What is morality? The general and most broadly accepted of its definitions is that morality is the difference between what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong,’ but what creates that distinction? A persons’ culture is undoubtedly the biggest influence in how they perceive morality. A pressing question is where does one learn culture?
Arguably a culture is learned from the stories of that culture. Furthermore, it is those stories from which one can extrapolate the base morality, as the stories are what the children of that culture are raised to believe in. Initially, children of all cultures have no concrete concepts of morality, stuck as they are in the infantile stage where all decisions are made for them and they rely completely on their guardians. It is only as they grow into adults that people learn to make their own moral decisions. A tradition throughout history for the child to come of age into themselves and into adulthood, which is where the tradition of the coming-of-age story originates.
The bildungsroman is an archetype familiar to any manner of reader, because it is popular in almost every genre. The goal of the bildungsroman is often to bring the reader into their own coming of age through exposition of the spiritual and sometimes physical journeys of the protagonist. Two genres that are able to convey the message of the bildungsroman well are realism and fantasy.
The question posed now is can we equate both realism and fantasy in terms of morality? Can one genre be held above another as being superior in its moral values and teachings? To examine these questions, I am focusing on two series of books, Persepolis[i] and Harry Potter[ii].
Realistic novels such as Persepolis and fantasy novels such as Harry Potter are fairly equivalent in their portrayal of moral values. While they do have several obvious differences in tone and in their portrayal of the universe, at their core they aim to achieve similar goals of promoting the values of the protagonist, if not the author themselves. When one compares two works of fantastic and realistic literature this becomes quite clear, especially with Harry Potter and Persepolis, which have several direct parallels.
As with all heroes in a coming of age novel, Harry and Marjane both have an elderly mentor who guides them throughout (Albus Dumbledore and the grandmother respectively), and a younger mentor who guides them as a secondary parental figure but is then lost (Sirius Black[iii] and Uncle Anoosh[iv]). In both novels this loss creates a void in the protagonists. For Marjane it causes a loss of faith in God and she rejects the projection of him that tries to comfort her.[v] She then lies down alone until a shout tells her that they are being bombed.[vi] In the similar case, when Sirius dies Harry has grief enough that he goes nearly mad from it. When Dumbledore tells him that his pain is part of being human, Harry’s response is to shout that he doesn’t want to be human. Dumbledore then calmed him best he could before he placed the weight of the prophecy on Harry’s shoulders.[vii]
These scenes are noteworthy because they show a key difference in realism and fantasy. In both situations the protagonist lost someone close to them before being thrust into a new and dangerous situation. In the realistic Persepolis, what was lost for Marjane was all in the real world, and she is facing real world dangers and real world truths. The injustices she faces are a disturbing reality, which can cause people to shy away from stories like Persepolis. Due to the seriousness of realism the deeper meaning can be harder to extrapolate; or conversely, it can be so easy to perceive that the reader is turned away from it out of a sense that the author is pushing an agenda. In this instance, it tends towards the latter.
In contrast, Harry’s assumption of his role as “The Chosen One”[viii] only draws in more people to the story of Harry Potter. Through this pull, Harry Potter is able to teach much the same lessons as a more traditional novel. As a fantasy, Harry Potter masks its morality in ways that a realistic novel might not. For instance, in Persepolis Marjane uses the veil and other restrictions put on women as an example of a type of oppression, making her opinions on equality and women’s rights clear. In Harry Potter this is done in a more indirect fashion. Rowling instead uses a cast of characters that show that ultimately it is women who are just as if not more important than then men by having them be the true undoing of Voldemort. If it were not for Lily Potter’s sacrifice, Harry Potter would never have been the boy-who-lived.[ix] Similarly if Narcissa Malfoy had not lied to Lord Voldemort, Harry never would have made it out of the Forbidden Forest to defeat Voldemort for the final time.[x] By doing this, Rowling uses Voldemort’s underestimation of the strength of a woman against him, proving that women are integral parts of society and can be dangerous when ignored.
As a fantasy story, Harry Potter is allowed to have multiple layers of morality that would not fit in a traditional realistic novel. The coming of age narrative, the ramifications of political conquest through Voldemort’s regime in the seventh book,[xi] the effects of slavery through house elves[xii] and importance of friendship in hardships[xiii], recognizing one’s own humanity and the humanity of others, [xiv] and the power of loving others before oneself[xv] are all evident within the Harry Potter books. This is but scratching upon the surface of the themes in such a series, and it is evident from these examples that fantasy series are much less cut-and-dry than many would have one believe.
When one looks deeper into the text they can see some for the lessons that can be learned from Harry Potter are actually quite complex. To expand on one of the examples above, when examining the political regime that is the Wizarding World controlled by Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it can be seen that muggleborns are forced to register themselves and are consequently hunted down and sent to Wizarding Prison[xvi], analogous to political prisoners in Persepolis who are murdered after being released.[xvii]
A related correlation between Harry Potter and Persepolis is the rhetoric that students are exposed to at Hogwarts and the rhetoric at the various institutions that Marjane attends. Both protagonists speak out against said rhetoric and are punished for doing so. Marjane is expelled for rebelling against the dress code and hitting the principal[xviii] and at later schools speaks out to the point where her parents send her away to Austria, where her outspokenness will not cause her danger. As is explained in the text, by being so outspoken she is literally risking her life.[xix] This is no small point, and strikes home with readers about the dangerous situation in Iran.
In contrast, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry is not expelled for speaking out against the ministry, but instead outright tortured by his Professor with a quill that writes in his own blood.[xx] In the later Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows students are again tortured under the regime of Voldemort by having to practice torture curses on people who earn detentions.[xxi] This is particularly shocking because it is turning the students against one another.
The torture of the blood quill is exceptionally gruesome because it is Harry being forced to torture himself, and furthermore feeling like he cannot approach any adult about it for help. It is a situation that no one can relate to, because blood quills do not exist, but that everyone can relate to, because the feeling of being alone and having no one responsible to turn to in a time of extreme trauma is something universal.
There is a similar situation in Persepolis where Marjane is overcome by her emotion at losing her boyfriend and has almost no one to turn to. This is a much more extreme situation, as she ends up living on the streets and almost dying of sickness.[xxii] The passage presents hitting rock bottom at its finest. Nonetheless it falls slightly short of hitting the universality mark because as realistic literature it has to stay true to one person’s experience and cannot branch out into the fantastical that it so improbable that the situation seems universal.
I point out these correlations to explain how the different moral values can be shown with just as much validity in a realistic novel as a fantasy novel. While the realistic novel is able to show how these things happen in the actual world, a fantasy novel is able to bring them to life in a way that is applicable to people in a sheltered way so that they can learn the harsher truths without being exposed to them in the real world. While the fates of the fantasy characters are horrific, the reader knows that no children were actually forced to use torture curses on one another.
One could argue that this means that realistic works are morally superior because they are able to force the reader to accept the harsh truths about our world instead of adhering to escapist theories. This is flawed, however, because the argument ignores the fact that many readers intentionally shy away from the harsher realities, and by including them in a fantasy novel the moral values can be learned in such a way as to encourage the reader to involve themselves in issues that they might not have otherwise. A reader of Harry Potter might decide to involve themselves in activism, perhaps against child soldiers in reaction to forcing torture on the students. In this way works like Harry Potter can be more effective in getting the general populace to accept the harsher realities precisely because those realities are masked behind a fantastic veil. After reading a realistic novel one is often left with a feeling that they might not have learned much, or what they have learned is beyond what they can affect in their part of the world.
Returning to our original question of where one learns culture and morality, is it superior to have learned culture and morality from realism or fantasy? In the examination of Harry Potter and Persepolis it is clear that both have their strengths and weaknesses. To be complete in our culture of morality, it is clear that we need both realism and fantasy to keep our balance of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; however, in the western world we lean towards fantasy due to our hesitancy towards harsh truths. So in the western world, fantasy is a superior model for morality as it affects a wider audience with its values.
Written for COML 100A: Introduction to Global Literature, February 26th 2016
Rowling, J. K. 1998. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York, NY: Scholastic.
—. 2007. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York, NY: Scholastic.
—. 2000. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York, NY: Scholastic.
—. 2005. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York, NY: Scholastic.
—. 2003. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York, NY: Scholastic.
—. 1999. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York, NY: Scholastic.
—. 1997. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Satrapi, Marjane. 2007. The Complete Persepolis. New York, NY: Pantheon.
[i] Satrapi 2007.
[ii] Rowling 1997; Rowling 1998; Rowling 1999; Rowling 2000; Rowling 2003; Rowling 2005; Rowling 2007.
[iii] Rowling 2003, 806
[iv] Satrapi 2007, 67-70.
[v] Ibid., 70.
[vi] Ibid., 71.
[vii] Rowling 2003, 824.
[viii] Rowling 2005, 39.
[ix] Rowling 1997, 299.
[x] Rowling 2007, 726.
[xi] Rowling 2007.
[xii] Rowling 1999, 12-19; Rowling 2000, 138, 375-383; Rowling 2003 107-110; Rowling 2007, 51-53
[xiii] Rowling 1997 287.
[xiv] Rowling 2003, 824.
[xv] Rowling 2005 511-512.
[xvi] Rowling 2007, 294-300, 382, 451.
[xvii] Satrapi 2007, 65, 66, 70.
[xviii] Ibid., 143.
[xix] Ibid., 145-146.
[xx] Rowling 2003, 267.
[xxi] Rowling 2007, 573.
[xxii] Satrapi 2007, 233-242