Madam Puddifoot’s: Discovering a New and Scary Magic — or Building a Reliable Feminist Narrative?

by Bat Bogey

As faithful readers come to the middle of the blockbuster Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling has continued to tease us with wonderful morsels of drama. Rowling’s work is especially provocative when it deals with that ultimate bewitchment: romantic attraction.

HBP, GoF, and OotP have introduced peripheral narratives about budding adolescent romance — with all its requisite sexual tension. These narratives engender hours of speculation for ardent Potter fans, not to mention some rather hot debates among “shippers” (shipping, of course, is the promotion of theoretical romances between Harry Potter characters).

These narratives have this effect on readers because, as everything else in the Potter universe, there is more to them than meets the eye.

So far, the central romantic possibility is the one crackling between Harry?s sidekicks, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Certainly, Harry’s romance with Ginny is significant; most readers who take part in shipping, though, appear to be rooting for a true flame between Hermione and Ron.

Why? Because Rowling wants it that way. From the early chapters of GoF, Rowling introduces the tension between her three protagonists as a literary convention — amorous conflicts are among the meatiest kind, after all — and as an entertainment device.

But the changing relationship between Ron and Hermione has another function. The spark between Ron and Hermione, which starts to simmer as a power struggle over familiars and broomsticks in PoA, furthers the character development of the three central figures, and signals a significant narrative development.

This development strengthens the independence of Hermione in particular. In PoA, Rowling puts a quiet but noticeable distance between the boys and Hermione. After she has Harry’s Firebolt confiscated and earns accusations that her cat has devoured Ron’s rat, Hermione tells Harry she presumed all along that the boys will hang together in the face of conflict. She’s right, partly. Harry has an allegiance to Ron that he doesn’t have with Hermione, which manifests itself as a palpable sense of brotherhood.

As they enter adolescence, traditional gender roles — no matter how small they seem — creep in and take hold. The subsequent books only confirm what Hermione begins to realize in PoA: In the wizarding community, she’s a witch in a wizard’s world.

In SS/PS, CoS, and PoA, Hermione and Ron share Harry’s struggles. In SS/PS, they help Harry get to his final standoff with Voldemort. In CoS, Hermione and Ron help Harry find the chamber and his second standoff with Voldemort. In PoA, Hermione and Ron help protect Harry from Sirius and, eventually, they help Harry protect Sirius. Their struggles are Harry’s struggles. Their conflicts are Harry’s conflicts.

GoF marks the beginning of Hermione’s rapid differentiation from the boys. Hermione and Ron continue to struggle with each other’s opposite values, and the friendship starts to feel endangered. A romantic relationship between Ron and Hermione could dismantle the enduring friendships between Harry, Ron and Hermione. In fact, the possibility of such a relationship starts to have that very effect in GoF. And it’s the first to suggest a feminist reality for our heroine.

A disclaimer: Rowling is a novelist, not a feminist writer. Yet intellectually honest readers must admit that her female characters mature as comprehensively as her male characters. Harry Potter is no boys club, and Rowling doesn’t appear to be using romantic entanglements to push female characters out of the way so the gentlemen can get to work saving the world. Hermione attests to this at the end of Book 6 with her pledge to join Harry in his next step against ultimate evil.

GoF is the first book to give Harry, Hermione and Ron independent trials to work through. Only Harry can get himself through the Triwizard Tournament. His friends can only offer him limited help. Then, two difficult realities converge on Ron. Harry is making enormous strides as a wizard. And Hermione? Not only is she leaving him in the dust academically and magically, but Ron sees for the first time that he and Harry might be deposed as the leading gentlemen in Hermione’s life — by Viktor Krum. Even at the end of Book 6, we’re not terribly sure Ron and Hermione have even defined their relationship as something more than platonic.

Finally, there is Hermione’s struggle. Trouble starts in the World Quidditch Cup Top Box: Harry and Ron are “bewitched” by the veela, those half-breed sirens who ensnare men’s senses and usurp the presumption that cool masculine logic always trumps the female will. Here, Hermione realizes that her life is about to change. She also realizes that no amount of study or achievement can give her an advantage. A girl can’t study feminine wiles. She simply must either trust that she has the “magic” to disarm an alpha male, or turn her attention elsewhere. (In Hermione’s case, “elsewhere” is academics.)

The Yule Ball cements this reality for Hermione. Since her first day at Hogwarts, Hermione has been an object of ridicule — as a Muggle-born witch and a know-it-all. Now, she’s become the object of desire for both Ron and Viktor. She seems more able to cope with ridicule; She certainly can’t find an answer to the Ron-Viktor dilemma in the library. Book 6 depicts a Hermione even more frustrated by the shifting nature of her friendship with Ron .

Here, Rowling adds a touch of feminist reality to her story. The wizarding world is much like the Muggle world. In the wizarding world, the arbiters of power are wizards, not witches. Any doubts about this fact are resolved entirely by Lucius Malfoy, who either buys power or relies on the old macho stand-by of intimidation. The formidable figures in this universe are Dumbledore, Harry, Sirius, Snape, Malfoy and, of course, Voldemort. Some might point to Bellatrix Lestrange, Dolores Umbridge or even Minerva McGonagall as powerful witches, but all of them are subordinate to a masculine “boss” figure.

Hermione hasn’t found a spell she can’t master, but that doesn’t change the fact that, so far, the only time she’s witnessed a woman befuddle a gent is through a merciless brand of sex appeal wielded by the veela. Every passage about these Venus-cum-birds-of-prey shows wizards being completely undone by them. This truth is incompatible with Hermione’s worldview, in which people earn their worth by demonstrating they live by a just ethical code. “Excuse me, but I don’t like people just because they’re handsome,” Hermione says of Hufflepuff champion Cedric Diggory in GoF.

Her remarks about Cedric, and her disdain for Harry and Ron’s easy drunkenness in the veelas’ presence, betray the deepest desire of many a plain Jane — to own the one mysterious power that can overtake a man so completely. Until GoF, Hermione is described in homely terms, with bushy hair and prominent front teeth. In the middle of the book, she does an ugly-duckling number on us and turns into a swan just in time for the Yule Ball. At heart, she’s the same girl she’s been — smart, sassy and sure of her very formidable brain. She’s not so confident in her physical appeal, a truth documented each time she blushes over Viktor’s unabashed interest.

So where is the feminist subtext in all this? Right smack in the mid! dle of OotP, where we learn a little more about Hermione’s response to Viktor’s attraction. Hermione reveals that she’s been corresponding with Krum since he left the Triwizard Tournament. We know her letters to Viktor are long, but she doesn’t define them as romantic. What she chooses to divulge about their communications is illuminating: that Krum believes Harry to be a very powerful wizard. She has learned through Viktor that Harry’s abilities exceed the magical training of Durmstrang’s eldest students. Hermione never talks about the nature of her relationship with Viktor, except to label it elusively as a pen-friendship. It seems our Hermione might be up to something bigger than romance.

All of this hints that her correspondence with Viktor is not an attempt to land a boyfriend, but an exercise in gathering intelligence about the global magical community. Reading between the lines in the Daily Prophet and gaining Viktor’s confidence could make her indispensable to Harry and Ron. It might even make her indispensable to the ethical wizarding world, which is on the brink of a mortal war.

Hermione’s creation of the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare — a sadly despised subplot for many readers — depicts Hermione as someone who is committed to equality. Her drive to support egalitarianism is no accident, not to mention a tiny feminist tick in and of itself.

With these few revelations, J.K. Rowling insists that Hermione Granger will not be sidelined as a romantic character furthering a Petrarchan conceit. In fact, Rowling?s treatment of the Ron-Hermione-Viktor triangle implies that Hermione will stay in the thick of things. Furthermore, Rowling seems to poise Hermione on the edge of growth, in which her magical talents, her giant intellect and her ambition will serve the central plot and serve it well. This alone gives Hermione at least a subtle feminist identity; she’ll remain a protagonist rather than fall into the damsel-in-distress role.

Even if she entertains a romance with Ron, Hermione should gain dimension rather than lose it, thanks to Rowling’s careful treatment of the character. With five of seven books complete, Hermione is holding fast to her position as a primary character. She’s still a competent witch, a faithful friend and a girl with a heart for those who are marginalized. These traits are ingredients of Hermione’s feminism.

These are also the very traits that make Hermione so intoxicating to her two young suitors.
Bat Bogey is a full-time writer in Denton, Texas. She enjoys gut-bucket horror movies, Shakespearean dramas and cheeky Ani DiFranco anthems. She would secretly love to be reincarnated as Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill: Vol. I.