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A minor bit of wolf trivia, and an actual thought - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
A minor bit of wolf trivia, and an actual thought
In preparing to do Shades, I've been reading up on the behavior of wolf packs, and I came across the (to me) interesting factoid that when wolves attack their prey, a strong and brave wolf jumps up and bites the nose of the victim to cause extreme shock and blood loss. Thought it was interesting in terms of Fenrir's attacking behavior on the night of the Dark Mark. (And yes, I consider that vague enough not to go behind a spoiler warning more than two weeks after release.)

Anyway, the real thing I wanted to post about: The theme of choices, and the apparent confusion about how Tom's background pre-disposed him to evil and presumably so did Draco's, etc. People think this is a contradiction somehow. I disagree.

Most of the conversation about how it's a betrayal of the theme of "choices" to have Tom be more or less wicked at the age of eleven seems to focus around Dumbledore's line about choices being more important than abilities.

Except that that's not what Dumbledore says.

In CoS, chapter 18, Dumbledore says, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Dumbledore does not say, "Our choices make us who we are." He does not say, "Everything we do is about free will" or "There is no inborn tendency to any specific pattern of choices."

He says our choices show what we truly are.

This comes off at first sounding like a minor quibbling about semantics, but I think it has much larger implications about the nature of identity as seen in the books, especially when combined with things like the Sorting Hat (which is never wrong and sorts people by personality traits at the age of eleven), the doublings of characters--Harry the good neglected child with Tom the bad one; Remus the good werewolf with Fenrir the bad one; etc.

This isn't a betrayal of the concept of "choice" as Dumbledore uses the word in the CoS scene. What Dumbledore is trying to show Harry is not that Tom made different choices (which is pretty obvious), but that those choices indicate a big difference between the two boys--a difference which is there all the time, at the root of things, which is demonstrated by the choices each of them makes. In a nurture-only view of the world, Tom and Harry should have made the same sorts of choices, but there we see them, at the age of eleven--Harry's first instinct is to assume Hagrid has made some sort of mistake, while Tom's is to start spinning grandiose fantasies about his power and brag to Dumbledore about the things he's already figured out he can do. By the time we get to the Sorting Hat, Harry has chosen to reject Slytherin, which has been presented to him by Malfoy as representative of bigotry and snobbery, and throw in his lot with people like the Weasleys, who are very down-to-earth. Given Tom's behavior and interest in seeing himself as a class above other people, Malfoy's approach probably would have appealed to him, and he would have wished for Slytherin because of it.

Now, whether or not this is an accurate state of affairs in the real world, or an offensive notion, or whatever... there are a lot of ways to look at it. I'm just pointing out that it's not a contradiction of anything Dumbledore said about choices.

28 comments or Leave a comment
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: July 31st, 2005 07:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heart. It's funny that you and ataniell93 are two of my favorite essay writers when you say exactly opposite things.
ajaxbreaker From: ajaxbreaker Date: July 31st, 2005 07:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Good catch with the quote from Dumbledore. Seen that way, things do make sense: Tom Riddle chose to be psycho from the age of eleven, which does show his true nature. Harry, OTOH, has an innate goodness that manifests in the way he reaches out to people...
My quibble with that is that Tom's choices were very likely influenced by his background, which consisted on his mother's side of a bunch of inbred, unbalanced individuals. So the question is whether Tom actually had a choice or whether his genes compelled him to act the way he does - the eternal nature vs. nurture question.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 31st, 2005 09:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
So the question is whether Tom actually had a choice or whether his genes compelled him to act the way he does - the eternal nature vs. nurture question.

My point is that Dumbledore's answer suggests that nature is a lot more prominent than nurture. He doesn't suggest that we have a choice about "what we truly are," but that when put in places where we have to make choices, the choices reveal who we are.

Now, of course it's not isolated--Dumbledore seems determined to offer people choices as often as possible, in the hope that they will make them differently. And "what we truly are" doesn't necessarily have to have a moral component--a desire for fame doesn't necessarily have to turn a person evil, and the person can certainly learn to be good, if he or she is taught to value such a thing.
From: tunxeh Date: July 31st, 2005 07:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very interesting perspective. So what were the key choice points in HBP, and what did they show about the people making them? Draco on the tower, obviously. Slughorn's job offer. I'd be tempted to list something about Snape, but I just don't see at what point he had a choice in any of his actions, except maybe at the end of book four. Fleur in the hospital scene. Ron and Hermione, staying with Harry or returning to school. Others?
bluemeanies4 From: bluemeanies4 Date: August 1st, 2005 10:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Snape always had an unpleasant choice available. He could always die and take a fall. If we believe that the thing that he promised to do that he didn't want to do anymore (and Dumbledore insisted he do) was kill Dumbledore, than his inclination would be deciding he would rather die than do the act. Actually doing it at the end of the story is thus a very hard choice at the end, if that conversation has that explanation.
valis2 From: valis2 Date: July 31st, 2005 07:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Tom and Harry should have made the same sorts of choices, but there we see them, at the age of eleven--Harry's first instinct is to assume Hagrid has made some sort of mistake, while Tom's is to start spinning grandiose fantasies about his power and brag to Dumbledore about the things he's already figured out he can do.

What an absolutely fascinating thought. The "doubling" of characters is also an excellent point. We have Tom & Snape, both half-bloods who lusted after titles of power and wanted more from the world as well. And Sirius and Bellatrix; they both start with the same pure-blood beginnings, yet Sirius utterly rejects them while Bellatrix utterly embraces them.

*wanders off to think some more*
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: July 31st, 2005 07:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
I remember once reading someone's suggestion that Tom must be sociopathic. It seemed reasonable to me at the time - some people are born incapable of empathy - but it suggests that he's predisposed to certain choices. Yet that explanation seems to fit what we've seen in HBP.

Your answer is a really good way of looking at it. I think some part of our personalities can't be explained by our upbringing; if they could be, siblings would handle adversity the same way.
winters_end From: winters_end Date: August 2nd, 2005 07:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
if they could be, siblings would handle adversity the same way.

I don't know that that's necessarily true, though: just because two siblings come from the same background and genetic makeup, doesn't mean they share the same upbringing in the strictest sense. Parents have been known to treat their children differently, whether it's exerting more control over the oldest, putting a stricter curfew on the girls, or just plain having different priorities at different times that are crucial stages of each child's life. And even living in a family where everything has to be equal all the time (My father was raised in one), two children can have entirely different experiences, just based on entirely external factors. If when Bill's backpack breaks, Frank gets a new one too identical ideologies (each kid has a backpack for X amount of time before it's replaced) can translate to very different lessons for the kids involved.

And also, I don't know *where* this fits into the nature-vs.-nurture argument, but I would think that siblings can have an effect on each other's upbringings quite drastically too. An older child can feel pressured into displaying maturity, of a younger one can have to create defenses against older-sibling teasing. But even if a parent did manage to have two exact carbon-copies of a child, one after the other (or twins, or whatever) circumstance and not "upbringing" OR any sort of genetic/karmic predisposition might force them to create individual roles.
From: psalm_27 Date: July 31st, 2005 08:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Personally, I don't see how the choice thing came into play for Tom Riddle. He was the result of way too much inbreeding, which led to his insanity. I don't think he had the ability to make the right choices as Harry did.

Harry, on the other hand, continues to make the right choices (well, if you exclude that whole "using spells that he doesn't know what they do" thing). We see that as early as TSS when he chooses Ron's friendship over Draco's.
merrymelody From: merrymelody Date: August 1st, 2005 08:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not to mention Harry had a mother and father for the first year of his life, which is one of the most important as far as child development goes; unlike Tom.

We'll have to disagree on Harry making the right choices, however.
kelleypen From: kelleypen Date: July 31st, 2005 08:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I brought up the question in the Gaunt thread SQ for exactly that reason. I don't think we are products of just nurture or nature, but both. And our choices are what we do with what we're given. The big differences between Harry and Tom are not only their choices, but their genes. Harry is the son of two good and brave people. Tom is the son of a powerful but pyscho witch and an arrogant father who chose to ignore him. Tom could have chosen differently, but he didn't. He chose to let his Gaunt genes dominate him. Harry could have chosen differently. He could have chosen to be a victim or a bully based on his circumstances. But he didn't chose either. He chose to let the goodness and bravery that was from his parents dominate him.
The whole topic fascinates me because I'm an adoptee. I found my birth parents at 18. I've been able to clearly see when I've been more strongly influenced by my nurture and when my nature has dominated--and when I've made a choice that was for one or the other or in a completely unexpected direction. There is so much more to the puzzle than our blood or our circumstances.
galaxianomiko From: galaxianomiko Date: July 31st, 2005 09:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Good catch on that quote! I think I've read the misquoted version so many times that my brain automatically supplies that one now.

It's kind of too bad that that's the real quote, IMO. I like the other one better. Perhaps that's great for Harry, who is looking to be reassured that he and Voldemort are fundamentally different, but for me as a reader, that's sort of a big fat "Well, duh." Especially given the new information in HBP. I'm not really sure I see the purpose of it, unless it's to let the readers know that Harry isn't going to be becoming the next Dark Lord? ::shrug::
maglors_finch From: maglors_finch Date: July 31st, 2005 10:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for stating this; it can't be pointed out often enough. In the nature-nurture debate, JKR seems to come down quite firmly on the side of nature. Many people misquote Dumbledore (in an almost Freudian way?), probably because what he actually says isn't a very popular notion. I wonder if I should bring up the very unpopular term `predestination', but then, JKR *is* a Presbyterian, so...
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: July 31st, 2005 10:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sometimes it's someone else's choices that have huge effect.

I'm sure you're going to have a half-dozen or more OCs, and I think it would be fascinating to see a werewolf just a few years older than Remus who wasn't permitted to attend Hogwarts. How different would their lives have been!
sannalim From: sannalim Date: July 31st, 2005 11:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

SHOWing, not telling

What Dumbledore is trying to show Harry is not that Tom made different choices (which is pretty obvious), but that those choices indicate a big difference between the two boys--a difference which is there all the time, at the root of things, which is demonstrated by the choices each of them makes.

Here it is in a nutshell, then.
vytresna From: vytresna Date: July 31st, 2005 11:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm fairly sure that JKR believes in free will, but still, good show!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 1st, 2005 12:50 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't think it negates free will to say that we have a certain kind of unalterable essence which makes us who we are. We still face choices and decide whether to indulge our inner beast or our inner angel. What a person's inner beast and angel are may be fixed, but no personality type requires being evil. Tom chooses to do evil.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: August 1st, 2005 01:12 am (UTC) (Link)
I'd agree with that. Personally, I'm prone to rage and jealousy - someone who isn't won't struggle with them, but he may have other innate problems; excessive love of gambling, or being too avaricious, or something like that. Whether you give in completely to your weak points is still a choice. Tom's initial makeup wasn't great but I'd argue that it wasn't ALL bad - so the Gaunts are prejudiced against Muggles and inbred, but still, none of them seems to have gone any farther than petty thuggery, and they are the remains of what was once a great house - there must be some good stuff buried there. About Tom Riddle Sr. we know very little except that he was the local rich boy and envied, as local rich families tend to be. In fact, I'd say that HBP made Tom Sr. even more ambiguous - he did desert Merope while she was pregnant, but he had married her under the influence of a potion. Far better guys than he probably was would probably balk at learning they had been tricked like that. (Not to mention that if Tom Jr. was born eight months after his father ditched...well, did his father even know he was on the way? Not excusing any deadbeat fatherhood, but I'm honestly curious).
caitie From: caitie Date: August 1st, 2005 12:26 am (UTC) (Link)

Is it okay if I daily_snitch this?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 1st, 2005 12:42 am (UTC) (Link)
Be my guest. :)
dalf From: dalf Date: August 1st, 2005 02:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Now as you ahve probbly seen enough of my writing on LJ to know that I am not one to get picky about such things as spelling and grammar and such. Really I am not one of those people .... but one thing that does drive me nutz and I could not resist:

fac·toid Pronunciation (fktoid)
1. A piece of unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of frequent repetition: "What one misses finally is what might have emerged beyond both facts and factoidsa profound definition of the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon" Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.
2. Usage Problem A brief, somewhat interesting fact.

The second usage is so common that it is starting to gain acceptance as not being incorrect but .... gah! The -oid The -oid suffix means "resembling, having the appearance of". Ok sorry ... pet peeve.
texasmagic From: texasmagic Date: August 1st, 2005 02:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I think you are quite right is pointing out the exact wording of Dumbledore's quote, as it makes a difference. I do think that Tom was predisposed to certain personality traits, but as you stated above, he made the choice to use those traits in a particular way.

Now, how does this observation relate to Dumbeldore's discussion with Harry about Choices and the Prophecy? He seems to have also made the point that choice is important as well, not just as an indicator of your true person, so to speak, but as the instigator in a chain of events and circumstances. The Prophecy became true because Voldemort chose to believe it. Harry is protected by Lily because she chose to die for Harry. JKR made a point in her interviews to distinguish between James's death, which was more instinctual, and Lily's. That's why she (JKR) has made it clear that Voldemort gave Lily the chance to step aside. According to Dumbledore, the choice to act out of love carries the power.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 1st, 2005 03:40 am (UTC) (Link)
The weakness in most nature vs nuture debates is that they're set up to disregard the power of choice. More specifically, they treat living beings as inanimate materials.

If iron is put through certain processes, it can become steel of a particular strength. If that steel is shaped to a specific form and attached in certain ways to other pieces of steel, the result is an object with a known level of strength and endurability. These things may still need to be tested, but flaws are normally traced back to an unexpected variable. So long as all the factors are known, the results are predicatable.

Put another way, 1 + 1 always equals 2.

If living beings were iron, then sometimes they would break when all the factors you could judge would say they would hold and sometimes they will hold when all the factors you can judge say they will break. Nature vs nurture looks at the question this way -

1. Nature - were you really using materials of the same strength? If you could properly analyze all the factors, would you find out how the materials really varied from each other?

2. Nurture - the materials may have had equal capabilities, but they weren't put through the same process. One process produced a weaker material.

Both of these assume the material is essentially passive. Rowling doesn't seem to see it that way. I could argue a good genetic background for Tom. The Gaunts may have been inbred, but Tom was a case of outbreeding. His mother seemed to be the most worthwhile of the Gaunts, capable of love and of disregarding her family's prejudices. Despite growing up in an abusive home, she rejected retaliation against her husband when he abandoned her. Although she initially coerced him into the marriage, she eventually rejected coercion. When the results of that decision were disasterous, she still didn't go back on it.

As for Tom's father, we don't know that he knew his wife was pregnant or what kind of emotions he was going through when he woke up one morning and found out the truth.

In other words, I don't see Voldemort as the product of his parents.

I do see him as someone who learned to enjoy bullying. He was capable of exercising power over others and he learned to enjoy it. Eventually, it took a sadistic form. He was proud of that power and, eventually, was willing to kill off the people who threatened that image of his own superiority, his uncle, father, and grandparents.

The question about sociopaths is whether they lack the ability to care about others, whether they lose the ability to care for others, or whether they choose not to care for others.

Harry is the kid who chose to care.

winters_end From: winters_end Date: August 2nd, 2005 07:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like your Iron analogy: it's a very good way of putting things in perspective. Personally, I tend to agree that Tom *wasn't* that genetically bad-off. Or at least, no more so than Hagrid whose giant mother was likely violent and not so bright. Certainly, he was better off than his mother who seemed to at least *try* to do right. Though I suppose it could be argued that he was a product of his father (whom no-one was sorry to see go at the beginning of book 4 as I recall)'s rottenness and his mother's predisposition to insanity.

But for that matter, we don't really know how much inbreeding there is in James' tree, as we haven't been told. Certainly, he does better socially than any of the Gaunts, but book 5 shows a bit of a nasty side, and Tom has proven that when it comes to awards for services and the appointment of head boy, the staff of Hogwarts can be fooled.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 1st, 2005 05:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
I thought I posted a long winded, rambling comment on this yesterday but don't see it today. Since my computer's getting on in years, I'm wondering if it didn't post or if it may have been trimmed for, you know, being long winded and perhaps a bit pointless (no offense taken either way, although I'm assuming I've really got to get a new computer).

Anyhow, the short version is that, in the nature vs nurture debate, there are certain storyline drawbacks. Give two characters identical backgrounds and, unless they're twins, readers can argue that it's a bit unlikely (no comment on the good twin/evil twin cliche). Make changes, and the argument can be made that those changes (nurture) were responsible for how the characters turned out differently. Try to present it more clearly as the characters being different, er, characters and that can be taken as nature.

Must make it a bit hard for an author trying to present free will in action.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 1st, 2005 05:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
And, after posting this, suddenly I see the long, rambling post that I swear wasn't there a moment before).

Either my computer has a real hang up or I need to get my contact perscription changed again. Just ignore me.

olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: August 1st, 2005 06:25 pm (UTC) (Link)


... while Tom's is to start spinning grandiose fantasies about his power and brag to Dumbledore about the things he's already figured out he can do.

Something about the way you say this tells me you have intriguing ideas spinning off in your head from that scene. Can I do a fic-request, Fern? You may be loth to touch this because it might come too close to being an updated replacement for that (marvellous) chapter in "Of A Sort" - but I'm sure you could find ways of stepping around that, if necessary. I know I shouldn't be greedy - and I'll have you know I'm still squeeing from the first chapter of Shades - but I'd love to see a take on our newly canonised young Voldemort. Who better than you to do it?

modillian From: modillian Date: August 2nd, 2005 01:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Hi, I'm a viewer from daily_snitch.
What Dumbledore is trying to show Harry is not that Tom made different choices (which is pretty obvious), but that those choices indicate a big difference between the two boys--a difference which is there all the time, at the root of things, which is demonstrated by the choices each of them makes.

You've hit the nail on the head, here, and more succincly than I could have. Their choices are indicators of their internal rational (esp of Voldmort, because we can't see things form his pov like Harry), NOT the cornerstones of their personalitites. The difference seems miniscule, but it isn't in terms of motivation.
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