One of my students is currently changing the way I see Harry Potter. This is also good news for American high school students.
That’s because Katie Brown plans to become a teacher, and her senior project on Harry Potter is heightening her awareness of the growth process that teenagers go through. It is also giving her insight into why young people are so drawn to J. K. Rowling’s series. As a teacher, Katie will be able to draw on this knowledge when she teaches literature, using it to diagnose why students respond as they do to different stories, determine where they are in the maturation process, and suggest to them books that will further support them.
Drawing on the developmental psychology of Erik Erikson, Katie divides Harry’s growth process into three stages: Early Adolescence (Books 1-3), Middle Adolescence (Books 4-6), and Late Adolescence/Emerging Adulthood (Book 7). Harry’s quest is a fantastical version of the journey all adolescents must undergo, which is to achieve (in Erikson’s words) “a balanced and coherent sense of identity.”
Fantasy literature, Katie says, is particularly effective in capturing this adolescent drama. Here’s an excerpt from her project:
Fantasy narratives are often referred to as escapism narratives. The term escapism is tarred with a negative connotation—as if those who read fantasy only use it to escape their real lives. [But] realistic fiction may be too realistic and therefore overly stressful to the reader. By removing the real world from the situation, readers can negotiate issues which affect them in real life from a distance…[Fantasy literature, just like realistic fiction,] reflects back identities to readers, [but fantasy does it] in a way that makes it easier or at least more comfortable for readers to understand, helping them negotiate the process of forming identity in the real world.
The process of forming a balanced and coherent sense of identity is, of course, extremely difficult. Most if not all adolescents experience identity confusion or identify diffusion—which is to say an “incoherent, disjointed, or incomplete sense of one’s self.” Not all are successful in resolving their confusion.
Of the many dramas that adolescents confront, Katie has chosen to focus on separation from one’s family. If one does this in ways that are positive, one has a good chance of achieving integration. But one can also become locked into a negative relationship with one’s parents and forge a “negative identity” from which one never emerges.
What I find most exciting about Katie’s project is how she shows the Harry Potter series structured around a battle between successful and unsuccessful instances of family differentiation. The successful example, of course, is Harry. The unsuccessful is Voldemort. It’s as though Harry Potter shows us what we should and should not so if we want to become successful adults.
At the end of the semester, when Katie completes her senior project, I’ll let her share her ideas with you in her own words. Here, as a teaser, is a sampling of what she is discovering:
–It is no accident that Harry and Voldemort are connected in various ways and that their lives run in parallel. Voldemort represents a path that Harry could go, a failed development.
–“Voldemort” is French for “flight of death” and his existence is parasitical. Harry’s success on a quidditch broom, by contrast, points towards a strong sense of self.
–Voldemort is locked into a never-ending interior battle with his Muggle father, which results in a negative identity. Harry also has father issues but is able to move beyond them.
–Harry does so in a series of stages. Early on in his identity quest, he finds his resemblance to his father (which everyone remarks on) to be a source of strength, something positive on which he can begin to build his identity. Later, however, he must differentiate himself from his father (the period of disillusion) so that he can become his own person. In the end, when he has a solid sense of himself, he is able to see James in a more balanced way. He can also dispense with the Resurrection Stone, leaving the past behind.
–Voldemort, by contrast, is never able to step beyond into adulthood and is always, at his core, a whining baby (the King’s Cross scene in Book 7). Harry can see this dimension in Voldemort when he is secure in his new identity and so is able to regard Voldemort, not as some archetypal shadow, but as a suffering soul. In the final confrontation, he calls Voldemort “Tom Riddle,” his childhood name, and offers Voldemort a way out of his trapped sense of self.
–The death that Voldemort fears is the death of his old identity, a death that is necessary if one is to step into adulthood. He is so afraid of this death that he remains locked in identity diffusion. This diffusion is narratively symbolized by the seven horcruxes in which he deposits the fragments of his soul. (Of all Katie’s ideas, this is my favorite.)
–Harry, by contrast, has the courage to undergo this death, emerging as the adult who can save the world.
Katie’s project, which is exciting us both, provides another explanation as to why the Harry Potter series is so popular with teens. Although they aren’t consciously aware of it, they use it as a guidebook for the most important goal that life has assigned them. They are reading to grow up.