This article is full of spoilers. If you haven't read Harry Potter, step away from the situation and go to this safe space.
There’s no doubt that Harry Potter’s childhood was unhappy. He was taunted, bullied and lied to by the Dursleys. He was also threatened, deprived of food and locked up in his room in a few instances. He grew up without a friend his age or even an adult he could trust. When an adult finally came to save him, it was only because he was a wizard and not because he was mistreated.
We touched upon this a little bit in the first episode of our podcast. But we couldn’t deep dive into this topic because we want the podcast to be spoiler free. So here are my residual thoughts from that discussion.
The Dursley’s treatment of Harry cannot be classified as “abuse” in the face of law as his need for food, clothing, and shelter was taken care of. But it is so only because worse things happen to children in the world, not because what Dursleys do to Harry is “normal” in any sense of the word.
But does this shape Harry the adolescent and Harry the adult?
Before we get to that, let’s look at how JK Rowling treated the subject of childhood.
At no point did we get the feeling that the Dursleys loved Harry in their own crooked way. Yet, there were a few instances that showed that they did have a relationship underneath all the hate. It showed when Harry spoke to them about his flying motorcycle dream and when they agreed to drop him off at the train station (Book 1). The relationship was also evident when Harry told Uncle Vernon to ask Dudley to go get the mail instead of him. Though that could be classified as Harry’s sass, the fact that he was allowed to sit with them at the table, have dinner and mouth off is very inconsistent with the way he was said to be treated.
We also noted in the podcast that Harry seemed to be unaffected by the mistreatment. Though his physical appearance showed that he was not fed well and that he was constantly under stress, his mental strength was very evident whenever he stood up for himself (The Letters from No One, Book 1).
So I think some of the mistreatment was comically exaggerated in the first couple of books because it was written for children. I think that the way JK Rowling wrote the Dursleys has more to do with her distaste for Dursley-ish people (people with shitty ideals) and has less to do with Harry's character arc.
But there was more nuance in the way JK Rowling handled unhappy childhoods in the rest of the series. She also drew a direct line between an adult’s motivation and their childhood on multiple occasions.
- Severus Snape grew up watching his father verbally abuse his mother. As a child, he was singled out and bullied constantly for the way he looked. As soon as he stepped into Hogwarts, he was put into Slytherin, the house that honed dark impulses. Snape turning into a death eater was kind of inevitable.
But deep down, he yearned for love and acceptance. When Voldemort killed the one person whom he truly loved, Lily, he was ready to risk his life to defeat his own “friends”. Dumbledore accepted him and gave him a second chance and so, he remained loyal to Dumbledore until his death. But in spite of his positive turn, his terrible childhood could be the reason he bullied and abused children. A quality that no adult, let alone a teacher, should have.
- Rubeus Hagrid was neglected by his mother but loved by his father. He grew up to be a warm, nurturing, mother-like figure to the people and creatures around him. But in his drive to embrace and love all creatures, he was often reckless. He put himself and the people he cares about in dangerous situations on multiple occasions. This recklessness could partly be traced back to him being a part Giant. But part of it could also be attributed to the fact that he never completely understood the role of a mother.
- Albus Dumbledore was a child genius who didn’t get a lot of attention from his parents. This was because of the muggles who assaulted his sister. He grew up with a father in jail for attacking the muggles and a mother spending all her time taking care of his very sick sister. Given the way the muggles changed his life, it was no wonder that he was seduced by Grindelwald’s quest for world dominance “for the greater good”.
When his sister was killed, he gave up on his own quest for dominance. He understood that he was not fit for power. But I don’t think he gave up on the “for the greater good” idea. He left Harry with the Dursleys so he could grow up with his mother’s protection when he knew that Harry would have a miserable childhood there. But the reason he wanted Harry to be protected as a child was because he wanted him to die later, at a more convenient time. Harry was a sacrificial lamb for the greater good - the idea that even shocked Snape.
Snape himself was allowed to get away with his bullying and abuse by Dumbledore for years because he was a valuable spy. For the greater good, yet again.
- Voldemort was an orphan. He was conceived in a less than ideal condition and was born the same way. Unlike Harry, he was quick to grasp that he was different than the people around him and learned to harness his power quickly. He might have become a better person with the right friends and guidance. But he didn’t get a Ron or a Hermione or a Hagrid. He got a suspicious Dumbledore and his Slytherin fanboys. Learning about his father abandoning his mother and him may have been the final straw.
The fact that JK Rowling thinks that a person’s childhood determines who they grow up to be was very evident in the case of Voldemort. When Dumbledore wanted Harry to understand Voldemort, he made Harry look into Voldemort’s childhood and the incidents that happened even before his birth.
The list doesn’t end here. There is Sirius Black whose rebelliousness could be traced back to a pureblood crazy family. Ron Weasley’s jealousy of Harry could be connected to him growing up with overachieving brothers and a talented sister. Even Neville Longbottom was meek and nervous for most parts of the book because of his overbearing grandmother.
So it is obvious that Harry’s terrible childhood would also be a huge influence on him as an adolescent and an adult. He might have turned into another Voldemort just as easily. But he doesn’t. Probably because:
- He got all the love and affection he needed from Ron, Hermione, Hagrid and the Weasley family.
- He learned that his parents were brave, righteous people who opposed Voldemort.
- His parents were murdered by Voldemort, a dark wizard.
There is no way he would turn into a dark wizard after that.
But that’s not the only result of a lousy childhood. As Hermione observed in the Order of the Phoenix, he had a whole “saving people” attitude. This impulse was so strong that he took great efforts to protect the very people who tormented him as a child (Book 7). And of course, it also led to the death of Sirius Black in Book 5. This need to save people may have stemmed from the fact that nobody saved him from the Dursleys.
He was also very disrespectful towards authority. He got into fights with his teachers, the minister of magic and even Dumbledore. This was probably because the authority figures in his household were cruel, unfair and not deserving of any respect.
Had Harry become a Slytherin or if Draco Malfoy had not reminded him of Dudley, the story would have been very different.
Hermione’s happy childhood
A good contrast to all these childhoods would be Hermione’s. She had a stable, loving family that completely supported her when they found out that she was a witch. She was a smart child that followed rules in the beginning. But she learned about courage and loyalty from her friends and understood that breaking rules was necessary in some situations.
Unlike Harry, she was a champion of the downtrodden without being downtrodden herself. Unlike Ron, she was perfectly happy helping out Harry in the background without getting the glory. Unlike Snape, she was able to withstand the teasing and bullying without using her above average abilities to hurt them. She was a wholesome human being.
All this makes me think that, more than anything else, the Harry Potter series is about the importance of providing peaceful and loving homes for children.
Some links that shaped my thoughts