MEROPE GAUNT, VOLDEMORT’S MOTHER: NARRATIVE AS A HOUSE OF CARDS

The first novel about Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published by Bloomsbury on 26 June 1997, already 25 years ago today. This post looks back to that date, to celebrate it, and forward to next November, when Barcelona’s Witch Market will finally return and all of us, local Potterheads, will have the chance to meet again after a two-year hiatus caused by Covid-19. I have chosen to lecture on Voldemort’s mother, Merope Gaunt, because she is an example of that type of secondary character who seems very minor but whose actions are indispensable for a story to start moving. If poor Merope had not fallen in love with the Muggle Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort would have never been born. The villain, not the hero, sets the events in motion and, so, without He Who Must not Be Named young Harry Potter would have enjoyed just a normal wizard’s adolescence.

Merope (pronounced ‘mɛrəpiː) is named after a star in the Pleiades which borrows its moniker from one of the seven daughters of the Oceanid nymph Pleione and the Titan Atlas. She only appears in the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), published eight years after the first novel, which suggests that Rowling may have thought of Voldemort’s back story relatively late in the process of writing, not necessarily from the beginning. Merope’s sad story is narrated in Chapter 10, “The House of Gaunt” (184-204, Bloomsbury 2005 hardback edition), and in Chapter 13, “The Secret Riddle” (242-260), though neither of the two chapters focus on her. Her name is mentioned a total of 32 times, very few in the context of the sprawling narrative that the whole series is, and she is never in dialogue with any other character. We know about Merope because Professor Dumbledore proceeds to recall scenes from the past sharing his Pensieve with Harry, having decided, as he tells the boy, “that it is time, now that you know what prompted Lord Voldemort to try and kill you fifteen years ago, for you to be given certain information” (186).

Dumbledore has no direct memories of Merope, so he uses instead the memories of the late Bob Ogden, a Department of Magical Law Enforcement official. Harry witnesses Odgen’s visit to the village of Little Hangleton, where the Gaunts live: the middle-aged father Marvolo, the son Morfin (possible in his mid-twenties), and the daughter Merope, who is eighteen as we eventually learn. The Gaunts are presented as the English equivalent of the American hillbillies, and Morfin, indeed, gives a rather violent welcome to their unwelcome visitor, sent by Slughorn to investigate a breach of magical law committed by the young man.

When Merope first appears, in a corner of their very poor dwelling, Rowling describes her focalizing the narration through Harry as “a girl whose ragged gray dress was the exact color of the dirty stone wall behind her. She was standing beside a steaming pot on a grimy black stove, and was fiddling around with the shelf of squalid-looking pots and pans above it. Her hair was lank and dull and she had a plain, pale, rather heavy face. Her eyes, like her brother’s, stared in opposite directions. She looked a little cleaner than the two men, but Harry thought he had never seen a more defeated-looking person” (194, my italics). When the nervous, mousy Merope drops a pot, her father upbraids her as he has done many times before: “That’s it, grub on the floor like some filthy Muggle, what’s your wand for, you useless sack of muck?” (194). She, however, cannot manage to repair the pot, which Odgen does, wishing to end the scene as quickly as possible.

When the visitor declares that Morfin has been summoned to the Ministry because he has attacked a Muggle, Marvolo reacts by yelling that his family are direct descendants of Salazar Slytherin, one of Hogwarts’ founders, and owed more respect. As proof he pushes Merope violently, so that Odgen can see the locket she’s wearing. This family heirloom, which she later sells to avoid starvation, is the same one that her adult son Tom, then in his early thirties, finds in the hands of rich collector Hepzibah Smith. When he murders her in a fit of rage (his first murder after he wiped out his father and grandparents, aged sixteen), he needs to flee, hence starting his path towards becoming Lord Voldemort.

Back in Chapter 10, a group of fashionable Muggle passers-by who mock the Gaunts’ derelict home startles Merope. She grows deadly pale when handsome Tom Riddle mocks Morfin and both siblings hear him call her companion Cecilia “darling”. Brutally, Morfin tells Merope (who has not said a word yet), “So he wouldn’t have you anyway” (198) and discloses to their angry father that “She likes looking at that Muggle” (199, original italics). This appals the old man, and even though Merope, still speechless, denies Morfin’s accusation, only Ogden’s providential intervention saves her from being strangled by her father. Then she does utter the first sounds coming from her mouth, though these are screams. Handsome Tom Riddle, as it is easy to guess, is the very same Muggle Morfin has assaulted, mistakenly believing he corresponded her sister’s interest.

Dumbledore tells Harry that both Morfin and Marvolo were apprehended at once and sent to Azkaban, a time of freedom for Merope during which her so far repressed magic flourished. Using, as Harry guesses, a love potion which, Dumbledore speculates, “would have seemed more romantic to her” (202) than an Imperious Curse, Merope seduces Tom Riddle and both elope together, to their village’s great scandal. The father, returned from Azkaban after six months, eventually dies of shock. As Dumbledore further gossips, Merope had lied to Riddle pretending she was pregnant, which she only became three months after their wedding. Riddle, however, returned soon home without his wife, claiming he had been “hoodwinked” (202) and Dumbledore continues his “guesswork” (203) suggesting that Merope “who was deeply in love with her husband, could not bear to continue enslaving him by magical means. I believe that she made the choice to stop giving him the potion. Perhaps, besotted as she was, she had convinced herself that he would by now have fallen in love with her in return. Perhaps she thought he would stay for the baby’s sake. If so, she was wrong on both counts. He left her, never saw her again, and never troubled to discover what became of his son” (203). This marks the ends of Merope’s presence in Chapter 10 and explains why the boy Tom grew to hate his Muggle father so intensely, though he never truly loved his pure-blood mother.

In Chapter 13 Dumbledore returns to the Pensieve to narrate Merope’s troubles once in London. Through the memories of one Caractacus Burke, Harry sees Merope selling the locket; she was “Covered in rags and pretty far along…”, meaning about to give birth (245). If this was not Dickensian enough, Rowling adds a date for the memories: before Christmas (supposedly of 1926). When Harry asks why the desperate Merope did not use magic, Dumbledore speculates that “when her husband abandoned her, Merope stopped using magic. I do not think that she wanted to be a witch any longer. Of course, it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attendant despair sapped her of her powers; that can happen. In any case, as you are about to see, Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life” (246).

Mysteriously (and a bit like Star Wars’ Amidala), Merope lets herself die after her baby’s birth. Harry is aghast that Merope would not choose to “live for her son” (246) and Dumbledore replies that, unlike Lily Potter who died to save her son Harry from Voldemort, “Yes, Merope Riddle chose death in spite of a son who needed her, but do not judge her too harshly, Harry. She was greatly weakened by long suffering and she never had your mother’s courage” (246). When Dumbledore recalls his first memory of eleven-year-old Tom Riddle, Rowling writes focalizing through him that “There was no trace of the Gaunts in Tom Riddle’s face. Merope had got her dying wish: He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale” (249). He can only know this from Mrs. Cole, the orphanage’s director, who reports that Merope arrived on New Year’s Eve “staggering up the front steps” on a “nasty night” of cold and snow (249). She “had the baby within the hour. And she was dead in another hour” (249). Mrs. Cole confirms that Merope, who was “no beauty”, had just time to say “I hope he looks like his papa” (249), the only words she is reported to have pronounced, and to ask that the baby be named Tom Marvolo Riddle. Mrs Cole assumes that “she came from a circus” (249) because of the strange name; the surname Riddle, by the way, does exist.

Many commentators have expressed their surprise that Rowling uses Oliver Twist “not as the model for her hero but for the villain—creating, in essence, an Oliver twisted” in the Dark Lord (see James Washick, “Oliver Twisted: The Origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian Orphan”, Looking Glass 13.3 (2009), https://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/165/164). In Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-38) baby Oliver is born to young Agnes Fleming, who dies in childbirth, at a workhouse, where he is raised as an orphan. Agnes, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Navy officer is made pregnant by Edwin Leeford, a man possibly twice her age on the run from the older, rich woman his father had forced him to marry. Leeford dies with no time to pass onto Agnes and their yet unborn baby the fortune inherited from his father, a death which is supposed to characterize him as a good guy trapped between his late father’s patriarchal power and sheer bad luck. Yet, I find his liaison with the innocent daughter of the man harbouring him short of criminal. When Agnes dies, she is wearing a wedding band, which has always made me suspect that Leeford tricked her into believing he was free to marry her. Whatever the case, though Merope and Agnes are connected, Dickens ends his novel vindicating Agnes, with Oliver visiting her no longer anonymous grave, whereas psychopathic Tom Riddle never cares for Merope.

Just as Oliver Twist depends on the sexual attraction that Leeford feels for Agnes, all of Harry Potter depends on ugly Merope’s passion for her handsome Muggle neighbour Tom Riddle. I do not discard that this passion may have been awakened by Merope’s sexual abuse by both her father and her brother (Morfin’s assault of Tom hints at some type of unbrotherly jealousy), though only Rowling knows whether there are grounds for this speculation. If Merope had been beautiful, Riddle might have fallen naturally in love with her and perhaps even staid by her side. This would not have necessarily resulted in a different personality for their baby boy, for who knows why some men grow up to be horrendous villains, but the fact is that the whole house of cards that the Harry Potter heptalogy is depends on Merope’s attraction for Riddle. I am not calling it love, because considering how Merope has lived her life so far, she cannot know the meaning of love. In the absence of a mother who could have loved her, she cannot understand, either, the meaning of motherhood, hence her inability to bond with her baby, and her death, which is a sort of suicide.

Rowling could have invented a very different back story for Voldemort, but she came up with the pathetic romance between Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle, using a curious type of indirect characterization and narrative for the couple, who are never seen (or heard) together. They are in many ways the counterpart of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s loving parents, though, above all, Merope is Lily’s opposite. Both James and Lily die protecting Harry from Voldemort, but Lily’s death gives the boy the extra magical protection that saves his life. In contrast, young Tom’s bitterest moment comes when he is sixteen and learns the truth about his origins from his uncle Morfin. This literally breaks his soul as he proceeds, as I have noted, to kill the father that abandoned him and his grandparents. Tellingly, he commits these crimes not because the Riddles scorned Merope, for whom he never cares, but because their Muggle blood taints his own blood.

Poor Merope, unloved daughter, sister, wife and mother. Let’s not forget, though, that the worst sons may come from the best mothers, and that if little Tom Riddle turns out to be evil this is not her fault. It seems to me that the fault lies, rather, with the callous father, but this is the topic for another post…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THE BEST BOOK ON SECONDARY CHARACTERS: ALEX WOLOCH’S THE ONE VS. THE MANY

NOTE: This post was originally written on 13 Decemeber 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

As far as I know, Alex Woloch’s The One Vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (2003) is the only book attempting to theorize the secondary character (note that he calls them ‘minor’). I have found books on secondary characters in specific authors (for instance, Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 by Peter Anthony Bly of 2004) and a volume studying how secondary characters have become protagonists in, for instance, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace by Jeremy Rosen of 2016). Not, however, any other monograph on the concept of the minor character.

After writing about some secondary characters (Sirius Black in Harry Potter, Anabella Wilmott in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), I have come to the conclusion that quite often the conceptual centre of fiction can be found in their characterization. We tend to pour our critical energies into the study of the protagonists, but not only is there plenty to say about the secondary characters –just think of Romeo’s friend Mercutio–; it is also the case that in literary criticism we don’t know how to distinguish between the near-protagonist secondary character (Samwise in The Lord of the Rings) and the basic ‘spear-carrier’ with one line. We don’t have a theorization that helps us say with certainty what type each character is and perhaps it is about time we develop a classification into levels that can determine whether a character is secondary, tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary, septenary, octonary, nonary, or denary, if there are indeed only ten levels.

Woloch is not interested in this classification but he tries hard to move beyond E.M. Forster’s division in Aspects of the Novel (1927) of all characters into flat and round. It is possibly not at all Forster’s fault but literary theorists have spectacularly failed to elaborate a more nuanced categorization, seemingly satisfied that, after all, flat characters do not require literary analysis. Woloch demonstrates quite the opposite by offering fascinating readings of the minor characters in Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Le Père Goriot, among other texts such as King Lear, proving that the development of the protagonists cannot be understood without them (think of Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas), that the space of the major characters is conditioned by the space minor characters occupy in the novel (think of Pip and Abel Magwitch), or that it is not always easy to decide who is the protagonist and who the secondary (think of Goriot and Rastignac). Woloch does not answer questions that have always baffled me –how do writers know when a secondary is needed and how many are required for a plot to work–but he comes up with a number of intriguing ideas and concepts, certainly worth considering.

Thus, he refers to character-space as “that particular and charged encounter between an individual human personality and a determined space and position within the narrative as a whole” (14), making characterization mostly a matter of narrative structural needs. In his view, the character-system results from the combination of all the character-spaces into a “unified” narrative world, though he clarifies that by character-system he means specifically “the combination of different character-spaces or various modes through which specific human figures are inflected into the narrative” (32, original italics). In this way, Woloch discards romantic views of the character as a pseudo-person colonizing the writer’s imagination (the view mostly sustained by writers who claim that characters come ‘whole’ to them as if they were people), and foregrounds the idea that a novel is always a construction in which different elements must be balanced.

Woloch understands novels as spaces in which the characters vie for attention, with the protagonist assuming most of it in tension with the minor characters. This works well for Pride and Prejudice, in which the first chapter does not immediately present Elizabeth Bennet as the protagonist, portraying instead her family nucleus (parents and sisters). Yet, there is no doubt in Great Expectations, dominated by Pip’s first-person narrative voice, that the six-year-old scared out of his wits by Magwitch in the first chapter is indeed the protagonist. We do notice, as Woloch does, that he is a ‘weak’ protagonist, that is to say, a first-rank character excessively shaped by his minor companions, but, still, he is the focus of the novel. What I don’t quite see is why Woloch gives potential protagonism to, at least, the first circle of secondary characters. There are novels in which Miss Havisham and Estella are the protagonists; even Austen’s dull Mary has a novel to herself. Yet, we are in no doubt ever that the protagonist is distinguished from the rest because the plot is focalized through her or him, whereas in the case of the minor character this doesn’t happen, or only very occasionally. I wish we could see the bizarre proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice through Mr. Collins’ stubbornly biased perspective, and it would be great if novels could be written in this multi-angle way but the asymmetric structure of characterization is just a fact of fiction. Quite another matter, of course, is that we find minor characters so attractive that we are not satisfied with their limitations (hence their becoming protagonists in other novels, as Rosen has studied).

What puzzles me most about Woloch’s theorization is that despite taking great pains to detach characterization from cultural concerns and placing it squarely in the field of literary theory, he ends up invoking a labour theory of character to explain how nineteen century novels work. Here is a key passage: “The nineteenth-century novel’s configuration of narrative work–within the context of omniscient, asymmetrical character-systems–creates a formal structure that can imaginatively comprehend the dynamics of alienated labor, and the class structure that underlies this labor. In terms of their essential formal position (the subordinate beings who are delimited in themselves while performing a function for someone else), minor characters are the proletariat of the novel; and the realist novel–with its intense class-consciousness and attention toward social inequality–makes much of such formal processes” (27, original emphasis). Woloch is interested in tracing a connection between the abundant cast of characters in 19th century fiction and the new class awareness resulting from the emergence of a working-class because of the Industrial Revolution. Just as in life, he seems to argue, the upper classes rely on the alienated labour of the working classes, in the 19th century novel the protagonist holds that status by ‘exploiting’ the services of the minor characters. When the Modernist novel was introduced, the social panoramas of the realist 19th century novel were reduced down to the protagonist’s individual consciousness, though we might say that the readers’ preferences have always favoured the larger cast of characters which survives in popular fiction (think of a Ken Follett novel). It is mostly true that 20th century literary novels are far less comprehensive in their approach to society, with authors being far less ambitious than Balzac in trying to depict the whole ‘human comedy’. Yet, I remain unconvinced by the connection traced between class issues and narrative needs in Woloch’s argumentation, particularly because the 19th century novel is so blatantly middle-class and so resistant to opening up to the working classes except for melodramatic reasons (Gaskell included). Or maybe I misunderstand Woloch.

After teaching Great Expectations for so many years, I have been thinking for a while of writing an article about it taking into account the secondary characters. I was about to embark on a piece about Joe Gargery as an abused husband, when I came across John Gordon’s essay in the Dickens Quarterly arguing that Dickens is misogynistic in characterizing Joe’s wife Mrs. Gargery as an abuser. I have no idea why a man wants to defend an abusive female character just because she is a woman, when in fact Dickens builds very persuasively the case presenting Joe as a victim of abuse in his childhood (by his father) who, like many victims, later marries an abuser confusing abuse and love. The lesson I am drawing from this is that I should focus, following Woloch on structural needs and character-space examining another key secondary character.

In fact, I have read Woloch in search of a theoretical framework to analyse a minor character I had already chosen after discarding Joe: the lawyer Jaggers. The idea I will be defending is that minor characters play a role without which the plot collapses, whether tertiary and beyond can be dispensed with. Thus, Biddy, it seems to me, is not essential to Great Expectations which can well be imagined without her, no matter how much she enriches it, whereas Jaggers is the narrative fulcrum on which the whole plot hinges. Jaggers, I have noticed in my umpteenth reading of the novel, makes a crucial decision that he only very reluctantly acknowledges when Pip discloses he knows who Estella’s biological parents are. A man who shows no feelings whatsoever, Jaggers tells Pip, referring to himself in the third person:

“Put the case that he lived in an atmosphere of evil, and that all he saw of children was their being generated in great numbers for certain destruction. Put the case that he often saw children solemnly tried at a criminal bar, where they were held up to be seen; put the case that he habitually knew of their being imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected, cast out, qualified in all ways for the hangman, and growing up to be hanged. Put the case that pretty nigh all the children he saw in his daily business life he had reason to look upon as so much spawn, to develop into the fish that were to come to his net,—to be prosecuted, defended, forsworn, made orphans, bedevilled somehow.”

The ‘confession’ follows: “Put the case, Pip, that here was one pretty little child out of the heap who could be saved”. Knowing that the father believed the girl to be dead, Jaggers bargains with the mother, his murderous client, to give him her daughter as the price for his services, not knowing yet where he will place the girl. Dickens needs to link Jaggers to Miss Havisham at the right moment and so she eventually tells Pip: “I had been shut up in these rooms a long time (I don’t know how long; you know what time the clocks keep here), when I told [Jaggers] that I wanted a little girl to rear and love, and save from my fate. I had first seen him when I sent for him to lay this place waste for me; having read of him in the newspapers, before I and the world parted. He told me that he would look about him for such an orphan child. One night he brought her here asleep, and I called her Estella”.

Everything that happens in Great Expectations follows from Jaggers’ decision to save one little girl “out of the heap” –doesn’t this deserve an article? So, yes, I’ll make sure to write it, and then will start thinking about teaching a course on the most attractive secondary characters –what a challenge to find them!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/