Harry Potter and Psychology

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.

I’’ve always found Freudian psychology, in particular, very interesting and that feeling hasn’’t been deterred by most academics’’ never-ending scorn for Freud’’s 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 aren’’t, here is my Psych book’’s 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 Dursley, perhaps?

I will admit that this theory is a bit far-fetched, but reaction formation is a very interesting way to interpret Petunia’’s 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 don’’t know much about how the two sisters interacted, but it is obvious from Petunia’’s tirade in Sorcerer’’s Stone that she was extremely jealous and resentful of Lily’’s 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 the family!”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, Petunia’’s 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 won’’t work as well.)

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, I’’d bet that she would be secretly delighted, never mind what Uncle Vernon thought. Having her son triumph over her sister’’s 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 Vernon’’s suspicion about Harry (that he was a wizard, just like his parents) was confirmed as soon as they read that letter. I wouldn’’t be surprised if seeing Harry’’s letter brought all Petunia’’s 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, didn’t live up to that ideal; he ruined Petunia’’s chance to best Lily once and for all.

That’s where reaction formation kicks in –— you can’’t 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 Dudley’’s diet in GoF, Petunia nearly hitting Harry over the head with a frying pan in CoS, etc.)

Now for the most problematic part of my theory: it insinuates that deep down, Petunia doesn’’t 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 sister’s) were not narrowed in dislike or anger. They were wide and fearful. The furious pretense that Aunt Petunia had maintained all Harry’s 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 Lily’’s 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 can’’t wait to find out more about Petunia Dursley.