Growing Down With Harry: Why The Harry Potter Books Became a Moral Sinkhole

Snape’s Worst Memory, from the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film

In Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts, his nasty, bullying Potions master, Severus Snape, tells him openly for the first time how much he hated Harry’s dead father, James: ‘He, too, was exceedingly arrogant… Strutting around the place with his friends and admirers… the resemblance between you is uncanny.’ This comes as no surprise to Harry, who has been told long ago that Snape has it in for him because of his dislike of James. However, even though he knows virtually nothing about his father, he’s certain that Snape is recounting his own twisted version of events: ‘My dad didn’t strut. And nor do I.’ This recurrent narrative throughout the first four Harry Potter books makes the revelation in the fifth into one of the most unforgettable chapters in the series. Through a magical device called a Pensieve, Harry witnesses an uncensored version of Snape’s ‘worst memory’ – a version that, unlike Snape’s earlier accusations, he can’t write off as hopelessly biased, because it plays like a videotape. Snape’s worst memory shows a fifteen-year-old Snape being tormented by James in an exceptionally cold and vicious manner. James taunts an unarmed Snape, hexes him, then hangs him upside down (to add insult to injury, using what we later find out is a spell Snape invented), flashing his underwear to watching crowds; finally, he threatens to strip him. James isn’t motivated by anything much in attacking Snape in this way; he does it because he’s bored, because he can, and because he wants to show off to some admiring girls, including Harry’s mother, Lily.

Harry is deeply disturbed by witnessing Snape’s worst memory. It never occurs to him to try and make excuses for his father. Indeed, his instant reaction is: ‘he knew how it felt to be humiliated in the middle of a circle of onlookers, knew exactly how Snape had felt as his father had taunted him, and that judging from what he had just seen, his father had been every bit as arrogant as Snape had always told him.’ Harry seeks an explanation for what he’s seen from his father’s two best friends, Remus and Sirius. Neither understands Harry’s shock and horror. Indeed, they are happy to explain away James’s actions by claiming that this was a relationship of equal enemies, not of bully/victim, and that James had right on his side: ‘James and Snape hated each other from the moment they set eyes on each other… Snape was just this little oddball who was up to his eyes in the Dark Arts, and James… always hated the Dark Arts.’ They suggest that James was being ‘an idiot’ because he was ‘only fifteen’ (ignoring Harry’s fair retort, ‘I’m fifteen!’). Nevertheless, Harry continues to feel uneasy; this question about his father’s character is never resolved, even though the narrative itself quickly forgets it.

Snape’s worst memory is the only significant moment in the Harry Potter series where the bully is allowed to be a character whom we know to be on the Good side, and the victim a character who (at the time) was on the Bad side, which is another reason why it is so memorable. Throughout the rest of the books, only Bad characters are called out for their bullying behaviour. If you’re Good, you can get away with anything. For brevity, I’ll focus on one extreme example; the Weasley twins, Fred and George, brothers of Harry’s best friend Ron. The Twins are portrayed through the books as Good characters, culminating in Fred’s heroic death in book seven; they are also sadistic, cruel and at time, borderline psychopathic.

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The Twins are a lot nicer in the movies than they are in the books!

The Twins do too many horrible things for me to list them all, but they are consistently depicted picking on those younger and smaller than themselves, usually, but not always, members of their own family. The most persistent victim is Ron. The Twins start with childhood ‘pranks’ (they give him an Acid Pop that burns a hole through his tongue, and try to get him to make an Unbreakable Vow that would probably have killed him) and continue into adolescence; they destroy his confidence when he becomes part of the Gryffindor Quidditch team so thoroughly that he can’t play properly until they’ve left the school. Their position as classic bullies who always ‘punch down’ is summed up by a conversation in book six, where Ron admits anxiously that ‘I’d better pass my [Apparition] test first time… Fred and George did.’ His older brother Charlie failed, but ‘Charlie’s bigger than me… so Fred and George didn’t go on about it much.’ While their younger sister Ginny learns to stand up for herself later in the series, they target her when she’s still a shy, nervous eleven-year-old: in book two, they think it’s funny that she’s scared of Slytherin’s monster stalking the castle (after the monster has already almost killed a fellow student who sits next to her in one of her classes) so they ‘[take] it in turns to cover themselves in fur or boils and jump out at her from behind statues’ and only stop when their older brother tells them to knock it off because Ginny is having nightmares.

Reflecting on Snape’s worst memory, Harry compares his father’s behaviour to that of the Twins, and thinks that he ‘could not imagine Fred and George dangling someone upside-down for the fun of it.’ This positions the Twins as harmless pranksters and James as an exceptional bully. However, even though the intention of this paragraph is clearly meant to underline how bad James’s behaviour is, Rowling can’t quite stop there; Harry goes on to think, ‘not unless [the Twins] really loathed them… perhaps Malfoy, or somebody who really deserved it…’ Here, in a nutshell, is the moral sinkhole at the heart of the Harry Potter series. We know, by book five, that the Twins do things that are this bad all the time. As it happens, they bully people that Harry knows and likes, so even this doesn’t quite work out, but Harry admits here that this behaviour would be OK as long as it’s directed towards somebody who really deserved it. Unfortunately, in the world of Harry Potter, you ‘deserve it’ if you are Bad, and you are Bad because you deserve it. The Twins are Good, so they can’t be bullies, no matter how they treat other people.

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The films somewhat inexplicably save any remembered interactions between young!Snape and young!Lily for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.

As an aside: I’ve been thinking about why Snape’s worst memory shows James as so cruel, when it sits so uneasily with the rest of the text, and when Rowling clearly isn’t interested in exploring the long-term ramifications of Harry’s discovery. By book six, James is Good again. The answer, I think, is that Rowling is, as ever, focused on plotting. Snape’s worst memory exists in the text as a clue, as something we can go back to when we discover, in book seven, that Snape Loved Lily. It’s not really meant to upturn everything Harry knows about his father. Snape’s worst memory is Snape’s worst memory because he argued with Lily and lost her friendship, not because of James’s bullying. Of course, what we also have to take away is that, for Snape, being humiliated, hexed and stripped in front of the school wasn’t the worst of his memories, because it simply happened too often.

Better essayists than me have pointed out that the morality of Harry Potter is shot, so I won’t dwell on that issue here, but I’d like to discuss one of the reasons why. Rowling has frequently said that she wanted the series to ‘grow up with Harry’ and get darker as it went along. The series’ morality becomes much more simplistic in books six and seven, so it certainly doesn’t become more morally serious (which for me, is really the only relevant meaning of ‘growing up with the reader’). However, I’d agree that, from books three/four onwards, the series takes violence, suffering and death more seriously as Harry encounters it head-on. Unfortunately, this means that re-reading the early books can feel very tonally jarring, because the cartoon, schoolboy violence that Harry encounters in books one and two suddenly feels much more serious than it was meant to be. (The Acid Pop incident that I mentioned above, for example, is framed as a joke in book two, and in the context of that book, doesn’t feel so horrific.) The problem is compounded by the fact that characters like Fred and George – who are fun and even caring in book one – fail to ‘grow up’ with the series, and so seem increasingly sinister by the later books, because they’re doing things that might make sense in a certain kind of children’s literature, but now the stakes are raised, they look like villains. Snape’s worst memory is a pivot on which the series could have turned; instead, Rowling doubled down on her original plan for the last two books, cut off all the interesting offshoots that were sprouting from book five, and delivered a miserably bad ending.

18 thoughts on “Growing Down With Harry: Why The Harry Potter Books Became a Moral Sinkhole

  1. That’s for writing this, Laura. Although I’ve only read the first Harry Potter book, I’m always interested in what folks have to say about it because it’s such a cultural touchstone. Of course, right now the internet is mostly focusing on JKR’s double-down on transphobic comments. When someone can’t believe I’ve never read the entire Harry Potter series, I always point out that I read the first book when I was 18 or 19 because my aunt said I just “had” to. Before that, I’d been reading a YA fantasy series, and I felt much more emotionally invested in that. Happy Potter was obviously a kid’s books, so I remember thinking, “That’s nice, but not for me.”

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    • Fair enough! The first Harry Potter book came out when I was 10, so I was very much part of the generation who ‘grew up with Harry’, and was pretty obsessed with the books until the sixth book came out, after which I rapidly went off the series! I haven’t mentioned JKR’s views in this post because I’m interested in discussing the books apart from her as a writer – otherwise, I feel like the big issues with the books themselves can be ignored.

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        • It’s interesting to hear about how different people have brought JKR’s transphobia into their discussion of these books. I feel like I’ve seen some of the opposite of what you mention happening, where suddenly everyone “always” thought the books were terrible and has lots of bad things to say about them. I don’t always buy that those views were long-held and not a reaction to new revelations about the author.

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  2. As the mother of a huge Harry Potter fan, I’m always interested in hearing others’ thoughts on it.
    I feel better now… I have often felt that the bullying by James wasn’t really dealt with, but thought maybe I was just missing something. It’s not just me!
    I haven’t read the books in a long time, so was forgetting what little pains the twins were… They are definitely toned down in the movies!

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    • I actually like the twins in the movies!

      I was also a huge Harry Potter fan as a child and teenager, before book six came out and massively put me off the series. In hindsight, the seeds of the problems I have with the books were already there, but I do think the series took a big downturn with books six and seven.

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  3. I must confess to a degree of sentimental attachment to the HP books, as I am of an age to have read and loved them when they were being published, so in a way, I suppose I did grow up with Harry in as much as he was part of my own teenage years. Upon re-reading them a few years ago however, I would agree that much of the gloss has fallen away from them as an adult reader, and the sixth and seventh books were far inferior to the earlier ones. I found Rowling’s portrayal of Voldamort as purely evil increasingly frustrating, as real life isn’t like that at all, and Rowling should have had greater faith in the growing maturity of her readers to realise this and wish for something more complex in a villain. Snape was by far the most complex character in the series, and the worst memory was one of the most vividly written chapters, but the potential for deeper exploration of his victimhood was never further explored, and all the later stuff about Lily felt too sentimentally manipulative for me to really buy into it. As for James Potter, I was never his biggest fan, as Rowling spent so much time telling us how wonderful he was, which was irritating in itself, and then copping out of further examinations of his nasty side. I agree about the twins also, the supposed joke of them wore very thin eventually, and they seemed oddly disconnected from reality and adulthood. Not great messages to be sending to teenagers when you think of it.

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    • Snape poses a problem for me. I agree he was one of the most complex characters in the series (though Sirius, Lupin and Dumbledore arguably had a lot of potential as well) but sadly I felt he became less complex by the final book. Lily being Snape’s motivation to leave the dark side always felt really uncomfortable to me – so he was ok with everything as long as it didn’t affect the one person he cared about? Surely that makes him much more of a villain then when we didn’t know why he changed sides – yet Harry treats it as his redemption? This also ignores the fact that Snape was a horrible bully of a teacher, eg to Neville. So in short I want to like him but I can’t!

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  4. I only ever read the first one and a bit HP novels, out of desperate boredom while working evenings at a library circulation desk in the States. I think I missed my moment; had the books come out when I was 9 or so, I might have been captivated. As an adult, I just wasn’t able to appreciate them. So I often feel left out of the cultural debate about them. I found it so funny that in the back of the Heartstopper comics each character is described by their sexuality, Meyers-Briggs personality type … and Hogwarts house.

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    • That makes sense to me, I actually can’t re-read any of the HP novels now except #1, #4 and #5 (I think #3 is actually very good, so I don’t know why I find it so unreadable as an adult!)

      Hahaha the Hogwarts house thing seems to come up a lot in YA fiction though I imagine it’s out of fashion now. I saw some Tiktok memes where Gen Z were mocking millennials for being obsessed with this and they’re kind of right 🙂

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  5. Love this! I’m at a point in my life where I just do not have the mental or emotional bandwidth to engage with HP in this way, because I have such a nostalgic love for the series that’s already been bastardized enough by JKR’s transphobia, I just kind of need to remove HP from my life for my own sanity, lol. Consequently it has been a hot second since I’ve read any good HP meta and I totally agree with all of your points here–I also felt that the longterm effects Snape’s Worst Memory on Harry were never explored in a meaningful way, and it’s a shame that she made a conscious choice to introduce such a sinister, thorny element without following through.

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    • Totally understand that! I kind of come from a different perspective in that I was severely disillusioned and disappointed as a teenage Harry Potter fan after reading books six and seven, and so JKR’s recent behaviour is not as distressing for me as I was already well over her/the series 🙄I deliberately don’t mention her views here because I want to emphasise that, even if you know nothing about JKR, the later books are still problematic in themselves.

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  6. Really interesting point! I couldn’t think well of James after this scene with him bullying Snape, but I totally glossed over the twins’ behavior. You make a great point about the way the earlier books treat violence cartoonishly and it’s only in the later books were violence in the series starts to feel like it has real stakes, but the twins’ behavior doesn’t change or get addressed differently as a result.

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  7. Pingback: Do What Is Right, Not What Is Easy: Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate & The Harry Potter Books | Laura Tisdall

  8. An interesting post and I really enjoyed reading your view on the Twins and James’s bullying actions. I do
    agree with you that Rowling could have used Snape’s memory better and develop the series meaningfully. I think the issue here is the fixed archetypes that Rowling envisaged from the beginning of the book and stuck with them despite sometimes following the theme: “people are not strictly good or bad”. The thing is that the Twins are archetypical Jesters. They are good “trouble-makers”. They DO harm, but they point is that they never really mean it, they can’t help themselves in other words. There are many contradictions with that in the book too as you say, but the series started as children’s and that’s what fairy tales for children also depict (To classify twins as someone who does harm but never *means* is of course also questionable). Later Rowling may have wanted to focus on slow development of personalities that can be mixed and unclear and do different things, but she could not because she then had to rewrite the first two books and she could not. The only character that was not set in stone was Snape, obviously.

    Even when I was young and reading the series, “Harry’s thinking” in the book sometimes puzzled me and sometimes made me think of him differently, seeing him as not always that positive. One other uncomfortable example for me was when Harry used an unknown curse (Sectumsempra) on Malfoy. We understand Harry did not know what the curse was and Malfoy was “armed”, but Harry DID know it was for ENEMIES so chances that it may include death or torture was also not low. By using this unknown spell for enemies Harry SHOULD be presumed to be perfectly happy for Malfoy to experience the worst consequences and that means death, permanent disability and tortious death. Did Harry forget at that moment that he could run away or block any spells from Malfoy? Must we then just deny the fact that Harry almost killed Malfoy in the most horrific way imaginable when Malfoy initially did not even present a threat since it was Harry who went to seek Malfoy and found Malfoy in the girls’ bathroom alone? That would have been murder and it was actually attempted murder. The curse may have meant a slow and tortuous death for the victim. But gain, Rowling’s point – he didn’t *really* mean it (only people who *really* mean bad stuff are bad). Somehow Harry’s shock in the aftermath makes it all alright (he is normal, not evil). I am sorry for my long reply but I just love discussing things like that.

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    • I agree about the Twins, they work as characters in the early books but for me, become increasingly sinister as the tone of the books changes. And yes, that incident with Malfoy is awful and Harry never seems to really understand how bad his actions were.

      No need to apologise for the long reply! 🙂

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