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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Class And Race In The Wizarding World

I've been rereading the Harry Potter books recently, mostly as bedtime comfort reading, and thinking, not for the first time, of the distinct flavour of class difference and racism among the people of wizarding society. 

When I say "racism" I don't mean white wizards and black wizards hating each other. They don't, as far as we know. It's rather similar, in this respect, to Terry Pratchett's Discworld in which black and white and brown humans will happily unite against green non-humans. The race thing in Harry Potter is literal - humans uniting against giants and cheerfully enslaving house-elves. They are more wary of the goblins, who, after all, control their money and make it quite clear they have contempt for humans, though they are willing to work with them, as long as it's profitable. I suspect they own Gringott's Bank and employ humans, not the other way around. And they have fought wars against humans in the past. 

House-elves, on the other hand, grovel to humans despite having powerful magic of their own; even Dobby, the closest thing to a radical the house-elves have, insists on receiving only a token wage and time off, as a matter of principle; I suspect if he'd been working for the Weasleys, for example, or even(initially) for Hogwarts, he wouldn't have wished for freedom. It's a house-elf culture thing, but wizards are happy to take advantage of it. 

And everybody is terrified of giants. Well, nearly everybody; Hagrid's parents were a human and a giant, so his Dad was more broadminded than other wizards. Not to mention the fact that whatever the differences, there is enough that's the same for them to be able to interbreed! 

What I have noticed most, though, is the class structure reflecting the one in the Muggle world. Not entirely; in this universe, working class wizards get a chance to have the boarding school experience they would never have outside wizard society. Colin and Dennis Creevey, children of a Muggle milkman, mingle with the likes of Justin Finch-Fletchley, who was planning to attend the highly upper-crust Eton before getting his Hogwarts letter. Mundungus Fletcher and Stan Shunpike, as lower-class as you can get, would both have attended Hogwarts in their time, as did Tom Riddle, who came straight from an orphanage(though he was descended from the wealthy local squire and Salazar Slytherin, making him technically upper-crust on both sides, even if the Gaunts were the wizarding world's answer to Harper Lee's Ewells!). This is probably for the practical reason that children with magical abilities can't be allowed to run wild in the world at large, Muggle or wizarding, whether they can afford the fees or not. They need the training. I do sometimes wonder what happens when Muggle families whose children are offered a place at Hogwarts say, "No, thank you." It's not compulsory, of course, but it must worry Dumbledore when it happens - especially after what happened in his own family.

Within the wizarding world, however, it's fairly clear that there are a lot of people who attend Hogwarts and then go back to being farmers or shopkeepers, bus conductors or even petty thieves. Not everyone works for the Ministry of Magic. 

There are, of course, the issues between "purebloods" and Muggleborn or "halfbreeds". But even among the purebloods there are class differences. The Weasley family are poor by pureblood standards. They have hand-me-down wands and secondhand robes and have to scrape to find the money for textbooks and equipment. At the same time, Mr Weasley has a Civil Service job that enables him to make laws, including adding loopholes that let him fiddle with that car. That's not a job for a Clerk Class One! He may be poor, but his family is not lower class in the same way as Mundungus Fletcher or Stan Shunpike. 

Rich families like the Malfoys gang up - usually - on poor ones, even those who are also pureblood, as well as on Muggleborn and halfbreeds. Ironically, Lord Voldemort is a halfbreed, but that doesn't matter to him or his followers; none of the Deatheaters would dare to say, "Hang on, aren't you...?"

Well, he is a descendant of Slytherin, after all! 

And then there's Severus Snape. I think, from the evidence, that his father Tobias was a Muggleborn wizard rather than a Muggle. Little Severus takes the wizarding world for granted in a way he might not in the household of a straight Muggle, even if his mother was a witch; he is there to introduce young Lily Evans to her heritage. But judging by his Spinner's End home and the fact that even the very Muggle Petunia refers to him as "that awful boy" in a sneering tone, for being from the wrong side of the tracks, I believe Snape is as lower class as Fletcher and Shunpike, though we never find out, in the books at least, where his mother came from. All we know is that she was running the Gobstones Club at Hogwarts. He presumably made better use of his time at Hogwarts than the petty crook and the bus conductor, and has risen to become one of the inner circle of staff there. It does help him with the Deatheaters that they think he is still one of them and that he seems to favour the Slytherins.

I occasionally wonder about the author's attitude too. Of the heroes, Ron is poor but of the gentry. Hermione's parents are professionals - not upper-crust but well off(which doesn't stop her from being sneered at as a "mudblood"). Even Harry, that male Cinderella, is the son of a wealthy pureblood wizarding family and a Muggle family that is at least well off enough to snub the likes of young Severus. And he's the Chosen One, the long lost prince. Characters like Colin Creevey, the milkman's son, are presented in a comical light, though it's a pity what happens to him in the end; it wasn't necessary, IMO. Hagrid is a wonderful person, loved by our heroes, brave and honourable, but also shown mostly as comic relief. 

Sirius Black rejected his family's Deatheater sentiments, but in the end, he's an aristocrat too. His favourite aunt, Andromeda, married a Muggleborn, Ted Tonks, and was considered dead to her family, but there isn't the same grime about their cottage and their lives as there is in Snape's family home. I suspect Ted is a poor gentleman like Mr Weasley, rather than working class. 

Whatever Lupin's family is or was, he suffers from prejudice against werewolves, due to something that was done to him as a child. He's poor because nobody will take a chance on giving him a job before Dumbledore(though he must have had a teaching job somewhere some time as his battered trunk has "Professor Lupin" in peeling gold letters on it - or maybe it was just a glitch on the author's part). At Hogwarts, the Slytherins, who don't yet know what he is, sneer at him for being poor, before finding a better reason to sneer. 

And then there are the Squibs. There is one in the Weasley family, as Ron mentions in Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone that they have a relative who's an accountant, but says they don't speak of him. Neither do we ever meet him. He's presumably settled nicely into the Muggle world. There's Argus Filch, who insists on living in the wizarding world and as a result is desperately unhappy and takes his revenge on the students as best he can. He is disliked by the students for being unpleasant, not because he's a Squib, which they don't know, except Harry and his friends. He's another comical character - and I doubt he started life in an upper-crust family, who would surely never have allowed him to embarrass them as he must do in his caretaker job at Hogwarts. No. Filch is working-class - and sent up by the author. Would a Weasley-type caretaker be shown in this light? Probably not. He would be poor-but-honest, kind to the students, making the best of his life, despite his Squib nature. But bear in mind, the only Weasley Squib is an accountant, ie a well-paid professional! 

Mrs Figg is sent up before we actually meet her, as the crazy cat lady, but when she finally appears in Order Of The Phoenix, we learn that she was playing a role, to prevent the Dursleys from suspecting she was there to keep an eye on Harry for Dumbledore.  She gets a brief mention at the end of Goblet Of Fire as one of a team who must be contacted, so she lives in the Muggle world but is in touch with the world of her roots. Again, I doubt she was nobly born; she would not be living in the kind of home she does if she were. But she must have at least enough standing that the Dursleys have bothered to speak to her, even as babysitter for their despised Cinderella figure; they are such snobs!

I believe that class counts in the universe of Harry Potter, and not only from the viewpoint of the villains. 

Please note, this post is based only on the evidence from the books; if JKR has said anything to the contrary on Pottermore, please excuse me! I just don't have time to keep up.

What do you think? 

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