Nick’s at it again. He’s re-reading the Harry Potter books, re-inhabiting the world of magic and Muggles. He’s staying up too late, ignoring calls to the dinner table, and generally losing himself in J.K. Rowling’s imagined world.
This is, I hasten to add, not a complaint. But sometimes I wonder just what he’s getting from the Potter books. I ask him, and he just says “They’re fun,” or “I don’t know, I just like them.” He’s annoyed with my questions, I can tell, so I lay off. But I want to know. Why are these books so popular now? What makes them so appealing, to both young and old?
Although I can’t speculate about all the reasons, it’s worth noting that the series began in the late 90s (indeed, the first book was published the year Nick was born, so he’s grown up with them) — and has only increased in popularity in the last five years. Can it be a coincidence that these books, featuring an epic contest between good and evil (growing ever darker and more cosmic), are coming of age — like some of their most ardent readers — in a post-9/11 world?
On September 12, 2001, I taught a Victorian literature class. Or, I was scheduled to do so. I met my class — still stunned, still in shock — for what was to be our final day of discussion of Jane Eyre. It’s one of my favorite novels, revealing something new to me each time I teach it. That morning, I sat on a desk in front of my class and told them I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to teach them, in the face of such horror, such destruction. I asked what they wanted to do, and they talked a little bit about not knowing what to do, or how to do it. Many of them had friends and family in New York, New Jersey, DC. One was on the road to her family in New York; although the whole campus had been cautioned to stay away, she simply couldn’t. It didn’t seem like a time for obedience, to the rules, the cautions, or — especially — the syllabus.
But there we were with a book in front of us, and I knew that later in the semester we’d want to have talked about it — if there was a later in the semester, which in the moment seemed far from certain. So, uncertainly, I began to read aloud to them, favorite passages from the book. Jane Eyre, that classic of adolescent angst and maturer longings, is a novel well aware of evil and cruelty but still determined to seek beauty and truth. I find myself drawn even now to the scene in which Jane finally confronts her master:
“Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? …Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? — You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you,– and full as much heart!”
I love that passage for its clarity and anger, but also for its implicit recognition that we all have soul and heart. There are flawed human beings in Jane Eyre, but they are all worthy of at least that small acknowledgement.
Later that day I wrote to my students, putting in words what I had tried more haltingly to say that morning:
I don’t know about the rest of you, but the events of the last few days have left me not only stunned and angry but grateful, in a small way, for what we do. In the face of human tragedy and evil, it helps me, at least, to know that we spend our days with works of great beauty and truth, and to think that creative artists have faced tragedy and evil themselves, and continue to face them, and that the ways they face them give us something to think about in the present moment.
From Jane Eyre to Harry Potter is not as big a stretch as it might seem. Some class Jane Eyre, after all, among the first “young adult” novels. Jane is ten when it begins, eighteen when she is first engaged to Rochester, barely in her twenties as the novel ends. A coming-of-age novel in the classic sense, it anticipates Catcher in the Rye and even, I’d argue, Harry Potter, which learns from it something of the loneliness of the orphan, the way boarding school can become a surrogate family, the way being able to do something — teach, fly, do magic, paint — is the key to growing up.
What the Harry Potter books offer that Jane Eyre and Catcher in the Rye don’t, however, is the sense of doing battle with ultimate evil. Jane must fight for recognition in a class-based hierarchy, and Holden for authenticity in a world full of “phonies” — and those are both important fights, worth continuing. Harry fights those fights, too, but they are subsumed in his “good over evil” battle with the Dark Lord who haunts every episode of the series. This gives the series its appeal for many youngsters, of course, who dream of heroic battles and epic confrontations, but it may also be its danger: in a post-9/11 world, how many of us think in these starkly polarized terms, hoping to rid the world of evil with one epic battle?
I like the Potter books, don’t get me wrong, and I’m hoping J.K. Rowling still has something up her sleeve for the last book. Nick and I will struggle over who gets to read it first, each of us staying up too late reading in bed as we follow Harry’s fortunes. I think he’s hoping Harry will kill Voldemort and the battle will be over, just as so many of us hope that capturing Osama bin Laden will somehow pacify the world. I’m hoping he learns that it’s not that simple; I’m hoping we all do. I’m hoping he learns, with Jane and Holden, and the rest of us, that it’s hard to know who’s good and who’s evil, who’s right and who’s wrong. Vanquishing one evil may spawn others, after all — which is not a recommendation for passivity but for deliberation, for consideration, for complexity.
Those are hard to achieve in literature — or in life! — but they are among the qualities that distinguish our best books, ideas, and art from the merely popular. I see the seeds of such complexity in the later Potter books, in characters like Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape, as well as Harry himself, characters who don’t always act as we’d expected, or do what they’re supposed to. Nick keeps asking me questions about them, trying to “settle” it: Snape is bad, Harry is good, right? Yes, I say, but it may also be more complicated than that.
I don’t know how Rowling will end things, in other words, just as I don’t know how the aftermath of 9/11 will play out. I suspect, however, that there are more surprises for all of us, in literature as in life. I only hope the Harry Potter books, like Jane Eyre, continue to speak to our changing needs.