Today is July 31—both Harry Potter’s and J. K. Rowling’s birthday! The Harry Potter series truly sparked my love of reading as a child, and has continued to be important to me as I grow older. In fact, I’ve recently been getting more involved in the fandom and just started a reread of the series. Reading the books again as an adult, I find that I get something new out of them every time. This time, I started looking at them through the Gothic lens. While I would by no means suggest that “gothic” is the primary genre of the Harry Potter series, I did find a surprising amount of overlap and borrowed elements:
A Gothic Setting
The most obvious of the Gothic elements in Harry Potter is the setting. Most of the action of the series takes place in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a medieval castle complete with all the Gothic trappings: turrets, dungeons, and secret passageways. It’s even populated by the ghosts of past residents. Castles feature prominently in Gothic literature from The Castle of Otranto to Dracula, and in fact, the genre is named after the medieval style of architecture. When the students do leave the confines of the castle walls in Harry Potter, they tend to visit other Gothic spaces: the Forbidden Forest, dark and filled with monsters; 12 Grimmauld Place, an old ancestral home with a dark history; and of course, a cemetery were the dead (or almost dead) are brought back to life.
Central Motif of Death
When you think about it, the Harry Potter series is surprisingly morbid; the entire plot revolves around death. The central antagonist, Voldemort, is motivated by his fear of death. He dedicates his life to pursuing immortality, and when he hears a prophecy of his death, he hunts down the child whom he thinks may bring it about. This early incident defines Harry’s life, and he spends the rest of the series wrestling with death himself. Harry has what at times amounts to an obsession with his dead parents who appear to him in several different ways throughout the seven books: Harry sees them in the Mirror of Erised; ghostly versions of them emerge out Voldemort’s wand during the fight in the graveyard; and in the last book, Harry briefly calls their forms forth with the Resurrection Stone. In addition to navigating a complicated relationship with specific members of the dead, Harry also has to confront death itself and his own fear of it in the later books. Featured prominently in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the Tale of the Three Brothers and their three hallowed objects said to grant the possessor mastery over death. But rather than master death, Harry learns to accept it before heading into his final confrontation with Voldemort. This is not simply a children’s story about fun and fantasy at magic school. No, the Harry Potter series is a complex tale about our relationship with death.
The Past Haunting the Present
The Gothic is a genre than can be hard to pin down, but I consider its defining characteristic to be the concept of the past haunting the present. Sometimes this is quiet literal, as in ghost stories. Other times, it manifests in more figurative ways, such as an ancient wrong that needs to be righted or revenged, a buried secret that is finally revealed, or conflicts that play out over generations. This concept comes into play several different ways in the Harry Potter series. There are two main pasts that haunt Harry’s world: the recent, generational past—the era of his parents’ lives and Voldemort’s first rise to power—and the more distant, ancestral past—the era of the four founders of Hogwarts. We’ve already talked a bit about how Harry’s dead parents haunt his life. Harry even looks exactly like his father, which is reminiscent of the Gothic trope of generational doppelgangers that often personify this theme, as Judge Pyncheon does in The House of the Seven Gables. The other main element of the generational past in the series is the prophecy that dominates Harry’s life. Trelawney’s prediction that Harry will kill Voldemort or vice versa comes up repeatedly and dictates both Harry’s and Voldemort’s actions until the prophecy is finally fulfilled in the seventh book.
More important to the Gothic ideology, however, are issues of the ancestral past—especially if that past is medieval. Many of the core conflicts of the Harry Potter series can trace their roots back to the founding of Hogwarts during the Middle Ages. During this time period, the rift between Hogwarts houses first emerged, which later plays out in Harry’s conflicts both with major Slytherin characters like Malfoy and Voldemort and with the aspects of Slytherin inside himself. Another related conflict is that between pureblood witches and wizards and those with muggle heritage. Voldemort identifies closely with his ancestor Salazar Slytherin and promotes his ideology of pureblood superiority. Meanwhile, Harry identifies in some ways with Godric Gryffindor, and his conflict with Voldemort mirrors the ancient feud between the two founders. Lastly, to give one more example, in his second year, Harry uncovers a literal buried secret from the medieval era that is the source of death and destruction within the school—the basilisk’s secret chamber.
What other gothic elements can you find in Harry Potter? Did you pick up on these when you read the books? Share your thoughts in the comments!