Harry Potter and the Journey of Identity Formation
This article is based on the books, not the films.
It is estimated that “120 million people have read at least one Harry Potter book” (Beach 105). While it is entirely probable that J.K. Rowling never meant the series to be anything more than an engaging tale of a boy wizard’s adventures, one can find in the series a sophisticated account on the process of adolescent identity formation. It can be argued that the series offers an account of the inevitable and necessary differentiation from parents that all adolescents must undergo in order to form their own identities. One of the reasons for Harry Potter’s immense popularity, therefore, is because it models for adolescents a way of successfully completing this identity formation.
Erik Erikson’s Theory on Identity Formation
With this in mind, the psycho-social theories on human development of Erik Erikson are the most relevant. For Erikson, the central question of adolescence is one of identity. He labels this stage of development identity versus identity diffusion.
Each stage of Erikson’s theory has a healthy and an unhealthy path that development can follow. The goal is to follow that healthy path. However, in order to better understand successful identity formation, it is useful to examine what the failure to resolve adolescent identity crisis and achieve a stable mature identity looks like. Erikson argues that both identity diffusion and the formation of a negative identity are possible paths that result in the individual failing to resolve the identity crisis inherent in adolescence.
Identity diffusion is an incoherent, disjointed, or incomplete sense of one’s self. Since successful identity formation requires the “unconscious integration of all earlier identifications,” failure to differentiate can lead to identity diffusion because one is unable to complete their sense of self (Schlein 680). Erikson believes that you could also fail to successfully complete the identity stage of his theory if you develop a negative identity. A negative identity is the selection of an identity that is obviously undesirable and rejected by the individual’s community or society.
Since failure to complete the identity formation stage indicates that the adolescents have failed in successfully differentiating themselves from their parents, the successful formation of an identity is dependent on creating a separate and stable identity from all others. This can be seen in the Harry Potter series through tracing the failure of Lord Voldemort and the success of Harry Potter in forging their own identity.
Early Adolescence (Books 1-3)
The Harry Potter books can be divided into three different time periods: early adolescence, middle adolescence, and late adolescence/emerging adulthood. It makes sense to look at Harry’s identity formation through this chronological time frame; Lord Voldemort’s own journey toward identity formation must looked at through the knowledge reader’s gain about him at the appropriate age for each time period. Books one through three—Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban—fall into Erikson’s category of early adolescence. Early adolescence is when the individual is first leaving childhood and entering adolescence. During childhood, Erikson claims that the child is “deeply and exclusively ‘identified’ with his parents” (115). Adolescents need to have the foundation of a close identification with their parents in order to eventually begin the process of differentiation needed later in adolescence. It is this differentiation that will lead to the formation of a separate, unique identity.
In order to fully understand how Harry is taking the necessary and healthy steps towards identity formation, one must look at how Lord Voldemort, Harry’s literary double, is taking all the wrong and unhealthy steps. Lord Voldemort is the evil wizard who murdered Harry’s parents and was defeated by an infant Harry. Unlike Harry, who is ultimately able to forge a successful identity apart from his parents, Voldemort stunts his own identity formation growth by never fully moving beyond his parents’ orbit.
Readers learn about Voldemort’s experiences as an eleven year old, the same age Harry is when the series starts, in the sixth book, through a series of memories that Harry views. Voldemort at eleven is an orphan like Harry and feels both abandoned and betrayed by his parents. He is not yet known by the name Lord Voldemort but is instead known by his birth name, Tom Marvolo Riddle. When Tom first discovers that he is a wizard, he asks Professor Dumbledore, the future headmaster of Hogwarts, if his father, the man to whom he owes his name, was also a wizard. At this point, Dumbledore does not know, but young Tom Riddle feels sure that his “mother can’t have been magic, or she wouldn’t have died” (HBP 275). This is not true for it is Tom’s mother that was the witch, while his father was a Muggle (a non-magical person). Tom already reveres magic and feels that it can stop anything, even death. He even already hates his name because he feels only “contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary” (HBP 277). When he finally does learn that it was his mother that had magic, Voldemort hates his father’s name even more intensely. He is desperate to be special and becomes obsessed with becoming the most powerful wizard—one that can conquer death. Instead of feeling closely identified with his parents, as Erikson suggests is necessary for the child first entering adolescence, Voldemort immediately pushes away his identification with his parents.
In contrast, Harry idealizes his father, James Potter. The most significant example appears near the end of the third book. Throughout the book, Harry is plagued by dementors, disturbing hooded creatures that suck all happiness from a person until all that is left is that person’s worst memories. The only known defense against a dementor is the Patronus Charm. This charm creates a Patronus, a silvery creature that is a unique representation of the spell caster’s identity, which acts as a shield and can repel dementors. At the climax of the book, Harry, Hermione, and his godfather, Sirius, are cornered by dementors. Harry is unable to perform the Patronus Charm, and just as he succumbs to the dementors, he sees someone in the distance cast a powerful Patronus, which saves them all. Harry at first thinks that he has been saved by his father. Despite knowing that his father is dead, he is convinced that the wizard that saved him was James Potter because “it looked like him” (PA 407). Later after Harry time travels to the past, he finally understands that “he hadn’t seen his father—he had seen himself—” (PA 411). With that knowledge, Harry steps out and casts a perfect Patronus for the first time—a silvery stag that charges the dementors. The manifestation of the Patronus as a huge stag is very important. While Harry is the caster of the charm instead of his father, his father manifests in the form of the Patronus. While James Potter was alive, he could transform into a large stag.
The next three books of the series, Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, and Half-Blood Prince all fit into Erikson’s middle adolescence category. Middle adolescence is characterized by the period spanning roughly ages 14-17. Harry Potter and his friends are ages 14, 15, and 16 respectively in the books. During this stage of adolescence, identification with one’s parents is not enough, the adolescent must move past it and begin the process of differentiation.
Tom Riddle is locked into a hatred of his parents that he is never able to grow beyond, unlike Harry with the Dursleys. He even creates a whole new negative identity: Lord Voldemort. In addition to a negative identity, Voldemort suffers from identity diffusion. Voldemort’s horcruxes, “object[s] in which a person has concealed a part of their soul,” are the perfect metaphor for identity diffusion (HBP 497). The creation of a horcrux is extremely violent, occurring when the creator murders, thereby ripping his soul apart. This protects the creator, as he cannot die unless all pieces of his soul are destroyed. Voldemort starts this process at the age of sixteen, when he murders his father and grandparents, creating the first of an eventual seven horcruxes. By creating them, Voldemort has ensured that he has a seven-part diffused identity. Adolescents that fail to fully commit to an identity suffer identity diffusion. Voldemort cannot commit to even his negative identity; he fears becoming his parents so much that he creates an identity so diffused he doesn’t even feel it when his horcruxes are destroyed until it’s much too late.
Harry, too, is disillusioned with his father. When Harry is left alone in Professor Snape’s office in the fifth book, he views one of Snape’s memories. Snape was a classmate of James Potter. Harry, who is fifteen, views a memory of James at fifteen. He witnesses his father showing off and seeming to love the attention, something that Harry doesn’t understand. He is particularly horrified when he witnesses his father arrogantly and viciously bullying fifteen-year-old Snape. For the first time, Harry is forced to identify not with his father but with Snape, a man Harry had always disliked. For five years, Harry has wanted to be just like James and now he has to ask himself, “[D]id he want to be…anymore?” (OP 667). Harry is forced to acknowledge that his father is not all that he imaged him to be. Although painful, this disillusionment further allows Harry to break from his identification with his parents.
Late Adolescence/Emerging Adulthood
Unlike the other novels in the series, the seventh book needs to be treated separately. It belongs to Erikson’s late adolescence/emerging adulthood category. Deathly Hallows is the only book in the series where the main plot takes place outside of Hogwarts. As seventeen is the age of maturity in the book, it marks the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood for the characters.
Voldemort has been unsuccessful because, unlike Harry, he is unable to let go of his parental identifications. Up until the fourth book, Voldemort has been shown in a state of stunted growth due to his inability to correctly differentiate. In the first book, he is a parasite on the back of someone else’s head; in book two, he is merely a memory; and when he first appears in book four, Voldemort is “something ugly, slimy” with the “shape of a crouched human child” (GF 640). It is only through dark magic that he is able to regain his adult body—magic that relies upon the inclusion of one of his father’s bones, and the entire rebirth takes place over his father’s grave. Voldemort, like Harry, needs his father, but unlike Harry, Voldemort is unable to let go of his identification with his parents, despite, or, rather because of his professed hatred of them. His complete and total inability to differentiate from his parents leads to his negative identity and eventual death. Unlike Harry’s death, he is unable to come back because he cannot let go.
In contrast, Harry finally fully lets go of his parents near the end of Deathly Hallows. Knowing that he must die by Voldemort’s hand in order to defeat him, Harry goes to meet Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. During this trip, Harry has and uses the Resurrection Stone, a powerful stone “that had the power to recall the dead” (DH 408). Harry uses it and gains comfort from seeing ghostly images of his parents. Though he is scared, he lets go of the Resurrection Stone, dropping it in the Forbidden Forest and allowing his parents to vanish as he meets Voldemort by himself. After the battle is won, Harry states that he “dropped it in the forest. I don’t know exactly where, but I’m not going to go looking for it again” (DH 748). Though it is a way to see his parents again, Harry lets it and them go. This contrasts with the first encounter Harry has with the Potters when he will not leave the Mirror of Erised and Dumbledore has to remove it from him. From book one to book seven, Harry’s identity has stabilized enough that he does not need his identification with his parents any longer.
In conclusion, reading Harry Potter allows one to see characters that complete Erikson’s identity formation stage of development to various degrees. Readers can see characters like Harry, who successfully complete the stage and gain a stable, coherent identity, as well as characters like Voldemort who are unsuccessful. Readers end up with a template of success and failure. Despite the fact that Harry’s world is filled with magic, his problems and quest are not that different from his readers’. His readers will never face Voldemort or dragons, but they will face the same problems of identity that he does. As Victoria Hippard writes, “Harry speaks for us; we have our own versions of his story” (3).
Beach, Sara Ann., and Elizabeth Harden. Willner. “The Power of Harry: The Impact of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Books on Young Readers.” World Literature Today.Winter (2002): 5. Print.
Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1968. Print.
Hippard, Victoria L. “Who Invited Harry?: A Depth Pyschological Analysis of the Harry Potter Phenomenon.” Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2007. Print.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1999. Print.
—. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2007. Print.
—. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2000. Print.
—. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005. Print.
—. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003. Print.
—. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1999. Print.
—. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1997. Print.
Schlein, Stephen., ed. A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers from 1930 to 1980 Erik H. Erikson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987. Print.
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