Harry Potter and the Tasks of Adolescence

Identity and Narcissism




As much as the Harry Potter novels are about life, they are also about death, and finding meaning in the face of our growing knowledge of our own limits.

As we make the journey with Harry into the certainty of death, we understand that Harry chooses selflessness, but not self-abnegation, and that in choosing this path he gives meaning not only to his own life, but also to the lives of those who have died trying to save him.

As Harry walks through the forest towards his fate in The Deathly Hallows, he is joined by his parents, by Sirius his godfather and by Lupin – loved ones brought back to life temporarily by the magic of the resurrection stone. ‘We are part of you,’ said Sirius. ‘invisible to anyone else.’  In his last conversation with them, they indicate that their lives will gain significance through him and that that legacy and will be carried forward to the next generation.

In his article on the psychoanalytic significance of Harry Potter, John Rosegrant points out that Rowling’s books are so popular because they reflect the journey we must all take and the choices we must make – choices which become more pressing and vital in adolescence, but which accompany us across the lifespan.

Harry’s journey touches us deeply, because it allows us to get in contact with our own struggles for self and how we can hold our sense of ourselves while connecting with others in a meaningful way.

In her novels, Rowling has thrown these life choices into stark relief by giving us two protagonists who are inextricably linked in life – and death. At various times, Harry voices the fear that he and Voldemort are joined somehow – that he might have been sorted into the wrong house and that his ability to see and feel what Voldemort is experiencing is a sign that they share too much. As we discover towards the end of the last novel, Harry and Tom Riddle are more intimately connected even than this, through the presence in Harry’s body of the final horcrux.

The pairing of Harry and Voldemort in the novels brings the differences between them into sharp relief and helps us to consider the choices they make in the face of life’s complexities. Voldemort, for example, has chosen to see Harry as an enemy – through fear and mistrust. As Dumbledore points out, Riddle chooses to believe that it is Harry who will fulfil the prophecy that haunts Voldemort and drives his search for immortality. Harry, of course, doesn’t have the same choice – he is unwittingly dragged into enmity (and a life-long battle) with Voldemort in infancy. In his article, Rosegrant goes further, arguing that Voldemort can be seen as a part of Harry’s psyche – a part which he repudiates in order to make progress and come to terms with the sacrifice which confronts him near the end of the novels.

Looking more closely at this connection between Harry and Voldemort, we find that the movies leave out an important insight regarding Tom Riddle’s background. The Half-Blood Prince gives us a pretty unsettling picture of Voldemort’s dysfunctional upbringing: the father who abandoned him and the mother unsparingly victimized by Voldemort’s extremely narcissistic grandfather, as well as his half-mad uncle. Following the death of Gaunt, Riddle’s mother Mesop, – revealing some narcissistic traits of her own, decides to enchant the local squire using a love potion, but after falling pregnant, loses the heart to continue. Riddle senior, suddenly awakened from his enchantment, leaves almost immeadiately, never bothering to ask after the welfare of his wife or son. The last remaining heir of Slytherin thereafter spends his formative years in an orphanage.

The theme of using and being used in relationships is clearly enunciated through this depiction of Voldemort’s heritage.

We also know from this explication, that both Harry and Voldemort are abandoned in childhood (Harry by the death of his parents) and that both are raised in hostile or at least non-magical environments – each completely unaware of his magical abilities. However, Harry and Voldemort differ widely (even from the beginning) in the way they approach the world and other people.

Riddle appears much more willing than Harry to believe that he is “special,” “superior” and deserving of special treatment (whilst perhaps secretly fearing that he deserves nothing). In childhood, he chooses to relate to others in a narcissistic and instrumental way, stealing from the other children in the orphanage, torturing animals and punishing those he sees as having slighted him. Harry, on the other hand, values others as separate and relates to them in a realistic and meaningful way – he is able to love.

Dumbledore suggests that Tom Riddle “made all the wrong choices.”

But could he have chosen to move beyond the terrible abandonment of his childhood and the ignominy of his “mudblood” father and find a different path into relating to others?

Perhaps not initially, but as he develops, he chooses again and again to pursue the goals of power and control, and, in the end, we know that he chooses to seek power, narcissistic glory and immortality at the expense of others.

Rowling has depicted Voldemort and Harry as representatives of two different pathways or means of navigating through the problems of life.

Harry’s journey is one of repudiating narcissism or the narcissistic solution to life’s problems, whilst Tom Riddle chooses to seek personal power and control.

As John Rosegrant argues, this “narcissistic” solution could easily have been chosen by Harry, given the background of childhood abuse which he and Voldemort share: “Turning other people and one’s inner life into things to be controlled and manipulated, rather than things to be related to and experienced, is a common response to having been treated badly by one’s earliest love objects. The need to exert omnipotent control is an attempt to eliminate extreme emotional pain, and is a common response to abuse. Thus, Harry enters adolescence with a strong potential for enacting the narcissistic solution.”

We know, of course, that Harry chooses differently and that he retains the ability to relate and to love as pointed out by Dumbledore.

When Harry is forced to make a choice between hallows and horcruxes it becomes clear that he is really making a choice between personal power, and sacrifice for the common good. Rather than gathering the hallows to try to defeat Voldemort through making himself “invincible” he chooses to search for, and destroy the horcruxes – symbols of narcissistic glory. “The horcrux combines omnipotent disregard of others, omnipotent control of the self (or soul), and the narcissistic need to disavow impermanence and death.” (Rosegrant)

The horcrux neatly symbolizes the narcissistic pathway chosen by Voldemort and repudiated by Harry. In fact, given the chance to take possession and wield a supreme and apparently indomitable weapon, Harry actually destroys the Elder wand, the most powerful hallow – again repudiating personal power and dominance.

As the Deathly Hallows unfolds, we find that Harry has slowly come to the realisation that he is the last horcrux and that in order to defeat Voldemort, he must die.

Everything that Harry is and has done, the choices he has made, tell us that he will not run away, but will take responsibility and sacrifice himself. It is an intensely moving moment as we realise that Harry is slowly making his way to death.

At the same time as Harry is coming to terms with the journey he must make, we learn that Snape has also sacrificed himself (although perhaps less deliberately) and that he has all along been courageously working to keep Lily’s legacy – her son – alive – so redemption is possible – even for the most hated and blackened soul. Yet, Snape has also chosen to keep this part of himself hidden and to be publicly reviled – even whilst putting himself in mortal danger in order to ensure Harry’s safety.

Snape has also chosen to dedicate his life to someone who chose not to be with him. The human heart is a complex thing!

When we discover at the end of the series, that Harry has named his son after Snape, we feel it is a fitting and moving tribute – the last moments tell us that Harry will keep Snape’s legacy, and his sacrifice alive through his own memory and through the life and memory of his children. That Harry accepts Snape’s sacrifice and acknowledges its significance is testament to his growing maturity. He has grown well beyond his childish prejudice and is prepared to look past appearances to the true significance and meaning of human intention and the gifts embodied through connection.

The last chapters of The Deathly Hallows are strongly reminiscent of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – sacrifice, death and resurrection are also Christian themes. In the forest, the death eaters, like the White Witch’s cronies in the face of Aslan’s willing sacrifice, are amazed that Harry has come alone and unarmed and laugh at Harry’s naivety – they can’t conceive of someone knowingly sacrificing themselves in this way. Of course, the depiction of the death of Aslan and his eventual resurrection is itself based on Christian mythology. It is not an accidental reflection.

Unlike Christ, however, Harry is not meant to be perfect and we know he makes mistakes, he sometimes breaks the rules and takes risks, he nurses prejudices, is stubborn and at times impetuous, but he also values friendship and love – far above power and success. In the Chamber of Secrets, for example, Harry is not filled with hate at discovering that Voldemort has trapped him, nor when he is seemingly fatally wounded by the Basilisk. He is much more concerned with Ginny’s survival, with taking responsibility, and with reassuring Fawkes that it was his own lack of fencing skill that sealed his fate. Even in the face of death, he is focused on things beyond himself.

As Dumbledore points out, unlike Voldemort, Harry’s ability to relate is undiminished by his abusive childhood – it seems that Harry had “enough love” during the time his parents were with him to allow him to relate to others and enjoy relationships – unlike his rival. Voldemort cannot love and does not have friends – merely followers and acolytes, most of whom are terrified of him. He doesn’t trust anyone enough to allow them to befriend him and he is far more interested in power and control. Relationships, for him are merely tools and people merely stepping stones – or impediments.

So, although mortal and at times, powerless, Harry is the lucky one – because he is never really alone.