The 99%: The (Class) Difference Between “The Boy Who Lived” and “The Girl on Fire,” Part One
Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have nearly nothing in common, except for the small fact that these books, written for children and young adults, have managed to capture the imagination and rapt attention of readers of all ages. Their created worlds are wholly immersive; traveling to Hogwarts or District 12 means temporarily leaving your own space and coming to understand a new society with different ways of making meaning, finding success, doing good, and—as always—preserving hierarchy. The different ways that social class is handled in both series are independently insightful, but more interesting in comparison. Today I'll focus discussion on more on Harry Potter; my next post will focus more on Katniss Everdeen.
J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series embraces familiar tropes of social class mythology in the creation of the wizarding world. The evil wizards and witches are, per usual, wealthy, though their wealth is nearly coincidental to their worldview—it seems that racism rather than classism would be a more apt paradigm (this despite the fact that the wizarding world seems disproportionately white). The evil wizards and witches are mostly "purebloods" who strive to eliminate Muggle blood from wizarding families—they shriek the term "Mudblood!" in the same dehumanizing way someone would use a racial slur. The Death Eaters are even cloaked in hooded capes reminiscent of Klan members. There's a collision of privilege here, based on real class advantage and irrational, dangerous, imagined "racial" superiority.
Yet, the wizards are also almost all presented as wealthy, as old families with old bloodlines and old money, clinging to power for power's sake. In contrast, Harry's best friend Ron comes from a poorer family; he buys used schoolbooks, he wears hand-me-down robes, he receives homemade Christmas presents and can't afford the newest broom. Hermione comes from a middle-class Muggle family, where both parents are dentists. Hagrid's accent and lack of social polish show his low cultural capital; Dobby the house elf lives in servitude. In truth, most of Harry allies seem to have less class privilege that most of his enemies.
Lest we forget, though, Harry himself is rich. His parents left him piles of galleons in Gringott's. He can splurge and buy candy for his friends on the Hogwarts Express, and he can afford the newest, fanciest Firebolt. However, his class privilege seems "undone" by the poverty of his upbringing, brought about by his aunt and uncle's neglect. By living under the stairs, nearly starving, and playing perfectly the part of abandoned orphan, Harry "redeems" himself for his wealth.
In contrast, The Hunger Games is more directly about class conflict: there's the Capitol, which has money and power, and there are the Districts, which don't. The Districts are intentionally impoverished as a way of keeping them ignorant and obedient. Money (or lack thereof) isn't a metaphor in The Hunger Games, but it seems to be in Harry Potter, where social class becomes a marker for moral stature. If money is indicative of arrogance and prejudice—if not fully fledged evil—then disadvantage become the mark of goodness, familiarity, and trustworthiness. However, the conflict within Harry Potter is not about class (like it is in The Hunger Games); it's about a broader concept of good verses evil that never truly acknowledges the extent to which, by implication, either of those are influenced by class status.
More broadly, Harry Potter masks class difference, while The Hunger Games accentuates it. Indeed, one of the more fantastical elements of Harry Potter is that it takes place entirely at a very elite boarding school, where all young witches and wizards are admitted based on their ability to perform magic, rather than their ability to pay. Meanwhile, prep schools in the real world remain bastions of economic elitism (for context, the New York Times reported this week that non-boarding private prep schools in Manhattan now cost upwards of $40,000 per year). Having characters of diverse class backgrounds attend the same school, with all the trappings of wealth, conceals class difference by appearing to elevate everyone.
In Harry Potter, then, social class is a way of telling us something about the characters more than the actual lived reality or a source of conflict that it becomes in The Hunger Games. This is because in the wizarding world, power doesn't come just come from money and other forms of social privilege, power comes from magic—and it seems that magic is quite an equalizer.
But there's no magic in The Hunger Games. While Harry was rescued from his room under the stairs and swept off into the land of magic, there's no one to save Katniss from starving except herself. And when she gets swept away to a land of wealth and privilege, it's to kill or be killed.
More on Katniss and The Hunger Games coming tomorrow!
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