Harry Potter and the Connection to Great Literature
English Literature classes were created in the hopes of allowing students to understand themselves and humanity in different ways. So as I looked over some of the most important works in history, I found similar threads and topics that ran through all, demonstrating that Rowling, if nothing else, has an excellent understanding of what is important in both literature and life. I compiled some of the most powerful connections I could draw on, showing that our beloved Harry is the product of millennia of work.
Antigone by Sophocles
Antigone is the headstrong daughter of Oedipus, the infamous king who kills his father and marries his mother (but we’ll discuss him later). Defying the will of her uncle, King Creon, Antigone buries her brother after he dies in battle against her other brother, who fought for the king.
So how does this relate to Harry Potter? Yes, well, let us put the character lists side-by-side. Antigone, the defiant, ideological young woman, is no other than Harry Potter himself. Both Harry and Antigone show little concern for unjust rules and would rather violate these laws than contradict the higher law we live by, exposing one critical theme in the Potter saga — the choice between what is right and what is easy. Antigone buries her brother and then willingly accepts the king’s sentence — to be sealed alive in a stone tomb. Before the end of Rowling’s series, we shall see Harry forced to make a similar choice. My guess is that Harry will have to choose between allowing Snape to live or die. In other words, he will have to decide whether people can change or not. It will be easy to let Snape die, but it will be right to let Snape live. Harry’s choice is critical to the overall effectiveness of the work as a whole, for what kind of protagonist would Harry be if he abandoned principle at such a moment? He would be human like Antigone when she hangs herself in the sealed tomb.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Besides being an angst-ridden teenager (or in Hamlet’s case, an angst-ridden thirtysomething), what does Harry have in common with Prince Hamlet? First, they are both plagued by the ghosts of the past. Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his dead father, and Harry is haunted by awareness of himself. Hamlet’s ghost and Harry’s awareness are really the same thing. They are both the acknowledgement of character flaws — Hamlet’s procrastination and Harry’s isolation. As Hamlet’s procrastination indirectly causes not only his death, but the death of everyone who was everyone and then some in Denmark, Harry’s isolation will eventually become his downfall.
Here, Rowling is slapping us upside the face screaming, “You need friends!” Harry cannot defeat Voldemort alone, and Hamlet should have killed Claudius when he had the chance. By including this major character flaw in Harry, Rowling demonstrates that any downfall he experiences is not someone else’s fault, but also Harry’s fault. If Harry is “perfect,” any downfall he might experience would be obsolete and unmeaningful, because in reality, it would be someone else’s downfall.
Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen
One of the main themes generated from Ibsen’s controversial play is that we always want to discover truth, to seek it out, but we rarely want to reveal it to others on the same quest. Ibsen’s protagonist, Mrs. Alving, spends much of the play revealing truth to others. Truth, deception and how the two combined are represented by the setting — a brightly lit room in gloomy Norway.
Similarly, Harry is on a constant quest for truth, though whether others are willing to reveal it to him is decided on a case-by-case basis. Truth is what is sought by both Harry and Voldemort, though each has his own version of truth. At the end of the series, we will find a lot of absolute truths being revealed, and I believe that in the end, truth will be disappointing, for we all have a tendency to prefer the illusions we create within our own frame of reference.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Both The Giver and Ghosts deal with the influence of the past on our lives — how it affects our ability to make choices and how it affects the choices we will make. Mrs. Alving is haunted by the ghosts of her past and finds all men to be wicked, no matter what she tries to do to prevent it. Eventually, after reflecting on her past experiences, she has an unspoken revelation that she would have been and would be better off without them.
In The Giver, Lowry acknowledges that the past is what contrives all feeling, all emotion, and all passion. Without this knowledge of past, Harry, like Jonas, can never expect to know truth, can never expect to overcome the evils before them.
Harry is a product of the past, and learns more of it as we travel with him through the saga. Jonas learns of a past, becomes the past, and then finds it within himself. By the end of Book Seven, Harry will need to embody the past behind, find that past within himself as Jonas did. Whether the past he contrives will be happy or not is up to debate until the publication of Book Seven.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Sophocles’ tragedy is perhaps my favourite play of all time. The important (and succinct, might I add) thread in Oedipus Rex that relates to Harry Potter is fate. When Oedipus learns that he really did kill his father and marry his mother, it seems as though he is the pawn and plaything of the gods. The oracle seems to have won, but then, something remarkable happens. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes with his mother/wife Jocasta’s pins. Some look at this as a display of grief on Oedipus’ part, but I am inclined to disagree. Oedipus does this as an insult to the gods, as if to say, “You think you control me? You think so? Well, look at this! Ha! You never predicted that! Never saw that coming!” Basically, he’s telling the gods to kiss off.
Harry is just like Oedipus, because one could argue that Harry is controlled by the fate linked to the prophecy. This control, however, will only exist until Harry truly realises (and by realise, I mean act upon) his freedom to choose. He will then gain an unforeseeable element of unpredictability over his foe, and live or die, he will triumph by controlling his own fate, his own destiny