Emerging Voices

The Sorcerer’s Stone, Mirror of Erised, and Horcruxes: Choice, Individuality, and Authenticity in Harry Potter

Nichole LeFebvre

Nichole LeFebvre will receive her B.A. in English Literature and American Studies from Pace University in May 2010 and is currently writing a book of poetry for her honors thesis. In the summer of 2009, she received a Leadership Alliance-Mellon Initiative fellowship to research at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. After graduation, she hopes to teach English in India for a year before pursuing the Ph.D. in literature.

Examining the Harry Potter series through the lens of existentialism reveals J.K. Rowling’s unmistakable ties to the philosophy, notably in the recurring theme of self-deception as a manner of avoiding one’s mortality. Rowling explores the role of materialism in self-deception and the fear of death. Her characters choose between material possessions and an authentic life, for it is precisely these belongings that create a false impression of happiness. Nicholas Flamel and Harry Potter both ponder material objects and eventually choose to give up their illusions in order to face the reality of death. Lord Voldemort, on the other hand, actually places pieces of his soul in his most prized possessions and never escapes from his anxiety about mortality. The author urges her readers to question their own fascination with making money and acquiring assets, for the characters who give up these belongings are shown in a positive light. Rowling’s novels display existential problems concerning material possessions: the Sorcerer’s Stone, Mirror of Erised, and Horcruxes all distract from the anxiety surrounding death by creating an illusion of happiness or success for their owners.

Rowling also deals with existentialism and self-deception when her characters adopt prescribed roles as an inauthentic way of life. Acting a role instead of consciously defining oneself, according to Sartre, is an attitude known as mauvaise foi, or bad faith. The dark wizards, especially, rely on these roles as a way of avoiding their mortality, and never create their own meaning. Voldemort, né Tom Riddle, recreated himself into a Lord to escape his feelings of insignificance. Playing this role, he forces his followers to succumb to his will. Thus the Death Eaters are also inauthentic beings, adopting the roles of servants and giving up their own freedom, which is reminiscent of the example of a café waiter Sartre uses to elucidate bad faith in Being and Nothingness.

Using existential philosophy as an approach to interpret Rowling’s work reveals an author who often focuses on choice, individuality and authenticity. To live a meaningful life, one must choose to take control and rid oneself of those material possessions and roles that distract from the truth of the human condition: we can never know what will happen after death. Other characters in literature exhibit this same internal debate of illusion versus reality, notably D’Arrast in Albert Camus’s short story “The Growing Stone.”

Even though Camus’s story demonstrates the unpredictability and absurdity in existence while Rowling’s magical world geared towards children may seem more predictable, Camus arrives at the same conclusion as J.K. Rowling. Hence each individual must create his or her own meaning through making personal choices and facing the difficult questions that pertain to the human condition. The unpredictable and absurdist aspect of existence found in the work of these philosophers and writers, some who align themselves with existentialism and others, like Camus, who break away from the title, is not apparent in Rowling’s work. Instead, Rowling deviates from existentialism in this respect, for she is limited by the magical world of the novels, chiefly that of its objective morality, whereas existential philosophers purport a more unpredictable subjective morality. The metaphysical fabric of Rowling’s magical world could not exist without the existence of objective morality, as “good” and “evil” characters are closely tied with the use of magic in literature. Furthermore, as Harry Potter is a child, his freedom is limited, and often controlled by Dumbledore. This abates, however, as the years progress. Harry Potter is even able to surpass Dumbledore, who continues to pursue the Deathly Hallows and is never truly able to escape his anxiety about mortality, through his choice to seek and destroy Voldemort’s horcruxes. Rowling’s characters may not be able to truly face the absurd, that sense of nothingness, because of the magical elements. However, one must not discount Rowling’s ties to existentialism solely based on this paucity of the absurd, for the other main tenets of the philosophy, namely choice, individuality, and authenticity, abound in her novels.

The Sorcerer’s Stone and Choice

Wealth and immortality tend to frequent the list of a human being’s greatest dreams. In Rowling’s first novel, the major conflict arises around the Sorcerer’s Stone, which fulfills for the possessor precisely these two desires. The stone can change any metal into gold, thus providing its owner, Nicholas Flamel, with inexhaustible prosperity. Furthermore, Flamel extracts the Elixir of Life from the Sorcerer’s Stone, which he and his wife drink to become immortal. The Sorcerer’s Stone is the ultimate material possession, preventing its owner from ever having to face the anxiety surrounding the human condition.

If one could guarantee everlasting life, one would never have to ask the difficult existential questions, such as What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? or What will happen when I die? But this would not really solve any problems. The immortal person would not be choosing to live authentically; rather he or she would be ignoring the choice altogether.  Immortality would lead to a lack of meaning in life, as humans, existentially derive meaning only after facing and rising above their fears. 

Rowling could have written The Sorcerer’s Stone without any mention of Nicholas Flamel at all. However, the inclusion of Flamel in her piece is vital and makes it strongly existential, as his final choice brings up important questions for both the reader and Harry Potter.  After the major conflict, that is Voldemort’s attempt to steal the Stone, subsides, Harry wakes up in the hospital and wonders about its security. Dumbledore tells him the Stone has been destroyed. The young wizard is highly confused, and simultaneously worried, as he understands the destruction of the Stone will result in the imminent death of Nicholas Flamel and his wife, Perenelle. Flamel’s rejection of material possessions greatly affects Harry, highlighting Rowling’s emphasis on her characters’ choice. James A. Morone, in his essay “Dumbledore’s Message,” comments on this existential aspect of the scene: “Harry is stunned because he finally comes to that existential moral truth: Goodness lies not in who you are but in what you decide, in what you do. … Dumbledore’s wisdom—goodness lies not in who we are but in what we choose—is Rowling's favorite theme” (2). Throughout her entire series, Rowling urges her readers to decide for themselves and to understand the importance of one’s right to choose. 

Rocks as Literary Tools: The Sorcerer’s Stone and the Growing Stone

What physical object is more often overlooked than the plain, simple rock? Juxtaposed with the average rock are the extraordinary experiences characters go through because of these two stones that are infused with superior meanings. José Ortega y Gasset, in his Toward a Philosophy of History, compares the stone with humanity:

The stone is given its existence; it need not fight for being what it is – a stone in the field. Man has to be himself in spite of unfavorable circumstances; that means he has to make his own existence at every single moment. He is given the abstract possibility of existing, but not the reality. This he has to conquer hour after hour. Man must earn his life, not only economically but metaphysically. (111)

The philosopher comments on this paucity of a pre-destined human outcome, as the stone gives one the opportunity to become what one chooses: The Sorcerer’s Stone gives two of human kind’s most sought after possessions, endless wealth and immortality. Rowling, however, never comments on Nicholas Flamel’s happiness as a result of his material possessions. Rather, Dumbledore notes to Harry that the couple seems tired of their existence: “To Nicholas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very very long day” (SS 297).

Similarly, Albert Camus’s “La Pierre qui Pousse,” or “The Growing Stone,” comments on human choice; the Growing Stone is the object of an annual ritual, during which a community member must carry it into the church to be placed on a shrine for Jesus. When the cook fails to carry the stone into the church, as a result of his late night dancing with the rest of the villagers, D’Arrast takes it upon himself to finish the mission. Yet instead of bringing it to the shrine, he veers onto his own path: “He saw the church and the shrine, which seemed to be waiting for him at the door. …Without knowing why, he veered off to the left and turned away from the church, forcing the pilgrims to face him. … ‘To the church! To the church!’ was what Socrates and the crowd were shouting at him.  Yet D’Arrast continued in the direction in which he was launched” (211).

Despite the differences in the purposes of these two rocks, both exist as illusions which two men, Flamel in Rowling’s novel, and D’Arrast in Camus’s short story, must cast off to make their own decisions about the meaning of their lives. Many, unfortunately, use their wealth or religion as similar guises with which to hide from their existential anxiety. While it is true that scores of religious people have firmly rooted beliefs only after questioning mortality and meaning, many blindly accept the religion of their family’s tradition. In this way both stones serve to remind us of the necessary act of casting off routine: be that routine Flamel’s 665 year-long life or the placement of a stone on an altar to be worshiped.

The Philosopher’s Stone, the original moniker of the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the Growing stone, both do precisely what their names suggest: the characters philosophize and grow as a result of their experiences with the stones. Rocks—simple, meaningless objects—are given amazing powers by the authors in an attempt to show the meaninglessness of our human obsession with material illusions. Through the examples of Flamel and D’Arrast, Rowling and Camus teach other characters in these works of literature and, consequently, their readers a highly valuable lesson about choice. Flamel chooses to destroy the Sorcerer’s Stone, ending his immortality, and he finally faces death. As Ortega notes, “Man must not only make himself: the weightiest thing he has to do is to determine what he is going to be” (155). D’Arrast breaks away from the community’s religious ritual and demonstrates to the villagers a new path. He is free to choose his own course in life, through which he finds his own meaning and indeed grows as a result of the stone. At the beginning of their stories, both men symbolize the modern obsession with garnering material possessions. Flamel, an alchemist, creates endless prosperity and D’Arrast, an engineer, originally goes to the village on a job to gain financial success. Just as Camus emphasizes a rejection of material possessions in “The Growing Stone,” Rowling, too urges her readers to question their dependence on objects and money. Rowling’s vision of choice mirrors Flamel’s rejection of everlasting life and prosperity. 

Harry Potter, the Individual

In his What is Existentialism? William Barrett uses Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger to explain the idea of an existential hero, emphasizing the necessity of confronting immortality. To be clear, Camus separated himself from the existentialists. Richard Gill and Ernest Sherman, in The Fabric of Existentialism, note, “Camus shares their basic metaphysical assumption that the universe cannot be comprehended in rational terms,” but because they are unwilling to live with the absurd, aim for unity, and ultimately take a leap of faith toward the transcendent, Camus differs and breaks away from the existentialists (535). However, despite their different views of the absurd, Camus and the existentialists do highly value individual choice and authenticity. Rowling’s novels, limited by the objective morality of the magical world indeed differ from Camus and other existential writers and philosophers. Yet Rowling does focus on choice, individuality, and authenticity: three themes that are common to Camus and the existentialists. If one replaces Meursault, the name of the main character in The Stranger, with Harry Potter in the following quote, Rowling’s emphasis on her title character’s individuality resonates quite clearly: “Though Harry Potter begins as a little man of no importance…caught up in the absurd lockstep of society, he nevertheless achieves a certain grandeur and heroism toward the end, when in the courageous confrontation of his death, he becomes authentically human” (Barrett 8).  Although in the wizarding world, Harry was always a well-known hero, the young boy does not learn of his fame until he is eleven and he also then learns of the existence of magic. Living for so long with the Dursleys, Harry is indeed trapped in the “absurd lockstep of society”; he has no means of advancement, as he is forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs, has only grossly oversized hand-me-downs to wear and never attains love from the only family he has ever known. Instead of misanthropically shrinking away from society, Harry becomes humbled by his mistreatment and consistently chooses to align himself with the good side, always fighting against Voldemort and dark magic. He is quite different from other characters brought up without paternal love, including Barty Crouch and of course, Voldemort, who both kill their own fathers (among others) and become evil, turning to dark magic to assuage their inner torment.

Furthermore, Harry does not latch onto his fame to gain a fan-base, but rather often finds himself isolated as its result. Again and again he is a main suspect in the crimes committed at Hogwarts, even though he is consistently attempting to resolve these very cases. As Barrett suggests, these themes—“the incurable isolation of the individual, the absurd mechanisms of society that destroy him, and the courage to face death while affirming life—have been persistent ones in existentialism” (Barrett 8). These same themes are prevalent in Rowling’s work as well.  Potter’s ability to speak to snakes and the burning sensation he feels in his scar often make him the object of suspicion. In the first book, Harry joins the Quidditch team and, because of his talent, becomes even more of a star. Harry, Ron, and Hermione, however, get caught sneaking around in the middle of the night and one hundred and fifty points are deducted from Gryffindor. “From being one of the most popular and admired people at the school, Harry was suddenly the most hated.…Everywhere Harry went, people pointed and didn’t trouble to lower their voices as they insulted him” (179). This is only the first of many times his reputation will be soiled, and the later incidents are far worse. Society continually attempts to destroy his merit; as is especially evident in The Chamber of Secrets and The Goblet of Fire. He must deal with horrific rumors spread by the journalist Rita Skeeter. Yet he never aligns himself with the dark side, despite offers from Draco Malfoy and Voldemort himself. As Dumbledore tells the young wizard in The Half-Blood Prince, “Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort’s world… you have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort’s followers” (511). 

Into the Mirror: A Look at Harry’s Identity

In the first book, Harry Potter stumbles upon the Mirror of Erised, which shows the viewer his or her deepest desire (Erised is desire spelled backwards). To Rowling, the Mirror of Erised is exceedingly personal, as she has said in an interview with a reporter from the British Broadcasting Corporation: “The Mirror of Erised is absolutely entirely drawn from my own experience of losing a parent. ‘Five more minutes, just, please, God, give me five more minutes.’ It'll never be enough” (13). Just as Rowling desires more time with her deceased mother, Harry, too, yearns for any semblance of a maternal relationship. Looking into the mirror, Harry is able to witness something he’s never had, a real family:

Harry was looking at his family, for the first time in his life....The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerfu kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness. (SS 151)

Intrigued, he remains in front of the mirror, consumed by the prospect of ridding himself of his orphan identity.  He returns with Ron, to try and figure out the mirror’s secret. For a third time, Harry goes back to the mirror. When he arrives, however, Dumbledore is there waiting.  The headmaster reveals the mirror’s true power to Harry, and then continues to say, “Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible” (SS 214). Harry must rid himself of this illusion and learn to accept the finality of death before forming a meaningful self identity. As Shawn E. Klein writes in his essay “The Mirror of Erised,” “Living our lives – not just dreaming or thinking about that life – is vitally important. A deeply authentic life is something that must be actively lived” (99).  Only after Dumbledore reveals the Mirror to be an illusion can Harry work towards acceptance, which resonates deeply through the head master’s powerful words in the first novel: “It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live” (SS 214). Young Potter must continually question his desires, but by the end of the book, he is able to face the mirror without wanting to use its powers for his own pleasure. When confronted with the evil Voldemort, Harry realizes his true desire to be finding the Sorcerer’s Stone and, instead of seeing his parents, he sees himself with the Stone safely in his pocket. Dumbledore protected the Stone by placing it in the mirror; only one who wished to find the Stone and not use it for wealth or immortality would be able to obtain it. Ridding himself of illusion, Harry Potter is able to defeat Voldemort, since he sought the Stone for pure, virtuous reasons.

Does Harry Ever Truly Value Material Possessions?

Briefly, The Mirror of Erised is a guise under which Harry hides; it reflects the image of his family, and in front of the Mirror, Harry is able to feel as if he is no longer an orphan. This is not the only material possession, however, that Harry contemplates in the first novel. At the end of the story, he is shocked to find the Stone has been destroyed, as he cannot fathom annihilating the (seemingly) precious object. Again through the voice of Dumbledore, Rowling’s vision resonates clearly. The headmaster tells Harry, “You know, the Stone was not really such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them” (SS 297). Harry Potter is still, after all, a child, and does indeed have the childish notion that money and material goods are equated with success and are always positive entities. Yet, as the Mirror shows, Harry never truly yearns for wealth; even if he believes himself to value the Stone’s endless money or the Mirror’s false illusion, his deepest desires are always virtuous. First he longs for a family and, at the end of the novel, young Potter wishes to obtain the Sorcerer’s stone purely for valiant purposes. As Klein notes, “The Mirror does offer us one truth—it shows us what we actually deeply and desperately desire.

While our lives shouldn’t be spent just in desire-satisfaction—as the Mirror of Erised illustrates for us—we do have desires that are worthwhile to pursue and satisfy” (103). The second vision Harry sees in the Mirror is indeed meaningful to achieve, as attaining the Stone protects against its falling in the hands of evil.  Never in the Mirror of Erised’s reflection is Harry surrounded by galleons, sickles or knuts, nor is he ever shown as an old man, living indefinitely. Rowling again paints a character in a positive light through his rejection of material objects and his subsequent attainment of a stronger identity.

Voldemort and the Inauthentic Existence

While it is evident, through their choices, that Flamel and Potter both strive towards authenticity, it is also apparent that Voldemort fails miserably in this aspect. Voldemort is Rowling's incarnation of evil; thus she portrays his actions to be incorrect. Rowling does not want her readers to behave like Voldemort in any manner. More than being the presence of absolute evil in the novels, Voldemort is also the quintessential example of an inauthentic existence. The character's inability to cope with death runs so deeply that he attempts to secure his immortality through any possible means.

His frantic yearning to obtain immortality is apparent from the very beginning of the series. In The Sorcerer's Stone, Voldemort lives as a parasite on the head of Professor Quirrell, drinking the blood of a unicorn to remain alive. Firenze, the centaur, tells Harry the monstrous nature of this act: “Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips” (258). This cursed half-life Rowling refers to emphasizes the notion that death need not be taken as a negative entity. Voldemort’s desperation to remain alive results in an existence worse than death itself. 

From Tom Riddle to Lord Voldemort

In The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore and Harry travel through the Pensieve into the Head Master’s memory so Harry can learn about Voldemort’s past. They visit the memory in which Dumbledore goes to Tom Riddle’s orphanage and speaks with Mrs. Cole, the matron. The woman recounts the minutes leading up to Riddle’s mother, Merope Gaunt’s death:  “She told me he was to be named Tom, for his father, and Marvolo, for her father—yes, I know, funny name, isn’t it?  We wondered whether she came from a circus—and she said the boy’s surname was to be Riddle.  And she died soon after that without another word” (265).

After speaking with Mrs. Cole, Dumbledore meets with Tom Riddle, a half-blood wizard, to invite the orphan to attend Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Not only is the young boy already showing evil tendencies—killing a rabbit and torturing other children—he also has a marked interest in death (266). Upon learning he is indeed a wizard, Riddle wonders which of his parents also had magical powers: “‘My mother can’t have been magic, or she wouldn’t have died,’ said Riddle, more to himself than Dumbledore” (274).  Even at the young age of eleven, Voldemort equates being a wizard with immortality. He no longer views himself as mortal, but rather feels he is superior to those without powers and believes magic can eradicate death.

After Dumbledore and Harry leave the Pensieve, they discuss what they had just witnessed.  Dumbledore notes,

“Firstly, I hope you noticed Riddle’s reaction when I mentioned that another shared his first name, Tom? ... There he showed his contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary.  Even then, he wished to be different, separate, notorious.  He shed his name, as you know, within a few short years of that conversation and created the mask of ‘Lord Voldemort’ behind which he has been hidden for so long.”             (276-77).

Voldemort cannot bear for his identity to be linked to his father or grandfather. His undeniable obsession with power starts at a young age, apparent both in the orphanage and while he is a student at Hogwarts. Rowling also emphasizes illusion versus reality, as she notes the wizard’s name is a “mask” or guise he hides behind. 

Becoming God: Voldemort, the Death Eaters, and Bad Faith

Instead of simply changing his name, Voldemort uses this as an opportunity to recreate himself as a god; in doing so, he is acting in bad faith, playing the part of a god to avoid facing his own mortality. He rearranges the letters in his name to form his new identity, giving himself the title of Lord. Unable to cope with death, Voldemort adopts the role of an all-powerful god, ruling over others. According to Rowling in an interview with Melissa Anelli and Emerson Spartz, "Voldemort's fear is death, ignominious death. I mean, he regards death itself as ignominious. He thinks that it's a shameful human weakness" (2). To combat this weakness, Voldemort sets out to become God to his followers, proving his position of power by calling them his servants. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues, “[T]he one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth…There must be an original intention and a project of bad faith” (49). Voldemort knows he is mortal, but chooses to lie to himself, focusing all his energy and devoting his whole life to the pursuit of immortality.

Perhaps the best examples of bad faith in the novel are the Death Eaters, as they eagerly tend to Voldemort’s every whim, adopting the roles of servants. The Death Eaters, in serving Voldemort, are just like the café waiter Sartre uses to elucidate the meaning of bad faith: “His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid.…He bends forward a little too eagerly.…All his behavior seems to us a game” (59). Those who follow Voldemort feel it an honor to serve Voldemort. Kreacher, the House-elf of One Grimmauld Place, who once belonged to the Black family and now to Harry Potter, recounts the tale of Regulus Black in The Deathly Hallows: "When he was sixteen years old, Master Regulus joined the Dark Lord. So proud, so proud, so happy to serve..." (193). Many other characters in the series find pride in pledging their allegiance to Voldemort. For example, at the end of The Goblet of Fire, Barty Crouch retells the tale of his service to the dark lord: “He asked me whether I was ready to risk everything for him. I was ready. It was my dream, my greatest ambition, to serve him, to prove myself to him” (688). With men and women playing the roles of loyal followers, Voldemort is on his way to becoming the god he believes himself to be, and only securing his immortality would complete the process. Voldemort uses this identity of a Lord, an all-powerful being, to prove to himself he is not like other wizards. The entire charade is a result of the dark character’s inability to confront his fear surrounding death.  Instead of facing his anxiety, Voldemort attempts to cheat death. 

Material Possessions and Illusion

Besides his new name and role of a god, Lord Voldemort has other illusions to hide behind. The actual material possessions creating an illusion of security for Voldemort are his Horcruxes. He literally tears his soul into pieces, placing it into six prized possessions, and a seventh accidentally in Harry Potter. In The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore and Potter venture into the memory of Slughorn, who once taught young Tom Riddle at Hogwarts, and even spoke with him about the definition of a Horcrux. Riddle asks Slughorn about the word Horcrux, feigning innocence on the dark subject matter, even though he is truly interested in making them. “‘Well, you split your soul, you see,’ said Slughorn, ‘and hide part of it in an object outside the body.  Then, even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged. But of course, existence in such a form…few would want it, Tom, very few.  Death would be preferable’” (498). The significance of authenticity, for Rowling, is apparent in this particular passage, for she notes that this existence—the one Voldemort ultimately chooses—is less desirable than death and few would attempt this means of life.  To live so falsely, so apprehensive of death as to counteract nature and rip one’s soul into pieces, is utterly inauthentic. 

Self-Worth and Secular Objects

While he is hiding torn pieces of his soul in material possessions, Voldemort is doing more than ensuring his immortality. He is choosing to live under the guise of these Horcruxes instead of seeking out an authentic existence. Furthermore, Voldemort uses only objects of extreme importance, both monetary and historical, to encase his soul. In The Half-Blood Prince Dumbledore, speaking to Harry, comments on Voldemort’s necessity to show off his self-worth by parading his possessions. “‘Lord Voldemort liked to collect trophies, and he preferred objects with a powerful magical history. His pride, his belief in his own superiority, his determination to carve for himself a startling place in magical history; these things, suggest to me that Voldemort would have chosen his Horcruxes with some care, favoring objects worthy of the honor’” (505).  Thus Voldemort uses relics from the founders of Hogwarts, including Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup, Salazar Slytherin’s Locket, and Rowena Ravenclaw’s Diadem. Tom Riddle’s diary also has importance in the wizarding world, for Dumbledore states, “The diary, as you have said yourself, was proof that he was the Heir of Slytherin. I am sure Voldemort considered it of stupendous importance” (505). Voldemort is intentionally demonstrating his power by procuring these historical relics in order to create immortality. Rowling’s accent on authenticity rings clearly through the use of these Horcruxes, just as Voldemort’s inauthenticity is quite evident. In terms of existentialism, Voldemort cannot work towards a meaningful existence, for the dark lord’s only goal in life is to escape from death. Without a conceived notion of death, one cannot create authentic meaning in life; Rowling’s evil character is the epitome of an inauthentic being, for he deceives himself again and again. 

Contrasting Flamel and Potter with Voldemort

William Barrett, in the beginning of Irrational Man notes some of the themes of existentialism to be “anxiety, death, [and] the faceless man of the masses” (9). These three entities are quite apparent in Rowling’s work, for the authentic beings such as Flamel and Potter struggle with their anxiety surrounding death, while Voldemort’s followers—men of the masses—give up their own identities in order to serve the dark lord. J.K. Rowling advocates choice, individuality and authenticity despite the angst that is inherent in facing death. As Shawn Klein notes, “Truth, knowledge, and the important values of real relationships and authentic living are worth fighting for and being passionate about; appearances and deceptions, inauthentic relationships, and merely simulated living are not” (102). Both Flamel and Potter fit under the category of authentic living, unlike Voldemort who values appearances, deceives himself, has no close relationships, and only lives through the darkest, most evil means.

Rowling’s emphasis on a rejection of illusion is apparent in the good characters who face death, especially in Harry’s ultimate choice between uniting the Deathly Hallows and destroying Voldemort’s horcuxes. Flamel’s death as a result of destroying the Sorcerer’s Stone is not a loss, for he accepts the inevitability of death and chooses to face the unknown. Similarly, by the end of the series Harry Potter must face his own death in order to defeat Voldemort. Dumbledore himself grappled with the lure of the Deathly Hallows. Upon finding Marvolo’s ring, he recognizes the resurrection stone, and forgets that, as a horcrux, it is cursed by Voldemort. Still enraptured by the lure of bringing his deceased relatives back to life, Dumbledore puts on the ring and the curse destroys his hand; it ultimately would have led to his death, had he not asked Snape to kill him in an attempt to destroy the elder wand, another of the three Deathly Hallows. Harry Potter, when faced with the choice between uniting the Deathly Hallows and destroying the horcruxes, chooses valiantly to face death and relinquish both the elder wand and the resurrection stone. (He keeps the invisibility cloak, as it belonged to his father, and plans to continue to pass it through the family line.)

Once again, in the character of wise-old Albus Dumbledore, Rowling’s ties to existentialism resonate clearly. At the end of The Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore says, “You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying” (721). With the ideas of existential philosophy in mind, the reader can, without a doubt, comprehend the author’s emphasis on the necessity of having the bravery to make conscious decisions, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Her noble characters resist the urge to live with illusions, while her incarnation of evil depends on his material possessions for a pathetic and extremely inauthentic existence.

Escaping from death is a central theme throughout the series, as Harry Potter initially rises to fame as "The Boy Who Lived." Rowling brings up many difficult existential questions including How does one cheat death? and Would one want to even if one could? The good characters who prevail teach the reader to acknowledge the reality that one day he or she will indeed die. At the end of the series Harry Potter is no longer simply the boy who lived, but the man who accepted the reality of death and lived authentically.


Works Cited

Baggett, David, and Shawn E. Klein, eds. Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. Vol. 9. Popular Culture and Philosophy. Peru: Open Court, 2005.

Barrett, William. Irrational Man. New York: Random House, 1990.

- - -. What is Existentialism? 2nd ed. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

Camus, Albert. Exile and the Kingdom. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Gill, Richard and Ernest Sherman, eds. The Fabric of Existentialism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Merton, Reginald. “Magicians, Seers, and Mystics.” Nicholas Flamel: The Immortal French Alchemist. 9 April 2008.  <http://www.alchemylab.com/flamel.htm>

Morone, James. "Dumbledore's Message." American Prospect 17 Dec. 2001: 40-1.

Ortega, y Gasset José.  Toward a Philosophy of History.  Trans. H. Weyl, E. Clark, and W. Atkinson.  3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. 

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Books, 1999.

- - -. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  New York: Scholastic Books, 2007.

- - -. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Books, 2000. 

- - -. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  New York: Scholastic Books, 2005. 

- - -. "Harry Potter and Me." BBC (2001): 15 pp. Accio Quote!, The Largest Archive of JK Rowling Interviews on the Web. 29 Oct. 2008 <http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2001/1201-bbc-hpandme.htm>.

- - -. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  New York: Scholastic Books, 1998.

- - -. "The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet Interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part Two." The Leaky Cauldron June-July 2005: 14 pp. Accio Quote!, The Largest Archive of JK Rowling Interviews on the Web.  19 Oct. 2008 <http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2005/0705-tlc_mugglenet-anelli-2.html>.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.


Nichole LeFebvre

Volume 13, Issue 3 The Looking Glass, September/October 2009

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2009.
"The Sorcerer’s Stone, Mirror of Erised, and Horcruxes: Choice, Individuality, and Authenticity in Harry Potter" © Nichole LeFebvre, 2009
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor

The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680