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July 15-18, 2010
Orlando, Florida

Replete With Too Much Rage: Anger and Agency in the Harry Potter Novels
Jessica Aldis

Where would be the fun in any adventure story if we didn't relate to the characters? The Potterverse's popularity comes from strong reader-identification with the protagonists during the epic emotional voyage that underpins their struggle against Voldemort. Outstanding among the incidents of this voyage are its storms. While reading the novels, one is struck by the continual welling-up of anger as a primary motivating factor in the decisions made by the novels' heroes and heroines.

In exploring Rowling's treatment of anger, I shall aim to open up her philosophy of agency – of what it is to act effectively.

On the surface, anger looks a lot like energy. Angry people act, projecting the fire within, as Harry does frequently as he grows into his destiny. We can all recognise and sympathise with the reckless, rage-fuelled desperation that leads to Harry's precipitate actions. However, there are obvious problems with allowing rage to get the upper hand. At best, it is a distraction from the real issues; at worst, it leads to disaster. And at the opposite pole from action, we find that often, anger is the expression of impotence – the result of being thwarted or sidelined – or that it gets in the way of effective action.

It is by looking at those who are free of anger, or who have sufficient maturity to regulate or even overcome their anger that we gain some insight into Rowling's view of agency. It is when Harry masters his negative emotions as he has to in order to produce a Patronus, or when he even abandons agency, that he triumphs; when Dumbledore submits to death, he sets in train the events that lead to victory; even Snape finally frees himself from the distractions of rage – an act of submission more complete than any he has yet performed – and gives Harry the key to overcoming his enemy. This is the paradox inherent within Rowling's adventure: that the vitality of anger saps the efficacy of action. Despite the Western morality tale she appears to be telling, in Dumbledore's and Snape's deaths and in Harry's success, she presents us with something more akin to “Zen and the Art of Victory.”


Jessica Aldis (M.A.) was one member (with Mara Stein and Elisabeth Carnell) of a successful panel presenting on the question of identity in the Potter books at Azkatraz 2009. She is an expert in English Renaissance Literature, and speaks German and French. She writes both original fiction and fanfiction as well as literary criticism, and is currently raising a young family.
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