The Hunt for Happiness: What Harry Gives Up to Cast a Patronus
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Lupin tells Harry that the Dementors affect him so much because “there are true horrors in your past that others don’t have” (PoA 187). This statement always made me believe that Harry has difficulty fighting the Dementors because he is forced to relive his parents’ deaths each time they come near him and this experience prevents him from focusing on happy memories. When reading the book more recently, however, I realized that what’s happening is actually subtly different. Harry can’t produce a Patronus not because he’s overcome by hearing his parents’ voices, but because he wants to hear them.
Terrible though it was to hear his parent’s last moments replayed inside his head, these were the only times Harry had heard their voices since he was a very small child. But he’d never be able to produce a proper Patronus if he half wanted to hear his parents again…” (PoA 243)
He wants to be able to fight off the Dementors, but there’s a small part of him that does not. He half wants to give in to the darkness and pain, and because of that, he is sabotaging his own efforts.
I think I finally understood Harry’s fight to cast a Patronus when I had a similar experience in my own fight against depression. About a year ago, I was struggling with the worst depression I have ever felt. I was contemplating the start of a new school semester with dread because, as I saw it, nothing was going to get better, just worse. I took a certain amount of sick pleasure in imagining all the possible ways my life could go downhill.
I paused for a moment, examining that moment of pleasure. Why did I feel satisfaction at the idea of things going badly? And how was I ever going to get better if part of me didn’t want to? After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I was drawn to these dark thoughts because I was more afraid of feeling mediocre than I was of feeling awful. I was afraid that if I pushed out the dark thoughts, if I stopped myself from spiraling, then I would still be hurt, but not hurt enough for other people to notice and reach out to help me. I would still be sad, but it was a sadness I could live with, that I could carry with me from day to day.
I saw some of this in Harry as well, as he fought against the Dementors. No matter what, he is going to have to live with the fact of his parents’ deaths. It will hang over him every day, silent, invisible, so that nobody but he will know it’s there. What the Dementors allow Harry to do is bring this pain and loss to the forefront, making it real and visible and unavoidable. There’s a certain comfort in experiencing the pain of what he has lost, of reliving even the most painful memories of that time. Part of him wants to allow this sadness to overcome him, to be powerless against it. The prospect of constantly fighting to keep the darkness out is harder than allowing himself to be enveloped by the pain.
Part of the reason I allowed myself to spiral was that I thought other people could help me overcome my depression. I believed that if I were sad enough, and helpless enough, then someone stronger than me would come in and save the day. Harry does the same thing when he wants to believe that his father is the one who banishes all the Dementors. I quickly realized, however, that as much as my family and friends tried to help me, they couldn’t provide a magical fix. I was the only one who could help myself.
When Harry is finally able to produce a Patronus, he doesn’t do it because he’s thinking of a happy memory. He produces his Patronus at the moment when he realizes that his father is not coming to save him, that he will probably never see his father again or hear his voice. He is able to produce a Patronus at that moment because he realizes that he is strong enough to handle that fact, and he does not need someone else to save him. It is not a happy thought, exactly, but one of extraordinary perseverance and bravery. It was this type of realization that allowed me to overcome my depression as well. I knew that I was the only person who could help myself, and that I could only do this if I wanted wholeheartedly to be happy. This Patronus is something I hold near my heart always and has helped me get through many difficult times since then.