Bullies in literature

One of the things that has always bothered me about the Harry Potter series is that, in the epilogue, Harry has partially named his son after Severus Snape. By doing so, Harry gives Snape equal footing in his memory with his father, Sirius, and Dumbledore. JK Rowling recently attempted to explain this. Post-war Harry would have understood, she said, would have better appreciated the heroism of Snape.

Severus Snape was a brave man who was also an unforgivable bully. Yes, he did a lot of help the Order fight against Voldemort, but he didn’t do it because he decided that it was the right thing to do. He did it because he was in love with a woman, who, let’s face it, would never return his feelings. He ruined his friendship with her by insulting her. That woman was killed by Voldemort, and, after that point, Snape ceased to be Voldemort’s man. His change of heart, however, did not extend to the way he treated the children of those he fought against while he was a Death Eater.

Take Neville, for example, poor Neville whose parents were tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange until they went insane. Snape is not kind to Neville. In fact, in the third book, when he has to face his biggest fear, the thing Neville fears most in the entire world is Severus Snape. Snape also is consistently rude to Hermione, who has done absolutely nothing to deserve it. This is a grown man who gets his kicks by bullying impressionable teenagers. Why does the ever-wise Dumbledore allow Snape to be around students when he is so awful to them?

Snape is in a strange category. He is not villainized by Rowling like Voldemort is and perhaps is not even as bad as characters like Umbridge and the Malfoys and other Death Eaters. But it is by putting him in this other category, one of being a brave but flawed man, that almost makes it worse. Severus Snape should know better, but he doesn’t seem to care. In fact, he manages to make Harry, whom he relentlessly bullied for years because he hated Harry’s father, Harry who has so much reason to dislike Snape, forgive and name one of his children after the man. For some reason, I do not think Snape would have much appreciated the gesture.

The fact that Rowling seems to approve of and even like Snape further complicates the issue. What should the reader think when the author, the person who created the beloved literary landscape and the characters who inhabit it, actually defends a character who is a bully?

To find an answer to this, I began thinking about some other books I cherish and the ways in which bullies affect the heroines. In Mansfield Park, there is no character who is more of a bully than Mrs. Norris. She constantly shows preference for the Bertram children over Fanny and wants Fanny to remember her place. She doesn’t miss a single opportunity say something bad about Fanny. In Mrs. Norris’s opinion, Fanny is only a visitor, a charity case, and should earn her keep, ironically ignoring the fact that she is also only a visitor at Mansfield Park.

Fanny quietly and dutifully does what she can, but she is often ill and pushed to the limit by Mrs. Norris’s demands. However, Fanny does not show any hostility against her aunt. She offers respect and obedience in return for Mrs. Norris’s bullying. The two characters serve as a contrast, with our heroine showing the strength to be the better person. Fanny is not bitter and would probably have wholeheartedly forgiven her, but Jane Austen gives Mrs. Norris her just desserts. In the end, Mrs. Norris decides to go live with the ruined Maria Rushworth, where, Austen tells us, “shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.”

Next, I turned to Jane Eyre. Mrs. Reed, Jane Eyre’s aunt, does not care about her niece. She sends Jane off to a horrible school where she is abused. Her hatred for Jane is limitless. When Jane’s uncle from Madeira writes to Mrs. Reed saying that he is now wealthy and would like Jane to live with him, Mrs. Reed responds that Jane is dead. She does not mention this at all until three years later, when she is dying. Jane forgives her. Even though her aunt has been horrible to her, Jane offers forgiveness and love.

I get moral philosophy from books more often than I should, but maybe the answer is that it is more important for the hero/heroine to forgive than it is for the bully to redeem himself/herself. Snape never redeemed himself for me in the way that JK Rowling implies that he should have, but Harry can forgive him, can accept his faults, and can further appreciate the good that he did. Like Fanny Price and Jane Eyre, he chooses to ignore the bad in a person who bullied him. He chooses to rise above the bullying and to be the better person. And that seems like a heroic way to live, to look for good in people and to ultimately forgive them.



The members of the Weasley family, ranked

  1. Ron: Hurrah for Won-Won! He is loyal and brave. He is also deeply insecure, feeling far inferior to his older brothers, all too aware that his mother wanted a daughter instead of another son, and believing that his parents love Harry more than him. His sometimes low self-esteem makes him very relatable, perhaps more than Harry and Hermione are, if we are being honest with ourselves. Ron is not overly ambitious, which in my view makes him a good match for the beyond brilliant Hermione. He would be a good father, a life partner who has a sense of humor. Ron is the best.
  2. Fred: I am still not over his fate in the last book, so I will keep this brief. Fred is the funnier and meaner half of the brilliant twin duo who founded a highly successful joke shop. Always providing perfect comic relief, any scene with Fred and George was funny and welcome. Rest in peace, Fred.
  3. Molly: I know a lot of readers would like JK Rowling to write a prequel telling the story of the Marauders, but, honestly, weren’t James and Sirius (and Peter, because he would go along with whatever they did) awful, terrible, bullying teenagers? I would much prefer Molly Weasley’s story. She lost both of her brothers during the first war against Voldemort and would do anything to protect her family. Her kindness to Harry in the first book and throughout the series shows her good nature, but she is tough enough to keep her seven children on the right path. Plus, she has one of the best scenes in the series with her take down of Bellatrix Lestrange.
  4. Arthur: How can a muggle not love a man whose greatest ambition is to learn how airplanes stay up in the sky? Arthur has an adorable love of muggle technology that sometimes extends into illegal territory (flying car, anyone?). He is the kindhearted counterpart to Molly, a man whose curiosity sometimes outstrips his rationality.
  5. George: This may seem like a strange decision, given that Fred is ranked two, and they are identical twins, but JK Rowling, over the course of the books, differentiated their personalities. Fred is funnier than his twin brother, but also crueler, and therefore, strangely, more interesting. George may have lost an ear, but his “holey” joke just shows how much blander and less funny he is than his twin.
  6. Ginny: In the early books, Ginny is quietly obsessed with Harry Potter, but then she develops a personality, and I am not so certain if I like her or not. She is meaner than Fred and possibly the most magically talented of all of her siblings. I think JK Rowling was so desperate for Harry to be a real part of the Weasley family that she decided, somewhere in the middle of the series, that she had to transform Ginny to make her worthy of the series’s hero. I know that she’s a Gryffindor and a Weasley, but still something about her personality does not ring true. Perhaps if the main characters all didn’t marry their school sweethearts, I would feel better about her. But, alas, that is a topic for another blog post.
  7. Charlie: Not really sure how to rank him since he appears so sparingly in the series. This is the brother who seems to purposely run away from his awesome family in order to spend time with dangerous, fire-breathing creatures, and does not seem to visit much? But he does kind of save Hagrid in the first book by having his very cool friends take Norbert away, so I guess that earns him some points.
  8. Bill: Like Charlie, he does not appear in the series much, although he has exciting adventures in Egypt and seems to be the most Indiana Jones-like of the brothers. I deduct points for making Fleur a Weasley as she never really recovers enough from her hoity-toity, part-Veela ways for me to really like her. Also, beyond giving Harry and company a place to stay after they escaped from Malfoy Manor, did he really give any advice of substance during that crucial time?
  9. Percy: Oh, Percy, where did Molly and Arthur go wrong with you? Was it the time Fred turned your favorite books into a swarm of bees? I feel certain it must have been something like that. Percy is the oil in the tranquil lake that is the Weasley family. He values career ambition over his family ties. Although he affirms his loyalty by the end, it is far too late, my dear Percy, to recover a good opinion of this Weasley brother. Far too late, indeed.

Reading familiar books in other languages

Lately, I have been trying to teach myself new languages. While language apps have been helpful, there’s only so much that can be gleaned from translating “Where is the courtroom?” into French, and from French back into English. I decided to approach this the way I always approach learning: read a book. While it will not improve my spoken language or accent, I’m optimistic that it will help with learning new words I won’t find in an app.

I picked a book very familiar to me, the first Harry Potter, which translates into “Harry Potter at the Sorcerer’s School” in English. Surprised to realize I understood most of what I was reading, I took out notecards for unfamiliar words, writing the French on one side, the English translation on the other. From one sentence in the second chapter, I discovered more fascinating words than I had in the course of my months with the language apps. For example:

  • Rafistoler = patch up. Harry patches up his glasses. The verb can also mean vamp (jouer la femme fatale) or botch.
  • Le papier collant = sticky paper (Scotch tape?), which is what Harry uses to rafistoler his glasses.
  • Coups de poing = punch; how Dudley broke Harry’s glasses. Breaking it down, coups = knocking, poing = fist.

I don’t have enough grasp of the language to understand the changes to proper names. Hogwarts becomes Poudlard, Muggles are Moldu, and even a character as central as Snape becomes Rogue. How does a translator get from Snape to Rogue? I have been unable to find any convincing arguments for this through an online search, but it’s an interesting change, even if it does eliminate the lovely alliteration of Severus Snape.

In search of Nargles

“I enjoyed the meetings, too. It was like having friends.”-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

When I read, I like to step into the character’s place, trying to understand motivations and feelings and actions, but I rarely feel that I am personally like a character. Mostly, readers want to say that they are an Elizabeth Bennet or born to be a righteous hero like Harry Potter or some glittering character who makes clever remarks while being admired and fawned over by all those around them. None of us want to see ourselves in simpering Mr. Collins or anyone similarly ridiculous, though there might be a bit of that within us. It is common to want to be a popular character, one who has many friends and gives off a sense of being so gosh-darn normal.

I identify with Luna Lovegood.

Luna is a character that we do not see often in books. She does not have many (or any) friends, she believes in strange conspiracy theories, and she is also not afraid to be herself. Often lost in thought, I think Luna would identify as INFP, the dreamer, caught up in her own world while her classmates swirl around her through reality. She is alone, a loner, an outsider because of her nonconformist views.

Remember, though, that Luna is a Ravenclaw, so behind the Rotfang Conspiracy or her belief in Nargles lies a quiet intelligence. This is not a heroine who dazzles through quick wit or beauty. Luna is often earnest and thoughtful. She appreciates when others listen to her and listens in turn. She fits into Dumbledore’s Army in the way that Neville does, as characters who do not quite fit in yet will prove their worth eventually.

She is also a bit of a running joke. Whenever the book needs comic relief, Luna is there with her radish earrings. When she is first introduced, she is reading a magazine upside down and is described as having “an aura of distinct dottiness.” Her classmates call her Loony Lovegood. She is a true outsider, without friends, without anyone close to her besides her father. So greatly does she appreciate the small attention from Harry and his friends that she paints a mural of them on her bedroom ceiling. She is grateful for friends, but I do not see Luna as the type to mind being alone. Her rich inner world would make up for the deficit in acquaintances.

Though used for humor, Luna Lovegood also seems realistic. There are many teenage girls who do not fit into common perceptions of what it is to be a teenage girl, who do not seek attention or celebrity, who do not worship the latest pop group or wear make-up or worry about their hair, who do not fit in and are therefore ridiculed. Instead, they are constantly in search of Nargles, the elusive dream which no one else seems to understand.

Luna is interesting because she is different and relatable to those of us who do not often see ourselves in literary characters. Dream on, Luna. I hope you find a Crumple-Horned Snorkack.