Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Harry Potter: Part 2 - Class, an Introduction

One big issue that is pretty obvious throughout the Harry Potter series is that of social status, especially social class. Various analyses have pointed out that there are several kinds of parallels to be drawn between relations in the books and social relations in our world.

More particularly, there are consistent representations of characters who, in our world, we would consider to be of a lower social class. For instance, we have the house-elves, a species servile by nature and employed almost exclusively without pay. They are presented as approximations of humans: they comically wear pillowcases, they speak in a non-standard dialect, and seem not to be able to police their own speech, having to resort to injuring themselves if they speak ill of their employers.

Then there is Hagrid, who is presented both as uneducated (he was expelled from Hogwarts for a crime he did not commit, and supposedly had his wand snapped) and governed more by impulsive emotions than common sense or intelligence (he lets out school secrets in the pub, he likes to drink too much and loses his guard, he sobs when any of his precious animals are hurt or taken away). He is frequently mocked by Draco Malfoy (more on him later), and geographically is an outcast as he lives in a hut cut off from the elite world of the school. He is oversized and clumsy (he, even more famously than Dobby, has a noticeable regional accent, rendered as West Country by Robbie Coltrane in the films), and it is revealed that he is half-giant, suggesting his cognitive abilities may be different (and by different, let's be honest, most will read inferior) to those of full humans. In Deathly Hallows, he nearly kills Harry by getting a spell wrong (a motif common to underdog-type characters); in general he is more of an inadvertent antagonist than an active protagonist.

There are the Weasleys, who, we are constantly aware, don't have much money. They have to buy second-hand school materials. In Goblet this results in Ron making a fool of himself at the Yule Ball, because he has to wear old-fashioned, frilly dress robes, and Harry mocks him mercilessly. This is interesting, because Harry is generally quite conscious of Ron's lack of money, being quite rich himself, and it is possible that Rowling has disguised social disadvantage with clownlike appearance enough that it becomes acceptable to take the piss. More on them at some other point.

There are other characters who are worth examining aside from these -Lupin, for instance, and Neville, as well as Harry himself - but for now I want to shape these by mentioning a point made by Andrew Blake in his The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, which is that the Hogwarts house system could be seen to map quite neatly onto the British class system: Hufflepuff are the working-class labourers, who are relatively unskilled but highly dilligent; Gryffindor are the lower-middle-class, who are more educated but by no means intellectuals, and rely on their bravery and confidence to get them through; Ravenclaw are of course the upper-middle-class intelligentsia, and Slytherin are the "wicked aristocrats", rich and snobby.

I'm not sure I wholly agree with this - given Harry's wealth, and Ron's lack of it, I think Gryffindor is a less easily locatable social set, for instance - but the analogy does raise some interesting points. Bearing in mind the story of the origins of the Harry Potter books, which has now become something of a legend/myth - that Rowling wrote the books in cafes while she was a single mother on benefits - it is perhaps unsurprising that the very rich characters are the most evil. But it is more surprising that Hufflepuffs, the unskilled workers, are the least explored house in the books (Cedric Diggory is their main spokesman, and he is disposed of after four books), and the most obviously low-status.

As I mentioned briefly with Hagrid, the films reflect this class difference fairly reliably - especially the Slytherins. Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs and Ralph Fiennes all produce cut-glass drawls for Snape, Lucius Malfoy and Voldemort, as does Tom Felton, more or less, for Draco Malfoy. Both Felton and Isaacs are far less 'BBC' in their accents in real life. The G ryffindors, meanwhile, are less identifiable - whilst Richard Harris was fairly 'posh' (excuse the term), Michael Gambon's Dumbledore often sounds slightly Celtic, Professor McGonagall has a well-to-do Scottish accent, the Weasley parents are Midlands at times and RP at others, Ron/Rupert Grint have a non-RP Essex accent, and so on. Harry is fairly RP, and Hermione/Emma Watson is, it's fair to say, amongst the upper classes accent-wise.

This is where the films blur into real life, of course, since Emma Watson is certainly from a well-off family and went to a private school. Perhaps one could draw an analogy between her and the 'Posh Totty' in the film St Trinian's, who run a sex chatline with their Queen's English voices, given how objectified Watson has been by the media, especially tabloids and men's magazines.

This has been a fairly meandering exploration, mainly because it is possible to explore all of these points in more detail, which I inted to do at some point. The complement of class issues one can tease out of the books is by no means complete here. So there is definitely more to follow.

- Andrew Blake, The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter (Verso, 2002)

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