Dickens and Harry Potter: Influence To and Fro

by John on February 5, 2012

Suzanne Keen, Harvard PhD and English Department Chair at Washington and Lee University, told me on my visit there last fall that her students who have grown up reading Harry Potter are able to grasp and love longer narrative better than her students in the past. She shared this with a reporter at W&L inĀ  the form of a “thank you” to Ms. Rowling for fostering her students’ appreciation of Dickens.

The article, which I hope very much you will read, explains how reading Harry Potter makes you a better reader of Dickens, i.e., the Hogwarts Saga’s long narrative, comedy amidst tragedy, complex plots, cryptonyms, word play, etc. I’d go further and mention Dickens’ gift for allegory or creating characters who are story transparencies for vices and virtues, the transfiguration of characters (positive and demonic), the topoi of literary alchemy, even his indoctrination of readers into a politically correct Romanticism (which might also just be called Christian charity?).

Did I mention the gothic melodrama and interior satire? I’m reading Dickens every night to my children to celebrate the gift of The Complete Works we received at Nativity. I’m loving reading Dickens through Potter-phile eyes, which is new to me, I realize, but will be the rule for Dickens readers for many decades — all those in Prof. Keen’s classes, certainly, and those on campus today.

I pressed her for some data to back up her anecdotal experience of the Potter Generations being more accomplished and sensitive readers than their older siblings and parents who didn’t, couldn’t have read Harry were. She shared two studies, both from the NEA: check them out here and here.

I have a lot more to say about Dickens, especially the Christmas novellas A Christmas Carol and the much less well known The Haunted Man. The first is a dramatic ring composition, written in fact as a song but really a round, and the second has several signs of being an alchemical set piece, not to mention a Weasley family look-alike. But more on that in the near future, time allowing.

My apologies to those of you who saw this post when it was only notes cut-and-pasted from emails. I pushed ‘publish’ instead of ‘save’ yesterday and had no idea this was live until comments started coming in. Your comments and corrections, of course, are coveted as always — especially if you can share your experience of classics post-Potter and how your vision and experience as a reader has or hasn’t been changed.

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