In some ways, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix marks the true beginning of Harry’s maturation as a character and as a person. As I noted in my review of Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore misrepresented the nature of Harry’s character arc by focusing on moral choices. Even in this book, Harry is never confronted with a choice between good and evil, much less to join Voldemort’s Death Eaters.
Order of the Phoenix does three crucial things for Harry’s character. First, the book forces him to confront his emotions. Second, it challenges his preconceptions about friendship. Finally, it forces him to confront death.
Harry begins Order of the Phoenix in a darker place. He’s moody, angry at the world, and doesn’t want to sit next to the unpopular kids (i.e., Neville Longbottom) on the train to Hogwarts. In short, he’s a teenager. Some Harry Potter fans disliked Harry’s darker turn (calling him “EMO-Harry”). Although that’s not entirely unfair, Harry’s character needed to go in this direction. I found Harry’s unadulterated goodness in the first four books somewhat tiresome and unrealistic. After all Harry has suffered, I’m surprised he has so few emotional issues. I found Harry’s happy-go-lucky goodness in the first four books somewhat tiresome and unrealistic. Moreover, Harry has faced problems that presented physically, mentally, and magically, but never one that challenged him emotionally.
Harry’s emotional turmoil deepens as his faith in his friends and mentors suffers. Ron and Hermione keep secrets from him and don’t write to him during the summer. Dumbledore refuses to speak to him. The entire wizarding government turns on him as the Ministry of Magic rejects Harry’s claims about Voldemort. Perhaps most importantly, through occlumency lessons, Harry sees Snape’s memories of his father James Potter and godfather Sirius Black as bullies. If the lesson of Prisoner of Azkaban was that sometimes society shuns and wrongly condemns good people, Order of the Phoenix tells Harry that even his dearest friends and role models have flaws.
On top of that, Order of the Phoenix kills one of Harry’s key mentors. Ironically, for all the danger Harry has experienced at Hogwarts, nobody close to him had ever died (Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire was at best an acquaintance, never a close friend). Nor have any of the adults in Harry’s life died. Harry’s parents died when he was too young to remember, and by Sorcerer’s Stone he had no firsthand memories of them. When Bellatrix Lestrange kills Sirius Black at the end of Order of the Phoenix, we see how Harry reacts to loss for the first time.
Harry goes through the classic phases of grief. He denies that Sirius is truly gone, even asking a resident Hogwarts ghost if perhaps Sirius could reappear in ghost form. He lashes out in anger at those around him. When Dumbledore tries to console Harry by telling him that “This pain is part of being human,” Harry responds, “Then I don’t want to be human!” This is the closest Harry ever comes to Voldemort. Harry would never knowingly join the Death Eaters, but, like Voldemort, his initial instinct is to want to use his power to overcome (i.e., “eat”) death (in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we learn how far Voldemort takes this obsession).
To some extent, Harry resolves the first two problems by learning to trust in those who have shown loyalty and can admit their flaws. Dumbledore, Sirius Black, and Harry’s friends are all able to admit their mistakes. Dumbledore had valid reasons for not talking to Harry – he feared Voldemort’s connection to Harry’s mind – but realizes that his actions hurt Harry. When Neville, Ginny Weasley, and Luna Lovegood volunteer to help Harry rescue Sirius at the Ministry of Magic, they join Harry’s inner circle of friends (on the train ride back to London, he sits with them).
Those characters who refuse to reflect on their flaws lose Harry’s trust. It’s telling that Harry’s relationship with Cho Chang dissolves because she is unable to admit that her best friend, Marietta Edgecombe, acted improperly in exposing Dumbledore’s Army. Even when centaurs threaten to carry off Dolores Umbridge, she never apologizes to Harry or appeals to his conscience; Harry in turn refuses to rescue her. In short, Harry figures out when he can overlook character flaws and when they indicate deeper personal weakness.
Although Harry doesn’t quite come to accept death in this novel (that won’t come until Deathly Hallows), at least by the end of the book he focuses more on the problems of the living than the dead. I particularly liked how Harry is pulled out of his depression – or at least distracted – when he sees Luna searching for her clothes. Luna tells Harry about her deceased mother and her hopes that they’ll meet again in the afterlife. By helping his friends, focusing on the living, Harry receives some comfort and consolation – something he wouldn’t have gotten had he followed Voldemort’s path in trying to cheat death.
Order of the Phoenix isn’t perfect – I found the satire of public education via Dolores Umbridge a bit heavy-handed, and the book suffers from numerous plot contrivances – but it takes real risks with Harry’s character, most of which work. Although Harry does begin the novel as an angsty teen, he emerges with a greater capacity for compassion and humility. Unfortunately, the film adaptation seemed unable or unwilling to convey the depths of Harry’s emotional turmoil. Perhaps “EMO-Harry” proved too controversial for fans; indeed the subsequent novels never challenge Harry emotionally to quite this extent.
Next week, I review Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in the Harry Potter series…