Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Value of Humility
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone emphasizes the virtue of humility by showcasing the extraordinary modesty of its hero and by making this modesty an important part of Harry’s success in obtaining the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry’s humility is no doubt ingrained in him during his ten miserable years of neglect and cruelty with the Dursleys. But Harry does not stop being humble when he gains fame, wealth, and popularity at Hogwarts. His reaction to the discovery that everyone seems to know his name on the train to Hogwarts does not make him primp and pose, but rather only makes him hope that he can manage to live up to his reputation. In this respect, he contrasts sharply with Draco Malfoy, who prides himself on his family reputation and downplays achievement.
Similarly, when it becomes apparent that Harry has an astounding gift for Quidditch, his reaction is not to glory in his superstar abilities, but rather to practice more industriously than before. When Harry breaks Quidditch records by catching the Golden Snitch in the first five minutes of the game, he does not even pause to appreciate the applause of the crowd, but rushes off. Harry’s refusal to glorify himself is instrumental in getting the stone because he differs from wicked wizards like Quirrell in that he desires only to find the Stone for the common good, not to use it to acquire personal fame or fortune. If Harry were less humble, he would be unable to seize the stone. He is the extreme opposite of Voldemort, who strives only to achieve his own selfish goals.
The Occasional Necessity of Rebellion
Hogwarts is a well-run institution, with clearly spelled out rules that are strictly enforced. Midlevel teachers and school administrators like Professor McGonagall constantly police students for violations, and the rules are taken seriously. Even at the highest level of the Hogwarts administration, there is a clear respect for the rules. Dumbledore is a stern taskmaster. He makes a very gentle and warm welcome speech to the first-year students, but he throws in a few menacing reminders about the prohibition of visits to the Forbidden Forest and the third-floor corridor. None of these Hogwarts rules ever seems arbitrary or unfair. On the contrary, we generally approve of them, feeling that in a world imperiled by misused magic, strict control over student behavior is necessary.
Even so, it soon becomes clear that Harry is unable to abide perfectly by the rules. He enters the third-floor corridor in the full knowledge that it is forbidden territory, and he dons the invisibility cloak to inspect the restricted-books section of the library. After the flying instructor has clearly prohibited broomstick flying until she returns, Harry does not hesitate to take off after Malfoy to retrieve Neville’s stolen toy. And Harry approves of infractions of the rules by others as well. When Hagrid reveals that he is engaged in an illegal dragon-rearing endeavor, Harry not only fails to report Hagrid to the authorities, but actually helps Hagrid with the dragon.
Harry’s occasional rebellions against the rules are not vices or failings. Rather, they enhance his heroism because they show that he is able to think for himself and make his own judgments. The contrast to Harry in this respect is the perfectionist Hermione, who never breaks a rule at the beginning and who is thus annoying to both Harry and us. When she eventually lies to a teacher, showing that she too can transcend the rules, Hermione becomes Harry’s friend. One of the main lessons of the story is that while rules are good and necessary, sometimes it is necessary to question and even break them for the right reasons.
The Dangers of Desire
As the pivotal importance of the desire-reflecting Mirror of Erised reveals, learning what to want is an important part of one’s development. Excessive desire is condemned from the story’s beginning, as the spoiled Dudley’s outrageous demands for multiple television sets appear foolish and obnoxious. The same type of greed appears later in a much more evil form in the power-hungry desires of Voldemort, who pursues the Sorcerer’s Stone’s promise of unlimited wealth and life. While Voldemort and Dudley are obviously different in other respects, they share an uncontrollable desire that repels Harry and makes him the enemy of both of them. Desire is not necessarily wrong or bad, as Dumbledore explains to Harry before the Mirror of Erised—Harry’s desire to see his parents alive is touching and noble. But overblown desire is dangerous in that it can make people lose perspective on life, which is why Dumbledore advises Harry not to seek out the mirror again. Dumbledore himself illustrates the power and grandeur of one who has renounced desires almost completely when he says that all he wants is a pair of warm socks. This restraint is the model for Harry’s own development in the story.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The world of the Muggles, or ordinary, nonmagical human beings, is an obvious contrast to the realm of the wizards in a variety of ways. Wizards appear grand and colorful, but Muggles are bland and conventional. The story’s main representatives of the Muggle world are the Dursleys, who are cruel, closed-minded, selfish, and self-deluded. When we first encounter wizards in the story, we do so through the strongly disapproving eyes of Mr. Dursley, who is contemptuous of the wizards’ emerald-green capes and purple robes. Our reaction is most likely to object to Mr. Dursley’s lack of imagination, as the wizard world seems a refreshing contrast to the constraining boredom of Muggle life.
But in going off to Hogwarts, Harry does not leave behind his Muggle existence forever. The same qualities that make the Muggles objectionable are present among wizards as well. Mrs. Dursley’s snobbery is fully apparent in Malfoy’s snooty name-dropping, as Harry is soon disappointed to observe. Dudley’s self-centered and uncaring greed is present in a more grandiose and powerful way in the evil Voldemort’s greed. And Hogwarts itself is composed of students from wizard and Muggle backgrounds alike. The point of the story is not that Muggles are bad and wizards are good, or even that Muggles are boring while wizards are exciting. It is rather that the world is made up of different types of people with different aptitudes and different desires who should be able to coexist. Muggles must be free to develop into wizards if they have the gift and the calling. If they do, they can liberate themselves and find their true selves.
One of the central aspects of life at Hogwarts is the ongoing competition for the house championship, which is determined by the greatest accumulation of points. Students accumulate points for their houses by performing particularly good actions and by winning at Quidditch, and they lose points for performing particularly bad actions. The points system thus symbolizes the need for a careful accounting of one’s actions, as a careless penalty could result in a defeat for one’s peers. It also shows an interesting twist on morality, as points can be earned not only for good or righteous behavior, but also for athletic excellence. Moral and spiritual achievement is rewarded but so is physical achievement. This fact brings the world of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone out of a Christian ethical system (in which pure intentions of the spirit matter most) and brings it closer to an ancient notion of human excellence. The word “virtue” derives from the Latin word virtus, which referred in ancient times to manly successes in martial and physical exploits. This quality saw the body and the soul as one entity and recognized excellence as a mixture of different kinds of achievement. Harry, with his mental and physical prowess, embodies this ancient quality.
Both admirable and bogus versions of authority pop up throughout the story. Bogus authority first appears in the figures of Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, who order Harry around with no sense of appropriateness. Their authority is based solely on power: they are the adults, with financial and physical superiority over children, and in their minds they feel entitled to treat Harry like a slave. But we see the emptiness and limits of Mr. Dursley’s authority as soon as the wizard world makes its appearance. Mr. Dursley is suddenly unable to control even the mail that arrives at his house. His power vanishes completely and with it so does his authority. By the time he flees to the shack on the island with his family, he has become a ridiculous figure, desperately clinging on to an idea of control that he lacks utterly. Even the uncouth and oafish Hagrid, who appears on the island, has more authority than Mr. Dursley. By the end of the story, Dumbledore emerges as the true authority figure. Dumbledore has immense power but does not use it. When he wants Harry to stop visiting the Mirror of Erised, he recommends that Harry stop going instead of ordering him to stop. Based on wisdom and kindness rather than raw power, Dumbledore’s model of authority becomes Harry’s own.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The lightning-shaped scar that Harry receives from Voldemort symbolizes everything unique and astounding about Harry, though he never thinks twice about the scar until its history is finally told to him. Like the famous scar of Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, Harry’s forehead lightning bolt is a badge of honor, an emblem of having survived a great battle and of being destined to wage still more battles in the future. It constantly connects Harry to the past, not just to the trauma of the struggle against the evil Voldemort, but also to the loving parents who tried to protect him. The scar is also a symbol of Harry’s emotional sensitivity, because it hurts him whenever hatred is directed at him, as when Snape first sees him at Hogwarts or when Quirrell tries to grab him.
As the preferred sport and pastime of the wizard world, Quidditch is entertainment, but the game is also a symbol of the deeper virtues taught at Hogwarts. The all-consuming importance of Quidditch at the school shows that magic is not just a bookish pursuit, but has a physical and practical application as well. Hermione may learn all of her textbooks perfectly, but she is not a hero for doing so; heroism is won on the Quidditch fields. Quidditch also shows that wizardry is intended for much more than the self-centered use of magic powers for personal glory. Any wizard who uses it for such ends alone is, like Voldemort, no longer a part of the team-spirit philosophy of Hogwarts. A person should use magic with an awareness of others’ needs and values, just as winning at Quidditch depends on the successful interaction of several players acting cooperatively. No matter how talented a single Quidditch player like Harry might be, he or she cannot play the game alone.
The Mirror of Erised
Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised symbolizes his growing self-awareness, as the magic mirror forces him to look within himself and face the question of what he really wants. Harry has never had to inquire into his own desires before, because the Dursleys never cared about his desires and, upon arriving at Hogwarts, he seems to have everything he needs in his daily schedule of classes and meals. But the Hogwarts experience is meant to be more than a routine of memorizing formulas and learning to transform matches into pins. It is meant to bring personal growth and character development, for which it is necessary to examine one’s soul.
Harry’s desires, as reflected in the mirror, are noble ones; he wants to see his family alive and then wants to find the Sorcerer’s Stone for the common good. Voldemort, on the other hand, is driven by nothing but his ego, and his desires are wholly selfish. The Mirror of Erised shows us that who we are (literally, the reflection of ourselves that we see in the mirror) is defined by what we want—our desires shape our identities. That Harry is the one who ends up with the Stone teaches us that we must temper our desires.