Hermione in the Bathroom (the construction of female gender through the Gothic elements of Harry Potter) – June Cummins


June Cummins writes:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 2Anyone teaching, as well as many people reading, the Harry Potter series is aware that J.K. Rowling borrows from, or blends in, a number of literary genres while writing her books. A learned, sophisticated reader could rattle off the names of particular genres, such as school stories, the Bildungsroman, high fantasy, epic, medieval legend, and so on; while even a relatively untutored or inexperienced reader can sense the connections between Harry Potter and well-known stories such as Star Wars or famous fairytales like Cinderella Yet, despite the classic ‘trappings’ of a Gothic novel, including ‘castles, ghosts, corrupt clergy, and so on,’ as described by Donna Heiland in Gothic and Gender (2004: 4), not much mention of the Gothic has been made in the critical discourse of the Harry Potter novels. For example, as of June 2006, a search on the terms ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘gothic’ through the MLA bibliography database yielded zero hits On the first page of her article ‘Generic Fusion and the Mosaic of Harry Potter,’ Anne Hiebert Alton lists ‘gothic’ as one of the genres within the series, along with ‘pulp fiction, mystery…horror stories, detective fiction, the school story and the closely related sports story, and series books’ (2003: 141), but does not go on to explore the Gothic elements of the books. This lack of attention is understandable for the very reason addressed in Alton’s article title: ‘Generic Fusion.’ The Gothic elements merge so smoothly into so many other genres within the Harry Potter series and are so natural to [-p.178] its setting that they are almost invisible or at least so normalized that it appears as if they do not merit attention.” (pp.177-178)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneCummins continues: “Yet Rowling’s use of Gothic elements or conventions goes beyond the architecture of Hogwarts or the inclusion of classic haunted characters such as ghosts and werewolves throughout the series. Significantly, Gothic elements of the novel rise to the surface of the stories when the topic under consideration or at least narrative exposition is that of female development. At crucial junctures, the Gothic is blended with elements of Horror or the Grotesque in a swirl of allusions that evoke age-old narrative traditions surrounding female development. Specifically, Hermione, a most decidedly un-Gothic heroine for the vast majority of the Harry Potter series, slips into a Gothic mode at a moment of important psychical and perhaps physical transformation. Another character, however, Moaning Myrtle, very much a Gothic, as well as comic, character shows up in and remains in a Gothic mode throughout the series. …J.K. Rowling pushes hard on these elements when she needs to tell the story of female development.” (p.178)

Cummins analyses closely the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) (i.e., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) when Hermione locks herself in the bathroom, crying, and Ron and Harry send a troll in there (and then proceed to defeat it). Cummins reads this scene as pivotal to Hermione’s character – and to her relationship with Ron and Harry. She begins by demonstrating its connection (through the setting of the bathroom) with menarche and female growth, then discusses its role in changing Hermione into someone who is not just bossy, argumentative, intelligent, competitive, etc., but also willing to lie for her friends, worry about what others think of her, and rely on her (male) friends to get by. Among others, one “intertextual device linking the scene to the Gothic is that of the damsel in distress,” Cummins explains, “a character stereotype totally opposite to Hermione’s character in all other dangerous scenes that include her in the series. During this scene, Hermione becomes a traditional ingénue character.” (p.184)

Cummins poses the question: “Is Hermione an ‘agential’ adult who opens the way for social transformation and a postmodern heroine who subverts patriarchy and other forms of oppression?” (p.187) Her answer is interesting, in that it involves a parallel reading of Moaning Myrtle…:

“Moaning Myrtle, with her tears, sighs, pimples, and suicidal tendencies, is, among other things, a parody of a teenage girl. Part of that parody is her residence in the girls’ bathroom, and her intimate familiarity with sinks, pipes, and toilets. With Myrtle, Rowling simultaneously makes fun of and points out the important status of the girls’ bathroom in the lives of (pre)teenage girls.” (p.179)

Hermione’s story slips into a Gothic mode when she reaches puberty/becomes a woman, but she then exits that mode to go on to become a much more dynamic and genre-busting character. Moaning Myrtle, however is stuck in the bathroom, which is the very site of female development [Cummins explains the connection between bathrooms and menarch in YA lit earlier in her essay], and is stuck in a Gothic mode as a permanent ghost. We can argue that Myrtle is sacrificed to the Gothic plot. While there are parodic and comedic elements to her, and we laugh at her character, her tears are actually quite symbolic of the sadness behind the way girls still get arrested – stuck- in certain patterns of behavior and expectations, even today, in our supposedly post-feminist world. Myrtle, then, is a kind of heroine in her own right, as she serves as a reminder of a path many girls take, while Hermione represents the potential alternative.” (p.190)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) June Cummins ‘Hermione in the Bathroom: The Gothic, Menarche, and Female Development in the Harry Potter Series’ pp.177-193 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York

Reference is to: Anne Hiebert Alton (2003) Generic fusion and the mosaic of Harry Potter. In E Heilman (Ed.) Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives (pp.141-162). New York: RoutledgeFalmer

Donna Heiland (2004) Gothic and Gender: An Introduction. Malden, MA; Osford, UK; Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing.