Sacrificial Narratives: The Exploitation of Ariana Dumbledore in Harry Potter
Long before J.K. Rowling started to alienate large swaths of her fanbase, there were problems evident in the ‘Harry Potter’ series — see my article on body shaming in the series as one example. Her recent commentary regarding trans individuals has hit particularly hard and has been the catalyst for my own decision to focus on my corner of the fandom and use the tools ‘Harry Potter’ has given me to overcome their inherent toxicity while divorcing myself from J.K. Rowling herself. (Topics I discussed when interviewed alongside other fans by both Bookstacked and The New York Times.) There are a number of ways in which oppression is woven alongside liberation in the ‘Harry Potter’ series; in this article I hone in on the ableism present in the narrative’s treatment of Ariana Dumbledore.
We first meet Ariana Dumbledore in chapter 2 of Deathly Hallows, ‘In Memoriam.’ We read Dumbledore’s obituary, lovingly written by his oldest friend, Elphias Doge, who mentions Ariana as someone who died after being “in poor health for a long time.” (19) He notes that while Albus felt personal responsibility for her death he was, of course, guiltless. This immediately sets up Dumbledore on a pedestal and Ariana in the trenches. Her death was inevitable, his was a tragedy. Later, Ron’s Aunt Muriel tells a different story, that Ariana was really a Squib, and that Kendra, their mother, kept her locked in a cellar to keep anyone from knowing about her. Here, Dumbledore is brought low by association, but Ariana is still lower, degraded by her Squib status and her hopeless situation. Throughout the book, and throughout the series, from back to book two, where Ron snickers at the thought of Filch being a Squib, to Mrs. Figg’s treatment by the Wizengamot, and up to here in book seven where Muriel dismisses Squibs in general, we see that Squibs are mistreated and pushed to the margins in wizarding society. In this very book, we see “the wandless” beggars in Diagon Alley kicked aside by Death Eaters. Think back even to the first book and the accountant cousin that the Weasleys do not talk about — most readers who consider it assume he is a Squib. I certainly do.
And nowhere in the books is their plight ever alleviated. One would think that Squibs would be discussed in such detail because they are finally getting recognition, getting agency. But Ariana is not a Squib. The narrative treats her as a Squib in order to allow Harry to draw the uneasy parallel of wondering whether Ariana was treated in a way reverse to his treatment by the Dursleys — shut away because of her lack of magic, while he was shut away because he had it. This parallel needs to be drawn, because the narrative needs to give Harry reasons to doubt Albus Dumbledore. Because everything is centered around Albus Dumbledore, the powerful, successful (white — but almost everyone is) man.
Of course, the truth is much worse than Ariana being a Squib — which of course she cannot be, since Harry needs to eventually trust Dumbledore, and thus the parallel needs to be false. Aberforth tells us in chapter 28, Ariana’s real problem was that she was assaulted by Muggle boys at the age of six, because they saw her doing magic and “got a bit carried away” (564) when she couldn’t do it again. His description has for years now caused me to picture an assault of potentially sexual nature, which has disturbed me enough that I often skip reading this scene when re-reading the book. That Ariana is then infantilized, hidden away, denied professional medical treatment of a physical or psychological nature because her family feared she would be taken away from them is 100% abusive behavior. And yet is treated by Aberforth, the trio, and the narrative on the whole as the right thing to have done. Everything that befalls the Dumbledores — Kendra’s death, the responsibility and burden that Aberforth and Albus respectively feel for Ariana — is seen as the only way. And perhaps the magical medical system really was so poorly managed that they were right to fear it, but what they did to Ariana was hardly better, as she was killed by their so-called kindness.
What bothers me most about Ariana’s death? Not just that she died in a crossfire of a fight and none of them know which one of them cast the spell that struck the killing blow, but that all of Ariana’s tragic, short life is summed up in only a few paragraphs, as part of Aberforth’s story, and Aberforth’s pain, and that Harry reframes the narrative to instead be about Albus’s pain, and that nowhere in here do we ever get a sense for what Ariana feels. We instead see her painting as a voiceless messenger, an idealized image of herself at a young and innocent age doing what she is told and moving the narrative forward.
Ariana is the source of the turmoil and guilt that drove Albus to be the manipulator, the believer in the greater good, but also the man who sought to atone for his mistakes, the man who Harry forgave, after everything. And a large part of that forgiveness was Ariana, it was because Harry had internalized Dumbledore’s pain and the tragedy of Dumbledore’s life. This happens when Dumbledore tells the story of his life, in the ethereal King’s Cross station, after Harry has just sacrificed himself to Voldemort. Dumbledore speaks of how he felt “trapped and wasted” by his “responsibility of a damaged sister and a wayward brother” (716) despite the love he says he felt for his family. And yet his remorse is so great that Harry instantly forgives him. Even when Dumbledore admits that his frustration and boredom drove him into Grindelwald’s arms, as he was “inflamed” by Grindelwald’s plans of “Muggles forced into subservience. We wizards triumphant, Grindelwald and I, the glorious young leaders of the revolution.” (716). He admits that his only thought for the cloak would be to hide Ariana from view, as though making her invisible would “fix” her. Because for Albus, Ariana was the problem standing in his way, the thing holding him back. And when she dies, and Grindelwald flees, Albus is offered the position of Minister for Magic.
There are many things that are wrong with this, but here are two of them: 1. Albus’s need to take care of Ariana because of her trauma-induced disability is framed as being a burden on his burgeoning Fascism. 2. Her death is used as a device for him to realize the error of his ways, and thereby not only is he free to now be successful in the wizarding world as a professor and a scholar, but also privileged enough to turn down the position of political power (though he would eventually serve on the Wizengamot, and the International Confederation of Wizards).
Furthermore, his grief, and his fear over whether Grindelwald knew whether it was Albus or himself who had killed Ariana, was used as the narrative reason for Albus not to act. Therefore Ariana also functions as a device for excusing Albus’s non-action in the war against Grindelwald for so long.
That Harry’s knowledge of these events is what allows him to finally forgive and fully absolve Albus of all of his sins is the worst part of all of this. It shows that he has fully bought into this narrative, and his legitimization of it is disturbing for the reader as Ariana’s fall absolves his.
In conclusion the real problem with Ariana Dumbledore is that her narrative,
- from child victim of assault,
- denied any kind of medical or mental healthcare by her family (a form of abuse),
- isolated from anyone other than her family
- kept a complete secret and allowed out of the house only at night and in the garden (another form of abuse),
- until she was killed at age fifteen because of a fight between her brothers and a friend,
is all used as a plot point so that Albus Dumbledore has a reason to plan wizard supremacy with Grindelwald, and so that he ultimately has a reason to turn away from that vision. Albus’s rise, his choices throughout his life are all motivated by the ways he grapples with Ariana’s death, and for the foundation of a powerful white man that the narrative extols in various ways to be a disabled, abused, and victimized young girl who was ultimately sacrificed like Iphigenia to start the Trojan War, is something I can hardly abide by.
And yet I continue to love the series because these things are not mutually exclusive. The overarching narrative of ‘Harry Potter’ is one I have adored for years, but there is an underbelly to the series that is uncomfortable, and if we are to be critical fans, and authentic to our own values, we can’t ignore it, and we can’t look away. We owe it to each other and to ourselves to look at things in all their complexity and see them for what they are and see ourselves for who we are in turn.