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From traditional dystopias to teenage dystopias: Harry Potter as a bridge between two cultures

Par Eléonore Cartellier-Veuillen : PRAG doctorante - Université Grenoble-Alpes, ILCEA 4
Publié par Marion Coste le 25/04/2016

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“From traditional dystopias to teenage dystopias: Harry Potter as a bridge between two cultures” seeks to explain the key role that the Harry Potter novels have played in the creation of the Young Adult dystopian genre which has flourished in recent years. It focuses on three aspects of dystopia (mind-control, death and resistance) to show how these themes taken from traditional dystopias are re-written to shape such contemporary works as Uglies, The Hunger Games and Divergent.


J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter heptalogy published between 1997 and 2007 marked the beginning of a new period in children's and Young Adult (YA) literature as these two genres took centre stage in the publishing industry. Going from sub-genres before 1997 – Rowling's literary agent famously told her “there is not much money in children's books” (Rowling, 1998 STV interview) – to the most lucrative literary genres nowadays, novels such as J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter, Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series (2005), Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (2008), and more recently Veronica Roth's Divergent (2011) have known immense literary success ((“In 1997, the year that J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novels appeared on the shelves, there were some 3,000 books released for the young-adult audience. By 2009, that number had increased to 30,000. […] In the first half of 2012, book sales in the children's and young-adult category jumped more than 40% over the previous year.” (Ray, 2013, 278).)).

These success stories are linked together by one key element: dystopia. Dystopia is a word coined in the late 18th century in opposition to utopia (more specifically Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516) and is “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one” (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2005). The genre of dystopia reached its first peak in the 20th century with such novels as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and is now enjoying a revival through children's and Young Adult's literature.

Literary criticism on this topic has followed suit, with many articles in prominent children's literature publications discussing these novels (see for example recent articles in the Children's Literature Association quaterly) as well as books such as Basu, Broad and Hintz's Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults (2013) and the 2017 Children's Literature Association conference which will be entitled “Imagined Futures” and will tackle the concept of teenage dystopias. Both on bookshop shelves and in the realm of literary criticism, children's and YA dystopias are a noticeable and growing trend.

It is striking that novels aimed at younger audiences should play with such a dark concept as dystopia, whose “unpleasant or bad [place]” is often synonymous with horror, torture and death. Indeed, late 20th century novels for young readers often purposefully eschewed these topics, preferring to either use euphemisms or simply not mention the more unpleasant sides of life. Before Harry Potter, the last children's book which dealt with children's death was Peter Pan (1904 for the play, 1911 for the novel) by J. M. Barrie in which we are told that many children die: “It is no part of ours to describe what was a massacre rather than a fight. Thus perished many of the flower of the picaninny tribe.” (Barrie, 1995, 126).

Cruelty against children became a near-taboo subject in 20th century fiction, making its resurgence en force nowadays very interesting. Extreme violence and dystopian worlds flourished in adult literature but it took nearly one hundred years for this genre to trickle down into children's literature. One of the key novels which can explain this effect is Rowling's Harry Potter. One of the surprising aspects of the books are their dark side (which becomes more and more pronounced as the series progresses) and the creation of a dystopian world through Umbridge and Voldemort's reigns in which children are tortured and killed.

This article shall show how the Harry Potter series has played a pivotal role in the transfer of the notion of dystopia from adult fiction to children's and YA literature, thus bridging the gap between the two genres and re-defining the borders of children's literature.

In order to analyse this we will first focus on the concept of brain-washing, then we will turn to torture and death and finally we shall analyse how our main characters try to resist these totalitarian regimes in order to build a better future.

1. Mind-control and brain-washing

If we look beyond the obvious Harry Potter characteristics of magic, wonder and spells we realise that Harry's world is one which is steeped in dystopia. From Grindelwald's regime to the Fudge / Umbridge administration and Voldemort's reign we are presented with three types of dystopias which try to control the population and kill or torture those who resist them. What is striking is that during the two latter regimes the focalisation is on teenagers, who are controlled, tortured and killed by the authorities (namely Voldemort, Umbridge, and the Death Eaters). This phenomenon was rife in 20th century adult dystopias but its translation into the world of children and teenagers is disconcerting to say the least.

One of the first and foremost aspects of dystopia is control, and mostly mind-control. This is present in the key 20th century adult dystopias such as Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Handmaid's Tale where the population is controlled through language ((The modification of language reaches a high in Nineteen Eighty-Four with Newspeak: “Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” (Orwell, 1989, 55).)) and emotions: “it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise. […] In the Two Minutes Hate he could not help sharing in the general delirium [...]” (Orwell, 1989, 19) and “A sigh goes up from us; despite myself I feel my hands clench. [..] It is true there is a bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend.” (Atwood, 1996, 290-291). Here both main characters, Winston and Offred, are unable to resist the surge of the crowd and have feelings imposed onto them through these brain-washing techniques.

In Harry Potter, mind-control can be created much more effectively and permanently through the Imperius curse, which is, as Professor Moody announces in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire : “Total control” (Rowling, 2000, 188). The description that we have through Harry's focalisation is remarkable by its resemblance to literal brain-washing:

It was the most wonderful feeling. Harry felt a floating sensation as though every thought and worry in his head was wiped gently away, leaving nothing but a vague, untraceable happiness. He stood there feeling immensely relaxed, only dimly aware of everyone watching him. (Rowling, 2000, 204)

Instead of the imposed emotions enforcing brain-numbness here the brain is magically “wiped” clean, or washed clean of all unwanted thoughts, a blank slate onto which any order can be laid and automatically obeyed. In Harry Potter the Imperius curse is a spell which takes over the brain as we can see here. Harry though seems to be able to battle against it as he demonstrates with a second voice in his head which starts to question the order he gets: “Why, though? Another voice had awoken in the back of his brain […] No, I don't think I will, thanks, said the other voice” (Rowling, 2000, 204). Other characters are also capable of rebelling but this process usually takes much longer as we can perceive with Barty Crouch Junior – “I was starting to fight my father's Imperius curse” (Rowling, 2000, 595) – and Barty Crouch Senior – “After a while he began to fight the Imperius curse just as I had done.” (Rowling, 2000, 598).

This brain-washing technique is taken one step further in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies as all sixteen year olds must undergo an operation aimed at changing their physique and purposefully brain-washing them. As Az and Maddy explain to Tally Youngblood (our heroine) this surgery creates “Tiny lesions in the brain” (Westerfeld, 2012-1, 263) and it “changes the way you think” (Westerfeld, 2012-1, 268) thus creating a “brain damaged” (Westerfeld, 2012-1, 271) population. When Tally is finally subjected to the operation we see as a reader that her mind has been altered. Instead of being bright and quick-witted we are left with a focalising heroine who seems unable to grapple with simple situations, such as getting dressed for a party. In point of fact, the first sentence of the sequel Pretties is: “Getting dressed was always the hardest part of the afternoon” (Westerfeld, 2012-2, 1), which jars with the opening of Uglies where we have an example of her ironic thought-process: “The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit. Of course, Tally thought, you'd have to feed your cat only salmon-coloured cat food for a while, to get the pinks right.” Moreover, in Pretties Tally has moments when she is unable to think properly, for example “She tried to think of what to say, but the conversation just faded out” (Westerfeld, 2012-2, 8) or cannot recall certain memories of her past: “Her other memories of David were tricky and faded, but the moment when they had parted was simply … gone.” (Westerfeld, 2012-2, 59). Just like in Harry Potter it is possible for Tally to fight this brain programming in order to get her own mental abilities back but it takes a lot of training: “Like the night before, she felt as if a thin film of plastic between her and the rest of the world were being peeled away.” (Westerfeld, 2012-2, 60).

Even though both our heroes (Harry and Tally) went through brain-washing they were both able to fight it and succeed, in the same way as Winston Smith and Offred are partly able to resist the regime. Something very similar takes place in Divergent by Veronica Roth where Tris sees all her friends become mind-controlled through a tracking device injected in everyone's neck, including Tris's. Thanks to her divergence Tris does not feel the pull of the mind-control but all the people around her do as her first-person description underscores:

My stomach squeezes when I see her face. Her eyes are open, but blank, and her facial muscles are slack. She moves without looking at what she's doing, her mouth half-open, not awake but seeming awake. And everyone else looks just like her. […] They are sleepwalkers. (Roth, 2012, 416)

Here too the notion of brain-washing is key. The description is couched in terms which remind us of the Harry Potter depiction, the only difference being point of view. Indeed, in Harry Potter the narrator describes what Harry feels with terms such as “floating”, “vague”, “relaxed” and here Tris uses “blank”, “slack” and “sleepwalker” to describe her friends. If we look at the words used we realise that they all evince the same feelings: the brain-washed are no longer in control of their thoughts and movements. In a way one could say that just like Tris, Harry and Tally are also divergent as Balaka Basu puts it: “Divergence can be read, then, as the ability to overcome externally imposed control through the exercise of free will.” (Basu, Broad, Hintz, 2014, 25), which is exactly what our heroes are able to do. Balaka Basu also acknowledges the links between theses YA dystopias when she states that: “In fact, one could easily describe Divergent as what happens when Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games (2008): an adventure-cum-romance set in a dystopian society […].” (Basu, Broad, Hintz, 2014, 22).

Dystopian indoctrination has thus greatly evolved, going from mind-bending in Nineteen-Eighty Four and The Handmaid's Tale to magical or medicinal brain-tampering in 21st century literature. One of the reasons behind this shift could be simply explained: as each wave of dystopia seeks to have a powerful impact on its audience, each new novel must devise a new formula to create surprise. A second explanation could be the importance of technology nowadays. Indeed, teenagers are bombarded with technological devices that are increasingly invasive and dystopian novels warn their readers of potential risks linked to them. In Harry Potter technology has of course been replaced by magic, which plays the exact same role. Teenage fiction has therefore been able to cunningly update and develop some of the horrific 20th century ideas thus rendering them even more terrifying than before.

2. Absolute horror - Torture and death

Brain-washing is not the only way of subduing the population in dystopias, torture and killings are also favoured. What is astounding in the case of YA dystopias is the fact that these themes were kept when the genre transferred to a younger audience. Harry Potter is one of the first novels since Peter Pan to render children's torture and deaths on the page and this trend has only been accentuated in the more recent YA dystopias. Even though novels such as Nineteen-Eighty Four do include scenes of violence against children, such as in Winston's diary, these scenes are not meant to be read by children but by adults:

a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. Then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air […]. (Orwell, 1989, 10, in italics in the text)

Scenes that represent violence against children in children's literature are on another level to those which depict violence against children in adult literature: they are much worse. One may note here that the description is also filtered by the fact that Winston is describing a film in his diary, not something which happened to him. Dystopias are rife with violence, not only in the example above but also with violence committed against the population, be it through purges – “the endless arrests and confessions and executions” (Orwell, 1989, 19) – or hangings: “there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks, their hands tied in front of them” (Atwood, 1996, 41).

The killing off of Lily and James Potter at the beginning of the series may seem violent at first but readers soon come to realise that this is but the tip of the iceberg. The first teenager to die is Cedric Diggory, at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire but here again this is nothing compared to the battle of Hogwarts in which we are shown “the bodies of Fred, Tonks, Lupin, Colin Creevey and fifty others who had died fighting him [Voldemort].” (Rowling, 2007, 596). Included in these fifty dead is Colin Creevey, who is sixteen years old: “Colin Creevey, though under-aged, must have sneaked back just as Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle had done. He was tiny in death.” (Rowling, 2007, 556). The direct portrayal of children or teenage deaths gives Harry Potter a macabre tone, something which used to be only present in adult literature before. This emphasis on the morbid is a trend which has only become more prominent in contemporary YA dystopias, especially in The Hunger Games and Divergent which seem to take a leaf or two out of Rowling's grim child murders.

The Hunger Games is centred around a reality-television games where twenty-four children from the twelve districts have to battle to death. As absolutely horrendous as this may seem, Suzanne Collins, in pure Rowling style, keeps the worst for last. At the end of Mockingjay (the third book in the series) children are used for protection by the regime and then attacked by the Resistance:

Everyone inside the barricade is a child. Toddlers to teenagers. Scared and frostbitten. […] This is for Snow's protection. The children form his human shield. […] about twenty parachutes simultaneously explode. A wail rises from the crowd. The snow's red and littered with undersized body parts. Many of the children die immediately, but others lie in agony on the ground. (Collins, 2011-3, 404-405)

The killing off of innocent children in numbers (especially here with the toddlers) mirrors the description in Nineteen-Eighty Four of the boat of refugees being bombarded, particularly with the “child’s arm going up up up right up into the air” (Orwell, 1989, 10) which is very close to “littered with undersized body parts” (Collins, 2011-3, 405). For our heroine Katniss, what is even worse is that her own teenage sister, Prim, dies in the second wave of this attack, in front of her very eyes. This atmosphere of prevailing death can also be found in Divergent with other scenes of horrendous teenage deaths: “There is a body on the pavement below us; a girl, her arms and legs bent at awkward angles, her hair spread in a fan around her head.” (Roth, 2012, 55). The positive connotations linked the word “fan” (something refreshing and cooling) jar with the grim description of death (“body,” “bent at awkward angles”) making this death even more unsettling than it already is. This first death, as gruesome as it may be, pales in comparison to the end of the novel when all of Tris's faction, the Dauntless, are brain-washed into killing another faction, Abnegation:

Far ahead of us, I see a Dauntless soldier push a gray-clothed man to his knees. I recognise the man – he is a council member. The soldier takes her gun out of her holder, and, with sightless eyes, fires a bullet into the back of the council member's skull. (Roth, 2012, 422)

The “sightless eyes” are the effect of the brain-washing injection that turned every Dauntless (apart from Tris and Four, the Divergents) into robots as we saw previously with “Her eyes are open, but blank” (Roth, 2012, 416). These cold-blooded murders take a twisted turn when Tris breaks ranks and is pursued by one of her friends, Will who she has to kill: “The man running towards me is not a man, he is a boy. A shaggy-haired boy with a crease between his eyebrows. Will. Dull-eyed and mindless, but still Will. […] I see his finger poised over the trigger and hear the bullet slide into the chamber, and I fire. […] The bullet hit him in the head.” (Roth, 2012, 446). In order to survive Tris has to murder her own friends, just as Katniss must kill the other teenagers in the Hunger Games in order to keep playing and not be murdered herself.

Even though our protagonists must kill in order to survive they never do so gratuitously – contrary to the regimes – and constantly fight to oppose the dictatorships in place.

The description of such raw violence in all these novels begs the question of the audience. Indeed, these books cannot be put side-by-side with childhood classics such as Winnie-the-Pooh or Milly-Molly-Mandy or even more contemporary YA literature such as the Twilight series. Perhaps one of the explanations we can find in this difference lies with the audience, as Michael Ray puts it: “the real appeal of the young-adult genre – for both authors and publishers – was that young adults were far from the only people reading young-adult books.” (2013, 278). Recent YA dystopias have therefore shifted their target audience and this audience now encompasses adult readership which would explain why the violence resembles adult dystopia more than children's books.

3. Resistance

We have seen how dystopias and YA dystopias have created authorities who seek to control the population and destroy those who they cannot control. Our protagonists though are heroes because they go against this crushing machine in order to create (or re-create) a free society. From the very beginning we realise that the characters we follow are not ordinary sheep but possess a quality which is perhaps best summed up by the word “divergence.” As Balaka Basu puts it: “Divergence is the literal embodiment of resistance” (Basu, 2014, 25).

Both Offred and Winston are endowed with this psychological power to resist the regime, even though their position does not enable them to do much more than write or speak about their life. Offred and Winston's rebellions are small, amounting to writing or recording diaries with such key phrases as “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (Orwell, 1989, 20) or by using forbidden words and references to the past: “[...] words like free. They are considered too dangerous.” (Atwood, 1996, 64).

In Harry Potter the resistance to the two main regimes (Umbridge and then Voldemort) takes on a more advanced form, with the creation of “Dumbledore's Army” (Rowling, 2003, 347) to rebel against the former and “The Order of the Phoenix” (Rowling, 2003, 56) to combat the latter. Both of these groups engage in battle against the regimes going as far as dying for their cause (Dumbledore, Lupin, Tonks, Fred Weasley, Mad-Eye Moody and Sirius Black were all part of the Order of the Phoenix and Colin Creevey was an ex-Dumbledore's Army). Resistance takes on many shapes and forms, from refusing brain-washing to fighting against the regimes and Harry embodies all of these oppositions. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix he refuses Umbridge's take on the situation and constantly rebukes her comments:

“Who do you imagine want to attack children like yourselves?” enquired Professor Umbridge in a horribly honeyed voice.
“Hum, let's think ...” said Harry in a mock thoughtful voice. “Maybe … Lord Voldemort?” (Rowling, 2003, 220)

As the series progresses he goes from disagreeing to action and finally wages battle against the Death Eaters and Voldemort himself.

Similar marks of resistance appear in all three YA dystopias analysed here. Katniss in The Hunger Games also starts by verbal resistance: “?District Twelve. When you can starve to death in safety,? I mutter. Then I glance quickly over my shoulder. Even here, even in the middle of nowhere, you worry someone might overhear you.” (Collins, 2011, 6), only to go on to actively resist and then fight the regime. Katniss, just as Harry, Tris and Tally, comes to embody the resistance as people wear her symbol, the mockingjay, to show that they are part of the insurgents. Interestingly enough, even though our heroes represent the opposition to the regimes they never quite accept their roles as leaders either. Tally and Katniss finish by retiring to a life outside of the lime-light: “David and I are staying out here in the wild.” (Westerfeld, 2012-3, 371) states Tally only to continue with “So from now on, David and I are here to stand in your way.” (Ibid.), which shows that she is still rebelling, but on her own terms. Katniss too decides (in dystopian fashion) to write a book about her adventures in order to explain the unexplainable to the next generation, including her children. Harry too goes on to have children and to rebuild his world, something that neither Winston nor Offred seem to have a chance to do.

Even though the characters ultimately fight these regimes they never sink as low as the regimes themselves and this is what defines their humanity. Harry refuses to let Sirius and Lupin kill Peter Pettigrew even though he is a traitor who delivered his parent's whereabouts to Voldemort, which in turn led to their untimely death: “He can go to Azkaban … just don't kill him.” (Rowling, 1999; 275) just as Tris is unable to murder Eric and instead shoots his foot: “But I can't murder him; I can't. I grit my teeth and shift my arm down, firing at Eric's foot.” (Roth, 2012, 425). Even though our heroes kill at other moments in the series their instinct is to preserve human life, which is the complete opposite to the regime in which they live.

“While YA books often unflinchingly engage with the problems of adolescents, they are nonetheless tied to the broader tradition of children's literature, which stresses hope.” (Basu, Broad, Hintz, 2014, 2). One of the main differences between traditional and YA dystopia is the ending. In Nineteen-Eighty Four and Brave New World there is no hope: in the former Winston “loved Big Brother.” (Orwell, 1989, 311) and in the latter John hangs himself. In The Handmaid's Tale the ending is ambiguous as it is never stated if the van which comes to collect Offred is meant to take her to safety or to death. On the other hand, YA dystopia always ends in hope no matter how much torture or death preceded. Our heroes not only resist the regime but live to tell the tale and go on to build a better future for their community. Even though their resistance is similar, the outcome is very different, with YA literature being optimistic for the future, whereas in traditional dystopia, resistance is often depicted as ultimately futile.


As we have seen the Harry Potter series seems to serve as a gateway for YA dystopian literature and stands as the first novel to develop key dystopian themes for children and young adults. By translating some of the main aspects of dystopia, such as mind-washing, death and resistance, into teenage fiction Harry Potter opened a world of possibilities for dystopias, bridging the gap between 20th century dystopias and 21st century ones. Interestingly, the dark aspects of this category were not toned down when transferred to YA literature, as one would expect, but heightened through new magical and technological means, making these dystopias even more spine-chilling than the previous ones. Even though child torture and murder are more prominent, it is important to note that these novels also carry more hope and promise than traditional dystopias as the heroes not only destroy the totalitarian regimes but also reconstruct a better life for themselves. YA dystopias have therefore updated and re-written the genre to better fit our evolving society, and have also re-defined the borders of children's literature to embrace a more diverse readership.


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Eléonore Cartellier-Veuillen, "From traditional dystopias to teenage dystopias: Harry Potter as a bridge between two cultures", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), avril 2016. Consulté le 20/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/litterature-jeunesse/from-traditional-dystopias-to-teenage-dystopias-harry-potter-as-a-bridge-between-two-cultures