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.
Read about how humility is embodied by an earlier hero of British children’s literature, Bilbo Baggins from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
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.
Read about the related theme of rules and control in Lois Lowry’s The Giver.
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.
Read more about the futility of desire as a theme in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.