., the old wizard always has to die), the Gothic has been rather neglected. This essay is just a short introduction to all of the topics and theories that can be explored when the books are examined through the lens of the Gothic novel. The Harry Potter series possesses many commonalities (atmosphere and setting, emphasis on the past, use of the supernatural, heroes, heroines, and villains, and mystery) with classic Gothic texts like The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Castle of Otranto, and Frankenstein. The transition of these Gothic texts from books of pure entertainment to classics worthy of scholarly attention may be repeated in the future with Harry Potter. For all of the Harry Potter fans out there looking for a new topic to explore, a new angle to study the books from, or a way to defend your interest in the books, the Gothic is one more possibility.
1. Safire, “Besotted With Potter,” paragraph 5.
3. Bloom, “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes,” paragraph 10.
4. Botting, “Introduction: Gothic Excess and Transgression,” 9.
5. Ibid., 15.
6. Hogle, “Introduction: the Gothic in Western Culture,” 2.
8. Todorov, “The Uncanny and the Marvelous,” 42.
Bloom, Harold. “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.” Wall Street Journal 11 July 2000: A26.
Botting, Fred, “Introduction: Gothic Excess and Transgression.” In Gothic, 1-19. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Hogle, Jerrold E. “Introduction: the Gothic in Western Culture.” In The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, 1-20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
———, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
———, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.
Safire, William. “Besotted With Potter.” The New York Times 27 January 2000: A27.
Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Uncanny and the Marvelous.” In The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, tr. Richard Howard, 41-57. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973.