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.

Read about the related theme of leadership in Richard Adams’s Watership Down.