Revenge Part I: The Missing Message
Note: This editorial was inspired by and owes a great debt to a panel at Expeditious 2010 – the “Vengeance Panel” – by Carla Cecil, Amy Loviska, Nat Gibson, and Mike Varney. The excellent discussion there gave me all the ideas that will be in this essay, and it was one of the best panels I ever attended.
In stories, one of the themes that is most prevalent is revenge. Revenge is the act of paying back someone who has wronged you, usually in a very unpleasant manner. Ever since Eris, goddess of Chaos, dropped a golden apple because she was offended at not being invited to a party, and thereby started the Trojan War in The Iliad, characters have been seeking to avenge past slights and wrongs. And between Eris’ success with the apple (she did start the war after all), and Telemachus’ success in slaughtering his mother’s suitors in The Odyssey, characters both good and bad have successfully gotten revenge. This is usually followed by a platitude about how awful revenge is, two wrongs don’t make a right, and so forth.
This brings us to Harry Potter. In a book that is full to the brim and overflowing with themes, revenge is noticeably absent in this series. In a series where an awful lot of the main characters are very desirous of killing each other, it’s rather shocking that so few of them are primarily motivated by personal vendettas.
Just look at the central conflict of Harry vs. Voldemort. Neither one of them is particularly motivated by revenge. Voldemort killed his parents and tries to kill Harry because Harry is the only one who could bring about Voldy’s downfall. Harry is trying to defeat Voldemort to prevent the atrocities that he is committing right now. I think that if Voldemort remained in the Albanian forest to this day, Harry would not be spending all his time trying to eradicate him.
Similarly, the reason that so many of the main players are in this war – Dumbledore, Ron, Hermione, Bellatrix, the Malfoys – is either their love for someone or their belief in the cause. It’s not like any of them would have sat at home twiddling their thumbs if not for that one person they wanted vengeance on.
So it’s clear that revenge is not one of the central themes of the series. But surely it crops up even a little? Surely some characters get their small revenge outside the bigger picture?
Well, actually… no. Jo denies all her characters their vengeance. (There’s an asterisk on this statement, but that’s what Part II is about.) If you look at all the personal vendettas in the series, almost none of them are fulfilled. The bad guys who have wronged the good guys are always taken down by someone else.
The examples of all this are too numerous to extensively enumerate, but I think I’ll go over some highlights.
I think this is perhaps the biggest sore spot for fans. We are all happy to sagely nod our heads and say “seeking vengeance is wrong”… but we SO wanted Neville to settle the score with Bellatrix after what she did to his parents. In my experience, most fans have not made peace with this, even five years later. Any panel that brings up the Molly/Bellatrix duel induces half the audience to hiss to their neighbors, “It should’ve been Neville!” Perhaps The Butterbeer Experience sums it up best in her song from Neville’s point of view, Basically the Man part 2: “I know she’s pretty cool and she said that epic line, but I just don’t understand why Bellatrix could not be mine!” Neville vs. Bellatrix was considered the one absolute certainty in Deathly Hallows. Poetic justice!!
Of course, there were other candidates who had vendettas against Bellatrix. Harry was first driven to using Unforgivable Curses by Bellatrix after she killed Sirius, so he definitely had a vendetta against her. However, Harry never even got to duel her again after Order of the Phoenix. Tonks also took Sirius’s murder very personally – “I just wish I’d got her, I owe Bellatrix.” (DH76) But Tonks ended up getting killed by Bellatrix instead of the other way around.
And who finally kills Bellatrix? Molly Weasley, whose interaction with Bellatrix up to that point had been nonexistent. The only personal provocation offered is when Bellatrix is dueling Ginny a minute before and misses her with a Killing Curse. Revenge does not factor into this duel. And while there will be editorials written on why it was specifically Molly who killed Bellatrix, the fact that Jo denied Neville his well-deserved triumph over Bellatrix shows that she was committed to not letting her characters get revenge.
Lupin was the second candidate for righteous vengeance in Deathly Hallows – and there were two very satisfying potential candidates for this. The first candidate was Fenrir Greyback, the savage werewolf who turned Lupin into a lycanthrope. Wouldn’t it be fitting if Lupin was the one to kill Greyback? Instead, Lupin gets killed by Dolohov during the Battle, and never gets his shot at Fenrir.
Like Bellatrix, Fenrir made himself a long list of enemies. If not Lupin, then Bill should have been the one to take him down – but Bill never gets to. Instead, it’s Hermione and Trelawney who defeat Fenrir the first time (DH646), and Ron and Neville the second time (DH735).
Better than Fenrir, though, would have been Lupin getting revenge on Wormtail. Pettigrew made Lupin’s life a living hell, leading to James and Lily’s murders and Sirius’s incarceration. Many fans predicted a showdown between Lupin and Pettigrew; the ending was up in the air because of Pettigrew’s silver hand (silver usually kills werewolves in other mythologies).
But that never happened. And no one else got revenge on Wormtail either – not Harry, who had as good a claim as anybody. Rather, it was Voldemort who killed Pettigrew. (Pettigrew will be discussed in much more detail in Part III.) Much the same way that Voldemort killed Snape, the other person that Harry so desperately wanted revenge on, and deprived everyone else of the pleasure.
There are countless other examples, but I think I’ve made my point. The characters in Harry Potter don’t get the chance to avenge their loved ones. Harry, Neville, Lupin, Bill, Tonks, and so many other characters end the series without having revenge on Bellatrix, Wormtail, Greyback, and Snape. Sure, the end result for the bad guys is death, but the personal satisfaction of directly causing it is never granted to the good guys.
Jo’s Final Word
It’s all well and good to try to interpret Jo’s message – that’s kind of what I’m here for – but we do get Jo’s definite opinion on revenge way back in Prisoner of Azkaban. And, as usual, the wisdom comes from Dumbledore.
Among the Marauders and Snape there is a LOT of baggage. It seems like everyone is trying to get revenge on someone. First and foremost, Snape wants revenge on Sirius for the torment Sirius put him through during his schooldays. “’Vengeance is very sweet,’ Snape breathed at Black. ‘How I hoped I would be the one to catch you….’” (PA360)
Snape’s desire to subject Sirius to the Dementor’s Kiss is his quest for revenge. This is extremely harsh, and Lupin points out how unreasonable this is. “’You fool,’ said Lupin softly, ‘Is a schoolboy grudge worth putting an innocent man back inside Azkaban?’” (PA359)
Snape will not be dissuaded, and Jo shows us how unhinged he becomes by this lust for vengeance. (For a much more in-depth analysis of Snape’s behavior, please see my earlier essay Snape’s Anger.) Snape gets to a point where he is willing to commit Lupin (who has, by and large, been a relatively innocent bystander) to the Dementor’s Kiss as well. Snape also ends up shouting himself hoarse at everyone from his students to Dumbledore and the Minister of Magic.
Jo has said she speaks through Dumbledore, and Dumbledore shows absolute contempt for Snape throughout all this. He makes Snape look like a nincompoop (“Unless you are suggesting that Harry and Hermione are able to be in two places at once”), and in front of the Minister of Magic, no less. He refuses to sympathize with Snape or support him at all, and when he told Snape off, his “eyes were twinkling” (PA420). Keep in mind that Dumbledore is generally on very good terms with Snape, and that keeping a good relationship with Snape is very important to Dumbledore’s grander plans, yet Dumbledore is willing to jeopardize that. This shows us what contempt Dumbledore (and by extension, Jo) has for seeking vengeance.
The attentive reader will notice that there are a few very significant characters missing in this study for revenge, that analyzing will help us elaborate on this theme. I therefore encourage you to continue reading Part II: Hermione’s Revenge.