Harry Potter and Stunted Adolescence
A few months ago on #WizardTeam, I brought up the seeming dearth of characters who are stunted and paralyzed in their adolescence. This wouldn’t seem shocking for a series set in a school, but these characters are all adults in charge of the wellbeing of children and responsible for helping these children learn and grow into contributing members of society. The actions of these adults have dire consequences. Not only to the education of the students at Hogwarts, but to their safety as well, particularly Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger. In my opinion, all of these characters have had experiences that they have not been able to move on from and the repercussions of that show up throughout the series.
Hagrid’s emotional development stopped the moment Tom Riddle accused him of opening the Chamber of Secrets at the age of 13 and unleashing the monster that eventually killed Myrtle. While innocent and never suspected of negative intent, the consequences of Rubeus’ second year show up in subtle ways throughout the series. From the first time we meet Hagrid and his small pink umbrella (carrying small shards of his broken wand), we are shown examples of his immaturity. Rubeus Hagrid is a 60+-year-old man who allows himself to be so overcome with anger that he takes it out on a young 11-year-old child. While Dudley deserves the pigtail for eating Harry’s birthday cake, I do not think it was up to Hagrid to discipline him. Frequently through the series, Hagrid puts his faith into wild creatures that either do not understand or care the threat they pose to schoolchildren. From accepting a dragon egg and not only getting the trio in trouble (Harry and Hermione) but endangering their lives (Ron’s poisoned hand) to sending Harry and Ron into the forest to meet with Aragog, Hagrid never fully comprehends the consequences of his actions. Once his name is cleared and he is allowed to perform magic again he immediately takes the position as Care of Magical Creatures professor instead of doing further study and brushing up on magic that he has not been allowed to practice for the past 50+ years.
Beyond his dealings with animals, his relationship with Harry, Hermione, and Ron also show a lack of maturity that is quite telling. He looks to them as an older brother, though, in reality, he should be more of a father or even grandfather figure. This allows him to include them on his schemes and favors them in ways a faculty member should never do with students (though he isn’t alone in that case). This rapport he has with the trio also allows them to manipulate their relationship and asking Hagrid for information that they have no business asking anyone. Even when he explicitly tells them to let go of finding out about the Sorcerer’s Stone they disregard him because they do not see him as a superior but as an equal.
Petunia is a rather interesting case of stunted adolescence. If you’re an only child you may not fully understand the loving competition that exists between siblings, but it is a very delicate balance that can have you laughing one minute and screaming obscenities at each other the next. However, to have a sibling is to have someone who is perennially on your side–or that’s how it should be. While it is understandable that Petunia would feel jealous and even bitter about being overshadowed by Lily, that is a grudge she should have taken to their parents. After all, Lily had as much control over being a witch as Petunia had over being a Muggle. Lily tried to maintain her sisterly relationship with Petunia but the feeling of being set apart seemed to be too much for Petunia to get over.
This would be tragic if Petunia’s grudge had ended there, however, as I previously mentioned, her resentment of Lily spilled over into her treatment of Harry. Petunia’s relationship with Lily may have been irreparable–she didn’t include Lily in her wedding and did not even bother to attend Lily’s wedding to James–but Harry Potter, a young traumatized boy of one, is the epitome of an innocent bystander. Petunia’s introduction to her nephew is also the first time she learns that her sister has been killed and that she is the last living Evans. Instead of remembering Lily with fondness and reconciling her differences she continues her resentment in her treatment of Harry. While Vernon may be Harry’s primary abuser, Petunia sets the tone for how Vernon and Dudley are allowed to treat her last link to Lily. Furthermore, she does more than condone his treatment, she sanctions and perpetrates his abuse in the irrational way of a sibling jealous of the attention and talent of their counterpart. This is the reaction of the hurt and bitter adolescent Petunia and not a mature loving adult and caregiver.
Everything about Severus is stunted, from his devotion to Lily that is reminiscent of the imaginary boyfriend in Inside Out, “I would die for Riley”, to his grudge against James Potter and the Marauders that turns into a pathological need to torment Harry Potter at every turn. It’s not only his relationship with the Potters that shows Snape’s stunted maturity. His every decision and action is colored by this desire to rectify the perceived slights of his youth. Snape grew up in a poor and dysfunctional home and showed signs of being awkward and having difficulty fitting in, so it is unsurprising that once he entered Hogwarts, he tried to gain acceptance from Slytherins by showing off his proficiency in the Dark Arts. Snape looked up to Lucius Malfoy, a prefect during his first year and as an adult continued to try and court Lucius’ favor through his treatment of Draco. Instead of criticism, he praises the very traits in Draco Malfoy that he accuses and derides Harry Potter for having; arrogance, narcissism, and laziness.
Snape’s self-prescribed nickname “The Half-Blood Prince” and his lashing out at Lily by calling her a Mudblood all stem back to his negative feelings towards his father. This belief in blood status did not come from his pure-blood mother who married a Muggle, instead, it was born out of resentment for his neglectful and possibly abusive father Tobias. Instead of relating to the awkwardness of Neville Longbottom, he uses his position to bully him in the manner in which Snape himself was bullied. Twenty years later his rivalry with Gryffindor is not the fun and nostalgic rivalry showed in Professor McGonagall but rather the disgusted resentment of a bitter man. There is so much evidence of Snape’s unwillingness to move on that I could probably write a book about it but let us move on.
It is important to note that as a character, Sirius Black is the counterpart to Severus Snape in many ways. He just happens to be more lovable because of his relationship to our protagonists, and also has a slightly higher degree of chill. Sirius grew up in a privileged home with high expectations and strong beliefs that he could not match. He answered this by being as contrarian as he possibly could, completely rejecting the blood status beliefs of his parents and eventually running away to live with the Potters. This devotion to James carries on through his short life in positive and negative ways. The guilt he feels for suggesting Peter Pettigrew be the Potters’ Secret Keeper as well as being kept in Azkaban for 12 years drives Sirius to the brink of insanity. Though he could have escaped at any time, I believe he stayed in Azkaban those twelve years as a self-imposed punishment for trusting Peter.
However, once he does escape he allows himself to be goaded into reckless behavior by his rival and member of the Petty Hall of Fame, Severus Snape. In allowing himself to be easily provoked he puts not only himself at risk but also threatens Harry’s safety. In his recklessness, he also unwittingly provides Harry with the same feelings of guilt at his death as Sirius felt over James’. I don’t doubt Sirius’ sincere love for Harry and am sure he would have made different choices if he knew it would spare Harry that pain. Unfortunately, Sirius was not able to overcome the rivalries and resentments of his youth that brought about his imprisonment and ultimately, his death.
Similar to the other characters on this list, Dumbledore has a rather fraught childhood. After an attack on his sister leaves their family in disrepair, the deaths of both parents (stemming directly from this event) leaves Albus, a recent graduate of Hogwarts, guardian of his two younger siblings. Understandably, Albus feels trapped and unfairly burdened by this new responsibility and inability to chase his ambition and intellectual curiosity. However, after the accidental death of his sister Arianna, Albus blames himself and sets about punishing himself and controlling his ambitions in a way that will have dire consequences for people in his later life. While Albus shares some, but not all of the blame for the circumstances that lead to Arianna’s death, his future actions prove that he has never accepted that he is not completely to blame. Dumbledore is different from the others character listed because instead of not being able to move past the experiences of his childhood, he reacts to everything through the lens of his youth so eager to correct the mistakes of his past that he is unable to see the mistakes of his present.
The biggest repercussion of Dumbledore’s stunted adolescence is his unwillingness to relinquish responsibility or control. In feeling that he is unsuited for power but unable to curb his ambition, Albus becomes Headmaster at Hogwarts. While this job undoubtedly entails a lot of responsibility Dumbledore takes that to mean not delegation but compartmentalization. In order to keep all of the responsibility on his shoulders, he infantilizes those around him. Not believing them capable of handling all the nuances of their situations, he tells them only enough information to get to his desired outcome. This is not only unfair but also dishonest and cruel for those who put their trust and faith in him. He takes away Harry’s agency by not letting him face his fate armed with as much information as he could get. While you can argue whether or not this was the right tactic, I think it is completely tied up in Dumbledore needing to feel as though he is completely responsible and the only one wholly sacrificing for the greater good, something he was unable to do for his sister.
The enduring legacy of the Harry Potter series is that though the story is in a fantasy setting it is endlessly relatable. You do not have to be a witch or wizard to be changed by the events in your life. The hope though is that you are able to reconcile and come to peace with those events and live a happy and healthy life. Hopefully, we will see in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child if Harry is able to do what some of the most influential adults in his childhood were not. Process his lived experiences and move on from them, healthy and whole.