Harry Potter and the Anatomy of Loss


In his 2000 novel When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro writes of the burden that comes with the search for the meaning of your ancestral dispossession, saying ‘our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents.’ In the Harry Potter novels, ‘the shadows of vanished parents’ looms large – the theme is introduced in the opening chapter, ‘The Boy Who Lived’, and is central to the final chapter, ‘Nineteen Years Later’, as Harry’s son, James, fulfils the task of recreating the Potter dynasty. But Harry’s arrival in this state of understanding comes at the end of a long journey, one that started with the eleven-year-old Harry being reintroduced to the memory of his parents when he finds out the truth about the magical world. His fresh loss is at the heart of how Harry progresses as a man and a wizard.

Firstly, loss serves an undeniably practical function. The orphan trope is one that can be dated back to some of the earliest novels written in the English language. Like Tom in Tom Jones, Harry’s development is entirely his own process; his good qualities are developed in an apparent vacuum, as are his vices. Emotional development in the Dursley’s household is, on paper, an almost impossible task – Harry is demeaned at home, bullied at school and lives with no expectation of a reprieve. Though it is tempting to read this as a comment on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, what it should tell us is that Harry both has some innate, inherited goodness and has also come to understand the basics of human morality by defining it against behaviour that he considers to be ‘wrong’, rather than replicating patterns which he is told are ‘right’.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone also gives us the clearest illustration of Harry’s loss. As an eleven-year-old boy who has never known his parents, Harry’s arrival at Hogwarts coincides with the acquisition of proxy structures; Dumbledore and Hagrid become father figures, and Ron and Hermione offer a vision of the siblings he might’ve had.

No chapter illustrates Harry’s position more evocatively than ‘The Mirror of Erised’, which comes about two thirds of the way through Philosopher’s Stone, and contains the opening book’s most delicate and adult scene. We should consider the context of this passage: Harry is spending his first Christmas at Hogwarts and, as such, is finally being shown the happiness that can come with companionship over this holiday season. It is also the first occasion, since he came to Hogwarts where Harry is able to treat Hogwarts castle as his home, rather than as a school. In doing so, his explorations bring him to the Mirror of Erised. When Harry looks into the mirror he sees “a whole crowd of people standing right behind him”. Of course, Harry is an eleven-year-old newcomer to the magical world and does not understand the mirror’s properties. But if the mirror’s purpose is to show, as Dumbledore says, “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts”, then Harry’s immediate desire about the purpose of the mirror (he believes he can forge some sort of ersatz relationship with his ancestors) is more telling than the contents of the mirror itself. Harry realises that the couple at the centre of the picture are his parents, and begins to explore the ‘crowd’, seeing “other pairs of green eyes like his, other noses like his, even a little old man who looked like he had Harry’s knobbly knees – Harry was looking at his family, for the first time in his life”. This passage is particularly telling as, although it is laden with emotion, Harry’s recognition of his family members is purely superficial: he notices physical similarities but this only exacerbates the feeling that this is merely an imprint, the photograph of his family that has been missing from his mantelpiece.


Six and a half years later, in Deathly Hallows, Harry sees his parents again when he conjures them with the resurrection stone. Just like the mirror, he stone conjures a manipulable but unsatisfying imprint of loved ones. By this point, however, Harry has come to understand his loss much better. “Frail bodies” are all that he sees – scarcely more substantial than the images in the mirror – but “on each face, there was the same loving smile”. That description seems to resemble the unavoidable intertwining of love and grief that was first exhibited in the Mirror of Erised: “he noticed that she was…smiling, but crying at the same time”. What has changed, over the course of these seven books, is that Harry has been able to repair his own loss and neglect. Rowling acknowledges this by allowing Harry to conjure the dead Sirius and Lupin along with his parents; two father figures he has gained along the way. There is even an oblique reference to the surrogate family Harry has acquired, “his glasses were a little lopsided, like Mr. Weasley’s”, not to mention the fact that Hagrid will be in the hollow with him when he ‘dies’. The presence of his parents and paternal figures in this pivotal scene are key to Harry’s strength, as Rowling writes “their presence was his courage”. His loss has been transfigured into a source of comfort and constancy, a far cry from the young boy who saw the image of his family with “a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.”

The boy who saw his family for the first time in the Mirror of Erised becomes a man over the course of seven books, but he retains his modest and adult grief throughout. ‘The Forest Again’ shows us that at 17, Harry is still looking back to the memory of his parents, sideways to Sirius and Lupin, and ahead, to the problematic expectation of himself as a father. Harry’s family has expanded over the course of the series in order to encompass those figures who have positioned themselves in the joyous half of Harry’s insurmountable grief.

Follow Nick on Twitter @nickfthilton

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