Harry Potter and Psychology
An original editorial by Whitney Caitlin
I find it difficult to read the Harry Potter
series without using psychology to
interpret it, a feeling that has been exacerbated by having two college
psychology courses under my belt.
Ive always found Freudian psychology, in particular, very interesting and that
feeling hasnt been deterred by most academics never-ending scorn for Freuds
more "creative" theories. However, Freud has made quite a mark on modern
thought: people (without realizing it, of course) use Freudian psychology all
the time. Many people are familiar with his theory of the defense mechanisms. If
you arent, here is my Psych books definition: When realistic [coping
behaviors] are ineffective in reducing anxiety, [one] may resort to defense
mechanisms that deny or distort reality (Passer and Smith, 2001). Most people
have heard of the defense mechanisms denial, repression, and rationalization and
are able to relate to them personally.
Not too long ago, I was reading the definition for the defense mechanism
"reaction formation," which is the repression of a thought or belief that causes
one anxiety and its replacement with an exaggerated expression of the opposite
behavior. What struck me was the example given in my textbook for reaction
formation: A mother who harbors feelings of hatred for her child represses them
and becomes overprotective of the child. Now who does that sound like? Petunia
I will admit that this theory is a bit far-fetched, but reaction formation is
a very interesting way to interpret Petunias hatred and adoration of Harry
and Dudley, respectively.
So what on earth makes me think that Petunia has any feelings of hatred for
Dudley? How about her relationship with Lily? We dont know much about how the
two sisters interacted, but it is obvious from Petunias tirade in Sorcerers
Stone that she was extremely jealous and resentful of Lilys powers.
"I was the only one who saw her for what she was a freak! But for my mother and
father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in
She stopped to draw a deep breath and then went ranting on. It seemed she had been
wanting to say all this for years.
(p58 US edition)
Now we cannot be sure of this, but if Petunia were the younger of the two
sisters, she would be especially resentful of Lily if she were hoping to receive
a Hogwarts letter as well. Thus, Petunias deep resentment of Lily would most
likely stem from wanting to be a witch very badly. (If Petunia is in fact older,
it does not completely obliterate my theory but, admittedly, it wont work as
My next point is that parents often want for their children what they themselves
never had. For example, my dad is really insistent that my brothers and I do well
in school, because his parents never really seemed to care. Think what would
have happened if Dudley had gotten a Hogwarts letter. It was possible; his
aunt was a witch. If my Petunia-as-the-younger-sister theory holds, Id
bet that she would be secretly delighted, never mind what Uncle Vernon thought.
Having her son triumph over her sisters son would have brought real satisfaction to Petunia.
Remember the quote above. It seems that Petunia had to compete for her parents
attention for much of her life. However, it was only Harry that got the letter.
Petunia and Vernons suspicion about Harry (that he was a wizard, just like his
parents) was confirmed as soon as they read that letter. I wouldnt be surprised
if seeing Harrys letter brought all Petunias resentful feelings back to the
surface. Thus Harry officially became the ideal that Petunia so desperately
wanted to live up to as a child. Dudley, however, didnt live up to that ideal;
he ruined Petunias chance to best Lily once and for all.
Thats where reaction formation kicks in you cant hate your own son, right? So,
Petunia represses the unwanted thought and instead dotes on Dudley non-stop,
while treating Harry (the ideal) like dirt. Furthermore, the definition of
reaction formation explains that the repression of the anxiety-causing thought
is coupled with an exaggerated expression of the opposite sentiment. Anyone who
has read the books can attest to the fact that each interaction between Petunia
and Harry or Petunia and Dudley is exaggerated. (Petunia in tears over Dudleys
diet in GoF, Petunia nearly hitting Harry over the head with a frying pan in
Now for the most problematic part of my theory: it insinuates that deep down,
Petunia doesnt hate Harry. This is the heart of the definition of reaction formation. My
only reason for accepting this theory as somewhat plausible is the interaction
between Harry and Petunia in the second chapter of OotP.
"Back?" whispered Petunia.
She was looking at Harry as she had never looked at him before. . . .Aunt Petunia
had never in her life looked at Harry like that before. Her large pale eyes (so
unlike her sisters) were not narrowed in dislike or anger. They were wide and
fearful. The furious pretense that Aunt Petunia had maintained all Harrys life that
there was no magic . . . seemed to have fallen away.
(p37-8, US edition)
We could say that Petunia has repressed all knowledge and ties with the magical
world after Lilys death and the stressful events of chapter 2 caused her Freudian
slip about Azkaban, just as the stressful event of seeing Harry about to be whisked
off to Hogwarts did in SS. So if she could look at Harry like that, then how much
does she really hate him? I cant wait to find out more about Petunia Dursley.