Harry Potter’s Critique of Western Extravagance

Justine Toh writes about the critique of consumerism that can be found in Harry Potter

Even those who’ve never read the series of fantasy novels about Harry Potter, the boy wizard, would in all likelihood be familiar with it as a series of wildly successful films that has made galleons of gold at the box office, and a money spinner that made its author, J.K. Rolling, richer than the Queen. So anything Harry Potter-related makes the kind of money that needs a string of zeros after it. Which is why it’s somewhat ironic that at the core of the series is a compelling critique of consumerism, or more broadly, our obsession with stuff.

This reading of the seven-book series is especially relevant to Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, just released in cinemas. Harry, Ron and Hermione are on the hunt for ‘horcruxes’: magical objects in which Voldemort, the Big Bad of the series, has hidden fragments of his splintered soul. As long as these horcruxes remain intact, Voldemort remains immortal, so before Harry can have any hope of defeating him, he and his friends have to destroy the horcruxes to weaken Voldemort’s ties to life.

Three of the six horcruxes created by Voldemort are connected to famous and distinguished figures in the wizarding world: Salazar Slytherin, Helga Hufflepuff, and Rowena Ravenclaw. That Voldemort chooses to hide his soul in objects so connected indicates his desire to count himself among these greatest witches and wizards of the age. So Voldemort treats Slytherin’s locket, Hufflepuff’s cup and Ravenclaw’s diadem as markers of prestige and power—a way for him to escape his humble origins and establish his identity as the greatest sorcerer in the world.

The recognition that objects have meaning and value beyond their use, that they act as markers of status, and are key to fashioning one’s identity suggests a compelling critique of consumerism going on within J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Particularly as our relationship with ‘stuff’, or the objects of our everyday lives, resembles Voldemort’s attachment to things more than I personally care to admit—and let’s not forget that he’s the villain.

Voldemort’s tendency to seek security in objects offers an incisive commentary on life in the materialistic West where the average consumer is daily encouraged to pour their life and soul into their possessions and measure their worth, and that of others, through conspicuous consumption. The brands of our clothes and gadgets, the speed of our laptops and the spaciousness of our houses all make statements about who we want to be and how we wish to be perceived by others. Our possessions may not literally contain our souls, like Voldemort’s horcruxes, but we are, after a fashion, possessed by them. As Tyler Durden noted in Fight Club: “the things you own end up owning you.”

Don DeLillo suggests in his novel White Noise that the fear of death drives consumerism—that the endless amassing of material goods helps the consumer deny their mortality. By DeLillo’s measure Voldemort, a name that literally means ‘flight from death’, is the ultimate consumer. His use of objects, like horcruxes, as a way to stay alive is also foreshadowed in Book One: Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, and its quest for a precious magical object that would allow Voldemort to gain immortality. Rowling establishes throughout the series that certain magical objects are key to warding off death, which explains their attraction for Voldemort.

Philosopher’s Stone also introduces us to the Mirror of Erised, a magical mirror that doesn’t so much cast a person’s reflection back at them as it reveals what they truly desire—‘erised’ is, after all, ‘desire’ spelt backwards. In other words, the Mirror of Erised shows the lack at the heart of the person that would otherwise allow them to feel whole. The Mirror of Erised and its revelation of the lack that shapes identity recalls psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s discussion of the ‘mirror stage’.

Lacan suggests that the first time a child glances at their reflection in a mirror they begin to have a sense of themselves as a discrete person and one not symbiotically connected to their mother. While this ‘mirror stage’ is fundamental to the formation of the child’s individual identity, it is marked by loss and lack since the child recognises its ultimate separation from others. Also, Lacan suggests that the fact that this picture of the self as a separate person emerges from outside of the child (through the mirror reflection) and not from within their own experience of themselves (their internal perspective) means that throughout life, the child will continually be haunted by images of completeness that are always out of reach.

Cultural theorists use the ‘mirror stage’ to explain why we continually consume by suggesting that advertising, with its promises of success, sexiness, acceptance, and status, acts as a kind of Mirror of Erised where the better, more complete, happier self is always beyond the individual who looks into the mirror. Advertising suggests, of course, that one can move closer to that more complete self through buying stuff.

Voldemort’s use of famous and powerful objects to secure his identity shows that he’s engaged in an parallel process. Though we’re never told explicitly what Voldemort would see if he looked in the Mirror of Erised, in a fan interview Rowling confirmed that he would see “Himself, all-powerful and eternal. That's what he wants.”

What Harry and Dumbledore see in the Mirror of Erised could not be more different. Harry sees his lost parents; James and Lily Potter are the void in Harry’s heart. In Philosopher’s Stone, when asked by Harry what he saw in the Mirror, Dumbledore said he only saw himself holding a pair of thick, woollen socks, suggesting he was so content that only a small and easily attainable comfort could complete him. At the time, it strikes Harry of Book One “that Dumbledore might not have been quite truthful” though Harry supposes, “it had been quite a personal question” (Rowling 1997: 157). It’s not until the closing pages of Deathly Hallows that Rowling suggests what Dumbledore would truly see: his family alive, whole, and happy—whom Dumbledore lost through his pursuit of the Deathly Hallows, powerful magical objects that give their possessor power over death (Rowling 2007: 576). Like Harry, the loss of family is what ultimately shapes Dumbledore’s identity.

Rowling has been clear that in large part, the Harry Potter series represents her attempts to come to terms with her mother’s death. Though it takes place in a world where magic is almost too ordinary to be of much notice, all the magic of the Harry Potter universe cannot bring back the dead. Harry’s parents are lost to him and even his surrogate parents—Sirius Black and Dumbledore in particular—aren’t spared. So in this life, Harry’s desire to get his family back will continually elude him.

But Rowling gives him a new family—conveyed in one of the early scenes of Deathly Hallows. In one of the first action set pieces of the film, seven identical Harry Potters escape from Harry’s childhood home—seven, because six of Harry’s friends have volunteered themselves as decoys. Harry’s not all too thrilled with the thought of them risking their lives for him because Voldemort will be after them all, but he goes along with the plan. So Ron, Hermione, Fred and George, Fleur and Mundungus (though Mundungus is volunteered more than volunteers) drink Polyjuice Potion that temporarily transforms them into Harry’s exact likeness.

Six copies of the original Harry. They exactly mirror the six horcruxes Voldemort creates in order to evade death, and demonstrate the creation of a new family around Harry. Harry and Voldemort often act as foils for each other throughout the series; here, the contrast between the methods of hero Harry and villain Voldemort are telling. In hiding his soul in horcruxes, Voldemort places his trust in material things and relies on them to keep him alive whereas Harry’s friend’s willingness to risk their lives for him shows where strength and security might better be found.

In the film, Harry visits the graveyard where his parents and Dumbledore’s mother and sister are buried. It’s not very clear in the film, but in the novel, bible verses are engraved alongside the names of the deceased. The one that accompanies the names of Dumbledore’s family appears in Luke and Matthew’s gospels: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. It’s a verse that reminds us that we would be foolish to trust in riches gained on earth because this life may not be all that there is. Voldemort’s trust is in magical objects, whereas Dumbledore’s treasure, like Harry, is found in his relationships. If as I suspect, Rowling would like us to be more like Harry and Dumbledore than Voldemort, we’d do well to wonder what we’d see in the Mirror of Erised, or the mirror that advertisers hold up to our lives.

Dr Justine Toh is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She also teaches cultural studies at Macquarie University.

This article originally appeared at ABC Unleashed

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