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Analysis of the Themes, Motifs and Symbols in Harry Potter and the Sor...


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Robert R. Scarpin

Dr. Robert R. Scarpin's SCARPnotes | Philosophers Stone | Analysis of the Themes, Motifs and Symbols in Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The Themes of
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone






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I. Good and evil: the Eternal Battle

The author (J. K. Rowling) has specified that the "conflict between good and evil"
is a pervasive theme through all seven books. It is such a common theme
throughout children's literature that it, not unexpectedly, drives nearly all of the
book's action and is described on the page: "The Hero's Journey." Potter
characters are classified based upon which "side" they are on, and reader
frustration develops when the lines are not clear.
The antagonist, Voldemort, embodies evil and is a clear benchmark for the
protagonist, Harry, to battle. Rowling has provided these two characters, foils for
each other if you will, in order to allow the reader to both compare and contrast
their characteristics. Although Voldemort was shown to have been once an orphan
like Harry, it is there that the similarities end. Harry is not so much a
"comparison" as he is a "contrast." Voldemort, according to Rowling, has never
been loved, nor has he developed the capability to show it. While Harry wins
friends, embraces diversity, and avoids but doesn't fear death, Voldemort does
just the opposite: produces his own enemies, eschews anything but a "pure" race
and is terrified of death. The sheer magnitude of his evil actions spawn's eddies of
other thematic lines, such as: prejudice, bigotry, tyranny, narcissism and the like.

II. Coming of Age: Finding 'Who I Am'

Virtually like being "born again" because of his secretive upbringing, the letters,
determined to deliver the news, quite literally demand that Harry begin
"discovering himself" anew. He has been disliked and abused in the Muggle
world; unknowingly loved and revered in the wizarding world; and nearly killed
by a wizard. Suprisingly, through it all, much of what makes him who he is, has
not been lost. Despite all logic, he still has the ability to be selfless, considerate
and (yes) show love and affection.
Rowling's planned series of books, she claims, will take Harry through seven
"forms" or grades from 11 to 17 years of age. A story about this period is
called: "coming of age." Physically, he is growing into a handsome young man.
Educationally, he seems to be an average student, frequently utilizing help from
Hermione. Magically, he is learning, if given the chance, and can perform spells
with vigor.
Harry's personality development is a bit unusual, for an abused child. His
charisma seems to draw people to him, for better or worse. Ron, Hermione,
Neville etc have become fast friends; others, like Snape also just won't leave him
Harry seems to defend the weak and maligned, support just causes, show honor
in restraint against excessive force toward enemies, and show the integrity to
honor his commitments long after the rationale for making them has ceased. From
an orphan with no knowledge of his parents he seems to be growing into a
capable and caring individual.

III. Choices: Making Life Our Own

The author also has described "choices" as a recurrent theme in the books. Harry
claimed to Malfoy that he was able to decide who was the right sort on his own.

Fantasy Genre: It is a
novel's themes which
set it apart as fantasy
as opposed to
science fiction or
horror. Additionally,
fantasy is distinguished
by: its internal
consistency (the
"unbelievable things"
do not alter their
behavior without
reason); and, the
"marvels" are
presented as "true."
Theme: (1) An
abstract concept
explored in a literary
work; (2) frequently
recurring ideas; or (3)
repetition of a
meaningful element in
a work.
The theme of a fable is
its moral. The theme
of a parable is its
teaching. The theme of
a piece of fiction is its
view about life and
how people behave.
In fiction, the theme is
not intended to teach
or preach. In fact, it is
not presented directly
at all. You extract it
from the characters,
action, and setting
which make up the
story. In other
words, you must
figure out the theme
All stories inherently
project some kind of
outlook on life that
can be taken as a
theme, regardless of
whether or not this is
the intent of the

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Harry didn't choose to be made an orphan; that was inflicted upon him. He didn't
choose to live with his "bigoted" and abusive aunt and uncle; or, for that matter,
even to have wizard abilities. In fact, pretty much all of the "driving force" behind
his early life's agenda was set for him by the choices of others. He was often
punished for, essentially, "being." The author seems to be letting him discover the
effect his choices could have on his life's outcome. While there were several other
options, the sorting hat put him in Gryffindor, largely due to his personal choice.

IV. Death: And Its Meaning to Life

Harry's saga has begun, dealing with the aftermath of death his parents. The
boy character's life story had its gestation in his literary "mother's" (JKR)
struggles to deal with the progressively fatal disease of her own mother.
Imagination had been fostered, values learned and natural abilities encouraged;
until, with a verdant flash of light, the handsome 11-year-old with glasses broke
from the mist and "simply strolled into (Joanne Rowling's) mind, fully formed." A
boy who didn't know that he was a wizard, until he received acceptance to
wizarding school; and, whose personal story of dealing with death and adversity,
simply MUST be told!
Harry, as the boy would be known, began the life "inflicted" upon him in the home
of his abusive step-parents, the Dursley's. The self-serving arrogance and lust for
power, of a man he had never met, had created an orphan and defined Harry's life
for the next seventeen years if not forever. The initial capturing of Harry's story
consumed Rowling's efforts, and possibly provided moments of respite from her
own struggles. She admits that Harry's initial "death scene" had been written in a
somewhat "cavalier fashion," and despairs that she had never told her mother
about her new "imaginary friend."
Within six months, Rowling's mother had died, and she could now tell by
experience, just how "superficial" her depiction had been. The subsequent
blossoming of the wizarding world into print, occurred within the context of her
admitted "struggling with religious belief," and the effects of loosing her mother.
It is in the viewing of Harry's life and world in this context, which gives his story
its most poignancy. His scar came from his mothers selfless sacrifice motivated by
love. The Mirror of Erised, which "shows a person's deepest desire," revealed to
Harry the vision of the author, to see her own mother again. Then, the mirror was
followed by Hagrid's "photo album" which enabled his continued relationship with
deceased loved ones he could barely remember.
Harry's life was filled with loss and Rowling said that in order to keep her feelings
about the story in perspective, before writing anything else, she had to write an
"epilogue," which could remind her where the characters would end.

V. Love and Friendship

Love, as a word in English, has, unfortunately, been diluted in meaning to range
from simple pleasure, to sexual attraction, to something worth dying for. It can
describe an intense feeling of affection, an emotion or an emotional state. The
ancients gave these different aspects their own words (see sidebar); and,
scriptural instruction is quite descriptive. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not
envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is
not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but
rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always
perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4)"
The characters in Harry's life are so well developed, that it isn't at all difficult to
determine who is capable of having and expressing love. Petunia and Vernon
struggled between "possessing" and "loving" even Dudley, who they cared about.
Snape, unlike Voldemort, had been loved and could love; but, like Voldemort,
chose not to. Hermione and Ron have begun as friends; but, by "taking the
blows," are finding an often misunderstood and neglected pathway to love
Friendship, on the other hand, is a type of interpersonal relationship which is not
found exclusively among humans; but, is shared with animals with rich
intelligence, such as the higher mammals and some birds. Individuals in a
friendship relationship, will seek out each other's company and exhibit mutually
helping behavior. Friendship is an emotion expressed in such a way that another
feels wanted and important; and, there will be feelings of loss or loneliness when
the friend is absent.
"Who is my friend?" the ages have asked. Harry (and readers) would have to be
blind not to recognize what the author showed as her answer. Arrogance and
Bigotry are the reverse images of self-confidence, respect and friendship. It is
possible and probable that those in Slytherin house consider themselves friends;
but, clearly their selfishness must be limiting, beyond that of Gryffindor's and
other houses.
The "hero" in any "cambellian" style of story (see Hero's Journey) must "work and
play well with others" because the "journey" is never accomplished alone. Peeves
and Nearly-Headless Nick have given strategic help to Harry. Professors are being

author. Analyzing the

change that characters
undergo, might
provide insight into a
particular theme.
A bildungsroman: In
German the word
means a "novel of
personal development"
and is a form which
concentrates on the
spiritual, moral, social,
or psychological
development and
growth of the
protagonist, usually
from childhood to
maturity. A more
common English term
would be "coming of
age," and often
follows the course:

1. Hero grows from

child to adult.
2. Is removed from
3. Maturing arduous
and clashes with
4. Finds acceptance
and purpose.
5. New knowledge
and role.
Choices: The theme of
choosing your destiny
rather than being born
into it pervades the
book, right down to
Harry Potters name.
"I was looking for a
name that was really
quite mundane in a
way, but a name that I
liked, Rowling said.
It was making this
point of choices making
people what they are
and not birth. Birth
really is a total
accident. And we have
to create ourselves
in life. And that's what
Harry does."
Death: JKR has said:
"Mum dying had a
profound influence on
the books because I
had been writing the
Harry Potter series,
and in the first draft his
parents were disposed
of really in quite the
cavalier fashion."
One of her life's
disappointments, she
said, was that she
never told her mother
she was writing her
Potter novels. "Six
months in (to the
writing), my mother
died," she said, "I
really think from that

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(mostly) as helpful as Harry will let them be.

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I. Medievalism:
The setting of Harry's world is an "island" of pseudo-medievalism within the
modern world. Castles, armor, forbidden forests full of fantastic beasts and races
of goblins and elves festoon the "Potterworld" experience. The government is, as
yet, not described, but there is a "minister." The economy is not well explained
but there definitely are financial classes of people.

II. Wizardry:
Wizardry in Harry's world is considered "typically atypical." When he is "home" he
is a "freak"; but, when at his "other home" he, magically, is nothing special if
only it weren't for Voldemort's decisions. There are the rings, and swords of
magical nature, and spells with incantations which seem hauntingly familiar, like
they might be true.

III. Genealogy:
Wizarding ability in Harry's world, does seem to have some, undisclosed, genetic
relationship and therefore occurs in families. Not surprisingly, parents with the
endowment, and who have undergone maturation into wizards, find educational
and experiential opportunities for their offspring who are similarly endowed.
There is incomplete gene penetrance, however, and spontaneous mutations are
not unheard of, or uncommon. It is unfortunate, but these natural phenomenon's
are facilitated with labels. The terms "squib" and "muggle-born" were coined to
describe the two mentioned conditions, respectively. Such labels, along with
"muggle" (non-magic folk) are used by people, like Lucius and Draco Malfoy, to
whom it matters, and expresses their prejudices. To them, like Hitler's Nazi's, a
muggle-born is as bad as a muggle and even one non-magic grandparent makes
you "half-blood."

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I. Facial Features:
The shape of a persons nose seems to indicate the level of "wizardry" in a
person's family tree. Dumbledore's is described as long and pointy, Harry's as
"pointy but not as much as his father's." Hermione's is short- being muggle-born;
Ron's quite pointy- being pure-blood. Occasionally Rowling uses the description
of "a long pointy nose" in a pejorative sense to connote "pure-blooded" and
probably bigoted.

II. Wands:
As Olivander says: "The wand chooses the wizard." Apparantly, there is something
about Harry that made a "brother" wand to Voldemort's choose him. It is made of
Holly, 11" long with a phoenix tail feather core and is supple. Ron used a dragon
heartstring core wand that was hand-me-down from his brother charlie, and
Hermione a unicorn hair core inside vine wood.

III. Mirror of Erised:

As Dumbledore explained, the mirror shows nothing more or less than the deepest
desire of one's heart and only a truly content man would ever recieve a true
reflection. For Harry, who had never met, or known about, his relatives it depicted
his large family. For Ron, a classic "middle child" it depicted sucess and notoriety
in a very real form. Dumbledore claimed that he just saw a "pair of thick woolen
socks." What a character would see if they looked into the mirror reveals a great
deal about them. It is no surprise, then, that a favorite question of fans is what
various characters would see in the mirror. Rowling has said that she, herself,
would see what Harry sees.

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one moment on, death

became a central, if
not the central, theme
of the seven books.
How we react to death,
how much we fear it.
In many ways, all of
my characters are
defined by their
attitude to death."
Mirror of Erised:
There is something
about when Harry
looks into the Mirror of
Erised, and sees his
parents looking at him,
that is so moving it
even made it into the
Rowling described
what she would see: "I
would definitely see
what Harry sees. I
would have seen my
mother," Rowling said.
"I would be able to
have a conversation
with my mother."
Friendship: A type of
relationship found
among humans and
animals with rich
intelligence. Friends
seek out each other's
company and exhibit
mutually helping
friendship in:
Danish venskab
Dutch vriendschap
Italian amicizia
Latin amicitia
Norwegian vennskap
Portuguese amizade
Spanish amistad
Medievalism: The
folklore of fantasy is
drawn, often, from
medieval sources.
Dragons and unicorns
are common creatures,
and alternative races,
such as elves and
dwarves, often interact
with humans. The
setting's of fantasy
worlds, nearly always
are pastoral and derive
from medieval
sources, although may
be "filtered" a bit. Even
J. R. R. Tolkien's "high
fantasy" is based in a
setting. Economies, in
fantasy, are also
usually medievalistic;
but, the governments
tend to be feudalistic,
evil empires or corrupt
Wizardry: Magic is
pervasive in fantasy,
but has form unique to

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I. Hidden knowledge of Dumbledore

Harry had to be satisfied with only a partial answer to his question: "Why did
Voldemort attempt to kill me as a baby?" Dumbledore said that he would explain
at a later date. A corollary, why was it so important to Voldemort that he killed
both his parents in order to get to him? And where did Dumbledore get that
map-scar on his leg?

II. Harry's future

Like some sort of 'leaf in a stream,' Harry hasn't seemed to have much control
over his life to date. Ok, this may not be too different from most 11-year-olds, but
at some point he will begin to make more choices than he has here-to-fore been
able to make. He obviously doesn't think too kindly toward Voldemort, who killed
both his parents, and who, he knows now, is 'still out there somewhere.' Some
sort of 'show down' is probably inevitable!

III. Snape's unexplained hatred of Harry

Snape seemed to 'hit the ground running' in his hatred of Harry from the first they
met. This simply must have come from some sort of "history"; but it doesn't
appear to have been anything specific to Harry personally. If it was incidental, it
probably wouldn't need explaining, but Snape's actions continually effect Harry's
plot line and probably demands a background sometime.

IV. Snape's initial potion's lessons

Usually an author crafts very carefully their first sentence of a book. Also their
first paragraph sets readers expectations, and the first chapter is often used for
book reviews, so is also very important. JKR was no exception and from the
outset the reader could tell they were 'in for a bumpy ride.' Harry's first day at
school, set the stage for a continual battle with his potion's master. He claimed
that he would teach them 'how to bottle fame, brew glory and stopper death'
perhaps it will be with the Draft of Living Death, a Bezoar and Wolfsbane potions.
Back | Sorcerer's Stone: Theme's | Motif's | Literary Devices | Symbolism | Foreshadowing

the book. It can be the

whole "world," or an
"island" in mundane
reality, or as a
"hidden" element of
normal life. Most often
the ability to use it is
rare, and its
perpetrator considered
a "wizard." And,
commonly, it is a
magic item, usually a
sword or ring, which
endows "magical
abilities" on an
otherwise normal
Prophecies are
extremely common in
the genre, used as a
plot device. They are:
nearly always true, in
some sense; vague
enough to be arguable;
much more significant
with hindsight; and
often are, ironically,
brought about by the
very efforts made to
avert them.
Genealogy: A persons
ancestry has often
been the focal point of
tyrants looking for an
excuse to defend their
deep seated feelings of
inferiority. The "short
man" syndrome often
finds its release in
rationalization that
"something" (a
category in which the
inferior man fits)
makes the man
"superior" than others.
Race, religion, gender
have all been fair
game for the criterion
used by the worlds
Unfortunately, there is
no greater sinisterality
than a vested interest
masquerading as a
moral principal; and, it
is all to easy to find
real life examples with
devastating results. In
Nazi Germany charts
were used to
"officialize and
quantify" the bigotry. A
single Jewish
grandparent was
enough to "pollute the
blood" according to
Nazi propaganda.
Literary Devices:
Such devices are items
which enable the
author to accomplish a
task with less effort
and more clarity than
otherwise would be
possible. Using
similarities, analogies
and items with which

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readers already have

experience (and thus
preconceptions), all
"streamline" the
reading process. A
character whose
description is "lion like"
conveys, if only
subconsciously, the
perception of "kingly,"
"aggressive," and
"masterful" qualities,
even before any action
has taken place.
Rowling used a number
of such devices,
including: the look of a
characters nose, what
they see in the mirror
of Erised and what kind
of wand chooses them.
In the wizard world,
the character who
looks like a toad, and
has a short nose, is
definitely not in the
same league with a
wizard who is
slenderly-imposing and
has a long crooked
nose even if he does
see warm woolen
socks in the mirror of

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