J. K. Rowling Speaks Out on the Meaning of ‘Casual Vacancy’

Mind-blowing. And wonderfully refreshing. And possibly a wrong turn?

Forgive me, but Joanne Rowling is not one to let her hair down, if you will, and talk themes and meaning and artistry straight up with her readers. In the ten year roll-out of the Hogwarts Saga and beyond we got much less in many more interviews than the author revealed in one go at GoodReads.com in answer to a question about character development in Casual Vacancy.

Read the whole thing — and then read it again.

The best part, I thought, was her description of the Good Samaritan finale when three characters walk by the little boy about to die. She says flat out that the novel “was constructed” so that when this happens the reader is struck by the three characters as allegorical transparencies for specific human failings.

In the final analysis The Casual Vacancy was constructed so that when three characters walk past a small, unaccompanied boy who is wandering between a dangerous river and a road, we understand why none of them stopped to ask him why he was alone, or take charge of him. I chose each of those characters carefully.

Gavin represents the utter apathy for which it is necessary (in the famous quotation) for evil to flourish. He cannot even remember seeing Robbie Weedon after he hears that he has drowned, nor is he troubled by the thought that he must have walked very close to the boy during his final moments.

Samantha represents the rush of everyday troubles that prevents basically well-intentioned people from concentrating on matters that do not directly concern them She subsequently admits to having seen Robbie and feels deep remorse at not having acted. Samantha is also honest enough to acknowledge to herself that Robbie’s appearance made her less likely to help him.

Shirley represents a degree of unkindness that stems from her own basic insecurity, because her background is not so very far removed from that of the Weedons. I think it is very common for such people to be among the most critical and judgmental. She – not Howard – is Barry Fairbrother’s true opposite in the novel. Denying her roots and castigating those who remind her of them, she is the negative image of the man who admits where he came from and goes back to try and help others. Shirley not only sees Robbie and ignores him as she grapples with her own problems, she feels no remorse afterwards, merely heaping blame on others for the child’s death

An interesting question is whether Howard would have stopped to help Robbie. I’d be fascinated to know what readers think, but I’m sure he would have done. Howard is a happy man, which makes a difference; happy people are often kinder than the unhappy. What is more, Howard can appreciate hardship and suffering when it is personalized. For instance, he pays credit to Cath Weedon, whom he acknowledges to have had a hard life and to have done her best in spite of all her disadvantages. Confronted with a dirty little boy wandering beside the river, I can well imagine Howard taking him firmly by the hand and leading him off [to] the police station. However much I might disagree with Howard on many issues, he has his code, and it is not devoid of decency that I think is absent in his wife.

Here’s hoping that this will jumpstart a re-appraisal of Casual Vacancy and more discussion here! Or will her telling us what she meant to do and say now mean that this is canon, a fixed law for interpreting what the book means and does?

Please share your thoughts about the author’s “discursive” answer — Goodbye, Reticence! — and the specifics of what she shares in the answer, from her objectives to the Thomas Hardy influence. Mugglemarch, indeed.

Hat tip to Sebastian for the find!


  1. Hi John,

    It is surprising that she revealed so much more than the question asked, but I think she talked a great deal about this book at launch time. I remember her unusually open interview with James Runcie where she went into quite a lot of depth about Crystal and how society views marginal people like her. I was struck then with her frankness when she acknowledged that people were suddenly all interested in her opinions and ideas after she became rich and famous but not before. I think this book was very personal for her and she really wanted to discuss it right away, make sure people understood her intentions. Direct them to the central points of importance.

    I also find it very interesting that she is not following the pattern she adopted with Potter. Obviously her statute of secrecy was in place to protect her plot and prevent us being spoiled for the long saga. But she also never really joined in with the more adult conversations about Harry even after the books were completed. She gave her post DH in-depth interview to the MN and LC duo and happily rambled on with them about shipping issues and narrative questions. She was certainly aware there were websites full of readers who were discussing her themes and artistry at a more complex literary level. But she never went there. I asked myself why many times. I had thought she would have enjoyed the discourse. She doesn’t strike me as a woman afraid to get into the weeds with this kind of dialogue. I finally put it down to her wise nature and kindly, generous regard for her readers’ imaginations. By refusing to get into the kinds of discussions we have and place her definitive voice on any particular point, she leaves it open for endless musings and allows room for any and all ideas to flourish. Especially for her younger readers who may not be ready for the finer details of myth-building. The Hogwarts Saga is her great work and I think it remains great as long as she doesn’t diminish the conversation by telling us too much. Without any authorial revelations defining it, study of the books’ complexity is unlimited. I think she has been characteristically brilliant about this. Most of the books we call classics are so-called because we love them and remain interested in them long after the writer is gone and maybe especially after they are gone. Gone and unavailable to contradict our interpretations.
    The Casual Vacancy is another story. Even though I think it a remarkable book in every way, perhaps she doesn’t need to guard it’s secrets. It may have been important for her to write but its legacy is not.

  2. Plus they are promoting the paperback version coming out!

  3. I find it quite telling that she “reveals” her structural intentions without naming its obvious biblical source. Those who have eyes to see…and all that. My take is that this is just one more instance of “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.”

  4. phoenixsong58 says

    Nana, I think all that you said is brilliant and most likely true, the the Harry Potter saga is her “great work,” and it’s best left open to generations of serious readers to discuss and interpret.

    By the way, Beniy, was that quote “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” made up by Warner Brothers? I’ve never seen it in the books.

  5. I’m afraid I never questioned it’s authenticity. A quick search says it isn’t in the text, but it is on pictures that show the Hogwarts crest.

  6. phoenixsong58 says

    Did it come out with the movies or the tee shirts? I guess I could look it up! 🙂

  7. Odd Sverre Hove says

    I am sure she drew it to Bloomsbury before the publication of Philosophers Stone. She is good at drawing. It is on the front page below the book’s title.

  8. It looks like hers, it sounds like hers…it must be hers. Kloves is not that artful.

  9. phoenixsong58 says

    Actually, I searched a little more on line, and I found that Dumbledore says the motto “draco dormiens nunquam titallandus” in JKR’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And, sure enough, there it is right before Dumbledore’s signature in the forward. So, you are all right, it was JKR.
    On another note, I LOVED her discussion of Casual Vacancy in GoodReads! I really love hearing from her. What a gift.

  10. Hurrah!

  11. Linda Taylor says

    I loved A Casual Vacancy from beginning to end. I appreciated the character development and the use of language – really wonderful. My question concerns the connection between the Weedons and Barry. Was he Chrystal’s father or uncle (a child of Nana Cath???) Plus, even though Fats and Chrystal are the same age, so he couldn’t be a younger child taken at birth from Teri, there is kind of an implication there. In the past we had Barry in the Fields and Teri in Pagford and there is almost the sense that their paths crossed along the way.

  12. I know people would walk on by and not help because:

    When my son was four we were coming home from his school on our bikes. We were going down a hill when he lost control. and fell off the bike. I ran over to him he was crying, blood was everywhere…and about 15 people walked right by us. No one offered to help us. I had to walk myself, our son and two bikes all the way to our house.

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