“Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn't mean we all have.” ― Hermione Granger
As I finished reading the last page of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows', the world seemed to turn the volume back up. I was no longer on platform nine and three quarters, tearily waving goodbye with Harry and Ginny to their children as the Hogwarts Express pulled away from the station.
I was back in my own world, and realised that the sun had come up and it was time for breakfast. What started as a bedtime read turned out to be an all nighter as I hurried to turn the pages and find out the fate of the characters I had come to love so much.
What is this spell that the Harry Potter casts on readers? I believe that the greatest books have the power to pull you through the looking glass. There, you experience the characters’ pain, fear and love, from the first page to the last. In the case of the Harry Potter books, the journey I took with each of the characters has stayed with me for some twenty years. And, I suspect, the reason for this is because of just how strongly I empathised with all of the characters.
What is empathy?
If I had to name the most profound lesson I learnt from the books, it would be one of empathy. Empathy is the ability to share and understand other people's emotions. Empathy goes further than simply putting yourself in another person’s shoes: true empathy requires compassion. In today’s world, lessons in empathy are more important than ever.
But what can literature, and Harry Potter, teach us about empathy? Reading fiction is actually a great way to put empathy into practice: we’ve all had those books that take us on an emotional rollercoaster, and the Harry Potter series is no exception.
In Steven Pinker’s book, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, he sets out that “reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else's thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person's vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person's mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions.”
This strange phenomenon that reading brings about, of being able to imagine ourselves in the mind of the narrator or characters, leads naturally to our feeling compassion towards them, Pinker argues.
Think about the strong affinity you felt with Harry Potter from the moment you started reading the books. Through all his highs and lows, because we see the world from his vantage point, we always empathise with Harry. In the end, we not only feel for Harry, but as he gets to know the characters in the world around him, we come to understand them better and feel compassion towards them.
So... I should read more Harry Potter to become more empathetic?
In a word, yes.
It’s crucial in everyday life to have a sense of what others might be thinking or feeling. Reading the Harry Potter books is a brilliant way to develop this skill.
The best literary fiction highlights the psychology of characters and their relationships. By showing these in action, our minds leap to fill in the gaps about why they do what they’re doing, based on our own experiences and motivations. People are quick to forget that, around the world, we are motivated by the same things: love, fear, family, hope, and more.
When our mind jumps to fill in a character’s motivation for doing something, whether good or bad, it gives us the chance to imagine what the dialogue going on in their head might have been at the time. Suddenly, we realise some decisions aren’t so easy, or that people in difficult situations do surprising things - and that it’s possible we would do the same if we faced the same challenges.
But what about the baddies? I shouldn’t empathise with them, should I?
It’s worth trying! In fact, it’s easy to empathise with Harry: he’s nice to everybody and is on a mission to take down the Dark Lord. But what J. K. Rowling does with her less squeaky-clean characters really asks us to tear down our preconceptions, and asks that we dig deeper to understand them.
Take Narcissa Malfoy, Draco’s mother. Now, most of us disliked the Malfoy family from day one. Narcissa can be haughty, rude, and she looks down on muggles. But, despite this, Narcissa’s most redeeming feature is that she would do anything for her son, Draco. She goes as far as making Snape agree to an Unbreakable Vow to protect Draco, and is even willing to risk betraying Voldemort to save her son in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
This is undoubtedly something we can all understand - even if we don’t have children of our own We can imagine what our parents might do for us in a similar situation, or what we might do if we had children. We realise that, just as Narcissa can be cruel, she is human, like us.
Of course, who could for get Professor Snape, one of the most famous examples of how brilliantly J.K. Rowling played with our expectations as readers, reminding us to keep an open mind towards others.
Who can forget the moment we learned that, after years of run-ins with Harry, Snape was looking out for him the whole time? Severus Snape loved Harry’s mother, Lily, his whole life: even though he was devastated that his love was never reciprocated, he nevertheless protected Harry throughout to honour what he felt for Lily.
Once we learned that Snape’s actions were motivated by love, we could understand them. Each and every one of us knows love, and how powerful it can be. We’re able to forgive Snape his transgressions over the years, and feel desperately upset when Voldemort kills him. Understanding, and then learning to care for Snape: that is empathy in action.
The empathy we learn while reading fiction carries to the real world, which is what makes it so important. That same exercise of finding reasons why bad people do good things, or vice versa, is one we can apply every day to the people around us. We can remember the world is full of complicated people who have a whole inner life, full of worries, pain, joy, and love. Once we understand this, we can behave more compassionately towards people.
And the science proves it!
Many characters in the series made the reader realise that the people are different and it's okay to accept this difference: Luna Lovegood with her dreamy outlook on life, Neville Longbottom’s clumsiness, Hermione's geekiness - the list goes on.
Studies have even proven that reading Harry Potter improves attitudes towards stigmatised groups. While in Harry Potter, the circumstances are fantastical - of course we don’t have werewolves in our world - it is the principles here which carry over to our world.
Take a look at Remus Lupin (my favorite teacher!). He was only a young boy when an unfortunate event turned him from a normal, acceptable member of the wizarding community, into a werewolf, having to hide away each full moon and working hard to keep control over his affliction.
But the way in which Lupin was accepted and supported by his friends, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs when they were boys at Hogwarts, is exemplary. If only we could all be so caring about those who are different from us.
What’s so successful about Harry Potter is how he moves between different groups of people: the wizarding world and ‘mudbloods’ as some less tolerant wizards would call them. The study revealed that Harry’s bridging of the gap between ‘insider’ and ‘outside’ groups, as well as reading about prejudice towards muggles, actually resulted in an altered, more sympathetic attitude to immigration in readers.
This scientific evidence shows just how powerful our imaginations and brilliant fiction are, helping us connect with other people and better understand them. So, if you haven’t already read the Harry Potter books, now is the time to get your hands on them and see how they might change you. If you have, what lessons do you feel you have taken with you?
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