Using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as an Avenue for Social Justice
In a society that boasts consumerism, outward appearances, and social status as the Holy Trinity of contemporary culture, peddling heroic characters that are unpopular outsiders at the bottom of the classist chain may seem outlandish or even impossible. Although American adolescents live in a democratic culture, hierarchical-laced motivations concerning popularity tend to reign supreme. Keeping up appearances drives teenagers who eagerly add a filter to an “ugly” Instagram photo and “friend” popular acquaintances on Facebook in hopes of climbing up the social ladder. In perhaps one of the most well-known Young Adult series of modern culture, the Harry Potter books challenge readers to not only delve into a world completely different from their own, but they also glorify those at the bottom of the social pecking order. Specifically, J.K. Rowling’s first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, provides both a meaningful message concerning social justice for the underprivileged and unpopular and an appropriate text for critical literacy exercises. Social justice studies provide an avenue for introspective examination of challenging issues like race, ethnicity, class, and gender (Glasgow 54). In an article discussing the importance of social justice in the classroom, Jacqueline Glasgow writes: “We must create for students democratic and critical spaces that foster meaningful and transformative learning. If we expect students to take social responsibility, they must explore ideas, topics, and viewpoints that not only reinforce but challenge their own” (54). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone provides this “democratic and critical space” through its positive depictions and successes of the characters Harry, Ron, and Hermione. An examination of the three main characters’ unorthodox heroics prompts impressionable adolescents to overlook an individual’s appearance and social status in favour of a more deeply nuanced examination of humanity.
Before delving into the specific qualities that provide an avenue for social justice instruction, an overarching connection between social justice and critical literacy must first occur. Critical literacy education starts “by problematizing the culture and knowledges in the text—putting them up for grabs, critical debate, for weighing, judging, and critiquing” (qtd. in Bean and Moni 638). Young adults place a high value on social status; therefore, the unorthodox successes of Harry, Ron, and Hermione—essentially outcasts by definition—most definitely “problematiz[es]” the status quo. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter, a young orphan boy, receives an invitation on his eleventh birthday to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that changes his life forever. What ensues after he arrives is no short of incredible as he befriends two students named Ron and Hermione and ends up face to face with most powerful and evil wizard on the planet. Although lively and fun for readers, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone pushes teenagers to dream outside of their social status. Contemporary society doles out gold stars for those voted “Most Popular” and those whose parents can foot the bill, while in many cases unpopular and financially underprivileged students experience shame and alienation. At the beginning of the book, a classist system very similar to modern society frames Harry’s world; however, the emphasis on the success and significance of outcasts like Harry provides both inspiration and an avenue for fruitful discussion. In an article detailing Harry Potter’s application in the classroom, Meredith Cherland discusses type of teacher who adeptly implements social justice driven critical literacy.
I speak to literacy teachers who work with teenagers about unsettling their students’ collective views of the world and their sense of life’s inevitability, about teaching their students to better understand how they come to be the people they are and where their power to act on the world resides, about equipping their students with concepts and strategies for a liberated life, and about challenging the status quo and teaching critical literacies for social justice. (273)
Harry’s lowly social status provides readers with an “unsettling” and unorthodox hero. From the beginning of the story, readers understand Harry’s inferior status in his family. Hated by his aunt, uncle, and cousin, he is forced to live under the staircase and endure physical and emotional abuse. Despite the obvious fact he is an outsider, readers side with Harry not only because of the senseless abuse he’s forced to endure but also because of his likeable nature. Harry most definitely lives on the fringe of his society—he is an orphan, he is totally different from his living relatives, and he has no friends. His fortune turns when he receives his letter from Hogwarts via Hagrid, the loveable school gamekeeper; however, his happiness quickly fades after he experiences the wizard hierarchal system. In his first interaction with wizard boy his own age, Harry receives a lecture on the way things function in the wizarding society. While getting sized for school robes, Draco Malfoy voices his opinion about those who are not pure bloods or those whose parents come from a long line of wizards and witches. “They’re just not the same, they’ve never been brought up to know our ways. Some of them have never even heard of Hogwarts until they get the letter, imagine. I think they should keep it in the old wizarding families” (Rowling 78). Clearly Malfoy values status—he initially accepts Harry before he finds out about Harry’s upbringing, and eventually becomes one of Harry’s most venomous enemies. Early in the book, Rowling emphasizes the dichotomy between those who concern themselves with status and appearances—Penelope, Uncle Vernon, and Malfoy—and those who do not—Harry and Hagrid. Harry eventually makes friends and squashes Voldemort’s attempt at returning to power. Despite his lowly status, Harry provides readers with a positive influence. This critical connection impacts a young adult’s identity formation since it challenges them to look past an individual’s upbringing and material possessions and instead place value on a person’s internal qualities.
Character analysis of the other two main characters provides more substance for social justice driven conversation in the classroom. “Adolescent readers view characters in young adult novels as living and wrestling with real problems close to their own life experiences as teens” (Bean and Moni 638). Ron Weasley, Harry’s hilarious red-headed best friend, displays “unpopular” characteristics yet still exhibits bravery, loyalty, and understanding. Although Ron belongs to a wizarding family filled with “old magic,” he is one of seven children; therefore, his family lacks money to buy new robes, books, and animals for him. For example, rather than an owl, Ron must use Scabbers, a hand-me-down rat that had once belonged to his older brother, as his animal for classes. Scabbers embarrasses Ron; however, Harry understands and empathizes with Ron’s insecurity. “Harry didn’t think there was anything wrong with not being able to afford an owl. After all, he’d never had any money in his life until a month ago and he told Ron so, all about having to wear Dudley’s old clothes and never getting proper birthday presents. This seemed to cheer Ron up” (Rowling 100). In aligning material items with triviality, Rowling once more places emphasis on a character’s internal assets rather than their outward possessions. When compared to rich, high-brow wizards like Draco Malfoy, Ron falls short, yet through Harry’s perspective, readers see the importance of Ron’s positive qualities like his sense of humor, his loyalty, and his kindness. Malfoy fails to notice such qualities, and even urges Harry to befriend wizards from the “right” families. “You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort” (Rowling 108). Thankfully, Harry pays no mind to Malfoy’s threats. Ron and Harry become fast friends, and eventually Ron assists Harry in his journey to find the Sorcerer’s Stone. In an intricate journey to find the Stone, the friends come across a giant game of Wizarding Chess. Ron uses both cunning strategy and selflessness—eventually, Ron takes a painful blow from a chess piece—and enables Harry to move to the next room. Despite his humble upbringing, Ron succeeds in helping his best friend. He gives readers confidence in their unique skills while iterating the inconsequential nature of social status.
Hermione Granger bursts on the scene as a bushy-haired brainiac who seems to want nothing more than make good marks and follow the rules. She comes from a non-wizarding family, but does not seem to find it an issue, despite the negative implications in being “muggle born” (Rowling 98). “Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course” (Rowling 105). Hermione’s over-the-top penchant for studying and following rules situates her toward the bottom of the social ladder. In fact, from the beginning, Hermione’s classmates view Hermione as an outcast, and even Harry and Ron avoid her until she takes the blame for them after a run-in with a troll. Hermione shows her loyalty not only to Harry and Ron, but also to another outcast named Neville Longbottom. In the dog-eat-dog world of adolescence, hanging out with unpopular outsiders does not bode well for those concerned with popularity. However, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone challenges the norm by placing outcast characters in heroic roles. Glasgow writes: “Good books unsettle us, make us ask questions about what we thought was certain; they don’t just reaffirm everything we already know” (54). Hermione’s unapologetic authenticity dissuades students from fearing their own individuality, while her spunk and tenacity act as an inspiration to those who value education and curiosity. Because Hermione lacks popularity, her success and friendship with Harry challenge what readers expect. In fact, her cleverness helps Harry defeat Voldemort after she figures out a puzzling potion problem, and at a school-wide ceremony, Albus Dumbledore, the head master of Hogwarts, compliments Hermione “for the use of cool logic in the face of fire” (Rowling 305). Despite Hermione’s unorthodox personality and her non-wizard family, Rowling emphasizes the importance of her authenticity, tenacity, and intelligence and presents readers with a positive role model off which to base their identity formation.
To conclude, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone provides students with positive characters as role models for their identity formation, and it shows young adults what resides inside them holds much more value and influence than the superficiality, so ingrained in society. Teachers can use the book to develop critical literacy in the classroom, especially under the umbrella of social justice. A discussion concerning how the social background of both major and minor characters impact—or fail to impact—their situations provides an outlet for fruitful classroom discussion. Rowling gives readers an honest portrayal of humanity through the three best friends because Harry, Ron, and Hermione are not without their faults. Harry acts impulsively, Ron loses control of his temper, and Hermione comes across as a know-it-all, yet their good hearts repeatedly redeem them. Adolescents need flawed, unpopular success stories to mirror their own stories, to show them they do not need to be perfect in order to succeed. Teachers who choose to showcase awkward, redheaded Ron Weasley, for example, provide their students with an unorthodox, yet highly necessary, example of what society should value in an individual. “How . . . teachers approach literature sends messages to their students not only about what kinds of literature are valued but also who is valued” (qtd. in Bean and Moni 640). Situated in the insecurity breeding ground otherwise known as adolescence, choosing to value a student for their internal worth, instead of their outward status, provides a powerful example that lasts. Moreover, YA books that glorify internal qualities like bravery and selflessness over money and popularity breaks the cycle of helplessness that normally accompanies shame, insecurity, and poverty.
Bean, Thomas W. and Karen Moni. “Developing students’ critical literacy: Exploring identity construction in young adult fiction.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 46.8 (2003): 638-648. Print.
Cherland, Meredith. “Harry’s Girls: Harry Potter and the Discourse of Gender.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 52.4 (2008): 273-282. Print.
Glasgow, Jacqueline N. “Teaching Social Justice through Young Adult Literature.” The English Journal 90.6 (2001): 54-61. Print.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1999. Print.
Katy Fabrie is a Content Manager for a small marketing company in Edmond, Oklahoma with her M.A. in 20th and 21st Century Studies: Literature. She received her M.A. from the University of Central Oklahoma and enjoys reading YA Literature in her spare time.