Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations on the Harry Potter Series (Part One)

Standard

HPSemiotic

Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)


Part 1: The Three Gryffindors

The three main characters of Rowling’s story – Harry, Ron, and Hermione – all belong to Gryffindor House. However, throughout the course of the story, the narrative repeatedly draws attention to the fact that each of these characters actually possess all the characteristics of another Hogwarts House – that, in fact, they would have been sorted into Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw respectively, had they not specifically asked the Sorting Hat to place them in Gryffindor House.

From the perspective of a semiotic analysis, this unity is significant, for it emulates the message conveyed throughout the series by the Sorting Hat all along – that evil can only be banished from Hogwarts school, and the wizarding world, if all four houses stand together as one.

Indeed, Harry would never have been able to overcome the numerous challenges he is presented with, and continue to remain alive long enough to defeat Voldemort, were it not for the assistance of Ron and Hermione, and for his own Slytherin-related abilities. Thus, the three characters’ interactions and reliance upon one another signify the relationship between the four Houses.

The union or separation of Ron and Hermione from Harry is sometimes mirrored by Harry’s relationship with secondary characters from the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw Houses – for instance, in the fourth book, members of Hufflepuff House treat Harry coldly and with disbelief during the same period that Ron is behaving this way – to reinforce this. So, too, are the characteristics which divide and diversify them reiterated throughout the series.

Harry

happyharry.png

Given that Harry is the protagonist and the majority of the text is narrated from his point of view, it is unsurprising that his connection to Slytherin House is the best documented.

Some of these are obvious – his ability to speak Parseltongue, for instance, is a clear signifier of his ‘Other’ identity – but as the Sorting Hat and Dumbledore both note, Harry’s personality also complements the traits prized by Slytherin House: he has resourcefulness, cleverness, determination, and a certain disregard for the rules.

Additionally, Slytherins care greatly about their reputation, and are more interventionist and more risk-oriented than Hufflepuffs or Ravenclaws. Despite their reputation for self-preservation, Slytherins are not necessarily the type to fall back and be cautious – they dislike showing weakness, and are prepared to fight to defend themselves, or attack an enemy, if necessary. Harry’s interactions with Draco throughout his early school years, and with the Death Eaters, Umbridge, Snape and Voldemort later on, all serve to demonstrate these qualities in Harry. He is not without darkness, either, particularly in the fifth book, although this is perhaps caused as much by adolescence as his Slytherin connection.

Hermione

hermionelaughing.jpg

Hermione’s status as a would-be Ravenclaw is also outlined repeatedly. The Sorting Hat seriously considered putting her in Ravenclaw, and so it is implied that, like Harry, she asked to be in Gryffindor House (after asserting clearly on the train beforehand that Gryffindor House was the best House to be in).

Ravenclaws are defined by curiosity and the love of learning, and will want to seek as much knowledge as possible, whenever possible, by whatever means they can – even if that may involve some risk. This fits Hermione to a T.

She is repeatedly challenged by other students as to why she is not in Ravenclaw House, given that she is the most intelligent student in Harry’s year – Terry Boot’s observation that her Protean charm in the fifth year was of N.E.W.T. standard is one of many. The library is her favourite haunt and her first go-to place whenever information is needed, and she repeatedly seeks out additional reading in order to increase her knowledge. Her first individual action after agreeing to hunt Horcruxes with Harry was to see if she could summon any books from Dumbledore’s office. Books are very much her weapon in the fight against Voldemort.

She also shows an adeptness for solving logic puzzles – a trait which is underlined to be complementary to inclusion in Ravenclaw House by the questions asked by the brass knocker which admits students to Ravenclaw Tower – and is usually first one to figure things out (with the exception of when Harry’s insight into Voldemort’s mind gives him access to information Hermione doesn’t have). In the Triwizard maze under pressure from a sphinx, Harry asserts that logic is Hermione’s area of expertise.

Ron

ronweasley.jpg

The argument that Ron emulates the qualities of Hufflepuff House is probably the least evidenced, although he does possess some of the qualities that define Hufflepuffs.

Hufflepuffs are defined by their love of family and comfort, and intensely dislike feeling unloved. Hufflepuffs are also the most likely to simply avoid conflict, even if it means a miscarriage of justice. They are humble, loyal to their friends, and decent people, above all.

Ron, of course, shows just how much he cherishes his family whenever they are in peril (which is repeatedly – Ginny, Arthur, Bill, George, and Fred are all in peril at different points in the series), and his love of good food and comfort are particularly exemplified in the seventh book of the series, when both are distinctly lacking.

His interactions with both the Mirror of Erised and the third Horcrux (the locket) demonstrate that his biggest fear is being overlooked and unloved, and although his boasting after his Quidditch performances cannot be deemed humble, his protests that his destruction of the locket Horcrux was not nearly as impressive as it sounds reveal a humbler side. This is seen again after he manages to open the Chamber of Secrets himself after realising the potential of using Basilisk fangs to destroy the remaining Horcruxes.

His loyalty to his friends enables him to use the Deluminator and return to Harry and Hermione in the seventh book. This same loyalty drives him into the Forbidden Forest to confront Aragog, despite his arachnophobia, in the third book. However, he often encourages Hermione not to pester Harry in order to avoid conflict, even if he thinks she is right – another Hufflepuff trait.

 

So, what is the significance of the fact that all three characters end up in Gryffindor House? Firstly, it is important to note that the clear opposition created between Gryffindor and Slytherin House, emulated by Harry’s conflict with Voldemort (more on that in Part 2), is shared by his fellow Gryffindors. Harry’s battle to destroy Horcruxes is shared by Ron and Hermione, and Neville is responsible for slaying Nagini. Dumbledore, too, was a Gryffindor, as was Sirius, Lupin, and many of the members of the DA and the Order of the Phoenix. All have made the brave and bold choice to be a Gryffindor, and all similarly have chosen to defy and resist Voldemort.

With this in mind, in terms of symbolism, the relevance of Godric Gryffindor’s sword – the magical artefact symbolising Gryffindor House, and the only House-related relic Voldemort never succeeded in obtaining and transforming – cannot therefore be understated. Whilst relics associated to the Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin Houses – the diadem, the cup, and the locket – all succumb to darkness by becoming Horcruxes, Godric Gryffindor’s sword continues to assist in the resistance to and destruction of Voldemort’s power.

In the Chamber of Secrets, the sword helps Harry to slay the Basilisk, and when in the Forest of Dean, Ron uses it to destroy the locket. Neville similarly uses it to kill Nagini, the final Horcrux. Given that the sword only imbibes that which makes it stronger – it takes in Basilisk venom, thus using the powers of Slytherin’s heir’s monster in order to defeat Slytherin’s heir – but is not tainted by it (much like Harry – again, more on that in Part 2), signifiers of Gryffindor House are synonymous with resistance, with the force of goodness, and with strength. The pureness of heart and imperviousness to evil needed to distinguish ‘a true Gryffindor’ is symbolised by its best-known artefact – a sword able to slay evil monsters, resist dirt and darkness, and jump to the aid of any brave soul in need of help.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Ok, more to come on this in further posts – as ever, please feel free to share your thoughts below!

(Oh, and to finish, here’s a headcanon of me and my sister at Hogwarts… I warned you I was a Potter nerd 😛 )

  tumblr_nognizKiFX1u7kou3o1_500(An Original Commissioned Artwork by Rachel)

(Other Images: Warner Bros. Studios)

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations on the Harry Potter Series (Part One)

  1. Thanks so much for this — I’ve always believed that the Potter books had more worth than the snide sneers of literati implied, and this careful analysis shows that Rowling’s sequence has both structural and human strengths. The series proves to be one of those rare cases of populist taste coinciding with artistic skill! Looking forward to more of this.

    (Is it coincidence that Weselby could be one of the malaprop-esque terms that Ron could have been called by Slughorn?!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for saying so! 🙂 I couldn’t agree more – intellectual snobs like to pretend works like these have no merit, but it’s simply not true. They’re excellent stories – engaging, suspenseful, and thoroughly enjoyable. The characterisation is some of the best I’ve ever read, and her use of dialogue often has me laughing out loud. That’s why I wanted to start a series of posts explaining certain elements of the HP series I think warrant further attention. I hope you enjoy further posts on this topic as much as this one!

      (and yes, now you mention it, there’s a point when Ron gets called “Weaselby”, and every time I hear it I actually flinch – that’s one of many ways people mispronounce my name, and so I feel Ron’s pain completely!!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. VMüller

    I thoroughly enjoyed all three parts of your analysis and – being a student – luckily there is an increasing number of universities that offer literary courses about the Harry Potter series.
    One thought I had when I read part one: Looking at the main characters of Harry’s age, and considering that Hermione, Ron an Harry have traits of Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin, does that make Neville the “only true” Gryffindor?
    Thanks again for an enjoyable read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Really? That makes me really happy, as when I was at University, a lot of my lecturers turned their noses up at Rowling and her work – seemed to think she was in the same category as the likes of Meyer, which I thought was very unfair. I love the idea that people could how have HP classes!!

      Neville’s an interesting case. I’ve seen arguments put forward that he should be in Hufflepuff, and he does certainly have many traits that correspond with that House – he’s loyal to his friends, for instance, and a very hard worker. However, I think that he does certainly prove himself to be a true Gryffindor. I think of him as ‘chosen’ just like Harry was – Voldemort’s choice to destroy his family is what ensures he will never go over to the Death Eaters, and love (rather than hatred) gives him the strength to fight. I mean, he’s pretty much the leader of Dumbledore’s Army when Harry goes off to find Horcruxes, and he even takes out Nagini after Voldemort singles him out. A lot of his early difficulties are a result of the fact that he’s using a wand that has not given him his allegiance (his father’s) – after that breaks in the Department of Mysteries and he gets a new one, he becomes a skilled wizard, able to battle with the best of them. If bravery is the defining characteristic of Gryffindor House, then it’s fair to say Neville is in the right place, so maybe you’re right – Neville is the real Gryffindor of the group! 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s