The Sorting Hat, Ideology, and Free Will
By Emily Bytheway

In 1969, Neo-Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser published an essay entitled "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses' in which he proposed a new way of looking at the concept of ideology. Although Marxist literary criticism has largely gone out of style, concepts such as Althusser's are still relevant and can still be applied to texts both old and new. A text which invites such criticism is the Harry Potter novel series by J.K. Rowling. While much could be said of the ideology of the wizarding world at large in these novels, as well as the ideology of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in particular, this essay will focus on the way in which the house system, including the school Sorting Hat, functions as an Ideological State Apparatus, and ramifications of this idea, particularly as they apply to Harry Potter, Sirius Black, and Tom Riddle.

Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses

Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines ideology as "a systematic body of concepts, especially about human life or culture." 1 Althusser, however, defines it quite differently. "Ideology' he says, "represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence." 2 The conditions of our existence are irrefutable. I, as a student, pay my university a lot of money so that I can do homework, write essays, attend sometimes-boring lectures, and take exams. I work at an unfulfilling job for which I am dismally overqualified, making far too little money, in order to afford this. Yet my ideology says that I am getting an education, which is both a privilege and a blessing. The work I do is not terribly enjoyable, but it is important, and my coworkers are nice, so the job is one worth keeping. Thus I am contented with my lot, and continue to be a productive member of society (if you can call being an English graduate student being a productive member of society, that is). Another example might be in the ideology of teaching. The reality of teaching is not very appealing. You spend long hours each day attempting to hammer knowledge into the heads of unenthusiastic students. Most of the time your position is one of glorified babysitter. In addition to eight hours each day of class time, you usually arrive early and leave late, and still have to bring work home. You are required to take additional classes for "continuing education" purposes, even after you have obtained your degree and license, and are often required to take exams to prove your competence. And to top it all off, you have to deal with parents who cannot understand why their children are not absolutely perfect in every way, and who blame you for any fault in their students' performance. And for all this you get paid next to nothing. Yet your ideology, which has been instilled in you both as a student yourself and in your teacher training courses, tells you that teaching is the noblest profession in the world, that nothing is more important than educating our children and securing our future, and that the intangible rewards of teaching more than compensate for the low pay. This ideology, however, is not seen as such by the person who lives it. To them it is merely reality. It is, in fact, not only difficult but nearly impossible for any of us to identify our own ideologies as such. It is generally only from the outside that ideologies may be analyzed, which is why we often find ourselves investigating the ideologies depicted in literature rather than attempting to examine our own.

Creating and reproducing an ideology is the easiest way for a State to keep the populace in line, and for the state to reproduce the means of keeping itself solvent (what Althusser terms "the means of production").3 It is not the only way, however. Althusser's theory allows for two ways to control the populace and reproduce the means of production: the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) and the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). In each State there is only one RSA, which contains "the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, etc.' and which belongs entirely to the public sphere.4 The primary means the RSA uses to control the populace is violence, although it does employ ideology as a secondary means of control.5 By contrast, there are many ISAs, including things like religion, education, family, communications, and the arts.6 ISAs may be either public or private, and, as their name implies, function primarily by ideology. Their job is to reproduce the ideology of the State in the populace, so that citizens remain functioning and productive members of society. It is actually through the means of the ISAs rather than the RSA that the most successful societies reproduce themselves. These ISAs allow an ideology to be lived rather than simply believed, thus giving the ideology a material existence.

The main mechanism by which ideologies instill themselves in people's lives is what Althusser calls the hail. In the simplest terms, the hail identifies an individual as a subject of the system. The individual, by responding to the hail, accepts this place as a subject. The hail therefore gives the illusion that the subjection was a choice, and that the subject is a free agent of the system. "The individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e., in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection." 7 This hail can be something as simple as a policeman calling out "hey, you!" If the individual addressed responds to the hail, they are acknowledging that they are the person called, and that they are therefore subject to the policeman and must obey his commands.

ISAs in the Wizarding World

We can see how this system works more clearly by examining it in a functioning society. In the Harry Potter novels, the wizarding world is a self-contained society within what we would consider the normal "Muggle" world. In Britain at least (and we can assume in other places, given the glimpses of wizarding government in other countries afforded by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), wizards have their own government (the Ministry of Magic), their own laws (such as the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery), their own police (the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and other branches of the Ministry), their own communication system (owl post, newspapers like the Daily Prophet, magazines like Witch Weekly, and the Wizarding Wireless Network), their own transportation system (broomsticks, Apparition, the Floo Network), their own art and literature (wizarding paintings, books such as The Invisible Book of Invisibility) and, of course, their own educational system (Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). Many of these elements fall under the category of the RSA, but there are also many ISAs at work in the wizarding world. Hogwarts functions as one of the most important of these: it is the Hogwarts letter which announces to a child their magical ability and their place in the wizarding world, thereby functioning as a hail to wizarding society at large; and it is Hogwarts itself that is the site for the training of young wizards. Much could be said about the structure of wizarding society and the ways in which it controls its populace, but that is not the focus of this essay. For even within the larger system, there are sub-ideologies present. After a young witch or wizard is hailed as a subject to this hidden society by means of the Hogwarts letter, another type of hailing takes place: that of the Sorting Ceremony at Hogwarts, which assigns the children into their school houses. These houses, as Professor McGonagall explains in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, shape the destiny of the young witch or wizard. "While you are here' she says, "your house will be something like your family within Hogwarts. You will have classes with the rest of your house, sleep in your house dormitory, and spend free time in your house common room." 8 Students make friends primarily in their own house, compete with other houses for the Quidditch and House Cups, and continue to identify themselves with that house even beyond their years at Hogwarts. The house system itself functions as an Ideological State Apparatus.

The Ideologies of the Four Houses

But if the house system functions as an ISA, what ideology is it reproducing? Actually, it reproduces not one but four ideologies: those of the Hogwarts Founders, for whom the houses are named. These ideologies are embodied in the traits that the Sorting Hat lists at the beginning of each school year. In the different Sorting songs which we are privileged to hear, Gryffindors are variously described as "brave at heart" and possessing "daring, nerve, and chivalry" in Sorcerer's Stone, "the bravest" in Goblet of Fire, and "those with brave deeds to their name" and "the bravest and boldest" in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Ravenclaws are described as having "a ready mind" and "wit and learning;" they are "the cleverest' and those whose "intelligence is surest' "those of sharpest mind." Hufflepuffs are described as "just and loyal' and "true and unafraid of toil' in Sorcerer's Stone while in Order of the Phoenix it becomes obvious that Helga Hufflepuff was willing to teach any who were willing to learn, and simply called them "the lot." Slytherins are noted for being "cunning' and "will use any means to achieve their end;" they also have "great ambition' their "ancestry is purest' and they are "pure-bloods of great cunning' just like Slytherin.9 Now, we know of at least two wizards (Severus Snape and Tom Riddle) who were Sorted into Slytherin who were not pure-bloods but half-bloods, so it seems this blood-related qualification has been relaxed over time; but it is probably safe to assume that no Muggle-born witch or wizard has ever been admitted to Slytherin house. With this qualification, it is evident that the ideologies of the founders have passed down unchanged from the time of the founding.

And yet, if the Sorting and the house system truly function as Ideological State Apparatuses, then these sub-ideologies must be important to the wizarding world at large, not only to the Founders who espoused them. What is it about these ideologies that enables the wizarding world to continue to exist? At first glance, one would assume that there is not much. Yet considered more closely, one can see that these ideologies are invaluable. The wizarding world is a dangerous place, full of vicious magical creatures who, according to the State ideology, must be hidden from the Muggle populace, and therefore must be confronted and controlled. In addition, there are hexes, jinxes, and curses, nefarious plants, and, of course, Dark Magic to be dealt with. Bravery is certainly a trait that would be an asset to the Wizarding State, especially in filling some of its more dangerous positions in the Ministry. Intelligence, too, is an important attribute for citizens of the magical world to have. If a society is to survive, it must innovate, and a new group of inventors, philosophers, and scholars must be reproduced in each generation. In addition, those of great intelligence are invaluable in medical and legal fields, in the press, and for teaching in the school, which we have of course already identified as an ISA. Hard workers are desirable in all types of jobs, and loyalty would be highly valued in areas where secrecy is key, such as the Ministry, Gringotts, and Muggle relations. And of course, those with great ambition are just perfect for the bureaucratic and governmental positions which are essential in maintaining control over a society. The important thing to note about these ideologies is that none of them threaten the existence of the wizarding world, not even the pure-blood ideology. In some forms, of course, the pure-blood ideology becomes destructive, but in a sense, it works toward maintaining the society, not against it. It is, after all, based on the assumption that the wizarding world must be protected, and that by allowing those with no previous stake in this world a place in it, the safety of that world might be compromised. Note that I'm not saying that pure-bloodism is a good thing, just that, in the interest of perpetuating the wizarding world as a distinct society, which is certainly the State's primary goal, it is not necessarily a negative one.

The Sorting Hat

So we can see how the ideologies of the founders may help to preserve wizarding society. One of the primary mechanisms by which these ideologies are perpetuated is the Sorting itself. At the beginning of a student's career at Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat sorts each student into a house. Before the Sorting begins, it sings a song to acquaint those being sorted with what to expect. "There's nothing hidden in your head' it sings in Sorcerer's Stone, "The Sorting Hat can't see, / So try me on and I will tell you / Where you ought to be." 10 This song, combined with the admonitions of Professor McGonagall before the Sorting begins, creates in the students – especially Muggle-born students, who are naturally apprehensive about their place in this new and strange world – a powerful desire to belong. As Harry Potter is awaiting his Sorting, his thoughts are centered around this need: "A horrible thought struck Harry, as horrible thoughts always do when you're very nervous. What if he wasn't chosen at all? What if he just sat there with the hat over his eyes for ages, until Professor McGonagall jerked it off his head and said there had obviously been a mistake and he'd better get back on the train?" 11

As the hat is placed on each student's head, it investigates their minds, decides which house the student is best suited to, and calls the house out to the crowd. In effect, the Sorting Hat is hailing each student as a subject of the house to which they will belong. Because the hat can see inside each student's head, this hailing is more individualized than most hailings tend to be. As a magical object with unique abilities, the Hat is never wrong about where a student belongs. The Sorting Hat is saying, in effect, "this is you. This is where you belong. You are brave, or you are loyal, or you are smart, or you are cunning." And because the student wants so desperately to belong, when the Hat chooses the student for a certain house, the student chooses that house, too. "I'm brave!" she thinks. "I belong in Gryffindor! I'm going to be the best Gryffindor I can be!" The student, hailed by the hat as a member of a house, responds by identifying him or herself as a member of that house. Loyalty to the house becomes loyalty to the ideology that the house represents, and that ideology is reproduced in house members.

In many cases, the hail goes farther than this. As I have stated before, the illusion of free will is necessary to instill the necessary resolve in an individual. As we have seen, the Sorting Hat does not necessarily place someone in a particular house based on innate talents alone. Sometimes it seems that the student themselves plays a role in which house he or she is assigned. In the case of Harry Potter, for example, his repeated thoughts of "not Slytherin" place him in Gryffindor.12 Draco Malfoy expects to be placed in Slytherin, and indeed he is Sorted into that house. Hermione Granger states on the train that Gryffindor seems by far the best house – has indeed already made up her mind that Gryffindor is where she wants to go – and is Sorted there rather than in Ravenclaw, despite her enormous intelligence. Ron Weasley hopes to be in Gryffindor because the rest of his family has been Sorted there, and of course, he is. I'm sure there are many more examples of how free will seems to be an influence on where the Hat decides to ultimately place the student. If we follow Althusser's thought processes, this apparent influence of free will is entirely imaginary, for in his conception, there really is no such thing as free will. However, in these cases where free will seems to be an important factor, the identification of the student with their respective house seems to be even stronger than for those whom the decision seems to be made without the student's input.

After the Sorting: House Competition

The Sorting not only introduces new members to the ideology of the house, it reinforces that ideology with the older students. This phenomenon is commented on by Chantel Lavoie: "As each nervous new first year scampers to his or her house table, the process reminds returning students of where they themselves belong and why. The feast of initiation and homecoming reinforces two types of loyalties – that which each individual owes to the school, and that which is owing to one's house. The Sorting Hat thus brings the students together and simultaneously sets them apart." 13 Thus each year, the students are reminded of their own Sorting – their own hailing – and of the ideology that they accepted when they acknowledged the hail. Elizabeth E. Heilman and Anne E. Gregory remark that "house membership establishes the way in which students are perceived by the others around them as well as the way in which they perceive themselves." 14

Each year a House Cup is awarded to the house whose students earned the most points (or succeeded in losing the least), creating competition between the houses. "This rivalry between houses' David Steege states, "particularly the competition between Harry's house, Gryffindor, and Slytherin, house of his enemy Malfoy, provides Rowling an opportunity for conflict throughout the series; the struggle to win the house cup dominates much of the first novel and is an element in each of the others." 15 But it provides much more than a simple plot device for conflict: the house competition invites each student to identify themselves more fully with their house. Their successes become their house's successes, and their failures their house's failures. This encourages not only excellence in behavior and academics, but also the need for students to live up to ideals that the Sorting Hat says they possess. House loyalties even seem to extend beyond Hogwarts itself. "It usually goes in families' Horace Slughorn tells Harry, referring to which house students are Sorted into.16 And indeed, it does. The Malfoys have been Slytherins for as long as anyone can remember, and the Weasleys have all been in Gryffindor. Intra-house marriages are common, judging by our admittedly limited knowledge. It makes sense that the values a student learns while at Hogwarts become a part of themselves. Students continue to believe the ideologies of the houses to which they belong. They teach it to their children, they judge other people by it, and they live it themselves.

Aberrations and Inconsistencies

Thus far, we have looked at how the ISA of the house system would work in an ideal world. However, there are always going to be exceptions to the rule, and indeed, we know of several cases in which the Sorting and the house system have had a different effect than the one you would anticipate. In the interests of brevity, I won't investigate these interesting circumstances in detail. I will merely raise a few questions, with a few possible answers, without necessarily coming to any conclusion.

We have seen already that Harry Potter's Sorting was a singular one. As the Sorting Hat hailed Harry a Gryffindor, Harry felt a profound sense of relief, and even one of belonging. However, doubt continues to plague Harry's mind. In Chamber of Secrets, we see that Harry does not truly believe that Gryffindor is his house. Thoughts of the Sorting Hat's words haunt him: "You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that." 17 Rumors that Harry is Slytherin's heir only reinforce his doubt. Harry therefore requires a second hail, one that will confirm to him his place as a subject of Gryffindor's ideology. This second hail comes, once again, from the Sorting Hat, but not in the form of words. In an hour of desperate need, Harry pulled a sword from the Hat – Godric Gryffindor's sword. This circumstance, combined with Dumbledore's words about choices making us who we really are, confirms the original hail in Harry's mind. His Sorting is presented as an act of free will, which gives him the resolution needed to become a true Gryffindor.

So, at some times, the hail of the Sorting Hat does not work as planned. What of when the house system itself seems to break down? Take the case of Sirius Black. Horace Slughorn confirms for us what we had already guessed – the Blacks had always been in Slytherin, yet Sirius ended up in Gryffindor.18 What went wrong? As a pure-blood family, is it doubtful that Sirius's parents would have exposed him to an alternate ideology before his coming to Hogwarts. They would have kept him carefully away from blood traitors, half-bloods, and especially Muggle-borns and Muggles. It is reasonable to assume that Sirius's early childhood was spent entrenched in the Slytherin ideology of ambition, cunning, and pure blood. So why didn't Sirius end up as Draco Malfoy did? The question is not one that we can at present answer. Perhaps Sirius had friends of which his parents knew nothing. Perhaps an experience on the Hogwarts Express opened his mind to new ideas. In any case, Sirius ended up in Gryffindor, and it forever changed his destiny. By the time he was sixteen, Sirius had grown so disgusted with the ideology of his family that he ran away from home.19 His words and deeds in subsequent years confirm his belief that bravery is more important than all other characteristics. They system worked in that one of the Founders' ideologies was perpetuated, but it failed in the sense that Gryffindor's was not the ideology he was expected to embrace.

The third case we will consider is one in which the system seems to work in spite of itself: the case of Tom Riddle. Tom is a descendant of Slytherin, although he does not realize this when he is Sorted. It is quite improbable that Tom would have known anything of the different houses and their ideologies before his arrival at Hogwarts. And yet, even without the inculcation of the Slytherin ideology in his early years, he is still Sorted into Slytherin. Here is an example of where the actual traits of a student apparently had a great effect. As I have stated before, free will does appear to play a part in the Sorting, but the hat does not allow a student to go into any house to which they would not belong. For instance, a student may wish to be in Ravenclaw, but will probably not be placed there unless they actually posses a measure of intelligence. No Muggle-born student would ever be Sorted into Slytherin, no matter how great his ambition. In the case of Tom Riddle, great ambition and cunning had already been exhibited by him. It seems natural that Tom would hear the words of the Sorting Hat's song naming Slytherin as the house of ambition and cunning, and decide that was the place for him. The Sorting Hat sensed these attributes in him, perhaps even saw his Slytherin blood, and placed him in the house to which his forebears had always belonged.


The ideology, as defined by Louis Althusser, of the wizarding world is vast and complicated. I have been able to focus only on a small part of it: the ritual of Sorting and the effect of the house system on the wizarding world at large. When viewed through the lens of ideology, the ritual of the Sorting at Hogwarts school takes on a new meaning. As the Sorting Hat identifies which house each student is most suited for, it hails that student as subject to the ideology of the house. This ideology is continually reinforced through the house competition system, and is carried by the students into their adult lives, thus preserving the ideology of the founders of the school, and allowing the wizarding State to continue unharmed. Some aberrations do occur, but in general, the system that was set up by the Founders over a thousand years ago continues, and by all indications, will continue for some time to come.


1. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. "Ideology."

2. Althusser, "Ideology' 153.

3. Ibid., 124.

4. Ibid., 136.

5. Ibid., 141.

6. Ibid., 136’37.

7. Ibid., 169, parentheses in original.

8. Rowling, Sorcerer's Stone, 114.

9. Rowling, Sorcerer's Stone, 118; Goblet of Fire, 177; Order of the Phoenix, 205.

10. Ibid., Sorcerer's Stone, 119.

11. Ibid., 120.

12. Ibid., 121.

13. Lavoie, "Safe as Houses' 35.

14. Heilman and Gregory, "Images of Privileged Insider' 246.

15. Steege, "Harry Potter, Tom Brown' 146.

16. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 70.

17. Ibid., Sorcerer's Stone, 121.

18. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 70.

19. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 111.


Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 123’73. London: New Left Books, 1971.

Heilman, Elizabeth E. and Gregory, Anne E. "Images of the Privileged Insider and Outcast Outsider." In Harry Potter's World: Multidisciplnary Critical Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth E. Heilman, 241’260. New York: Routledge Falmer-Taylor & Francis Group, 2003.

Lavoie, Chantel. "Safe as Houses: Sorting and School Houses at Hogwarts." In Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays, edited by Giselle Liza Anatol, 35’50. Westport, CT: Praeger-Greenwood Publishing Co, 2003.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.

-. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.

-. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.

-. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.

-. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1997.

Steege, David K. "Harry Potter, Tom Brown, and the British School Story." In The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon, edited by Lana A. Whited, 140’58. Colombia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002.

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