Revising the Rules: Hermione’s Selective Ethics

by Betty Noir

Most discussions of radical character development in the first five Harry Potter books tend to focus on “supporting characters”: often Neville and Ginny, but also, to a lesser extent, Snape and Petunia. Yet one of the most dramatic character shifts in the series has been Hermione’s. No one talks about it, but we all agree she’s “cooler” now, that she’s loosened up a bit, that she’s more friendly and approachable, that she’s someone we’d like to hang out with or be like. In her introduction on the school train she was barely differentiated from Malfoy in her attitude, and I want to examine that attitude – something I think of as a social survivalist instinct most common in unpopular children, a sense of superiority she interposes between herself and people who are potentially judging her, which, for someone with no friends, is everyone. Most people who have been to a new school are familiar with this tactic, but Hogwarts is far more intimidating than any other new school, particularly to a Muggle-born witch who may not have known magic existed prior to receiving her letter, who likely grew up confused by strange things happening around her, perhaps – like Harry – unaware even of causing them. Unlike Draco’s attitude, this does not come from a sense of privilege, wealth, or power in a social sphere; it comes from the exact opposite: a sense of social alienation, and the conscious (or not-so-conscious) desire to alienate others before they have the chance to do it to you.

Rowling has mentioned a number of times that she had to fight with her editors for the inclusion of the troll scene in PS/SS. And this scene is absolutely pivotal not only to cement “the Trio,” but for Hermione’s character development, perhaps more so than any other. It shows her brave stance towards her schoolmates crumbling; she is at her absolute most vulnerable point – she’s been spotted in tears. In public. And who comes to her rescue? Two boys that she has been horrible to, and who have made nasty comments both to her face and behind her back. Between the train and the troll, she encounters Harry and Ron only four times: she’s a know-it-all in Potions, incompetent and bossy during flying lessons, ready to report them to Percy over the duel, and intolerably patronizing in Charms. In this analysis, the most significant aspect of the troll scene is Hermione’s lie to Professor McGonagall. Not because it kept the boys out of trouble, and not because it was a self-sacrificing move, but because it taught her something important: in order to get people to like and to respect her, she had to break the rules, or at least lie about doing so.

As far as we know, there is no “rule,” per se, about lying to faculty: what she actually did was bend morality. She chose to do something wrong that she knew – but perhaps didn’t feel – was wrong. Nothing that she had done to fit in at Hogwarts had worked up until that point. Do not interpret this as any kind of “Hermione on the dark side” theory, because I could never, ever see that happening (although I suspect she could produce an effective Cruciatus Curse). At the same time, every classic Hermione moment can be just as easily attributed to ruthlessness as to “cleverness.” The result – through book 5 – is not substantially different from where she was when we first meet her. The difference is that she has absorbed others into that fold of stand-offish “protection.” She is still just as self-righteous (S.P.E.W., anyone?) and controlling as she ever was. Only now, it’s what makes her “fun” – because the targets have shifted.

What do we love Hermione for? Her brains? Not really. Her personality? She’s still a bit grating. We love her for smacking Malfoy upside the head, for brewing up illegal polyjuice, for exposing and neutralizing Rita Skeeter (a couple years earlier, she would have been far more likely to report an unregistered Animagus to a professor – or else directly to the Ministry). We even respect Hermione for telling off her friends regarding their hero-complexes (Ron included) and cluelessness about girls (Harry included), for masterminding the DA and giving the snitch her comeuppance; for illegally using her time-turner (granted, at Dumbledore’s prodding) to rescue Sirius and Buckbeak, and for manipulating professors and other adults with practiced ease: Snape, McGonagall, Lockhart, and particularly Umbridge, who could easily have been killed due to Hermione’s nasty trick – technically, not a huge loss, but still, if – or when – Umbridge recovers, what will she remember from that night? And how much – if any – of Hermione’s conversation with the centaurs did she hear? Looking toward the future, Hermione’s one-year writing ban on Rita technically expired at the end of Phoenix. Will Rita feel indebted to her for the journalistic integrity gifted (or forced) on her? Will she use her newfound status as the reporter who got possibly the biggest scoop ever to Hermione’s harm or benefit? A policy of “benign neglect” would please me best.

Hermione’s sense of right-and-wrong, while not warped, is at the very least, slightly skewed. In part, this is attributable to the prevalent Wizarding notions of right and wrong being a bit skewed, often downright corrupt(ed). Hers is an amorality concomitant with a correct (if occasionally misguided and intolerant) notion of justice. And it is balanced with a healthy dose of knowing how to correctly read people (helpful when it comes to making them do what she wants, but also a strong positive trait), and a massive amount of common sense. Hers is more often than not the voice of reason, although her actions often belie this. Yet we seem to like her best at her most vicious. It is worth keeping a close eye on Hermione’s mean streak, to see where it takes her, what guilt or repercussions – if any – she is forced to deal with, how people react to her as a result of it, and especially how she reacts to their judgments.