Note: This is the middle part of my “Revenge” trilogy. You are strongly encouraged to read Part I: The Missing Message first, or you might be mightily confused.
I have talked about how Jo does not allow any of her characters to fulfill their personal vendettas against other characters. There is, however, one very noticeable exception in all this: Hermione Granger. Unlike the other characters, Jo does allow her to get revenge. The two most satisfying instances of payback in the books are both Hermione’s.
Hermione’s sense of justice is a very strong one, and she is not afraid to carry it out herself. Between smacking Draco in Prisoner of Azkaban and starting S.P.E.W. in Goblet of Fire, we come to expect her to take matters into her own hands. And so, none of us are surprised when she doesn’t take kindly to Rita Skeeter.
Hermione stood up very abruptly, her butterbeer clutched in her hand as though it were a grenade.
“You horrible woman,” she said through gritted teeth, “you don’t care, do you, anything for a story, and anyone will do, won’t they. Even Ludo Bagman —” […] “She’ll be after you next, Hermione,” said Ron in a low and worried voice as they walked quickly back up the street.
“Let her try!” said Hermione defiantly; she was shaking with rage. “I’ll show her! Silly little girl, am I? Oh, I’ll get her back for this. First Harry, then Hagrid …” (GF451)
Now, were this any other character, Rita would have been squashed by a Muggle’s flyswatter and everyone would have been denied the satisfaction of “get[ting] her back.” Indeed, there are plenty of characters who could have taken down Rita very poetically – Harry, Hagrid, Viktor, any Ministry employee.… Instead, Hermione is the one who gets her own back.
“No, you see … Rita Skeeter” — Hermione’s voice trembled with quiet triumph — “is an unregistered Animagus. She can turn —” Hermione pulled a small sealed glass jar out of her bag. “— into a beetle.”
[…] Hermione took the glass jar back from Ron and smiled at the beetle, which buzzed angrily against the glass.
“I’ve told her I’ll let her out when we get back to London,” said Hermione. “I’ve put an Unbreakable Charm on the jar, you see, so she can’t transform. And I’ve told her she’s to keep her quill to herself for a whole year. See if she can’t break the habit of writing horrible lies about people.”
Smiling serenely, Hermione placed the beetle back inside her schoolbag. (GF727-728)
If this were the TV show “Revenge” and Hermione were Emily Thorne, you can practically see her putting a big red X on Rita Skeeter’s picture (and yes, that show is my guilty pleasure, so don’t judge!). This seems surprisingly low-road for Hermione, who (as a good guy) is expected to take the high road. We have false imprisonment and blackmail here, both VERY serious crimes (especially the former – keeping someone in a glass jar for days is a big no-no!)
Moreover, when we meet Rita eight months later, we see that Hermione has really made her mark. Rita is out of work and not doing well.
Unemployment did not suit Rita. The hair that had once been set in elaborate curls now hung lank and unkempt around her face. The scarlet paint on her two-inch talons was chipped and there were a couple of false jewels missing from her winged glasses. (OP565)
Due to Hermione, Rita is now out of work, and clearly does not have much income going her way. Of course, we’re meeting her when Hermione is blackmailing her into doing unpaid work, so the point is already driven home by the circumstance. And Hermione is ruthless about it.
Rita Skeeter looked as though the taste of Stinksap was strong in her mouth again as she rounded on Hermione. “I’m supposed to do this for free?” “Well, yes,” and Hermione calmly, taking a sip of her drink. “Otherwise, as you very well know, I will inform the authorities that you are an unregistered Animagus. Of course, the Prophet might give you rather a lot for an insider’s account of life in Azkaban….” (OP569)
This is, basically, extortion. For the first time, one of our protagonists does not take the high road, but gets payback against a detestable character. And yes, we all basked in her triumph, ecstatic at Rita getting her just desserts. But it’s still not really okay (yeah, the moral high ground is a killjoy).
Why does Jo allow this to happen? Well… to be honest, I don’t think it’s some brilliant literary devices on her part. I think it’s wish fulfillment.
Jo has said, time and time again, that Hermione is the character she most identifies with, the one most closely based on her. And we know that by the time she wrote Goblet, she already must have had a, shall we say, strained relationship with paparazzi. So, it’s all well and good for other characters to take the moral high ground and not get their revenge. But I think having Hermione, the character she most identified with, ruthlessly defeat the awful journalist was just too tempting for our esteemed author. This was about Jo getting some satisfaction herself, living vicariously through her characters. (At least, I hope this was all vicariously through Hermione – any journalists who have been blackmailed or trapped in glass jars by Jo Rowling, please come forth now!)
Hermione’s treatment of Rita Skeeter, while somewhat shocking, is positively tame compared to what she does to Dolores Umbridge.
Umbridge is a detestable character – she is the one I hate the most, the one I love to hate, and I’m sure plenty of fans would agree. Her list of crimes is almost too extensive to bother with, but I will enumerate some highlights: drafting anti-werewolf legislation to ruin Lupin’s (and other werewolves’) life; forcing Harry (and presumably Lee Jordan) to write lines in their own blood until scarring occurred; humiliating Trelawney in front of the school; attacking McGonagall and landing her in St. Mungo’s; attacking Hagrid to drive him from Hogwarts; sending dementors after Harry; banning Harry and the Weasley twins from Quidditch; and having awful fashion sense1.
The list of people for whom getting revenge on her would be poetic justice… it encapsulates most of the wizarding world: Harry, Lupin, McGonagall, Hagrid, Trelawney, Lee Jordan, the Weasley twins, Dumbledore, and pretty much everyone else at Hogwarts. As far as those who deserve revenge, Hermione is pretty near the bottom of the list. Hermione was not attacked or physically harmed by Umbridge, she was not banned from Quidditch, and she wasn’t even denied an education because she’s so brilliant to begin with.
Yet despite the Weasley twins’ order to “give her hell” (OP675) being issued to Peeves, and being attempted by most of the student body and some of the faculty, it is Hermione who ultimately defeats her. And what a vengeance Hermione wreaks!
Hermione tricks Umbridge into going into the Forbidden Forest, then lures her to a herd of angry centaurs, knowing Umbridge will offend them enough for the centaurs to take her away. To be honest, Voldemort should take lessons from Hermione – none of his evil plots are anywhere near as elegant or effective. This all goes swimmingly, and Umbridge is indeed carried away by the centaurs.
[Please note: the next two paragraphs are for the N.E.W.T. students only, younger readers please skip ahead.]
What happens to Umbridge after being carted off by a herd of angry centaurs is never explicitly stated… and considering what it likely was, there’s a very good reason Jo didn’t spell it out in a book that was still considered for children. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Umbridge was raped by the centaurs. The finer points of evidence are that centaurs in Greek mythology were infamous for being rapists, and Umbridge’s traumatized behavior afterwards would fit with this theory. (If you would like to delve deeper into this theory, check out this article.)
If any moment in the series qualifies as epic payback, this one does. Short of capital punishment, this seems to me the worst punishment possible. Getting gang-raped by centaurs is on a whole other level from what Rita suffered. To be fair, the things Umbridge did were much more horrible than anything Rita came up with, but this still seems really harsh.
So, Hermione has gotten vengeance on both Rita and Umbridge. There isn’t any retribution for her, and she is applauded by both characters and readers. (Let’s be honest, we all cheer when Umbridge gets carried off! My movie theater broke into applause when that happened.) Hermione gets these moments because she is based on Jo, and it would seem Jo wanted to indulge her fictionalized self.
Rita Skeeter (The Message)
What is the message that Hermione’s vengeful side gives the readers? It would seem Jo might have started thinking about that in Half-Blood Prince a little bit – Hermione’s little “revenge” against Ron, in the form of going to Slughorn’s party with McLaggen, clearly backfires spectacularly. But it is in Deathly Hallows, the one where vengeance is denied to everybody (I think Jo was very deliberately making the point in this book), that we get a qualification of Hermione’s triumphs.
In Deathly Hallows, we get to meet both of Hermione’s “victims” (for lack of a more concise word). And how are Rita and Umbridge faring, after Hermione got her vengeance? Well, unfortunately, they’re both doing quite well.
Rita Skeeter penned a best-selling and highly sensationalized biography of Dumbledore – and one has to believe this pays better than the half dozen articles she wrote in Goblet. Moreover, Rita is using her supposed familiarity with Harry as evidence for her lies.
I [the reporter] ask whether Skeeter is still in touch with Harry Potter, whom she so famously interviewed last year: a breakthrough piece in which Potter spoke exclusively of his conviction that You-Know-Who had returned. “Oh, yes, we’ve developed a close bond,” says Skeeter. “Poor Potter has few real friends, and we met at one of the most testing moments of his life — the Triwizard Tournament. I am probably one of the only people alive who can say that they know the real Harry Potter.” (DH27)
Naturally, what Rita is doing here is abhorrent. However, we cannot say that Hermione didn’t hand this to her on a silver platter. Hermione won a battle against Rita Skeeter in 1995, but two years later, Rita claimed her own victory. Was it a great idea for someone to interview Harry for the Quibbler? Yes. Did it have to be Rita Skeeter? Not really. Surely they could have found someone else – anyone else – to write it? There probably aren’t that many writers as well known as Rita Skeeter, but was it a worthwhile tradeoff?
The devil’s advocate position is that Rita would have been up to no good anyway, and claiming Harry as her confidante is just icing on the cake. And yes, Rita was out of commission for a year. You still have to wonder who is considered the victor between those two.
Umbridge (The Message)
A couple of chapters later, we also run into Umbridge. And Umbridge, like Rita Skeeter is doing very well; and like Rita’s, her career is flourishing. Under the new regime, Umbridge heads the Muggle-Born Registration Commission. This new part of the Ministry is concerned with ruthlessly persecuting Muggle-borns. It is one of the most appalling entities in the series, and Umbridge revels in the Muggle-borns’ misery.
I never before stopped to think why Umbridge chose this particular field. There are several reasons, no doubt: it allows her propensity for torture and cruelty to flourish, she is a huge bigot overall, she’s a Slytherin, and it’s what was available at the time. However, we don’t really have much precedent with her being prejudiced against Muggle-borns; it’s half-breeds that she hates (we have specific evidence for werewolves, merpeople, giants, and centaurs).
I believe that Hermione may be at the root of Umbridge’s hatred for Muggle-borns. After what Hermione did to her, it’s no wonder Umbridge turned on Muggle-borns! I don’t know the exact reasoning behind it – either Umbridge extended her hatred of Hermione to all Muggle-borns and therefore persecuted them, or she set up the MBRC in the hopes of annihilating Hermione with it (and the rest of the power trip was an extra bonus). It could be both. Either way, I conjecture that Hermione played a significant role in inspiring the Muggle-Born Registration Commission.
Readers can be content knowing that Umbridge does not get the happy ending that Rita does. Umbridge was tried for crimes against humanity under the Shacklebolt Administration, and sentenced to a life sentence in Azkaban. We can assume she lived out the rest of her days behind bars – and Merlin knows, if anyone deserved it, she did.
So in Deathly Hallows, what is Jo trying to tell us about revenge through Hermione? Yes, Hermione got her revenge on both Rita and Umbridge. Yes, both instances were immensely satisfying. And Hermione certainly brought her foes down very low.
However, both Rita and Umbridge recovered after a year or so. Their careers flourished, and they were quite happy after a while. Rita got to continue her malicious deeds as years went by, and she was inadvertently abetted by Hermione’s blackmail. Umbridge went on an even worse reign of terror, which was partially inspired by Hermione. And even though Umbridge got her comeuppance in the end, it didn’t come from Hermione.
So what Jo tells us, is that in the few instances where we do get revenge – it does not make the problem go away. It launches a vicious cycle. The victory will feel good for a time, but things will not change in the long run. Therefore, even despite the Hermione exception, the Harry Potter series is resolutely anti-revenge.
There is still more to gleaned about this theme in the conflict between Harry and Peter Pettigrew, which serves as a stark contrast to Hermione, Rita, and Umbridge. I therefore encourage you to continue reading Part III: Harry’s Mercy.
1 This last crime may be debatable, but when The Group That Shall Not Be Named put Umbridge on trial in their June 2009 meetup, she was convicted for awful fashion sense among her other crimes. So the sentence stands.