Riddle Me This: A Tom Riddle Character Study – Part 2
by Goltan Varashk
Before you start this article, read Part 1 to understand the psychological factors in Tom Riddle’s upbringing, from birth through when he first meets Dumbledore.
Control in the Wizarding World
The interaction with Dumbledore seems to set the tone for Tom’s understanding of power in the wizarding world, something he further internalizes when he gets sorted into Slytherin, a House of mainly pure-bloods. This highly intelligent little Snake immediately understood the blood status dynamics at school and the hierarchy within Slytherin House. It is not a stretch to believe that the (pure-blood) Slytherins, in particular, bullied him, ostracised him—rejected him—for his lack of wizarding name, status, and money, and tried to put him in his place. At the age of 11, Tom had the mental acuity to realize he needed other tactics to become influential, to wield power.
Seeing power being inherently awarded to pure-bloods, the very ones rejecting him, his search for a claim to power/superiority starts with an obsessive in-depth exploration of his heritage. We learn that Tom showed signs of covert narcissism: polite, quiet, and thirsty for knowledge, with no outward signs of arrogance or aggression. Tom had already learned how to control certain impulses, ingratiate himself, and hide in plain sight. He just continued to perfect it; he became above reproach by being the perfect student in the eyes of the adults while fooling his fellow students and building his following. Whether he managed to build his following before or after discovering his heritage, he succeeded in playing into Slytherin politics. He managed to establish himself as something to behold and to be frightened of. Being a descendent of Salazar Slytherin, a legit claim to power, he now had proof of something he had always believed: they are beneath me.
Loss of Control and Terror Management
Despite all his received praise, accolades, and acolytes, Tom’s ego remained fragile. Because he could not escape his blood status, his class probably added fuel to strengthen his sense of self, i.e., his obsession with confirming he’s the Heir. Even more challenging to his sense of self was having to return to the orphanage in the years 1938-1945, to a place where he could not use his magic. He had to go back to being just another penniless orphan in a Muggle world marked by a Muggle war (WWII).
Placing this in the context of when Tom experienced a Muggle and a wizard war as a teenager in school. While safe at Hogwarts, he still had to return during the summer. Grindelwald never attacked Britain, but Muggle London was dealing with (the threat of) bombings during those years, with heavy losses in terms of homes, businesses, and lives. Tom just about avoided The Blitz (Sep 7, 1940 – May 11, 1941) and even the evacuation of children of Sep 1, 1939.
On that note, let me introduce you to Terror Management Theory: when faced with terror, i.e., one’s mortality, the anxiety that goes with it can make people do strange things to boost their self-esteem, self-worth, to affirm that their lives have meaning. In trying to elevate their sense of self, people can attach great importance to the group they identify with. They will then seek ways to confirm their group is superior to others (hem, hem).
This theory also seems to fit Tom’s Heir of Slytherin shenanigans. Similar to the interaction with Dumbledore, Tom’s glee at finding out he was indeed special made him impulsive and greedy, disregarding consequences, and acting out of his careful character. There was new power within his grasp, new thrills to seek and uncover. In his excitement, he was reckless and got Myrtle Warren killed. While the rest of his attacks seemed planned and controlled, perhaps to impress his acolytes but most likely to see how far he could push boundaries, this one showed that he either did not think or care about potential consequences. He was arrogant and unfearing: He could never get caught. Tom only started caring when his actions became disadvantageous to himself; Hogwarts would close if the attacks continued, meaning he would lose all that he had skilfully and carefully cultivated.
In short, the need for control can drive one to go to really terrible lengths. Straight up tomfoolery, if you will. And if anyone went to great lengths, it was Tom Riddle becoming Lord Voldemort.
Becoming Lord Voldemort: The Narcissistic Psychopathic Wizard’s Guide to Ultimate Power
What I was, even I do not know … I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death.” (GoF 549)
Before we learned the little tidbits about Tom Riddle, Voldemort’s motives seemed straightforward: pure-bloods must reign supreme. Knowing what we know now, it would be too simplistic to state that Lord Voldemort was purely driven by hatred for an imagined inferior Other, for at the core of hatred lies fear.
A half-blood orphan with nothing to his name, there was a smidgen of hope when he discovered he was a descendent of Salazar through the Gaunts. Still, any notion of tangible rewards associated with that shattered when he found them fallen from grace into obscurity – another mark against his sense of self. Within him is an intense fear of forever being a nobody, unremarkable, entering the world with nothing, and leaving the world with nothing – all the while knowing that he is obviously destined for greatness (hello narcissist, my old friend).
He derived a new sense of self from being a descendant of the great Salazar Slytherin, whose blood made him rightfully superior. As is typical of the malignant narcissist, Tom has a transparent defense mechanism to protect his fragile ego: projection. He eliminated that which undermined his being special, killing the Riddles and taking on a new name. These extreme lengths are his way of eradicating whatever may threaten his precarious sense of self: His “great” blood was obviously the reason for his greatness, his destiny. Not only was this notion fed by the pure-bloods around him, but it was the rhetoric that gave him a supply of pure-blood acolytes – a narcissistic thrill in itself to see the privileged at his feet, controlled.
Riddle’s actions seem to have always been very self-serving. The extreme anti-Muggle-born sentiment we see in the Full Voldemort days does not quite mesh with Tom Riddle’s modus operandi. It is more likely that the mission & vision he proposed was one of the few things pure-bloods would support and go to great lengths to achieve/protect. Narcissistic people are particularly drawn to help a “noble cause” as they see how they can twist people’s needs into blind devotion, supplying them with their need for adulation. For Tom, it would be a way of opening doors to more power, both financially and socially, as well as to wealth in other forms only accessible to pure-bloods. (That is not to say that the loss of his soul did not contribute to his radicalization and increasingly violent control tactics.)
Getting his foot in the door and controlling the powerful along the way would mean no longer being dependent on the benevolence of others. No one would ever be able to challenge him or take anything from him, ever again. It would bring him closer to the ultimate power.
Control of the Uncontrollable
What would be the ultimate power for a wizard? Something a wizard has never done and somewhere a wizard has never gone before: beyond the veils of Death; surpassing mortal constructs—and defeating something as common as death. This seed of fear of death was planted in Tom’s mind at a very young age: if his mother had had more power, she would not have died. Aptly enough, this anxiety caused by the thought of one’s mortality stems from low self-esteem, which a narcissist has in abundance.
It is also interesting to go back to a psychopath’s psychophysiology. Psychopaths are believed to have low arousal compared to others and are prone to boredom. They can go to lengths to find a thrill. Discovering limits, pushing, and going beyond them, would be completely on-brand for, let’s say, a psychopathic wizard. Resorting to the obscurity of creating a Horcrux, let alone seven, would definitely fall into this category.
How counterintuitive to then go for dependence on external objects to safeguard his continued survival. Objects entrusted to his most loyal followers or hid in (sentimentally) significant locations, one even inside a magical creature. As we saw throughout the series, it was not all that foolproof. But that is the arrogance of Tom Riddle: he believed that while not many wizards would even go down the path of creating a Horcrux, none would conceive going as far as creating seven. What’s more, none would have the smarts to figure out his plan or match his brilliance.
Granted, there were other ways of circumventing mortality. For Voldemort, however, cheating death by becoming a vampire, for example, would mean being a slave to one’s bloodlust and limitations, dependent on others still to sustain you, i.e., no control, still killable. Another obvious avenue would be using the Philosopher’s Stone as Flamel did, but it would not be ground-breaking. Stealing or copying it would be meaningless. He would never be truly immortal; instead, he would grow old and feeble, dependent on a stone. So, it seems that it was more about immortalization rather than avoiding death.
Conclusion: Spiraling out of Control
A narcissistic psychopath with a high IQ and immense magical ability, Tom Riddle had a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Considering his genetic makeup, the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth, growing up in a Muggle orphanage, and the introduction to (tangible) power in the form of magic, Tom seemed to have the perfect ingredients for a Dark Lord cocktail, leading him down his self-destructive path.
Tom’s actions and behaviors all seem to boil down to an excessive need for control and the deep-seated fear of losing it. Growing up with Muggles, Baby Voldemort used his talents to exert his control over those weaker, sans Magique. In his peak Riddle days, he quickly figured out he could control people by using his glib charm, looks, and extreme intelligence to manipulate everything to his liking. With his psychopathy and narcissism fully taking the wheel, it seems that he no longer cared—nor saw the need—to pretend to cater to the wishes of others. Fear became his main tool in the peak Voldemort days. In chasing evermore power, control, he ends up spiraling. His actions shift from sly, cunning, covert manipulative behaviors to more impulsive, erratic, and desperate behaviors, all stemming from a loss of control. His mask, literally and figuratively, disappears.
It is impossible to look past the incredible symbolism and irony of the Horcruxes. In his belief that eliminating and eradicating his weaknesses would make him untouchable, that very pursuit ended up being his undoing. With the killing off of the last vestiges of “normality,” he seemed to be completely driven by his impulses (or his Id, as Freud would say). If we add death terror to this, it would explain why it went as far as “Going Full Voldemort” and becoming a mass murderer blindly obsessed with a prophecy that merely hinted at his potential defeat.
Rowling said that Voldemort’s boggart would be his own corpse, and I think that makes sense—for Voldemort, that is. His corpse would signify the fact that he could die like any other mere mortal. I think Tom Riddle’s boggart would have been a poor man’s grave: not only did he die (ugh, lame), but he died with nothing to show for it.
All that being said, being a psychopath does not evil make. However, Tom Riddle’s narcissism, a dire need for control, and a sense of self, along with the mutilation of his soul, are what really made him turn into an unmitigated You-Know-What. The destruction of his soul left a shell of a man driven by dark psychopathology: Full Voldemort.