Notes on a Marxist reading of Harry Potter

Please note: It’s been a while since I read the Harry Potter books so please forgive me if I’ve missed some major element that is relevant here.

Well this occurred to me today so why not? In the Harry Potter books, who fills the role of the “proletariat”? My first thought was: the background students–the ones who are unnamed, whose powers don’t rise to the level of the main characters, whose role is to serve as backdrop. And this is a little interesting but in a sort of boring way common to many YA novels about schools, academies, and other groups. In many cases there is a large, faceless mass of people filling in the background.

But this seems wrong for a few reasons. First, Neville. To me, he specifically represents the normal, ordinary, non-chosen-one student, and he is given a role of heroism and value to play. Secondly, there isn’t any kind of feeling that the main characters are superior to their classmates (except in the structural sense–they are the stars and the others are set dressing). But nothing bad is said of them, and their exploitation is not crucial to the lives of the main characters.

No, I think the real “proletariat” of the Harry Potter books are the muggles. Although it isn’t specified, I think it is clear that the majority of human inhabitants of Earth in the Harry Potter universe are muggles. Yet their perspective is mostly absent from the novel.

Or, when it appears, they are ghastly. The Dursleys are horrible, greedy, small-minded people who hate and resent the power of the wizarding world. In fact, the Dursleys act so awful that one could begin to see Voldemort’s perspective, that muggles are a filthy pollutant that should be kept wholly separate from the powerful, intelligent wizards and witches who the story is about.

Now we’re getting somewhere. In this reading, the main conflict in the novels is between two factions of powerful elites (mapping onto the aristocratic, meritocratic, owner class). One faction believes the muggles are subhuman, pushes a racist (not really racist–wizardist? witchist? magic-ist?) agenda of mandatory segregation, and shows a willingness to kill and/or harm muggles when it suits their purposes.

The other faction is more benevolent, wishing to forge peaceful coexistence (mainly embodied in the right to intermarry and equal treatment for “mudbloods”). But it is interesting that even here, the good faction seems primarily motivated by a feeling that half-pure wizards and witches should be treated well. Hermione is the main focal character for this, as her “mudblood” heritage is an object of mockery and contempt for the bad faction. But Hermione, the novels go to great pains to show, is a brilliant, powerful witch. In other words, even if, under an older system of hereditary aristocracy, she might not have all the proper credentials, in a newer meritocractic society, she has everything it takes and more.

Under this reading the muggles would represent the ordinary people. Decisions about their lives are being made, argued, and fought over by the elite characters we follow. But the muggles themselves are minimally involved and it isn’t clear what kind of impact they would have should they become aware of the wizarding world and the conflicts in it. But they would likely ask what such powerful people owe to those that share their world (taxation, obligatory use of magic to help muggles)–or if it is even safe to have them around (the X-men days of future past question).

Anyway, this is obviously rough, and there are issues applying Marxist theory to an avowedly fantastic world. But I found this interesting. It makes me wonder what an epic fantasy that worked from the “proletarian” perspective would look like.