Columns / Discourse / February 11, 2009

Overanalyzing literature: Is Voldemort Hitler?

If you think about it, Voldemort is clearly Hitler. If Dumbledore is gay, then the persecution of the Ministry of Magic clearly symbolizes a homophobic society. Harry Potter himself is also a satanic worshipper who is going to corrupt young children.

Sound familiar? In a society in which the lack of literacy is constantly lamented, the degree to which we analyze literature is astounding.

Analysis is a key component to effective reading, and thus something to be strived for. It helps you actively think about and remember what you are reading. However, do we go too far?

I think the trap that many of us fall into is overanalyzing literature. There is only so much you can interpret before it starts getting ridiculous. When people were running around talking about how Dumbledore was obviously going to rise from the dead because Harry Potter parallels Narnia and Dumbledore is clearly the Aslan figure, they took it too far. J.K. Rowling said on many occasions that she has never even read The Chronicles of Narnia all the way through.

People seem to come up with these outlandish conclusions for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is wish fulfillment. I know I wanted to believe that Dumbledore and Sirius Black would come back, so I scoured the Internet, trying to find articles to support this. In other cases, this over-analysis might be the result of readers imprinting their lives on the text.

To a certain extent, there is validity in having your own interpretation and reaction to literature. Reader response is a valid method for literary criticism. Literature is art and therefore the reaction of the beholder is important.

It’s still difficult to grasp, though, that people can have incredibly different reactions to the same work and that those reactions are completely incompatible with the intent of the author. For example, is Edward Cullen a chivalrous, protective hunk or is he a potentially creepy and abusive boyfriend? Is the reason Ron acts weird about Harry’s fame not that he feels overshadowed but because he secretly harbors feelings for him like some fan fiction suggests?

There is a point at which gathering clues becomes more about proving what we want to see rather than what is actually in the text. It becomes problematic when we approach a text like a magic mirror, thinking it will reveal exactly what we want to see.

A large part of approaching literature and life is being open to new ideas and things that you don’t expect and possibly don’t like. It is when you keep yourself open to the possibilities rather than forcing your own interpretations that you learn the most.

Anjali Pattanayak


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