Is Hogwarts a Breeding Ground for Bullies?
Most stories involving school life address bullying in some capacity, but this oppressive practice occurs at a startling rate in the Harry Potter series. The frequency of harassment and belittlement among the students, parents, and professors at and around Hogwarts seems to indicate that the magical school tolerates and perhaps even perpetuates this kind of behavior. Although I believe that Hogwarts has its share of imperfections, I certainly don’t believe that J.K. Rowling set out to create a breeding ground for bullies. I think that Rowling made bullying a central motif in Harry Potter primarily because it accomplishes three major character development tasks: It uncovers characters’ vulnerabilities, it elicits compassion for characters from both the reader and from other characters, and it facilitates character growth and fortitude.
When you consider the motivations of a specific character who bullies other characters in Harry Potter, you will likely discover that character’s greatest weaknesses. For instance, Draco Malfoy taunts Harry Potter about Harry’s deceased parents multiple times in the first few books. Targeting Harry for this particular reason seems incredibly malevolent (even for Draco), but at the root of this behavior is Draco’s deep and abiding fear of losing his own parents. Draco’s tortured state in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince stems from his initial decision to obey Lord Voldemort by agreeing to kill Albus Dumbledore. Voldemort threatens to kill Draco’s parents if Draco fails to kill Albus, and Draco chooses to suffer and nearly go mad rather than allow this to happen. By revealing Draco’s greatest fear early on in the series through his bullying rather than abruptly attributing Draco with these deep insecurities in the sixth book, Rowling makes him a more believable and fully developed character.
In addition to uncovering the vulnerabilities of the bully, this character development tool also evokes compassion for the character being bullied. Severus Snape is arguably the most divisive character in the Harry Potter universe, and Rowling wouldn’t want it any other way. Severus is undeniably unpleasant most of the time, but when Harry accesses Severus’s memories through the Pensieve, both Harry and the reader witness a shocking scene that shows Severus in a new light. James Potter’s relentless and malicious bullying of Severus in this scene (which we must presume was only one instance of many) may not have entirely changed your opinion of the Potions professor, but it most likely made you feel some pity or even compassion for him. As he watches the scene in horror, Harry realizes that bullying can drastically alter a person’s life, and we as readers are forced to confront the same truth. Even if you insist that you were completely unmoved by this revelation, Harry is deeply affected by it, and Rowling knows that we readers care about and perhaps even tend to adopt our hero’s feelings. As such, Rowling successfully creates a gray area when it comes to Severus, and his character will continue to spark spirited debate indefinitely.
Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom are among the most frequently bullied characters in Harry Potter, and it is no coincidence that they are also among the characters who ultimately exhibit the most growth and strength by the end of the series. Both Luna and Neville are bullied not only by characters who tend to bully most people but also by typically kinder and more tolerant characters. For example, Hermione Granger initially treats Luna with scorn, and Harry initially tries to avoid Neville. In addition to imparting moral ambiguity to these unlikely bullies, I believe that Rowling purposefully stacks the odds against Luna and Neville to make many other characters (and perhaps even many of us readers) feel a bit guilty for pigeonholing Luna as odd and ditzy and Neville as weak and clumsy. By allowing Luna and Neville to evolve and persevere against all odds and thus prove the reader and other characters wrong, Rowling imbues both characters with a remarkable resilience that they otherwise would not have possessed.
Why do you think there is so much bullying in the Harry Potter series? Which instances of bullying upset or surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments!