The Boy in the Cupboard: Harry Potter as Child Migrant

This 'street urchin' from the 19th century was cared for by the Barnardo's organization.

This ‘street urchin’ from the 19th century was cared for by the Barnardo’s organization.

Harry Potter as child migrant, or what Canadians call a Home Child? Well, when we first meet Harry at the Dursleys, he is literally living in a cupboard beneath the stairs. He is purposely kept underground in the consciousness of these rigidly mainstream people. He represents something dangerous, alien. It’s a hyper-charged metaphor for the alienness of the abject poor in Victorian England—MP Samuel Smith in the mid-19th century described them as “sewage.” 1 Yet at some level the unmistakable humanity of these poor children pricked his conscience, albeit in a slightly warped way. He put up money to send the little beggars across the ocean—exporting the problem to the colonies. It was at least more humane than witch burnings, granted.

I’m struck by the thought that JK Rowling is articulating something deeply archetypal in the British psyche. As if the collective unconscious has used Harry Potter for its voice—the ghost of the workhouse child, the orphanage child, the child immigrant. These voices were marginalized, heard only as beastly, subhuman caricatures by the Victorians. Granted, there is no romance about the poor. They were often filthy, intoxicated, uncouth and even violent. But the Victorians had the telescope the wrong way round. They had a knack for mistaking the effects for the cause. The squalor they perceived among the poor was at least in part due to a failure of public infrastructure and basic sanitation.

Seebohm Rowntree was that rarity among the elite: a man who worked for the improvement of social conditions for the poor. Courtesy History of Social Work

Being a boy wizard, Harry represents everything mainstream ‘Muggle’ society fears and hates— spontaneity, adventure, passion, integrity but most of all unpredictability. In short, all the ingredients of magic, the ingredients of art. While the Malthusian doctrine held sway, the poor seemed more like wild animals than suffering humans. 2 In fact, they were declared “a positive danger to the State.” 3 The Victorian penchant for blaming the victim was a costly mistake, making nonsense of their newly emerging science. Strangely enough it took caring individuals from the very elite that benefited most from poverty to start changing social perceptions of the poor. Most notably, the Rowntree family, Charles Booth, and Lord Shaftesbury.

Charles Booth, heir to an industrial fortune, dedicated his life to studying the causes of poverty in Britain. Courtesy History of Social Work

These men combined social science with compassion and finally peeled away the skein of blame that had been used to evade societal responsibility for poverty. What was revealed was the dark side of capitalism—the face bruised and battered by the Market’s ‘invisible hand.’ Obviously nobody’s fool, Annie Macpherson made no bones about her position as a ‘child saver’ in the late 19th century. She realized her charity missions for children were nothing more than a triage station in an economic war zone. While accepting that the British class system was part of the divine order, she also understood who was culpable: “God is watching the grasping capitalists and the oppressors of the poor, the grinding taskmasters who cannot wring another farthing out of the toilers.” 4

That many of these same wealthy industrialists also gave money to the children’s missions can’t be denied. But was it charity? Or guilt money? As labour historian Joy Parr points out, they did this in full confidence that the status quo would remain the same: “Many of the men and women connected with philanthropic child emigration work were, like Maria Rye and Samuel Smith, social conservatives searching for policies that would relieve distress among the poor but not require change in Britain.” 5 That status quo allowed for a poverty rate as high as 30 percent during the 1890s, higher in the chronically depressed areas of the North, Scotland, Wales, and the Midlands industrial areas. 6 Studies of poverty in Britain by Charles Booth 7 and Seebohm Rowntree 8 finally made it clear that poverty was an economic and social policy issue, not a genetic or moral one. The social sciences were at last gaining a scientific footing.

JK Rowling, like Charles Dickens, features an orphan as her central character. Courtesy collider.com

JK Rowling as a writer stands in the same continuum as Charles Dickens. Both featured strong central characters who happened to be orphans: Harry Potter and Oliver Twist, to name only one of Dickens’ disadvantaged heroes. Whatever his literary faults may be, Dickens had the genius to transform marginalized ‘waifs and strays’ into instantly and forever memorable characters. Characters who were regular boys and girls with hopes and dreams as normal as anyone’s. He put a human face on the social tragedy, and that naturally evokes compassion. Having personal experience with child labour and having his family wrenched apart by poverty made Dickens ideally situated to perform this literary feat. A stroke of divine inspiration, to have created the single image that brands Victorian child poverty in our minds and hearts: Oliver Twist—little, weedy, trembling, hungry Oliver, with the gumption to hold his bowl up to the world and sweetly ask, “Please sir, may I have some more?” Given what the poor had to look forward to, it wasn’t much to ask.

Rowling, like Dickens, has a knack for creating instantly unforgettable characters: Ron Weasley, Hagrid, Dumbledore, the evil Voldemort…. Like Oliver Twist, Fagin, Little Nell, Scrooge, they have become part of the public consciousness. In terms of the sheer inventiveness of her imagination, Rowling is unparalleled. In just the first novel, The Sorcerer’s Stone, she creates Hogwart’s, Quidditch, owl post, Diagon Alley…. She is certainly in the same league as Tolkien and CS Lewis in the fantasy realm. And once again in English literature we have an orphan protagonist, this time with overtones of the quest hero not altogether far removed from the Arthurian tradition. Actually it’s an ancient archetype and Rowling handles it deftly. Unlike the princeling of chivalric tradition however, Harry Potter starts off as disadvantaged as they come, yet with a distinct element of the ‘high born.’ Though the Dursleys hardly consider anyone of wizard parentage ‘high born.’ In The Chamber of Secrets, Rowling writes, “…as far as they were concerned, having a wizard in the family was a matter of deepest shame.” 9

Described variously as 'waifs and strays,' 'gutter trash,' and even 'sewage,' these poor children in the 19th century had few options.

Described variously as ‘waifs and strays,’ ‘gutter trash,’ and even ‘sewage,’ these poor children in the 19th century had few options.

Here too we hear distinct echoes of the Home Child—the deeply felt shame of a child made to feel, not just second class, but even ‘gutter trash,’ ‘sewage,’ and a menace to society. It was a shame that silenced generations. Many of these individuals were silenced right to their graves. Their stories were forever lost. Obviously Rowling’s books can be read on many levels, but this theme is certainly among the threads. In The Chamber of Secrets Harry is forced to spend his “worst birthday ever” with the Dursleys pretending he doesn’t exist. 10 He is locked into his cupboard and fed through the cat door as punishment—an eerie echo of the very punishments experienced by children in orphanages, workhouses and on remote Canadian farms. 11 Once again it seems Rowling here is articulating the voice of the collective unconscious. She is a channel for these lost voices of the past. In Harry Potter they can be the heroes of a grand story, a great quest.

Rowling too seems to intuit that at some level she is a conduit for ancestral voices. There is the persistent theme of Harry’s dead parents acting as both motivation and support, even guidance from across the veil. In Tolkien we see it rather less subtly in Aragorn’s recruitment of the Army of the Dead. Professor Dumbledore says to Harry: “You think the dead we have loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him.” 12 This is very much akin to the North American Native beliefs in the realm of ancestors. In Asia veneration of ancestors is widespread, and for good reason. We in the West have been deceived by Christianity into abandoning our ancestors. Thankfully they haven’t abandoned us yet.

Coming up: Part Two of The Boy in the Cupboard—Harry Potter as Child Migrant

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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