The Domestic Ideal
When Harry’s parents were murdered in his infancy, Harry was taken to the only relatives he had left, the magic-despising Dursleys. His Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, along with their son Dudley, made Harry’s life miserable growing up, giving him the absolute bare minimum while lavishing gifts and treats upon Dudley. While Harry was forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs until his eleventh birthday, Dudley had two bedrooms to himself just to accommodate his excessive toy collection. Harry’s cheerless childhood left him longing for a family who cared for him, longing for somewhere he was understood, accepted, and loved.
In many ways, Hogwarts became this place for Harry. Hogwarts was “the first and best home he had known” (Deathly Hallows 697). It was where Harry discovered that he had a place in the world and that he was wanted. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry comes across the Mirror of Erised, an enchanted mirror that shows the deepest desire of anyone who stands before it. Peering into its reflection, Harry sees himself surrounded by smiling, waving family members. He returns to the mirror, night after night, entranced by the image, longing for what the mirror shows, longing for a family.
Harry’s yearning for a family provides his ultimate motivation throughout the series. He wants to avenge his parents’ murder and stop Voldemort to ensure that their sacrifice to him was not in vain. When Remus Lupin proposes leaving his pregnant wife to help Harry on his quest to defeat Voldemort, Harry explodes at him. The thought of a child growing up without a parent, as he had, was unthinkable.
Throughout the series, family is seen as the single-most important aspect of life. Even characters who have displayed the most deplorable of actions are shown to be willing to sacrifice anything for family. In Deathly Hallows, Narcissa Malfoy betrays what was her primary motivation in life, her loyalty to Voldemort, in order to save the life of her son. When Voldemort asks Narcissa to determine whether Harry is dead, she lies for him after he tells her that her son is still alive and within Hogwarts’ walls.
Still feigning death on the ground, [Harry] understood. Narcissa knew that the only way she would be permitted to enter Hogwarts, and find her son, was as part of the conquering army. She no longer cared whether Voldemort won (Deathly Hallows 726).
Hagrid faces death and imprisonment for smuggling his half-brother (and giant), Grawp, away from his mountain colony where Grawp would have likely been killed. Rowling also provides examples of the dangers of a loveless childhood in the characters of Voldemort. While pregnant with him, Voldemort’s mother was abandoned by his father, and, destitute, gave birth at an orphanage. She died shortly thereafter, leaving Voldemort, then known as Tom Riddle, to grow up parentless and unaware of his magical gifts. Never knowing love, Voldemort eventually became the most feared wizard in history. Dumbledore explains, “that which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows nothing” (Deathly Hallows 709).
On his very first train ride to Hogwarts, Harry befriends Ron Weasley. The whole Weasley family becomes a surrogate family for Harry, providing the structure, warmth, and love that the Dursleys never could. Molly Weasley treats Harry as if he were her own son, saying “he’s as good as” (Order of the Phoenix 90). For the bulk of the series, Molly Weasley’s only purpose in the books is to serve as an example of what a mother figure should be, doting on her sons, worrying about their well-being, and making sure they stay out of trouble. She stands out in sharp contrast to Petunia Dursley, the next prominent mother figure in the series. Petunia’s obsession is with maintaining a clean house and being the envy of her neighbors. She spoils her son and spends much of her time keeping up on neighborhood gossip.
Other females in the series also serve as mothering figures, of sorts. Hermione often fills the role of caretaker for Harry and Ron, helping them with assignments when they fall behind and making sure that Harry eats properly before Quidditch matches. Professor McGonagall is the head of the Gryffindor house and serves as a mother figure for her students, making sure they do not stay up too late after a Gryffindor team win.
In many ways, the Harry Potter series falls under the label of fairy tale. The books feature clear moral lessons (the power of love over hate), a fight between good versus evil, magic and enchantment, and, most importantly, a happily ever after. In this case, what Rowling shows as the perfect happy ending is to be married and have children, the same nuclear family that has prescribed as ‘ideal’ for generations. The final page of the epilogue describes Harry seeing his son off for his first year at Hogwarts.
The train began to move, and Harry walked alongside it, watching his son’s thin face, already ablaze with excitement. Harry kept smiling and waving, even though it was like a little bereavement, watching his son glide away from him . . .
The last trace of steam evaporated in the autumn air. The train rounded a corner. Harry’s hand was still raised in farewell.
“He’ll be all right,” murmured Ginny.
As Harry looked at her, he lowered his hand absentmindedly and touched the lightning scar on his forehead.
“I know he will.”
The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well (Deathly Hallows 759).
While it is not harmful for children to aspire to have a family of their own one day, it is important for them to understand that it is not the end-all measure of success and happiness. Professional, academic, and a host of other ambitions can bring an equal level of satisfaction. We see Rowling’s world through Harry’s eyes, and so when Harry achieves the one thing he has wanted all his life, it conveys to the reader his sense of fulfillment. That’s not to say that Rowling herself sees the nuclear family as the ultimate achievement, however, it would be positive for children to be exposed to a less traditional measure of accomplishment.