Chocolate and Honey: Disenfranchised Teachers and Children in Harry Potter and Matilda

Today’s September School Stories post is from guest contributor Jaquelin Elliott. Not only has she covered for me this Friday, but she has also written up a great post that fits the month’s theme and involves two cherished characters. Enjoy!

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This September marks my first term as a teacher. As a graduate student instructor, I find myself straddling a strange line between student and professor, teaching students only a few years younger than myself. It was reconciling myself with this in-between space that I decided to look back at some of my favorite teachers (both real and fictional) and try to find some common ground. I found it with my two all-time favorite literary teachers: Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter series and Miss Jennifer Honey from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I found myself fascinated by the fact that their respective texts align both Remus and Miss Honey more closely with their students than with other adults (even other teachers); that, like me, they inhabit a limbo between the world of adults and the world of their students. Matilda and Harry likewise inhabit an in-between space (Matilda as an extremely precocious child, Harry as a pre-teen) and frequently find themselves pitted against an adult world that neither respects their word nor their capabilities. It’s no surprise, then, that the teachers who Harry and Matilda become closest to are likewise disenfranchised by society (Miss Honey for her poverty, Remus for his poverty and lycanthropy) and that the kinship that develops between them becomes a kind of shelter not only for the children, but for their teachers, too.

A number of intriguing similarities exist between Remus and Miss Honey. Both are characterized by their physical delicacy with Miss Honey described as being “so slim and fragile one got the feeling that if she fell over she would smash into a thousand pieces, like a porcelain figure” (Dahl 60) while Remus is constantly ill, his hair prematurely greying and “young face” (Rowling 187) already lined. Their physical weakness arguably aligns them with their students (Matilda and Harry are both small/slight), yet they are also defined by their roles as surrogate caregivers who “feed” Matilda and Harry knowledge that might otherwise be denied them (Miss Honey with the advanced books she gives Matilda, Remus with the Patronus Charm). This nurturance is made literal by each teacher’s association with food. Remus is the one who first gives Harry and the others chocolate to ward off the effect of the Dementors. Miss Honey, whose name alone suggests sweet, spreading warmth, feeds Matilda bread and margarine when they have tea at her tiny, garden cottage. It is not much, but it is all she has, as she, like Remus, lives in abject poverty due to a tragic background.

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The relation of Miss Honey and Remus’ pasts is crucial as, in both instances, the nature of their tragedies closely connects them to their respective students. Miss Honey and Matilda share a history of child abuse and neglect (Matilda, at the hands of her parents; Miss Honey at the hands of her aunt, the Trunchbull) while Harry and Remus are both victims of childhood tragedies that left each of them physically marked as Other (Harry’s scar, Remus’ lycanthropy) and both have had lives filled with loss. Specifically, what draws Harry and Remus closer is that their loss is one and same: the loss of James and Lily Potter (and, for Remus, Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew as well) that left Harry a literal orphan and Remus a figurative one who lost the only friends who had ever accepted him for “what [he] is” (356). Harry and Remus’ connection especially begins to matter when Sirius reveals himself as innocent and invites Harry to come live with him. Suddenly, there is the possibility that Harry will get back part of the family he would have had if his parents had not been murdered, with two of their best friends there to watch over him. For a few, shining minutes he believes he is going to get the kind of ending that Matilda does when she escapes her rotten parents and is adopted by Miss Honey.

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But that hope is dashed— Remus transforms, the guilty Pettigrew gets away, and Sirius remains a criminal in the eyes of the Wizarding World. The frustration of this ending is only exacerbated by Remus’ resignation from his teaching position, meaning that Harry loses not one, but two surrogate fathers, not through death, but because of public perception. As far as the Wizarding World is concerned, Sirius is a convict and Remus is a monster and Prisoner of Azkaban ends with Remus forced once again into poverty, pressured out of his job by parents who don’t “want a werewolf teaching their children” (423). It is the exact opposite of what happens to Miss Honey who regains her inheritance with Matilda’s help and eventually becomes the Principal of Crunchem Hall. Here is where the crucial divergence between Remus and Miss Honey’s (and indeed Harry and Matilda’s) narratives exists. While Matilda is ultimately able to succeed and be a white knight for Miss Honey, lifting her up out of poverty, Harry cannot do the same for Remus.

As a character, Remus plays an important role in establishing Prisoner of Azkaban as a turning point in the Harry Potter series by revealing subtler, more insidious strains of the prejudices at play in the Wizarding World. The first two books of the series had already introduced the notion of “blood purity,” but it often came from the mouths of murderous extremists and schoolyard bullies. Prisoner of Azkaban marks the start of an upswing in the series of racist and classist rhetoric coming from politicians, teachers, and concerned parents. Those, in other words, one would hope would be emphatically on Harry’s side. However, Prisoner of Azkaban makes it explicitly clear that this is not going to be the case; that the fight will not always be as simple as good vs. evil and that Harry will often not have the Wizarding World at his back during his fight against Voldemort. That, unlike with Matilda, the magnificent tackling of a single antagonist will not be enough to ensure Harry a happy ending because the very injustices that he is fighting will often be coming from the mouths of people he should be able to trust.

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Trust is the crux of many of the issues children have with adults in the works of Rowling and Dahl, both in that adults frequently violate the trust that children put in them and that said trust is rarely reciprocal. Children are treated as creatures too flighty and irrational to be fully trusted and, indeed, one of the most frustrating injustices of Matilda is that the children of Crunchem Hall are unable to stop their abuse at the hands of the Trunchbull because of their deep-rooted belief that their parents would not believe it. The stories are simply too unbelievable and would be dismissed as childish fits of an overactive imagination. Likewise, Dumbledore makes it clear that Harry and Hermione’s testimonies will do nothing to protect Sirius, as “the word of two thirteen-year-old wizards will not convince anybody” (392).

Here Remus’ “furry little problem” once again strongly aligns him with the children, as his testimony that Sirius is innocent holds no more weight than that of Harry or Hermione’s—not only because Remus is Sirius’ friend, but because the Wizarding World mistrusts werewolves to the degree that “his support will count for very little” (392). Remus’ lycanthropy firmly positions him as a second-class citizen and it’s clear that Harry and Hermione’s status as children likewise prevents them from being taken seriously as rational, trustworthy human beings by many of the adults in the series. Harry and Matilda’s relationships with Remus and Miss Honey drive their respective plots forward, but also underscore the disenfranchisement of children in both books. Childhood is presented as a form of second-class citizenship in Rowling and Dahl’s works, which may partly explain why their works have always been so popular with children. These books never pull any punches with young readers, nor insult their intelligence just as Remus and Miss Honey never condescend Harry or Matilda. Not only do these works recognize children’s feelings of helplessness as valid, they acknowledge that this state of constant vulnerability and mistrust at the hands of adults is an injustice.

About Jaquelin Elliott

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Jaquelin Elliott is a PhD student at the University of Florida where she enjoys the balmy weather of her home state, especially after coping with long, snowy winters as she earned her BA at the University of Michigan. She is currently sub-concentrating in Victorian Studies and Children’s Literature and spends an awful lot of time talking about monsters and fairy tales. As an undergraduate, she earned a couple awards for her paper “The Leviathan and The Cyborg”, an analysis of the influence of Moby-Dick on sci-fi films, as well as a Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship for creative writing. Her academic interests include Neo-Victorianism, horror, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and crying about Remus Lupin.

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