Summary: I take a look at why Ron is such an unlikable character, concluding that it's because he is consumed by jealousy. I then go back through the series, this time trying to get into Ron's head to figure out what on earth he was thinking.
"You - complete - arse - Ronald - Weasley!" Hermione cries in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (DH 380). Her sentiment is shared by quite a few characters in the books, and by many readers of the books - my dislike of Ron in infamous on MuggleNet, and I won't even repeat some of the things my friends call him.. Which of course begs the question of why? Why is Ron Weasley, Harry Potter's best friend, such an unlikable character? It is fairly certain that Jo did not intend it to be so.
I believe, after debating Ron endlessly with other fans, that the root of the problem comes from Ron's jealousy. I would go so far as to call it Ron's defining characteristic. It is certainly one of the first aspects of his character that we are introduced to. When he is talking to Harry for the first time aboard the Hogwarts express, he talks about all of his brothers' achievements. Bill, Charlie, and Percy were prefects. Bill was Head Boy; Charlie was Quidditch Captain and a legendary athlete. Even Fred and George "get really good marks and everyone thinks they're really funny." (SS 99) Whereas the only thing Ron seems to be truly good at is playing wizard chess. When he looks into the Mirror of Erised, which shows "the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts," Ron "sees himself standing alone, the best of all of [his brothers]" (SS 213).
But then at the end of the year things change, and Ron finally gets the recognition he craves. He helps Harry get to the Sorcerer's Stone, is recognized by Dumbledore at the End-of-Year Feast, and helps Gryffindor win the House Cup. With his jealousy of his brothers gone, he is most likable in the second and third books. In particular, he gets to shine in Chamber of Secrets when he gets an Award for Special Services to the School and once again helps Gryffindor win the House Cup.
But in Goblet of Fire, Ron's jealousy returns with a vengeance, and this time it is directed toward a more volatile source: his best friend, Harry. Harry had just been chosen to compete in the Triwizard Tournament, a chance for even more fame and glory. Yet Harry says he did not try to enter. Ron, consumed by his jealousy of his more talented and famous friend, does not believe him.
This takes almost everyone by surprise, especially Harry, because there has never been an issue of trust between them before. Why would they lie to each other? Friendship is based on trust, and without it, any relationship will fall apart. And indeed, their friendship does fall apart, and they don't speak for several weeks. The silly thing is, neither Ron nor Harry (nor Hermione) are able to function properly while Ron refuses to trust Harry. Ron suddenly finds himself without a group of friends, and is reduced to tagging along with other people. Harry, meanwhile, is so distraught that he considers fleeing Hogwarts altogether, thinking "he could have coped with the rest of the school's behavior if he could just have Ron back as a friend" (GF 296). And poor Hermione is trapped in the middle, "making very forced conversation" and at a complete loss as to what to do (GF 293). Meanwhile, the reader just gets more and more frustrated because we can all tell how much better off they are if they are friends (which is one of the brilliant instances of Jo making us empathize with the characters, something I'll touch on in another essay).
The sad thing is that this lack of trust starts a destructive spiral for the two of them. What is interesting is that even Ron's accusation of lying brings about more mistrust and lying. When Ron unwittingly interrupts Harry's talk with Sirius, Harry does not tell him what he is up to, even though Ron helped Sirius escape half a year ago. Instead, Harry lashes out at Ron accusingly, demanding, "Just thought you'd come nosing around, did you?" (GF 335) Harry no longer trusts Ron because Ron has shown no trust in him.
Apparently the only thing that breaks through Ron's fit of jealousy is a near-death experience, and once Harry is almost killed by an enormous Hungarian Horntail, Ron realizes his mistake and makes up with Harry. We can all breathe easily again.
A second jealousy of Ron's also emerges in Goblet of Fire, one that is much more understandable. Ron has developed feelings for Hermione, who proceeds to go to the Yule Ball with international Quidditch star and Triwizard Champion Viktor Krum (whom Ron totally fanboyed earlier). Ron immediately becomes irrational, completely ignoring his own date and nastily accusing Hermione of "fraternizing with the enemy" (GF 421). And having to compete with Viktor gets under Ron's skin even after Viktor is no longer a threat, as shown when he lashes out at Hermione a year later when she writes a letter to Viktor.
Two years after the Yule Ball, when Viktor is long forgotten about by all, Ginny lets slip to Ron that "Hermione snogged Viktor Krum" (HBP 288). Once again, Ron becomes completely irrational, livid with jealousy over Hermione. And when Ron gets like this, he ends up hurting people. He treats "a hurt and bewildered Hermione with an icy, sneering indifference," even reducing her to tears at one point (HBP 290). And in an attempt to make Hermione similarly jealous, he uses Lavender Brown with complete disregard for Lavenderâs feelings.
Luna, who has a "knack of speaking uncomfortable truths," comments that Ron "can be a bit unkind," and not even Harry contradicts her (HBP 310-311). What ever happened to the kind boy who befriended the orphaned Harry, who helped Neville stand up to bullies, and who risked everything to save his little sister? Driven mad by jealousy, he causes quite a few people to lose respect for him, and hurts those most dear to him.
Fortunately, he gets poisoned, and as we have seen before a near-death experience usually brings him to his senses. He finally realizes that perhaps jealousy is not the way to Hermione's heart.
Ron seems to make progress as a character, sacrificing a lot to accompany Harry and Hermione on their journey to destroy the Horcruxes. By this point, it is clear that Harry and Hermione mean a lot to Ron, more than almost anything else. But Ron still has a lot of insecurities, and Horcruxes prey on a person's insecurities. And the locket Horcrux preys on Ron in particular.
It drives Ron to have a fight with Harry, because once again Ron does not believe that Harry has been telling him the truth. Harry has "been straight with [Ron] from the start, told [Ron] everything Dumbledore told [him]" (DH 307). But Ron seemed to think that Harry had for some bizarre reason withheld information, that "Dumbledore had told [Harry] what to do," and that Harry "had a real plan" (DH 307).
Why would Ron suddenly think that his two best friends are keeping secrets from him, when neither has shown a precedent for it? Because he doesn't totally trust them, not enough to confide in them his feelings or his insecurities. Therefore, Ron is afraid that Harry and Hermione are not being honest with him about their feelings, which is why he does not talk to them about his own feelings. This leads to a spiral of mistrust to the point where Ron assumes that they are keeping other bits of information from him.
Regardless of his own feelings for Hermione, Ron is also petrified that if Harry and Hermione (the people he cares most about) get together, he will be left with nothing. This causes him to stop trusting them, and this tears their little group apart again. In his anger, Ron decides to leave Harry. Once again assuming that other people are as untrusting as he is, he asks Hermione if she's coming with him. Because she is an amazing friend, Hermione tearfully replies no, she's "staying. Ron, we said we'd go with Harry, we said we'd help -" (DH 309). Ron responds, "I get it. You choose him." (DH 310) Ron's paranoia about Harry and Hermione's relationship blinds him to the fact that Hermione is doing what a decent friend should do, what Ron should have done: keeping her word and sticking with Harry.
This is really the low point in the series for all three of the Trio. Hermione is broken-hearted by Ron's actions. Harry, once again showing how the lack of trust spirals, gets paranoid that Hermione will leave him, too. But perhaps Ron, being alone, suffers the most. Because in this defining moment, Ron finally accepts the possibility that maybe he won't win Hermione's heart, maybe he won't have his happily-ever-after with her.
Anyway, after narrowly escaping a band of Snatchers (another near-death experience... definitely a pattern!), Ron yet again comes to his senses and wants to return to Harry and Hermione. But this is easier said than done, and it is many weeks before he is finally able to do so. Once he manages it, he saves Harry's life, and they prepare to get rid of the locket Horcrux that has caused so much trouble. Harry lets Ron do it. He thinks that since Ron suffered most at its hand, Ron should be the one to destroy it. But it does not go without a fight.
Before they start the process, Ron tries to explain to Harry how "it affects [Ron] worse than it affected [Harry] and Hermione, it made [Ron] think stuff - stuff [he] was thinking anyway, but it made everything worse" (DH 374). But Harry convinces him to go through with it - all he has to do is stab the locket with a sword. Ron "raised the sword in his shaking hands," but then the piece of soul speaks to Ron, revealing all of his insecurities (375).
"I have seen your heart, and it is mine."
"Don't listen to it!" Harry said harshly. "Stab it!"
"I have seen your dreams, Ronald Weasley, and I have seen your fears. All you desire is possible, but all that you dread is also possible...â
"Least loved, always, by the mother who craved a daughter... Least loved, now by the girl who prefers your friend... Second best, always, eternally overshadowed...â (DH 375-376)
And this moment is the culmination of Ron's character arc, when he has to finally face down all of his inner demons as they are presented to him by the Horcrux. And as we see, one of his biggest fears is that he is unloved. Though my inner Ravenclaw protests, it really does not matter that a lot of Ron's insecurities are not based on reality (for example, the notion that his mother loves him least, when she certainly loves all of her children equally and fawns over him a good deal more than over his twin brothers), the fact remains that they bother him.
As Ron stands frozen in horror, with the sword pointing down, facing down his inner demons, it is the ultimate test for this poor character. Whether or not Ron can overcome this Horcrux depends on whether he can find self-respect, enough to make himself stop listening to the Horcrux.
But the Horcrux has even more tortures in store for Ron. Out of the locket come figures of Harry and Hermione. This is significant, because the locket chose the two people most important to Ron, and it is Harry and Hermione that would mess with his head more than anyone else.
[Riddle-Harry said,] "Why return? We were better off without you, happier without you, glad of your absence... We laughed at your stupidity, your cowardice, your presumption-"
"Presumption!" echoed the Riddle-Hermione, who was more beautiful and yet more terrible than the real Hermione. [...] "Who could look at you, who would ever look at you, beside Harry Potter? What have you ever done, compared with the Boy Who Lived?"
"Your mother confessed," sneered Riddle-Harry, while Riddle-Hermione jeered, "that she would have preferred me as a son, would be glad to exchange ...â
"Who wouldn't prefer him, what woman would take you, you are nothing, nothing, nothing to him" (DH 376-377)
And this gets Ron where it hurts. His sense of self-worth is intrinsically tied to what Harry and Hermione think of him. And if they do not need him or do not want him, then he essentially feels worthless. Some argue that it is a sense of intrinsic self-worth that constitutes self-respect, but this is not true in this case. Ron's sense of self-worth is not intrinsic, but comes from the worth he presents to the two people who matter most: Harry and Hermione.
But Ron is finally pushed over the edge by his worst fear, his very worst, being materialized. "[Riddle-Hermione] stretched like a snake and entwined herself around Riddle-Harry, wrapping him in a close embrace: Their lips met." (DH 377)
Unable to take the sight, Ron, his "face filled with anguish," finally stabs the locket (DH 377). The bit of soul was finally gone, "torturing Ron had been its final act." (DH 378)
And Ron finally gains self-respect, or his version of it, when Harry removes the last vestiges of his paranoia by telling Ron, "After you left [... Hermione] cried for a week. [...] I love her like a sister and I reckon she feels the same way about me. It's always been like that, I thought you knew." (DH 378) Ron has finally learned to trust Harry, and now that he does, everything comes together. His fears assuaged, he realizes that he is worth a lot to Harry and Hermione as their friend, and that Hermione has only ever loved him.
An interesting question here is, what would have happened if his fears had been well-founded? We may never know, because Jo never entertained that possibility. But my guess is that Ron would not have made it out of the situation with any sense of self-worth. He would have been consumed with resentment, and though I'd like to believe otherwise, I don't think he would have gotten over it. But this is all a matter for fanfiction, because the Harmony ship never sailed.
I have not liked Ron ever since reading Deathly Hallows for the first time over four years ago. And I do not think I will ever truly like him. I'm a Ravenpuff, so I value intelligence and loyalty, which largely makes me the antithesis of Ron. But after writing this essay, I definitely understand him and his insecurities better now, and just how far he was driven by his bitter jealousy. And more than anything, I pity him.
July 18, 2007 - The New York Times posts an early review of Deathly Hallows which sets off fury among fans and J.K. Rowling herself. The NYT, however, sticks with their original intentions and keeps the review online.