The North Tower #17: The Pensieve (1)

by Maline

“A shallow stone basin lay there, with old carvings around the edge, rune symbols that Harry did not recognise. The silvery light was coming from the basin’s contents, which were like nothing Harry had ever seen before. He could not tell whether the substance was liquid or gas. It was a bright, whitish silver, and it was moving ceaselessly; the surface of it became ruffled like water beneath wind and then, like clouds, separated and swirled smoothly. It looked like light made liquid or wind made solid – Harry couldn’t make up his mind.”
(GoF, p. 506)

The Pensieve is a mystery I’ve been wanting to take a look at for quite some time, as I find it a most fascinating thing. Since we all know what happens in the Pensieve, I will analyse the structure and language rather than the story, giving myself an exercise of good old comparative commentary analysis. Okay, here we go.

So far, the Pensieve has appeared seven times in the series: five times in GoF and two times in OotP. These seven appearances can be divided into three different groups: 1) Harry looking into the Pensieve without entering it (1 occurrence), 2) A figure forming and coming out of the Pensieve (2 occurrences), and 3) Harry being inside the Pensieve (4 occurrences, or actually 2 occurrences but 4 different scenes). I will deal with each type of appearance first on a general plan and then more in depth on each scene (which will probably be next week). For those of you who haven’t got their books at hand, I’ve copied down the relevant passages and put them into separate files, which can be accessed through the little links for each occurrence. Okay, here we go. Let’s start with the overall picture. To be less confusing, I’ve labelled each of the Pensive-related scenes as follows (all page directions refer to UK hardback editions for Books 4-5 and to UK paperback for 1-3):

  1. SNAPE’S FACE (Harry looking into the Pensieve and sees Snape talking about the return of the Dark Mark on his and Karkaroff’s arms, GoF, p. 519)
  2. BERTHA JORKINS (The figure of Bertha Jorkins coming out of the Pensieve, GoF, p. 520)
  3. SYBILL TRELAWNEY (The figure of Trelawney coming out of the Pensieve to deliver her first prophecy, OotP, p. 741)
  4. KARKAROFF’S HEARING (GoF, p. 507-513)
  5. BAGMAN’S TRIAL (GoF, p. 513-515)
  6. LCU’S TRIAL (Trial of the Lestranges, Crouch, Jr., and an Unknown Death Eater, GoF, p. 515-518)
  7. SNAPE’S WORST MEMORY (OotP, p. 564-572)


There are two different timelines present: one that follows the storytelling (usually called “text-time,” meaning the order of the scenes in the books) and one that follows the actual story (usually called “story-time,” meaning the order of the scenes in the actual plot and in the characters’ universe). The text-time timeline is as follows: Karkaroff’s hearing, Bagman’s trial, LCU’s trial, Snape’s face, Bertha Jorkins, Snape’s worst memory and Sybill Trelawney.

The story-time timeline is different (i.e., when the events seen in the Pensieve actually took place) and a little more difficult to establish. First come Snape’s worst memory and Bertha Jorkins, where Bertha Jorkins probably comes first as she’s working at the MoM a year to a couple of years after Crouch, Jr’s trial (because she discovers him in his father’s house). If we start the story-time at Harry’s birth (and no, I’m not comparing him to Jesus :-)), then Trelawney is -1, the court scenes between 1 and 2, Snape’s face 14, Snape’s worst memory around -5 and Bertha Jorkins somewhere before -5 (it’s quite impossible to establish as we don’t know how old she is; she could be Snape’s age for all we know). We also know that the order of the court scenes is the same on both timelines (i.e., Karkaroff, Bagman, LCU), and we know that Trelawney must be placed before all of them, because Dumbledore talks in Karkaroff’s hearing about how Snape turned away from Voldemort before his downfall, meaning that Voldemort must already be gone by that time, and Trelawney’s prophecy came before his fall.

If we look at the differences between the two timelines, we see that there are two blocks that change places: the court block (Karkaroff, Bagman and LCU) and the “emotional” block (Bertha, Snape’s worst memory and Trelawney), called thus because they’re surrounded by strong emotions, coming from the characters whose memory has just been evoked. (I’ll get back to that)


This is a very important question regarding the Pensieve: whose reality is it that we really see? In most discussions around “Snape’s Worst Memory” that I’ve read (very few, actually), it’s emphasised that JKR repeats the fact that we’re inside Snape’s memory, and that this should indicate that what we see (and what Harry sees) is Snape’s version of what happened that day. The theory thus becomes, “what Harry sees in the Pensieve is the subjective memory of somebody else (Dumbledore or Snape)”

This seems a bit unlikely to me for four reasons:

  1. According to Dumbledore, the Pensieve is a tool that allows you to get another perspective on your memories and to understand them better (seeing patterns and so forth). If they only showed the events exactly as remembered (i.e., subjectively), there would be no real purpose with it.
  2. The person in the Pensieve can look at other things than what the person, whose memory it is, is looking at, and thus see things that that person couldn’t have seen at the time (e.g., how could Snape have seen that James, many desks away, was drawing a Snitch on a piece of parchment at the end of the exam when he himself was absorbed in his paper, writing frantically?). Were it a person’s subjective memory, it should be seen through that person’s eyes only.
  3. When Harry’s inside the Pensieve, we only get to know what his feelings are, and what he thinks the other characters are feeling. For example, in Snape’s memory, we never know what Snape’s really feeling but can only guess, just like Harry. Were it subjective, Snape’s feelings would be in focus, not Harry’s. (Same thing goes for the court scenes)
  4. The way people are described. In Snape’s memory for example, Sirius is described several times as extremely handsome. Usually, when you hate somebody, that person appears ugly to you, even if that person is generally thought of as being good-looking. You tend to focus on the flaws, the same way your best friend could never really look ugly to you, because he/she’s just too likable. If Snape’s worst memory is a subjective scene, this would mean that Snape either secretly admires Sirius and/or that he’s secretly in love with him. Neither is very probable, as in GoF and OotP they obviously hate each other (and please, please, please do not take this for a reason to start a “Snape might be gay” theory; there are really no grounds for it).
    The characters don’t seem to be described the way Snape saw them back then, but the way Harry sees them, influenced by his feelings: Sirius is extremely handsome and very confident (Harry really likes Sirius and sees him “like a mix of a father and a brother”), James looks exactly like Harry except for a couple of things (eyes, scar – Harry has only heard James described in relation to himself, looks and qualities alike), Wormtail is shifty, is compared to a mouse and seems generally ugly, cowardly and mean (which is pretty much Harry’s picture of him after PoA and GoF), Snape is greasy and ugly (the way Harry and Ron always talk about him) and Lily only has red hair and Harry’s eyes (the two characteristics which have always been the dominant ones when she’s described). I think that Lily’s description is the most interesting one; she’s barely described at all. There’s only her hair and her eyes, nothing about her being beautiful or not beautiful – it’s neutral, just like Harry’s relationship to her. He thinks a lot more about his father; Lily is just that vague motherly figure who sacrificed herself for him when he was a baby.
    Okay, the point I want to make with all this is that if what you see in the Pensieve depends on how the person whose memory it is (from now on “memory-person”) sees it, Sirius and James would probably not be so good-looking in Snape’s memory, and (other example) the Dementors wouldn’t be described as so very scary in Dumbledore’s.

It seems to me that the Pensieve offers a kind of objective view of the scene in question, like if you’d take a video camera and film something. What is seen in the Pensieve scenes (and thus conveyed in the text) is the point of view of the person being inside it, and that person is able to notice things that the memory-person didn’t when the scene happened. (e.g., if you look at a video of your sister’s graduation, you’ll probably see things differently than she did that day, and you’ll focus on different things). In Snape’s worst memory, for example, JKR repeats twice that it’s Snape’s memory (underlining that fact), but reminds us that Snape’s “absorbed in his exam paper” (or the like) no less than five times, which is a lot more. In the four scenes when Harry is inside the Pensive, it is therefore his version we readers get, his interpretation. And, as we all know, the way Harry interprets things is not necessarily the correct way to interpret them…

Purpose and intent

Why Harry sees what he sees in the Pensieve seems important also, and this can be analysed at two levels just like the time. First, there’s JKR purpose with each scene, the part they play in the construction of her story. Then there’s the intent of the memory-person: why does he show Harry this precise memory?

Let’s start with intent: three memories are shown by Dumbledore to Harry, and Dumbledore is thus in control of what he’s showing: Snape’s face, Bertha Jorkins and Sybill Trelawney. Three memories are shown without Dumbledore being in control (the court scenes), and it seems like Harry stumbles over these specific scenes accidentally (though it’s logical that they follow each other, dealing with the same kind of situation). Finally, there’s Snape’s worst memory, which Snape placed deliberately in the Pensieve so that Harry wouldn’t be able to see it. Also, when it comes to Trelawney, Dumbledore took the thought out of his head and put it in the Pensieve for that specific occasion, the exact opposite of what Snape did.

The scenes where Dumbledore’s in control should thus be analysed on both levels (as well as Snape’s worst memory, where there’s an inversed idea of control), whereas the court scenes can be analysed from the aspect of writer-purpose only.
Intent question: “Why does Dumbledore show this precise scene to Harry?/Why does Snape want to hide this precise scene from Harry?”
Purpose question: “Why does JKR show us this precise scene in this precise manner?” (Why the Pensieve? She could use many other techniques, like having a person tell Harry about it.)

It seems to me that, when the Pensieve is present, part of the purpose is to withhold information from the reader by letting Harry analyse things (and let’s face it, Harry’s usually wrong when it comes to the important questions like, “Who’s the evil guy in this book?”) instead of leaving it to a more informed character, like Dumbledore. JKR wants to show us something very significant without making it too easy to spot, because we’ll follow the events through Harry’s eyes, being fooled right along with him and focusing on the wrong things. I think that the Pensieve really shows an objective view of things, but we access it in a subjective way, through Harry.

Okay, now let’s move on to the more in-depth analysis.

I) Harry looking into the Pensieve (GoF, p. 519)

This is the formal introduction of the Pensieve, where we learn what it is and how it works (at least partly), which should clarify the previous scenes when Harry’s inside it. It’s a mystical basin filled with thoughts, mainly Dumbledore’s, although Snape uses it later in Book 5.

In this scene, Dumbledore shows Harry how the Pensieve works, meaning that he’s in control of what Harry sees in there. Harry sees two things: his own face and Snape’s face. Harry’s face is silent, and then melts into Snape’s, which speaks. Snape tells of the gradual return of the Dark Mark, without mentioning it by name (“it”). So why is Dumbledore showing Harry this precise memory? It might be to help him put two and two together: Harry saw Karkaroff and Snape together (p. 450), Karkaroff showing Snape something on his arm that had “never been this clear, not since…” Harry then told Sirius about the incident (p. 461), who probably reported it back to Dumbledore (if Snape hadn’t already done it, which is quite probable). We have seen Dumbledore give Harry this kind of “help” before, like in PS/SS, where he provides him with the Invisibility Cloak and tells him how the Mirror of Erised works, or in PoA, when he makes the cryptic remark about “what we need now, is time” to Hermione. He could just tell Harry about the Dark Mark, but he wants him (and the reader, if you look at Dumbledore as a tool for storytelling) to figure it out on his own. Note that he doesn’t tell Harry more than the absolute minimum; the contents of the Pensieve are his thoughts and you work it by probing it with a wand or swirling it between your hands; you can choose what memory you want to see. There is nothing about what version you actually see, whether it be the subjective memory of the person it belongs to or an objective “recording” of a precise moment in that person’s past, an omission which will prove very important when we get to the occurrences where Harry finds himself inside the Pensieve.

Then there is the other part: Harry’s face melting into Snape’s. In the courtroom scenes (which we’ll get to eventually :-)), there’s a moment of darkness between each scene instead of them melting into each other. One can therefore not claim that Harry morphs into Snape just because “that’s how the Pensieve works;” and if it’s not purely functional, it should be significant. My theory is that it wants to underline the similarities between Harry and Snape, an introduction to what is to come in a future Pensieve scene, commonly known as “Snape’s worst memory.” I’ll get back to that.

So, quick summary of this scene:

  1. It is Dumbledore’s memory.
  2. Dumbledore’s in control of what he’s showing to Harry and his choice of that precise scene ought to be relevant.
  3. Harry is only watching the scene, not taking part in it.
  4. The person in the Pensive speaks with an echoing voice (underlining the distance between the memory and the person who watches it).
  5. Functions of the scene: to formally introduce the Pensive and explain to some extent how it works (without giving too much information); to give another piece of the puzzle as to the whole Snape-Karkaroff-Dark Mark mystery; to point out the similarities between Harry and Snape.
  6. It’s a scene that seems to explain a mystical object, but which in fact leaves the reader in the dark about some of the most important information concerning it.

II) Figure coming out of the Pensieve (GoF, p. 520; OotP p.741)

  • Bertha Jorkins (GoF, p. 520)
  • Sybill Trelawney (OotP, p. 741)

Here we have two scenes where a girl (or a woman, if you prefer) is formed out of the mystical white stuff and comes out of the Pensieve, revolving slowly with her feet still inside the basin. This gives a more real and a more unreal experience at the same time: real because the person is three-dimensional; unreal because she is independent of the viewer, revolves on the spot (like a ballerina in a jewellery box) and speaks with an echoing voice (just like in Snape’s face), marking the distance between her and her audience. It’s the memories entering into reality, which should make them more real, but which has the opposite effect. (I personally envision a ghostly figure, semi-transparent and smoky, but that’s just me; there’s nothing in the text to support it.)

There are two main differences between Bertha and Sybill (or so it seems): 1) The memory of Bertha is already in the Pensieve, being kept there, whereas the one of Sybill is kept inside Dumbledore’s head and taken out for the occasion of showing it to Harry. 2) Sybill’s prophecy is easily acknowledged as extremely important and gives the answer to many questions, while what Bertha says seems like total gibberish.

Number one suggests that the memory of Bertha isn’t as important as that of Trelawney and that her message isn’t a vital one – the importance of the scene is elsewhere – whereas the memory of Trelawney’s first prophecy is top-secret information (to say the least, it’s the hidden treasure of Book 5). Number two regards the message in itself. I’ve already analysed Trelawney’s prophecy in “Chosen”and “Neville and Harry,” so I won’t do it all over again. Let’s just keep in mind that the prophecy is ambiguous and open for interpretation. So are Bertha’s words, to say the least: “He put a hex on me, Professor Dumbledore, and I was only teasing him, sir, I only said I’d seen him kissing Florence behind the greenhouses last Thursday…” First of all, who are “he” and “Florence”? I haven’t seen the name Florence in the series so far (has anyone else?), and it tells me absolutely nothing. As for “he,” it could refer to any male person (probably student) who was at Hogwarts at the same time as Bertha (which we only know was sometime between the time when Dumbledore became headmaster and a couple of years before Harry’s birth. “He” can therefore not refer to Tom Riddle, as his headmaster was Armando Dippet. It could refer to one of the Marauders, Lucius Malfoy, Snape, or anyone else around that age.

To me, what Dumbledore says seems more important than what Bertha says, though. Her line is preceded by “Curiosity is not a sin’, he said. ‘But we should exercise caution with our curiosity… yes indeed…” and followed by “But why Bertha,’ said Dumbledore sadly, looking up at the now silently revolving girl, ‘why did you have to follow him in the first place?” Dumbledore’s second line is ambiguous. It’s not a Dumbledore-in-the-Pensieve who speaks it, but the present-day one. It can be applied to the memory (Bertha following “he” and being hexed) or to the present situation (Bertha following Wormtail and getting killed). Probably, Dumbledore said the exact same thing to Bertha that time, and repeats it now, sad she didn’t follow his advice. I’m pretty sure that Dumbledore already knows that she’s dead (which the reader has known from the first chapter), or at least he suspects it, and that he’s using Bertha as an example to warn Harry (who’s a bit too curious for his own good).

Both occurrences are associated with death (Bertha’s presumed death and Sirius’s death) and both evoke great sadness on Dumbledore’s part. He’s “lost in thought,” “looks old” and is sad. The memory of Bertha is painful because (I think) she was one he couldn’t save and there is a parallel between her and Harry because they’re both very curious and not very cautious (indeed, the cautious part of Harry is basically called Hermione; she’s the one that stands for most rational thinking). In the Trelawney-scene I think he’s weighed down partly by Sirius’s death, but mostly by the burden he puts on Harry by letting him hear the prophecy. The two scenes focus on Dumbledore and Harry (and their relationship) more than on the figures coming out of the Pensieve. Dumbledore lets Harry see what he thinks is necessary (his destiny and where his curiosity might lead him) and lets him see a more vulnerable side of himself. With this, JKR seems to be alluding to the fact that Dumbledore isn’t God Almighty, that he won’t live forever and that Harry has to deal with the information he gets and grow. (This might suggest that Dumbledore will get killed, but it’s a pretty vague suggestion and could just as well not indicate that at all. I’m still really torn in the question about whether Dumbledore will get to live through Book 7.)

Again, I think we should focus on the fact that we see the scenes through Harry’s eyes. Dumbledore doesn’t explain anything further about Bertha Jorkins, and Harry doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that Dumbledore seems to know that she’s been captured by Voldemort (he couldn’t remember her name from his dream). As for the prophecy, Dumbledore explains it to Harry, but here we get Dumbledore’s subjective interpretation of it as well as the prophecy in itself. This seems like a waste of space. If Dumbledore is speaking for JKR (as he sometimes is), there would be no need to draw forth Trelawney from the Pensieve. None at all; Dumbledore could simply relate their encounter and tell Harry that there was a prophecy that said that he was chosen and had to kill Voldemort or be killed in the end. This is not the case; we have both versions: Dumbledore’s interpretation and the text in itself, which seems highly significant. Pursuing my theory that one of the Pensieve’s functions is to hide information from the reader (or at least confuse him/her), I’d say that there is a slight difference between how Dumbledore interprets the prophecy and how JKR meant for it to be interpreted (i.e., the true meaning of it). I put this theory about what the difference is in “Chosen,” so if you don’t remember, you can always go back and look. 🙂 (In short: I don’t think that either Harry or Tom will have to die, just their personas: the Dark Lord and the One.)

Okay, I think I’ve gone on for quite some time, so I’ll leave the rest [the scenes where Harry finds himself inside the Pensieve (Karkaroff, Bagman, LCU and Snape’s worst memory)] for next week. I’d also really like to get in contact with Dora and Gally (McGonagall’s chess game), whose addresses I so clumsily lost, because I’d like to use their theory in my next article. So, if you could e-mail me please…

Other than that, take care. See you!