Muggles, Mystery, and Malfoys: What We Get from the Chapters That Harry Isn’t In
In the majority of the chapters in the Harry Potter series, the reader experiences the story through Harry’s (sometimes limited) perspective. In narrative terms, this is known as the third person limited, which means that if something interesting is going on elsewhere in the castle that Harry doesn’t know about, we the readers don’t get to see it either. There are a few chapters that are exceptions to this general rule, however. In these chapters, J.K. Rowling combines different narrative perspectives in order to achieve a carefully calculated balance of important information and mystery.
Even when she moves away from Harry’s perspective, Rowling holds on to the third person limited as a simple way to bring the reader into the scene and sympathize with a character. The chapter “The Other Minister” in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example, is the same style as all of Rowling’s other chapters just with the Muggle Prime Minister at the center. Rowling does something really interesting, however, when she combines the third person limited with an omniscient point of view. In the omniscient point of view, the narrator knows about the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, as well as information that is not experienced by any of the individual characters. For example, the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone starts with an omniscient perspective that describes the Dursleys and how they view the world. It then takes on the limited perspective of Vernon Dursley and goes about his daily life as he becomes suspicious of the magic all around him. The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is similar, starting out from the broad perspective of the villagers of Little Hangleton as a whole and then narrowing down to the limited point of view of Frank Bryce. By combining an omniscient perspective with a third person limited one, J.K. Rowling is able to preserve the mystery in these chapters while also providing us with necessary information. When Rowling uses the third person limited perspective in chapters that Harry isn’t in, she always writes from the perspective of Muggles, since they are clueless about the magical world. This keeps the reader in the dark and allows them to uncover the mystery slowly. Rowling then uses the omniscient point of view to let the reader zoom out and see a wider (yet still carefully curated) view of the world.
Rowling makes her chapters “Spinner’s End” and “The Dark Lord Ascending” even more mysterious by using the objective third person. This perspective means that the reader is not able to see into the heads of any of the characters, nor do they know anything that can’t be seen from watching the scene. “Spinner’s End” takes this objectivity to the extreme. The scene is set on the banks of a river, and we are told that a “slim, hooded figure appeared out of thin air” (HBP 19), but we do not learn that this is Narcissa Malfoy until Bellatrix Lestrange refers to her by her name. Each character in this chapter, even Snape, whom the reader is intimately familiar with, is not named until another character uses their name. This gives the effect that we the reader are spying on the scene, trying to figure out who the characters are and what they are up to. When Bellatrix kills a fox thinking it might be an Auror, this allows the reader to imagine that we are actually an Auror, tailing the two Death Eaters.
The chapter The Dark Lord Ascending also uses third person objective, but we are told almost immediately that the two men who Apparate in the first sentence are Snape and Yaxley, even though they never refer to each other by name. We are no longer spying on the Death Eaters because they are out in the open now. We don’t learn any secrets by following them into their meeting; in fact, their meeting is more like a show that is put on for our benefit, meant to scare us.
Most of the series is filtered through the perspective of Harry, our beloved protagonist. J.K. Rowling, however, carefully picks certain scenes to take place outside of Harry’s head. She uses a diverse array of narrative techniques to manipulate the readers, allowing them to sympathize with some characters and not with others, know certain information but not the most important bits, and always maintain the mystery that makes us want to keep reading.