Riddle Me This: A Tom Riddle Character Study – Part 1
by Goltan Varashk
At one point or another, haven’t we all been plagued by the question: Voldemort, why such a You-Know-What?
To me, Voldemort seemed your run-of-the-mill villain, but Tom proved to be an enigma wrapped in a Riddle. So, equipped with my background in (social) psychology and the expertise of psychology professionals, I set out to explore what would drive Tom Riddle to become Lord Voldemort.
Allow me to drag you along for a deep dive into concepts like narcissism, power, control, and sense of self – all to figure out the Becoming of Voldemort.
A Dark Lord is Born: a Pensive Pensieve Trip
Voldemort is my past, present, and future” (CoS 331).
Long before we found out Snake-face Voldemort had barely a soul left, we learned about a young, charming Tom Riddle, the circumstances before and after his birth, and how he portrayed himself at Hogwarts. From that, we learned that Tom exhibited psychopathic, antisocial, and (malignant) narcissistic traits in early childhood. It is worth exploring these tidbits about Tom Riddle and how they contributed to him becoming Lord Voldemort (not to be confused with “going Full Voldemort”).
Before we continue, let me quickly arm you with some terminology. Both Riddle and Voldemort match the three personality traits (malignant) narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, aptly known as “The Dark Triad.” (For a deep dive: A Study in Evil: Voldemort, the Malignant Narcissist.) Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, an absence of morality, unemotional callousness, and a higher level of self-interest. Narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, lack of empathy, and psychopathy is characterized by continuous antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness, callous and unemotional traits, and remorselessness. This essay will mainly focus on the exploration of narcissism and psychopathy as part of Tom Riddle’s origin story as Machiavellianism is more in line with Voldemort’s state of being.
The Interplay of Nature and Nurture, and Magic
Psychopathy is thought to be a complex interworking of mostly nature but also nurture, which is especially interesting in Tom Riddle’s case.
One of the last descendants of Salazar Slytherin, Tom is born to a pure-blood mother, Merope Gaunt, and a Muggle father, Tom Riddle Sr. We learn that the entire Gaunt line has a history of inbreeding and individuals with violent and unstable personalities. Merope grows up poor, abused, and ridiculed for her lack of magic (which seems to be more the result of trauma than anything else). Being no great beauty and with little to offer, she “hoodwinks” the out-of-reach object of her affections, Tom Riddle Sr., and escapes her dreadful life with her family.
Let’s consider the circumstances surrounding the conception of Tom. A pregnant Merope is immediately abandoned when she decides to release Riddle Sr. of whatever spell he is under. J.K. Rowling said that Voldemort could not understand love as he was conceived in a “loveless union.” However, she also stated that had Merope decided to live and raise Tom, his life would have turned out differently by knowing “love.” We could understand the tidbits shared by J.K. to mean that a child born into a loveless union would perhaps grow up in a loveless household and would not know or be shown love. While Dumbledore hints that he suspects Merope used a Love Potion to “hoodwink” Riddle Sr., we only really know magic was involved. In that sense, we can view said “loveless union” as a violation of the Laws of Magic, in which there is a certain price to pay. I’m no Magical Theorist, but we could posit that actual Magic is at play in addition to a genetic predisposition to explain Tom’s psychopathic traits.
Environmental factors further influenced Tom’s biological development. Merope was left destitute and depressed when Riddle Sr. abandoned her. In the dead of winter, she gave birth to Tom at the orphanage and then died. While we do not know how her pregnancy developed, the prenatal stressors and perhaps a complicated birth due to her suppressed magic could have influenced Tom’s brain development. Brain development or deviating brain structures are linked to psychopathy. The parts of the brain responsible for empathy and guilt or fear and anxiety work differently for psychopaths, e.g., they do not experience fear or other effects the way others might. In psychopathic children, this could mean difficulty in socializing them as they do not fear punishment, even though they know that their behavior might warrant it. It is also what makes them great liars as well as prone to boredom and thrill-seeking as a result (low arousal theory). (We can exchange the Muggle term “brain development” with “Magic development” here).
Taking into account these hereditary, biological, and prenatal factors, we would be remiss not to look at the effect of nurture. We do not know much about Tom’s early childhood except for what we learn during Dumbledore’s 1938 visit to Tom’s orphanage. We find out that Tom steals, hurts an animal, scares and bullies other children, and is a consummate liar – all while having/showing no remorse. The orphanage matron refers to Tom as “odd,” that he was a “funny baby, too” and “hardly ever cried” (HBP 207). It is conceivable that the caretakers gave him less attention due to his lack of showing his needs through crying and that he was picked up and held less often. Or, perhaps he did not cry because he learned it would not be responded to. If we leave magic out of the equation as to why they would find him “funny,” he probably showed abnormal responses and behaviors not appropriate for his developmental stage that were unsettling to others, something that would lead to people distancing themselves from him and alienating him further. Regardless of cause/effect, the anecdotes indicate Tom grows up maladjusted and that his attachment style falls somewhere along the dismissive-avoidant. I think we can assume that the lack of a nurturing relationship with at least one primary caregiver would put a damper on having any semblance of a “normal” social and emotional development.
There seems to be an interplay here of genetic, biological (magical), and environmental factors as the perfect foundation for dysfunctional personality traits to come to fruition.
Power & Control: a Narcissistic Trip
There is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it” (SS 313).
There are signs of malignant narcissism in young Tom, characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy, combined with antisocial behaviors. What is particularly applicable in Tom’s case is Kohut’s theory of narcissism.
In psychoanalytic theory, primary narcissism is part of children’s development: developing self-love and object-love is normal, as Kohut puts it. Entertaining notions of greatness, magical thinking, feeling omnipotent and omniscient, and believing to have a certain immunity to the consequences of their actions is all part of it. While quite innocent, it can become pathological. According to Kohut, children are gently disillusioned with these grand notions by maturing and becoming part of society. Pathological narcissism, however, develops when the child has defective narcissistic structures of the self by having this process disrupted.
This defective structure fits Tom to a T, as does Kohut’s theory of object-love: either a child has a mother to confirm their grandiosity, or they seek an adult to create an “idealized parent image.” They will seek someone powerful to look up to so they can bask in their reflected glory. For Tom, having neither someone to confirm his grandiosity nor someone to look up to means he creates his own powerful parent. We notice this when Tom explicitly asks Dumbledore about his father being a Wizard, for his mother obviously could not have been; she would not have died if she was. One can imagine his (narcissistic) rage when this image was shattered later on. His five-year search for the Chamber of Secrets to confirm he’s the Heir of Slytherin is a direct result of Tom’s continued search for a sense of self.
The Narcissist’s Plight: Need for Control
Power is a concept that really tickles Riddle/Voldemort’s Niffler as we pretty much learn from the get-go. When we speak of power, we speak of control: one of our main human motivational processes. Actually, it is perceived control that helps our general sense of well-being. When people feel threatened or powerless, a lack of agency can kickstart coping mechanisms to maintain the sense of self. If there is anyone desperate for control, it is the narcissist, believed to have such low self-esteem and fragile ego that it will, subconsciously, protect itself from being injured at all costs. Controlling your circumstances and those around you is a way of protecting the ego. A threat to that control is a perceived threat to the sense of self.
Consider again where and how Tom grew up: he probably learned early on that everything could easily be taken away from him – by someone bigger, older, with more power. Tom’s ability to control came from his magic. While able to control his circumstances to some degree, he was still dependent on others. Not only that, but he was dependent on people he deemed lesser than him, less intelligent, less special, something a narcissist like Tom would deeply resent.
Viewing others as beneath you is an ego defense to deal with insecurity, shame, or rejection – a particularly prevalent theme in the life of a narcissist. Tom was unwanted and fully made aware of it: his mother left him by dying; his father never came for him; he was not chosen for adoption, and other children were vying for attention that Tom did not receive but perhaps believed he was owed. Originating from a sense of entitlement, someone like Tom would come to view any sort of rejection as a slight. With quite a few ego defenses in place, it helped that his grandiosity was confirmed through having magic, something no one else around him had.
Control Through Controlling Others
At the orphanage, we learn that it was difficult to catch Tom in the act. Using his intelligence and exceptional control over his magic, he managed to fly under the radar when needed, manipulate those in power, and use his skills to control others through fear – ultimately to protect himself and what little he had, but also relishing how he could lord his power over others.
So, Tom meeting Dumbledore is a defining moment. Using his arsenal of control tactics, Tom is unable to command Dumbledore the same as he does others. A jarring experience in itself, Dumbledore then also gently puts Tom in his place by asking him to address him properly, to Tom’s dismay.
When Tom learns there is a word for his abilities, he is eager to show off and be acknowledged for it by someone he could potentially identify with: someone to show him the path to more knowledge, more power, e.g., someone worthy. For the first time, he encounters someone he wants to impress. Tom accidentally reveals himself out of childlike excitement and eagerness, which he immediately regrets when he does not get the proper credit. Dumbledore understands that this child already thrives on power dynamics and makes sure to establish his authority through a shocking display of power and humiliation. Tom allows it, for Dumbledore is his ticket to a new world.
It is no wonder he starts to despise and avoid Dumbledore: Tom had made himself the master of his little universe, believing no other had his special type of power. Not only did Tom lose his cool during the conversation, but he also showed weakness. Joining the wizarding world, Tom learns Dumbledore is even more powerful than he thought and holds strong political power to boot. Someone like Dumbledore is threatening because of his power and because he has seen behind Tom’s mask.