Through plot and literary strategies, the Harry Potter series pays tribute to several themes from To Kill a Mockingbird, which J.K. Rowling recommended as one of her top 10 books for young readers. Marvolo Gaunt and Bob Ewell impose their racism and abuse on their daughters, with catastrophic consequences. The scapegoating of Tom Robinson has echoes in the targeting of Harry. Dumbledore, Atticus, and Heck Tate sometimes flout the law for the sake of justice. Empathy overcomes evil, whether by turning away a mob or lowering a Death Eater’s wand. And like Harper Lee, Rowling uses the naïve perspectives of a trio of children to convey her beautifully brutal story.
Presented at the Harry Potter Conference, Chestnut Hill College, October 16, 2015.
In 2006, a year after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published, JK Rowling listed her top 10 books for schoolchildren. She included To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the 1961 novel about a trio of children who survive attempted murder in an atmosphere of hate crimes and oppression.
The beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird and the end of Harry Potter are the same story. Do you remember the last paragraph of the Epilogue?
“The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.”
Here are excerpts from the first two paragraphs of To Kill a Mockingbird.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury…
“When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading up to his accident. I maintained that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.”
Scout, the narrator, traced the beginning to their attacker: why would someone try to kill an innocent child? Jem traced it to the friend who helped forge their bond with the neighbor who saved them: how did this child survive? What is the story of this scar?
The summer Dill came to them, Jem Finch was 10, Scout was five, and Dill was six. Scout and Jem’s mother had died when Scout was two; they lived with their father, Atticus. Dill, unwanted by his mother and stepfather, spent summers with his friends.
“Boo” was a name for Arthur Radley, their reclusive neighbor whose father was too proud to let him serve prison time for a minor infraction when he was 18 and kept him locked up at home for decades.
“Nobody knew what form of intimidation Mr. Radley employed to keep Boo out of sight, but Jem figured that Mr. Radley kept him chained to the bed most of the time. Atticus said no, it wasn’t that sort of thing, that there were other ways of making people into ghosts.” This is hauntingly similar to Barty Crouch, Jr. explaining: “The Imperius Curse… I was under my father’s control. I was forced to wear an Invisibility Cloak day and night.”
After 15 years of house arrest, Boo once paused in his scrapbooking to assault his father: “As Mr. Radley passed by, Boo drove the scissors into his parent’s leg, pulled them out, wiped them on his pants, and resumed his activities.” Mr. Radley refused psychiatric help for Boo and locked him up again; “From the day Mr. Radley took Arthur home, people said the house died.” Neighborhood superstitions built up around Boo and the Radley House, similar to the fears in Little Hangleton around Frank Bryce and the Riddle House.
Dill, Scout, and Jem harbor fears about the Radley House but also long for contact with Boo. By tiny signs, we see that Boo appreciates their overtures: the scrapbook-maker crafts gifts for them, hand-carved soap dolls and a box patchworked in foil gum wrappers, before his brother notices and cuts off his communication with the kids.
We see signs of a different kind of abuse in the home of Bob Ewell, the man who tried to kill Jem and Scout. He and his children, all white, live in squalor except for “one corner of the yard” with “six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums,” tenderly cared for by his oldest child, 19-year-old Mayella. Harper Lee creates a vivid portrait of Mayella Ewell’s inner life, showing her pride in treating her siblings to ice cream, her sexual desire independent of her father’s abuse, and her response to Tom Robinson, a black neighbor.
The Gaunt household in Half-Blood Prince is a profoundly respectful tribute to Lee’s portrayal of the Ewells. Here are a few of the parallels:
The abused young women, Merope and Mayella, pine for men outside their impoverished worlds: Tom Riddle is beautiful, Tom Robinson a courteous young man who has a loving home with wife and children.
Their mothers are dead. They do all the housework. Their violent fathers are obsessed with race purity, a doctrine that requires policing the sexual activity and even desire of daughters. It is unclear how Mayella and Merope are supposed to make patriarchally approved matches and racially pure babies when their homes welcome no visitors, they don’t seem to be allowed friends, and their only neighbors are of a supposedly inferior race.
In Rowling’s series for young readers, she stops short of naming incest. Even Lee’s adult novel restricts explicit confirmation of incest to a single painful sentence. Tom Robinson, the black man Mayella kissed and then accused of rape, testifies that Mayella told him she’s never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”
But both stories show the uneasy connections between the crime of incestuous assault, such as Bob Ewell committed, and the mindset that only people from a narrowly defined group are good enough to marry. Both Maycomb and pure-blood magical Britain have limited populations: in Maycomb, “the same families married the same families until the members of the community looked faintly alike,” and according to Sirius Black, “The pure-blood families are all interrelated.… If you’re only going to let your sons and daughters marry pure-bloods your choice is very limited, there are hardly any of us left.”
Rowling uses a single masterful stroke of storytelling when describing the Gaunt hovel to create a creeping sense of unease in the reader and show, rather than explain, Merope’s lack of status. In a literal sense: What is Merope’s place in this family?
“The house seemed to contain three tiny rooms. Two doors led off the main room, which served as kitchen and living room combined.” A main room and two doors. So, where did Merope sleep?
Lee carefully leads the reader to wonder if Mayella has borne any children: “Nobody was quite sure how many children were on the place. Some people said six, others said nine…” On the stand, we learn that Mayella is nineteen years old with seven siblings, her mother has been dead a long time, and she sent all seven siblings into town for ice cream. So the siblings are all old enough to walk, and she has the house to herself to ask Tom Robinson in, no babies left behind for her to watch. Perhaps this means none of the children are hers. Perhaps it means she gave birth very young, but not recently. The author gets the reader to know how it feels to worry about Mayella.
Like the witch Merope Gaunt using magic to coerce Muggle Tom Riddle and destroy his life, white Mayella Ewell kisses Tom Robinson, a black man in 1930s Alabama, and entraps him with her racial privilege, putting him in a situation where he cannot say no, cannot say yes, cannot do anything without incriminating himself. After her father sees her kiss a black man and beats her, she falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape. Those words are Dark Magic. She has cast an Unforgivable: a fatal curse against which there is no defense possible.
Why does Mayella falsely accuse Tom Robinson? For the same reasons that Voldemort wanted to kill Harry: to hurt the person who made her feel. Because he was kind, saw her as a person and not trash, and this sympathy turned out to be too much for her, too much of a contrast to the rest of her life. She had told him about her father’s assaults. He knew Bob Ewell saw her desire and beat her for it. Her shame was beyond bearing. Just as Voldemort’s identification with baby Harry led to his feeling near-fatal empathy for Harry and therefore remorse – in magical terms, a rebounding curse – Mayella’s knowledge of Tom Robinson’s pity led to near-fatal shame.
Voldemort’s words to his Death Eaters in Goblet of Fire about the aftermath of the rebounding curse could apply to Mayella as well:
“Only one power remained to me. I could possess the bodies of others.”
“I wanted the blood of the one who had stripped me of power …”
Voldemort cannot bear how he was stripped of power by his mother’s death and the lack of her protection. The same is true of Mayella; the same may have been true of Merope. They cannot bring back the dead to punish them for this catastrophic abandonment; they can only scapegoat the living. The sight of Harry receiving a mother’s protection; the sympathy from a man who has all the family love Mayella never did; this is unendurable.
“…I am going to prove my power by killing him, here and now, in front of you all … and you will be left in no doubt which of us is the stronger.”
That’s why Mayella wanted to kill an innocent man. But what about the jury? The twelve Depression-era white male farmers?
The solicitor, Mr. Gilmer, questioned Tom Robinson.
“Why were you so anxious to do that woman’s chores?”
“You did all this chopping and work from sheer goodness, boy?”
“Tried to help her, I says.”
Mr. Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury. “You’re a mighty good fellow, it seems – did all this for not one penny?”
“Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em—“
“You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?”
Tom Robinson lost the case then. His sympathy shamed the jurors so that they all had to put him from them, as Mayella Ewell did. Everyone had suspected what was happening to Mayella, but this one man was the only one to reach out to her, and he helped her for not one penny: chivalry. Like Harry’s saving-people-thing, it was a form of goodness that hurt some people to see in a way they could not bear to understand.
Tom Robinson died trying to escape from prison the following day. He had no faith in his white lawyer’s talk of an appeal. After the trial he’d just been through, he might well have felt as Dumbledore did when asking Snape to kill him:
“I confess I should prefer a quick, painless exit to the protracted and messy affair it will be if, for instance, Greyback is involved… Or dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it.”
In most ways, Snape’s story is not to be found in To Kill a Mockingbird. Guilt and redemption do not figure heavily among Lee’s themes, and adults in Harry Potter are generally portrayed as more internally flawed than Maycomb’s adults as observed by a child. Snape, of course, is nothing but a mass of internal flaws, a perfect brew of self-control and regret. He committed an unforgivable sin when he was 19. He pledged his extraordinary talents to genocide. Until a year before his death, he never cast Dark Magic again.
Perhaps the most satisfying scene in To Kill a Mockingbird is Atticus Finch putting a rabid dog out of its misery and protecting all of Maycomb, black and white, with a single shot. We certainly see echoes of this episode in Harry Potter: Dumbledore wants Snape to kill him before Greyback turns him into a werewolf who will bite his own students. Like the dog, Dumbledore has a terminal illness. Like Snape, Atticus does not want to deploy a lethal skill he forswore when he was 19 years old.
We know he was around 19 then because this chapter opens with “Atticus was feeble; he was nearly fifty” and he says pleadingly to Sheriff Tate, who wants him to shoot, “I haven’t shot a gun in thirty years.”
Why not? Why did One-Shot Finch never speak of his ability? The neighbor, Miss Maudie, speculates, “Markmanship’s a gift of God, a talent… I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot till he had to, and he had to today.”
This restraint makes Atticus a Master of Death, the same way Harry imagines about Dumbledore in the King’s Cross chapter of Deathly Hallows: “I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it. I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it.”
But it also makes Atticus like Snape, who was legendary with his Dark hexes before he renounced them. Sheriff Tate says, “You haven’t forgot much, Mr. Finch. They say it never leaves you.”
It never leaves you. This is what makes Snape different from any other pacifist wizard who abhors Dark Magic: he will always know how to cast those spells. That’s why he knows how to reverse them. That’s why Dumbledore can count on him to cast Avada Kedavra, the spell that doesn’t work unless you mean it.
Scout, awed by her father’s restraint when baited by their vicious neighbor Mrs. Dubose, gives him a compliment that will sound familiar to anyone who has read the Deathly Hallows Epilogue: “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
Atticus, though, thinks Mrs. Dubose is “the bravest person I ever knew” – with weeks to live, she broke her addiction to painkillers. He wants his children to learn the same lesson that Harry learns from Dumbledore about walking in the forest to duel with Voldemort:
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Atticus’s sister, Aunt Alexandra, would have put her faith in the man with a gun rather than her brother’s way. After Scout, Jem, and Dill break up a lynch mob, she said they disgraced the family.
“Atticus said he was right glad his disgraces had come along, but Aunty said, ‘Nonsense, Mr. Underwood was there all the time.’” Reassuring as it is to find that Mr. Underwood, the misanthropic journalist, was ready to fire a double-barreled shotgun at the mob, one wonders how well a show of force would have defused the conflict compared to the change of heart effected by the children.
Eight-year-old Scout Finch dispersing a lynch mob by asking a man to say hello to his child is an unforgettable instance of love working in the way Dumbledore trains Harry to see. Love – empathy – gratitude – grief – all of those oxytocin-based emotions of human connection work against the mental process of dehumanization that is a major element of cruelty and murder. These emotions are solvents. Walter Cunningham avoids eye contact with Scout when she talks about how his child, also named Walter, came over for dinner. She persists, confused.
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch.…I go to school with Walter…. He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”
Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod.
And with that nod, he’s done. She’s invoked the ancient blood magic; he’s thought about his child and the oxytocin is flowing in his blood, the chemical of parental love that is also the chemical of empathy, the opposite of the lynch mob instinct. We know about nods in Harry Potter fandom. Draco nods to Harry when they bring their children to school.
This is a magic that works whether you believe in it or not. This is how Wormtail dies. The moment Harry invokes Wormtail’s life debt – the moment Wormtail remembers his gratitude and relief – the silver hand from Voldemort detects the oxytocin in his blood. This is how Voldemort dies. He casts Avada Kedavra at Harry, but for that curse to work, you have to mean it, and Harry Potter is different – Harry Potter makes Voldemort feel – Harry Potter is the one person with whom Voldemort has ever felt a connection, those countless threads of golden light, and the memory of this connection dissolves his intent.
Empathy is a terrible power. It got Tom Robinson killed. But it is a source of hope in both stories. Atticus says:
“A mob’s always made up of people… you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute. That was enough.”
And the incapacitating pain of empathy is the answer to the mystery of what robbed Voldemort of his powers the night he attacked baby Harry:
“…he had killed the boy, and yet he was the boy…”
Is this enough to fight the enormity of racism? It didn’t save Tom Robinson. After the trial, Jem says to Atticus:
“Then go up to Montgomery and change the law.”
“You’d be surprised how hard that’d be.”
But Atticus Finch, man of the law, is also the man who tells his first-grader, “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases.”
Dumbledore, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, knows the limits of the law and human change. He orders Hermione and Harry to abuse Hermione’s Ministry-issue Time-Turner to rescue innocent beings, violating wizarding law, the laws of time and space, and the sworn oath of Minerva McGonagall. Why? He tells the kids, “…I have no power to make other men see the truth, or to overrule the Minister of Magic….”
Was it right that Sheriff Tate covered up the way Bob Ewell died?
Was it right that Molly Weasley killed Bellatrix with a curse? It wasn’t Avada Kedavra – it was a curse empowered by protective love, designed to stop a murderer of children – but it’s unsettling, isn’t it?
Molly took it on herself; she ordered Hermione, Luna, and Ginny out of her way so she could take down Bellatrix. She was willing to take a chance on reintegrating her soul after using her domestic magic to kill one person in order to prevent harm to many others. We saw Snape take on the same burden when Dumbledore asked him to commit murder, saying, “You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation.”
It’s a hard call. But maybe Boo Radley killing Bob Ewell was a Forgivable. He used a kitchen knife, a domestic tool like his scrapbooking scissors of years ago. Right – somebody in the Radley household must do the cooking. He sees Bob Ewell attacking children. He knows what Bob Ewell did to Mayella. He is himself a survivor of parental abuse – he knows how this feels. He uses the same spell that Molly Weasley used: “You will never touch our children again.”
Boo Radley left his house to protect endangered children: empathy. He was an adult, taking the fight on himself because it was too much for children: chivalry. And because of this magic, once Jem Finch’s broken arm healed, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.