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.


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Eeyore February 6, 2012 at 5:58 pm

I remember reading Dickens when I was in high school in the 1960s. I loved to read, but they weren’t my favorites. But at some point, during my Harry Potter re-readings while we waited for the next book to come out, I started reading and rereading all sorts of things, from Austen to Thomas Hardy and even Dickens. To my surprise, I found that I really like Dickens and have a nice collection to read and reread. I never really tied it to Harry Potter and just assumed that 40 years of living made me more receptive to Dickens. But maybe, even at my age, my understanding and appreciation of Dickens has something to do with Rowling preparing me to read those treasures I had long ignored.

Very interesting – and it’s nice to see that people are more interested in reading these days. I didn’t read through that link, but it seems to me that our lack of reading had to do with our increasing attachment to all things technological. We don’t have to give up one to enjoy the other.

Mary Ellen February 6, 2012 at 6:29 pm

Eeyore and John,

Thank you for an interesting post. I confess to my shame that I (a finance and science type) have avoided Dickens like the plague for decades and I actually have never read a single Dickens novel in its entirety. Where should a (possibly) repentant 59 year old neophyte (brought to possible salvation by HP) begin?

John February 6, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Most beginners read Tale of Two Cities, which is the both the shortest and the least Dickensian of his novels. Not to mention the best selling novel of all time…

For ‘real Dickens,’ though, I’d suggest David Copperfield, which I believe Dickens considered his greatest success (“favorite child”?). I love ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ but it’s not the place to start!

Let us know what you decide –

Mary Ellen February 7, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Thank you John! I think I’ll warm up with A Christmas Carol (which my mother read to us as kids) and Haunted Man and then move on to David Copperfield. I’m just finishing up a re-reading of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin Napoleonic/Regency era British Navy sagas, so a segue into the Victorian era should a natural.

I’m deeply immersed right now in studying the history of finance, banking regulation and bankruptcy law. O’Brian’s books turn out coincidentally to be packed with information on banking, the social history of money, Regency economics and monetary policy, and bankruptcy law. I suspect from my memory of A Christmas Carol, that Dickens covers at least some of these topics for the Victorian era. Seems to me that the dreaded ‘poor house’ figured in David Copperfield somewhere. It should be fascinating!

And thanks to you and Prof. Keens I’ll be on the lookout for HP parallels.

Eeyore February 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm

I just finished rereading Little Women – you mentioned it in a post sometime around Christmas. I’d forgotten how much I like that book and I do see how Jo could have influenced Rowling.

So now, in honor of the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, I decided to read one of his books that I hadn’t read and that I swore I didn’t like when we read an excerpt from David Copperfield.

So far, I’m finding it delightful and very easy to read – something I don’t remember as my reaction to it all those years ago. So either I like it now because I’m just older or perhaps I have been prepared for it by reading Harry Potter so much.

Mary Sheila February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I find the comparison ironic. Charles Dickens discarded his wife, mother of his 10 children. J.K. Rowling fled a reportedly physically and emotionally abusive husband.

Dickens blamed his wife, Catherine, for their 10 children. He did not approve of Catherine’s lack of energy or submissiveness. He implied that she was not nor had ever been his intellectual equal. He banished her and separated her from their children.

K February 13, 2012 at 8:39 am

The links in your fourth paragraph are improperly formatted. One can get there anyway by editing them in the address bar, but I thought you might like to fix them.

John February 13, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Thank you!

Louieboy February 21, 2012 at 3:10 am

Hi there! I love this essay and its connection with Charles Dickens. I can say that growing up reading Harry Potter made me more into reading classics, and novels centering on authors and writers, and about the Victorian period. I’m into fantasy and supernatural readings too. All of these part;y because of Harry Potter. This is my first time to know Prof. John Granger and I’m already inspired to read all his writings.

Thank you. More power and GOD bless.

Mr. Lenville June 19, 2012 at 11:04 pm

I am a great fan of both Dickens and Rowling myself. And throughout my readings of both of their works, I have found numerous connections. Names, plot lines, descriptions of people, places, things……….Anyway, the question is, would you ever consider doing any extensive writing on the subject yourself? Thanks.

Mr. Lenville October 10, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Out of curiosity, does anyone else see strong parallels between Prof. Lupin and Mr. Mell from David Copperfield?

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