Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Question of Agency: Some Literary Considerations, Part I—Harry Potter’s Decision

In response to my critical review of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, in which I briefly discuss Meyer’s attempt in the novel to explore the principle of moral agency and then point to her essential failure to give choice its dues, Cory asks: “But isn't ‘free will’ just perspective anyway (in literature I mean, not Mormon Theology)?” While his question is loaded with implications, I’ll try to break it down the best I can by answering here and by exploring some further literary considerations in this series of posts titled “The Question of Agency.”

To begin, then: Yes, free will in fiction might be considered a matter of perspective. And here’s why I read it that way: Due to the nature of literary creation, no fictional character really has free will (obviously). Rather, they’re human representations subject to the agency of the author, who can make these imagined creatures do or become pretty much anything they want (that is, within the bounds of the textually fleshed out temperament of the character—but that’s a whole essay unto itself). The character’s agency and destiny, then, are completely out of their control. In other words, though the character may appear to us to be making choices as the story unfolds, they’re really not. What we perceive as their decision making process is really just a literary approximation of a real world practice. However, our willingness to buy into this approximation (which is really just another word here for “fiction” or “lie”) is evidence of the author’s success at representing the moral universe on a microcosmic scale. Hence, free will in literature is just a matter of perspective as it comes from the interaction between author, text, and audience, though some authors choose to represent human agency as it comes to us through the range of oppositions inherent in a moral universe and some choose to represent that universe as a deterministic and ultimately indifferent place (more about the latter consideration in part two).

Since he confesses that he hasn’t read Meyer’s work, Cory asks us instead to consider J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter chronicles as evidence of the free will perspective, “particularly book 6”, he says, “where Dumbledore attempts to explain to Harry about Harry's decision to confront and eventually kill Voldemort.” He elaborates thus:

Just because [there] was a prophecy [involved] doesn't mean that Harry was “destined” to confront Voldemort. Dumbledore makes the point that if Harry had never heard the prophecy he would still have gone after Voldemort, not because of fate but because of his [Harry’s] decision. Not to mention the fact that Voldemort would never stop hunting Harry. In the end (book 7) Harry decides to finally confront Voldemort to save other people, people that he loved, not because of a prophecy.

I agree that Rowling provides a good approximation of moral agency, choice, and the consequences of individual choice in Harry’s story, beginning with The Sorcerer’s Stone. One instance in particular comes to mind (and this, I’m convinced, is representative of a character trait Rowling meant to bring out in her protagonist): In his dialog with the Sorting Hat, Harry begs not to be placed in Slytherin House, even though, as the Hat observes, Harry “could be great […] and Slytherin will help [him] on the way to greatness, no doubt about that […].”[1] Despite this appointment with a supposed Slytherin destiny, Harry chooses a place in Gryffindor instead.

The power of this decision comes back to Harry in the discussion had between him and Dumbledore after Harry had confronted Tom Riddle and overcome the dark wizard for the second time in The Chamber of Secrets. Considering the similarities between himself and Lord Voldemort, Salazar Slytherin’s “last remaining heir”,[2] Harry wonders why he was placed in Gryffindor even when the Hat foresaw a great place for him in Slytherin. With observations meant to lead Harry to his own conclusions, Dumbledore responds:

Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. His own very rare gift, Paseltongue—resourcefulness—determiniation—a certain disregard for rules […]. Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.[3]

And Harry returns with this: “It only put me in Gryffindor […] because I asked not to go in Slytherin….” Then Dumbledore sums their conversation up by saying, “Exactly […]. Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."[4] Rowling’s world thus gives us a fairly faithful representation of the centrality of choice to humankind’s existence and progression in a moral universe. By creating a world in which her characters, by and large, stand or fall on this principle of agency, she argues that our success or failure as human beings is largely determined by the choices we make within the structures that frame our existence.

Many other writers, however—some of whose work has been very popularly received—don’t provide such an optimistic perspective on humanity’s moral situation. In part two of this series, I’ll explore a widely known poem by a widely known poet to the end of showing—in opposition to Cory’s conclusive view “that most literature […] cannot explain itself out of the fact that ‘free will’ trumps destiny any day”— that fate or determinism holds significant sway in some literary works we mistakenly and ironically use as manifestoes for the moral principles of free will and choice.


[1] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997. 121.
[2] ———. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999. 332.
[3] 333.
[4] 333.

(Part II can be found here.)

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