Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Knowledge is absolutely crucial to Harry’s survival, and, fittingly, his experiences as a boarding school student provide the most prominent narrative arcs in the series. Unlike contemporary students, who have access to computers and other knowledge-accelerating technology, Harry’s education must happen slowly and carefully over an extended period of time, often via trial and error. For Harry, the acquisition of knowledge is explicitly and often painfully linked to the passage of time. For example, Harry must live with his last remaining blood relatives, the hideous Dursleys, for eleven years until Dumbledore finally decides Harry is ready to experience life as a Wizard. Likewise, Harry must wait until he is no longer an “underage wizard” before he is allowed to safely use his magic outside of Hogwarts. (Harry’s defiance of this rule—in self-defense—provides the main conflict for the first few chapters of Book V). Harry must also wait nearly sixteen years until he is allowed to know the truth about his scar and hear about the prophecy that was made before his birth. He must wait for Dumbledore to finally explain Harry’s kill-or-be-killed link to Voldemort. He does not learn the mission of the Order of the Phoenix until he discovers it himself.
In Book V, Harry’s education is put in jeopardy for the very first time, and the true value of that education becomes fully clear. Hogwarts is gradually overtaken by the corrupt Ministry of Magic, and High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge refuses to let the students learn proper Defense Against the Dark Arts. Concerned, the students take learning Defense into their own hands, forming a secret study group, the D.A., and spending the semester meeting privately to learn and practice Defense spells. Ultimately, their hard work and practice save them at the end of the novel, where they use their newly developed skills to escape the Death Eaters unharmed. Had the students not been so stubbornly proactive, they might not have survived, and they can appreciate the true importance of what they are learning at Hogwarts in an entirely new way.
At the start of the school year, the Sorting Hat warns students that they need to stand together. Unfortunately, the House system at Hogwarts automatically divides students into four houses, mirroring the ideological split of the school’s four founders. Coupled with a highly competitive Quidditch Cup tournament and separate dormitories, students at Hogwarts are inherently segregated. All of Harry’s close friends—Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville—are members of Harry’s House, Gryffindor. Houses are not the only form of segregation at Hogwarts. Like Slytherin founder Salazar Slytherin, some Hogwarts students believe that only pure blood Wizards should be allowed to study at Hogwarts—Mudbloods and half bloods are often ostracized or mocked. Even outside of the Wizarding community, terrible segregation exists. The giants Hagrid visits in the mountains are not welcoming to others, and the Centaurs constantly chase outsiders out of the Forbidden Forest.
Lord Voldemort preys on this internal splintering, as does the Ministry of Magic. Ultimately, Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge is able to use this petty competition to form an Inquisitorial Squad of students, which consistently thwarts Harry’s attempts to stop Voldemort, making his work far more difficult. Now more than ever, Hogwarts must stand together—not only to defeat Voldemort but to protect themselves against corrupt faculty members that threaten their education.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Although Harry’s intentions are generally sound, he is often forced to lie, usually to authority figures, in order to complete his quests successfully. In the Wizarding world, untruths are everywhere: the Daily Prophet consistently prints lies about Harry and Dumbledore, and the Quibbler prints stories that seem to have no basis in truth. Harry often withholds information from his friends and professors, and he even refuses to tell Sirius the whole truth about his dreams. More often than not, Harry recruits his friends to help with his lies. When Harry needs to break into Umbridge’s office, Ginny Weasley stands at the end of a hallway, telling students that Garroting Gas has been released. Members of the D.A., too, must consistently lie about their whereabouts. When Umbridge gives Harry a week of detention, she forces him to repeatedly carve “I Will Not Tell Lies” into the back of his hand, but even this punishment is based in a lie. Umbridge thinks that Harry is lying about Voldemort’s return, but it is actually Umbridge who is being lied to by the Ministry, since Voldemort is, indeed, back.
Both at Hogwarts and beyond, Dumbledore commands and receives unconditional loyalty from his followers. The members of the Order of the Phoenix have pledged their unquestioning dedication to Dumbledore, and, despite the protests of the Ministry of Magic and much of the Wizarding world, their loyalty holds fast, and they believe, without question, what Dumbledore tells them about the return of Lord Voldemort. At Hogwarts, many of the students and faculty members remain extremely loyal to Dumbledore. After Dolores Umbridge replaces Dumbledore as Headmaster of Hogwarts, the students and faculty voice their protest by refusing to behave for Umbridge, making her life at Hogwarts as difficult as possible.
Blood is both a saving and divisive force for Harry Potter and his friends. Hogwarts students classify each other by blood type—pure blood, half blood, or Mudblood—which leads to disharmony and chaos. For Harry, however, blood often serves as his savior. The first time Harry encounters Lord Voldemort, in Book I, Voldemort has his face buried in a Unicorn and is hungrily sucking the animal’s blood. Clearly, Voldemort’s own blood is not a sufficient life force, and he is forced to feed on the Unicorn for survival. Harry’s blood, however, is extremely powerful. Once Dumbledore has told Harry about the contents of the prophecy, he explains that Harry’s heart is what gives Harry the power to separate himself from Voldemort. Likewise, Harry’s blood ties to his mother and his Aunt Petunia continue to keep him safe.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
As Harry quickly realizes, in order to effectively practice Occlumency, which is the closing off of one’s mind to external penetration, a Wizard must free his or her mind of all distractions. Before Harry’s lessons, Snape empties his thoughts into Dumbledore’s Pensieve—a device designed to collect and hold an individual’s thoughts and memories—so he doesn’t unintentionally reveal anything private to Harry. Unfortunately, Harry is not allowed the same luxury. Instead, Snape demands that he concentrate, forcing his mind clear without outside help. With so much going on in his young life, this becomes impossible for Harry, and Occlumency ultimately serves as a symbol of Harry’s youth. Because Harry is so entrenched in the trappings of adolescence, he lacks the dedication and work ethic to truly empty his mind, especially when none of the authority figures in his life are willing to explain exactly why it is so important for Harry to learn this skill. Ultimately, Harry’s inability to effectively practice Occlumency leads to a false vision of Sirius being tortured at the Ministry, which later becomes the impetus for a disastrous trek to row ninety-seven.
Dolores Umbridge’s Educational Decrees suggest the corruption that goes hand in hand with unchecked power. With the authority of the Ministry behind her, Umbridge takes to posting Educational Decrees on the bulletin boards at Hogwarts. Drunk with newfound power, Umbridge uses the Decrees to award herself even more authority over the faculty and students. Often, the Decrees are meaningless or vindictive, and they are almost always designed to meet Umbridge’s immediate needs, regardless of the school’s priorities. When Umbridge decides to ban all student organizations, societies, teams, groups, and clubs, she promptly grants the Slytherin Quidditch team permission to reform. However, she inexplicably waits before allowing the Gryffindor team to reform, presumably because she is so irritated by Harry and his friends. Every time something happens to thwart her authority or the authority of the Ministry, such as Harry’s Quibbler interview, she invents a decree, such as banning all copies of the Quibbler from Hogwarts, to stop it.
Much like the SAT exams, the O.W.L. exams are very important to a young Wizard’s occupational and educational future and are designed to be representative of his or her emerging magical skills. However, the O.W.L. exams ultimately suggest the vast difference between success in the classroom and success in the real world. Harry Potter perfectly embodies this difference. Harry is already a powerful and influential wizard, capable of teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts on his own, but he is just a mediocre student. In this sense, the O.W.L. exams seem almost silly. Harry has faced Voldemort and escaped many times, and he has saved Hogwarts more than once—yet he is still terribly worried about passing his O.W.L.s. The near-disastrous consequences of Umbridge’s pitiful Defense Against the Dark Arts course, in which she refuses to teach her students any practical skills, shows that real-life experience is often far more important than book learning.
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