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The Houses of Harry Potter - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Houses of Harry Potter
In each of the six HP books so far, a new residence has appeared prominently. Well, technically everything in PS/SS was new, but it only featured one private residence, so it still fits the pattern.

Each house represents some person or family that influences Harry, and I think each one represents something about the book that it appears in, and something about Harry's personality... and yes, that includes the dreaded Number Four, Privet Drive. This is probably one of those pull-on-the-hip-waders sort of essays, as far as literary BS is concerned. ;)

1. Number Four, Privet Drive; The Dursleys. When the series opens, we're outside the wizarding world, and in the most surreal setting in the books: the suburban haven of Little Whinging, Surrey. In Little Whinging, there is a perfectly normal street (perfectly normal in a Stepford Wives kind of way, anyhow), Privet Drive, and on Privet Drive, there is the most militantly normal house in the world--at least on the outside--Number Four. Of course, when we go inside, we learn that their normal life includes a spoiled-rotten baby, and when we return ten years later, we discover that they have their "abnormal" nephew living in a spidery cupboard under the stairs, but they still have a great horror of being discovered as ever so slightly strange, which makes them stranger than anyone else in the books. The descriptions of Privet Drive set the kind of cartoonish tone of PS/SS--Harry is living in a weird, warped, surreal world, a bit overblown. This fits even when he gets into the more "normal" environment of Hogwarts, where a kind of surreal sense of humor holds throughout the book. This bastion of warped normalcy remains Harry's home and keeps him safe through his mother's blood.

What does it say about Harry that this house is the one he must return to, even now, at the end, until he's an adult? What has Harry taken from Number Four as part of his personality? Is it only the negatives? (Wanting to disassociate himself from Dudley, having learned patience from having to put up with things, and so on, learning to work hard from all of Petunia's pointless make-work, etc.) Or has some part of his personality actually come from his upbringing by the Dursleys other than negative responses to them? I don't have a lot of thoughts on this. I'm fascinated as always by the fact that in OotP, Dudley is the first person we see him deliberately setting out to interact with, but I've never been able to make much of it one way or the other.

2. The Burrow; The Weasleys. In book two, Harry is rescued from Privet Drive by the Weasleys, and brought back to their warm, loving, and vibrant home in the country. This, to Harry's mind, is the best place in the world. He enthusiastically helps with chores (de-gnoming), eats all he could want to eat, has people to talk to, and is liked by everyone. He realizes that they have less than he does materially and feels a bit guilty about this, but it's hard to notice them actually lacking for anything when they are actually together at home. The book will deal with an attack on the family, through the planting of the diary on Ginny, so there is of course a plot reason to go there, but what else is to be made of it?

The Burrow is a place that Harry feels like he is part of a family, something we know from the Mirror of Erised is exceptionally important to him. It's the first time we meet a healthy wizarding couple. This is heaven. This is also the point at which he formally makes the acquaintance of Ginny Weasley, last seen running along beside the train, and who will be bound to him later through the rescue in the Chamber of Secrets, as well as her long-lived crush. That Ginny is associated with the Burrow, this place of family and happiness, is symbolically important in their later relationship--the "several sunlit days" (and the weeks that follow) are days when Harry is "living someone else's life" and has a normal relationship, a place in his life where he has a chance to understand what it means to be "just Harry."

3. The Shrieking Shack; Remus/The Marauders. There isn't a new "residence," per se, introduced in PoA, but from early talks about Hogsmeade visits, we start hearing about The Shrieking Shack, the most haunted house in all of Britain. Of course, it's in the Shack that the final confrontation occurs, and where Harry learns the truth about Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs. We don't know the status of its legal ownership, but symbolically, it is Lupin's... and the Marauders'. It's the place where the animals come out, and the place where four boys were once able to create some happiness together out of what was a very unhappy situation, and a place where they committed what seems to have been their worst act--Sirius's prank on Snape.

It's also, contrary to Remus, absolutely chock full of ghosts... just not the pearly, translucent kind that we see at Hogwarts. The Shrieking Shack is the haunted, destroyed past of Harry's father's generation, covered with dust and empty for years, but finally re-entered to give explanations. PoA is the book most closely associated with Harry learning about his own past, and The Shrieking Shack is an excellent symbol for it.

4. The Riddle House; Voldemort. The first of the two residences that Harry doesn't see appears in the first chapter of Goblet of Fire, when Peter Pettigrew and the invalid Voldemort take up residence in the abandoned home of Voldemort's father and grandparents, the Riddles, who he'd killed many years earlier. Told from the point of view of the person unjustly accused of that murder (echoing Sirius's situation from the last book), we again see an empty house now re-populated, but this time it's nothing so benign as Harry's family history coming to life. In the Riddle House, for the first time, we actually witness a death (if I'm wrong on this, please correct me), setting the stage for the death of Cedric Diggory just before the resurrection of Voldemort, and for the later rising body count. The Riddle House tells us that we're nor to worry so much about the House Cup and Quidditch tournaments anymore--Voldemort is serious business. He kills and claims his victims' property, then casually kills someone who is in his way. It also introduces Tom's strange relationship to his own father--he loathes him, but uses his home, and later uses the remains of his body.

Harry himself only dreams about this house and wakes up with his scar hurting. Does it have any symbolic significance for Harry? Anything to say about him? No ideas, here.

5. Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place; Sirius/The House of Black. In OotP, Harry is rescued from a boring and depressing summer at Privet Drive, only to be taken to the strangest house he can imagine--Sirius's home, the ancestral manor of a proud old pure-blood family with ties to dark magic. Like the Dursleys, the Blacks hated anyone "not us," and their home becomes as militantly "wizard" as Privet Drive is Muggle. This house isn't just haunted by the past--this house has been driven completely insane by it, as symbolized by the portrait that screams obscenities in the entrance hall. Molly Weasley is at war with this house, and Sirius is once again a prisoner, now within his own hated childhood. The house "speaks" through the portrait and through Kreacher, who resent the intrusion of the present (and future). Nevertheless, it's provided a safe haven for the Order to fight Voldemort from, and it now belongs to Harry. He claims he wants nothing to do with it, but it seems to be set up quite well for a return... and possibly a redemption.

Grimmauld Place, along with being Sirius's new prison, is a symbolic House as well as a house... it is the House of Black. These are brilliant people. Sirius has already given his life for the Order, it's distinctly possible that Regulus also died actually fighting Voldemort (instead of just being killed on the run). Tonks risks her hard-won career to fight against Voldemort. Bellatrix is Voldemort's most loyal attendent. Narcissa is fanatically devoted to her son and husband. And Draco himself has been put in a completely untenable position. This is a House in a position to have huge things happen to it in book 7.

For Harry himself, this is a direct exposure to the old pure-blood culture, much closer than he's ever seen.

(Full disclosure: If 12GP went on the market, I'd buy it in an instant. I love this house. Even if it would try to kill me. And I want to see that family tree!)

6. Spinner's End; Snape. Chapter two of HBP brings us the second new residence that Harry doesn't see and probably never will see. Bellatrix and Narcissa, these scions of the wizarding aristocracy, make their way down an ugly Muggle street, along a rubbish-strewn riverbank, to a small, dingy house at the end of a lane under a mill. There, they find Severus Snape, whose actions are the cause of so much misery (whether planned or not).

Spinner's End looks like a simple enough house at first glance--a small place where a teacher lives with piles of books. But we find that it's a nest of intrigue, where people manipulate and use one another. We also discover Wormtail lurking and listening in on things, from secret passages that go up behind the bookshelves. Lies inside lies, secret passages, spying... what is the nature of Spinner's End? That's the question, isn't it?


That's it.

I think we can be reasonably sure that we'll see the remains of James and Lily's house when Harry goes to Godric's Hollow in book 7, so the pattern will hold.
18 comments or Leave a comment
caitie From: caitie Date: August 10th, 2005 05:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Interesting. Did you make a conscious decision to chose Spinner's End over the Gaunt's house for book 6?
dalf From: dalf Date: August 10th, 2005 05:56 am (UTC) (Link)
Yea I would say the Gaunt House was far more important both in terms of the plot/symbolism and the fact that Spinners End is before we get to Harrys POV so he never knows about it.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 10th, 2005 11:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Just that Spinner's End is a place we go to physically in the book's time. The Gaunts' home is just a memory that Harry visits "virtually."
anais_ninja From: anais_ninja Date: August 10th, 2005 06:17 am (UTC) (Link)
I have an incomplete thought about what Privet Drive contributes to Harry's personality, and I think it's pretty important: humility. As unconscionable as the Dursley's treatment of Harry is, I can't help but feel it has instilled humility in him, and that that is another integral thing that sets him apart from Voldemort.

But maybe there's something else we're missing. For Harry to go back there every year, you'd think Privet Drive would somehow be the source of love in Harry's life, since his ability to love is supposed to be the primary thing that makes him not Tom Riddle. I mean, can that angle really be addressed merely by the fact that it's where Harry's blood relations live? I don't know. I haven't thought deeply enough about this sort of thing in too long.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: August 10th, 2005 09:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, actually. Whatever faults Petunia has (and she has plenty) she is capable of deep and abiding love -- for Dudley and Vernon anyway! Between the ingrained love Lily left at least skin deep on Harry, and the example before him, I think he understands love. Much better than Tom, anyway!
swatkat24 From: swatkat24 Date: August 10th, 2005 02:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Privet Drive has taught Harry humility. Harry just doesn't want to disassociate himself from the Dursleys - he doesn't want to *be* the Dursleys. He dislikes Malfoy at their first meeting because he reminds him of Dudley, and Harry will never be Dudley. Harry can understand Snape's situation in the Pensieve scene in OotP and actually dislike his father and Sirius for being bullies because of what he has learnt in Privet Drive. The fact that Harry was actually ashamed of shouting at Dumbledore in OotP instead of feeling completely unrepentant (as he often tends to do in pre-HBP fanfic *g*) is because of this humility. I've often seen the parallels between OotP!Harry and Sirius being pointed out, but OotP's arrogant!CAPSLOCK!Harry has also got striking parallels to Vernon. Harry won't be Vernon Dursley, ever. The Dursleys appear so little in HBP (the coming of age book) because Harry has finally grown out of their shadow. In fact, HBP!Harry has parallels with Remus - patience, restraint, humility (which he's always had - even at his arrogant worst, Harry was never Draco), balance, and hopefully, survival. *g*

Riddle House is linked to Voldemort, Spinner's End to Snape - HBP has shown the similarities between the three of them. Maybe there's something there...?


fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 10th, 2005 02:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, the humility is obvious, but that's one of those negative reactions--something done in response to what the Dursleys' do as part of their mistreatment of him. What I'm wondering about are the positive things--not necessarily positive in a moral sense, but positive in the sense of being things that Harry actually shares with the Privet Drive milieu, what part of his own identity it really is.
super_pan From: super_pan Date: August 11th, 2005 01:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure that Harry has had any "positive reactions" to the Dursleys. Or at least I can't think of any. I think Dumbledore's lecture to them indicated that he couldn't either. Harry did indeed get some valuable traits and tools from reacting to their mistreatment and stupidity, but I can't think of any value or trait that he shares with them. If there are any, I bet we see it in Book 7!
meredith_eats From: meredith_eats Date: August 10th, 2005 03:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
So the Book 7 house = the remains of the Potter home in Godric's Hollow? I have a feeling that the big showdown is going to happen in the place where Harry's parents sacrificed themselves for him.
coralia13 From: coralia13 Date: August 10th, 2005 05:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
One thing that I think Harry learned at the Dursleys' is a lesson highlighted early in book one: "Don't ask questions." We see how Harry has learned this lesson (instead of asking Aunt Petunia why his new school uniform is soaking in a smelly vat of gray water, he teases the information out of her with a joke - which she, of course, takes for stupidity - "I didn't realise it had to be so wet.")
This lesson is mentioned again a few chapters later when Hagrid and Harry are taking the row boat from the house on the rock and Hagrid is reading the paper. JKR writes that "Harry had learned from Uncle Vernon that people liked to be left alone when they did this," and he keeps silent long after a normal eleven-year-old would have started chattering away. In fact, he keeps silent until Hagrid speaks.
This tendency to not ask questions may seem contradictory to Harry's often dangerously inquisitive nature - it is made clear in every book that one of Harry's dominating characteristics is to take a mystery into his own hands, and not rest until he's found the answer, even to the point of recklessness. However, I don't see this as a contradiction at all.
Harry has learned not to ask questions of authority figures, and so he rarely does. He does not even suggest going to Dumbledore with his concerns about the Philosopher's Stone until only hours before it is stolen. When Dumbledore is discovered missing, it doesn't phase him much; he is used to having to take matters into his own hands, and discovering answers without answering questions. This is one of the reasons, I think, Snape sees him as so arrogant, when really, he has just been trained not to go to authority figures with questions or problems.

Taking the matter a step further, this could be why Harry is not the student his parents were - he absorbs what he is told (when it interests him) but does not even think of trying to find out more. It also explains something that has always confused me a little - why he doesn't try to find out more about his parents. When information is presented, he is facinated by it (Sirius and Remus's story in the Shrieking Shack, the images in the Mirror of Erised) but the only time we see him activly seeking information on his parents is after he sees Snape's memory in the Pensieve, at which point the idea of his father's cruelty so distresses him that he acts out of character and contacts an authority figure to ask a question. Once he reaches Sirius and Remus, his hesitance in actually asking a question is due not only to the uncomfortable subject matter, but also (in my opinion) to his unease when asking a question.
Ahem... the end.
coralia13 From: coralia13 Date: August 10th, 2005 05:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, yeah, I actually meant "he is used to having to take matters into his own hands, and discoverig answers without asking questions." Sorry about that.
rose_in_shadow From: rose_in_shadow Date: August 10th, 2005 11:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Love the insight here. It is interesting how all these houses, these homes play such an important role in Harry's life. Interesting, also how some of them even mirror each other. For example, Petunia's bastion, to use your word, of Muggledom at Privet Drive and her exclusion of the abnormal one in the family, Harry, has echoes of Sirius' own home situation. Mrs. Black's citadel to darker forms of magic, or at least pure-bloodedness and Sirius is the one who runs around with mudbloods and refuses to support Voldemort.

*adds to memories*
amelia_eve From: amelia_eve Date: August 11th, 2005 12:11 am (UTC) (Link)
This is an interesting axis of analysis. I'm most interested to see what is going to happen at 12 Grimmauld Place in Book 7. Harry's got his own place now, and the trio will have their majority, so I foresee a lot of hanging out at the old Black place. Wish I'd had a house elf, even an ill-tempered one, in my first off-campus digs. Hell, wish I had one now.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 11th, 2005 04:22 am (UTC) (Link)
The one virtue Petunia unquestionably has is her protection of Harry. Even when his presence endangered her much loved Dudley, she wouldn't let Vernon throw Harry out (or wouldn't once she was reminded of the danger to Harry).

The Riddle House may be interesting for the contrast it offers to Harry. Voldemort has taken refuge in his own family home, having long ago removed the inconvenient family that came with it. Harry is given refuge with his mother's family, a refuge that ceases to exist without Aunt Petunia. Harry longs to truly belong to a family that loves and accepts him. The house itself means very little to him. Voldemort values the thing and what it represents. Harry values the people.

My vote would be with the Gaunt house for the same reason. Tom's homecoming is a complete contrast to what we might have expected from Harry in a similar situation. If Harry tracked down a surviving uncle on the wizarding side of his family and found out he was just like Morfin, I still can't imagine him not caring about him. If the uncle spoke only in Parseltongue and seemed to become half-lucid and start opening up to Harry just a little when he found out he spoke it as well, I think Harry would at least try to build on that. I can't see him abandoning the uncle (much less framing him for murder and a life sentence in Azkaban) but making sure to walk off with the family ring.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 11th, 2005 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)

Off Topic

Ok, this is really off-topic, but there is an entire yahoo group of Star Wars fans talking about how much they love your SW fan fiction, how dead on they think your characters are, and why the hell you're still talking about Harry Potter when you should be entertaining US! ;)
No you don't know me,
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 11th, 2005 04:52 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Off Topic

Well, thank you. But my brain is pretty far outside Star Wars (and besides, I appear to have gotten Padmé significantly wrong!). I always come back to SW after awhile; it's my home fandom. But it will be awhile this time.
From: seventines Date: August 11th, 2005 10:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Here via D_S.

This was a really interesting essay - I can see how it would be possible to argue for different houses, but I like the way you've structured it, it hangs together well.

I was just browsing through HBP this morning, and noticed when Harry arrived at the Burrow, he said it was one of the two places he loved most - the other being Hogwarts. I take your point about Godric's Hollow, but I think I'd include Hogwarts somewhere among your seven - it's not a home in the traditional sense, but it has been the closest to a home that Harry has experienced, and in that chapter of HBP, he certainly seems to think of it in the same way that most people would think of home. For the other pupils, they leave home to go to school on 1st September. Harry acts as if he's going home after being away, when he goes back to the school. I believe the school will play a central role in the last book, though not the same kind of role that it has in all the previous ones.

BTW, I suppose Harry has seen the inside of Spinner's End - when he got a brief glance inside Snape's head during Occlumency lessons. Very fleeting, though, and I'm sure it wouldn't register with him.

Thanks for a thought-provoking essay, I really enjoyed reading it.
redbrunja From: redbrunja Date: August 11th, 2005 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)

Star Wars

Fernwithy, YOU did not get Padme wrong. LUCAS got Padme wrong. I know you really like keeping your fanfic accurate with canon, but in this case, it's a losing battle.

And so my post is not completely off topic: Nice essay, as always
18 comments or Leave a comment