Despite being an adult, at least according to age, I enjoy reading Harry Potter. I also know there’s no real reason to act defensive about that because millions of adults have read Harry Potter. Not all of them can be total nerds. Or, perhaps, I’ve superceded their nerdom because G. and I elected to order all the Potters in hardcover in the original British editions. So, okay, we’re nerds. And as such, it makes me wonder if Draco Malfoy / Slytherins get a bad rap.
Consider: While the 4 houses all have their rivalries, Slytherin at no point has allies outside of itself. Such isolation has to make them defensive. Draco Malfoy expects to be in Slytherin because it’s his family’s legacy; however, how much of the legacy is derived from a stereotype that feel they must live up to? According to the books, all (ALL!) evil wizards and witches in the greater British area come out of Slytherin. I find this to be incredibly difficult to believe. It implies that only a specific type of person has the possibility to commit evil and overlooks the inherent intricacies of humans. Let’s say you are a Muggle-born first year, and just like Harry, you’ve never heard of / known about / had any inkling about the wizarding world, but unlike Harry you receive no information on the train to Hogwarts by others to indicate that Slytherin is the ‘evil’ house; the Sorting Hat elects to put you there because, when sat upon your head, it picked up a drive for power–a drive powered not by a desire to be ‘evil,’ but a desire to prove yourself in the wizarding world. This hypothetical person would then be cast as ‘evil’ by the rest of the houses, despite having absolutely no allegiance or standing inside of Slytherin, simply because of the stereotype of the house. This first year is then immediately put on the defensive, making him/her not only overwhelmed beginning his/her wizarding schooling, but also overwhelmed by the stance against him/her through no fault of his/her own. S/he merely showed up at the school, sat upon a chair, and waited for the hat to declare his/her fate, as it were. Slytherin, the snake house, consumes itself in a vicious circle of stereotypes and defensiveness.
While I understand the need for a (mostly) children’s book series to create ‘blocks’ of people in order to establish the Good v. Bad, I also think Rowling spends a lot of time working to the greater psychological understanding of her main characters. Even Draco in the last book gets some introspection–via other character’s looking at / hearing about him–as he grapples with his task of taking out Dumbledore. The struggle Malfoy goes through, both personally and physically, only highlights the cost of being in Slytherin: the expectation to perform evil because you are told that being in Slytherin means you have to live up to some kind of Higher Evil Purpose. Unlike Gryffindor, the House of Slytherin not only contends with other houses, it contends with the legacy of itself. Any teenagery acts–pranks, rebellion, combustible emotional outbursts, all things others do in the rest of the houses–are seen through a lens of horror; ‘THEY COULD BE DEATHEATERS, AHHHHHHHHHHHH,’ essentially. The most impressive character arc in the entire series is how Draco, after seven years of having to look at himself as a pre-destined monster, actually struggles with that destiny and eventually crumbles in front of it. We all want to glorify the resurrection of Harry because of his parents’ and other’s love, but Draco must deal with being an assumed evil wizard for seven straight years. How hard would it be to look at yourself with any real analysis when the rest of the school looks at you through that lens of assumed horror? He is throughout most of the series a caricature of his father, and, yet, by the end, he overcomes that. Of course he’s an annoying, snobbish git–he’s been handed a silver spoon, something that most people will always hold against him; the assumption is he doesn’t need upward mobility because he’s already reached the upper tier, the 1% if you will; yet what Draco most needs is the upward mobility of socialisation, a wide circle of friends who expose him to the world outside of the Slytherin stereotype, something that everyone else blocks him from achieving because of the stereotype. And, unlike any of the other main characters, he is not allowed to make mistakes; such mistakes become glaring announcements of his perceived evil.
Imagine living your teen years knowing you were supposed to become a specific type of person. In movies, the audience is often set up to feel empathy for the character who doesn’t want to become the lawyer, the doctor, the ‘serious profession’ that his parents want / demand him to become; in Dead Poet’s Society this point gets hammered home by the kid who wants to be an actor shooting himself in the head when his father pulls him from school, demanding the son pursue the serious profession the father wants for him. We are to feel sadness for the son and shame for the father. In this case, we hold it against Draco that he wants to become his parents; yet, in general, is that not realistic? Don’t most of us want to impress our parents? Of course we go through rebellious phases, but that doesn’t mean we abjectly desire to disappoint them. When Draco confronts this dilemma in the final book, he loses weight, he loses sleep, and he confides his fears to Moaning Myrtle. His social circle is so incomplete that he actually has to find comfort with a ghost in a girl’s bathroom. Imagine, again, that you have no one to actually talk to; imagine your psyche as you grapple with who you are at 17 and are convinced the world, on all sides, is against you–from Slytherin, the assumption that he is too weak to perform his assigned task and live up to his destiny; from everyone else, the assumption that he is a Dark Wizard looking to wreak havoc on all of them. The world for Draco is such a cold place, he finds comfort in a person killed by the very embodiment of his house, a basilisk. In not holding it against Draco that the Serpent of Slytherin killed her, Myrtle is the only person who shows him compassion. That has to be psychologically damaging to realise almost no one out there shows a willingness to just listen to him. And, lost in all this, is the immense pressure he’s under with his task to kill Dumbledore–not because, you know, Dumbledore, but because the fate of his life and his family is to be determined by his success or failure. It is an actual life or death situation for him. And nobody shows any care.
Okay, his mother does, but we have no insight into the family dynamic, in terms of how much weight his father and mother each have in leading Draco; the assumption, though, has to lean towards his father having the power because of how much Draco solely references him in previous books. Second, I realise Snape constantly asks Draco to let him help, but we also find out that Snape is a double agent whose true mission is to continue his guise until he can release Draco from his task by performing it himself, as determined by Dumbledore and him in prior meetings. Essentially, Dumbledore allows Snape to make Draco think that his task has been completed, further scarring Draco even as Draco has elected to not death-curse Dumbledore; Draco believes he alone is responsible for killing Dumbledore and that Snape did so just to ‘help’ him. Again, imagine the psychological cost of believing you’re responsible for the death of the ‘greatest wizard in the world,’ when you weren’t even sure by the end that you wanted to follow through on the task [Also, how do we know Dumbledore is the greatest wizard in the world? There is much to be said about the blatant exceptionalism expressed, something that I’m sure could align with the former British Empire notion of self / colonialism and current Unites States assumption of superiority. Hogwart’s basically stands at the center of the wizarding world according to this, with no indication of the (I guess, possible) globalisation of it. We get a Tri-Wizard tournament, but that only includes two other schools, both from European neighbours].
In the real world, there is a cultural and political battle over how to handle poverty / crime. While approaches to solving the dilemma differ, the goal remains the same [sorry, I have to insert here: would there be a way to make a documentary about this using Led Zeppelin music, as in The Goal Remains the Same / The Song Remains the Same?]: to create upward mobility–to move people into better schools, better jobs, better environments. The fight people have, however, has to do with stereotypes: that poor people are lazy; that some groups are somehow ‘more prone’ to crime; that people believe they are entitled to free handouts rather than working their way up the social spectrum. Such stereotyping ignores reality because the stereotypes are often self-fulfilling prophesies: the stereotype prevents a person from serious consideration when that person attempts to better himself. Schools lack funding, educational divides become gulfs, better jobs get harder and harder to obtain, environments continue to wither as the jobs and schools get worse–destiny, if you will, becomes a version of survival, not mobilisation. And, while Draco obviously has the benefit of being part of the 1%, and while he relentlessly takes pleasure in announcing it, his personal character has no social spectrum to move in. As he grapples with his supposed destiny, his only friend is a dead person. Imagine.