Tamar Szabó Gendler asks, who’s to say?
On October 19, 2007, before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall in New York City, J. K. Rowling made a remarkable announcement. In response to a question about whether Dumbledore had ever been in love, she announced that she had “always thought of Dumbledore as gay.”
Reaction was immediate and emphatic. Within two days, close to 3,000 comments had been posted at the Leaky Cauldron with another 2,500 at MuggleNet. There were articles in Time and Newsweek, reports on CNN and NBC, and even an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times.
Responses fell into three categories. Some readers were delighted by the news. Others were dismayed. But the most interesting type of response was the third. These readers responded to the declaration by challenging Rowling’s authorial authority. “Unless she decides to write Book Eight, Ms. Rowling has missed her chance to impart any new information about any of the Harry Potter characters. If the series is truly at an end, then the author no longer possesses the authority to create new thoughts, feelings, and realities for those characters,” wrote one reader.
What we face here is a version of what philosophers call the problem of truth in fiction. Are there facts about what is true in the world of a story, and if so, what determines those facts? We can start with a simple two-part proposal: what’s true in the world of Harry Potter are (a) all and (b) only those things that appear on 4,100 pages that together compose the Harry Potter volumes.
Should we accept part (a) of this proposal? As long as we reconcile the minor inconsistencies across the works, it seems reasonable to think that we should: the world of Harry Potter is a world in which the things written down on those 4,100+ pages are true. Let’s call these things the world’s primary truths.
Before we turn to (b) let’s consider the assumption that we just made — that the world of Harry Potter is supposed to be internally coherent. What sense of “supposed to be” are we talking about? Well, it seems pretty clear that, for the most part, the world described in the Potter books is a coherent one: inconsistencies are very rare. And it seems pretty clear that Rowling’s readers expect her to be describing an internally coherent world: when there are inconsistencies, readers point them out as notable. And it seems pretty clear that Rowling intends to be describing a coherent world: she corrected these inconsistencies in later editions. Moreover, it seems pretty clear that the Harry Potter books are the kind of books in which internal consistency is prized: they belong to a genre where internal consistency is a hallmark.
We’ll come back to these four criteria – textual evidence, reader response, authorial intent, and genre-constraints – in our discussion below. But to get there, let’s consider (b) – the suggestion that the only things that are true in the world of Harry Potter are the primary truths. In contrast to (a), (b) seems more problematic. For here are some things that are not primary truths in the world of Harry Potter: Hermione has ten fingers and Cedric Diggory does not play for the Boston Red Sox. After all, there’s no sentence in any of the Potter books that reads: “Hermione had ten fingers” or “Cedric Diggory, though an excellent Quidditch player, was not a member of a major league baseball team.” And if it seems reasonable to think that these things are true in the world of Harry Potter, along with others that are not explicitly stated in the text, then what makes them true? What principles govern the generation of what we might call secondary truths?
One major source of secondary fictional truths is non-fictional truths imported from the actual world. Presumably, most readers think that in the world of Harry Potter, the earth revolves around the sun, cats have four legs, and January precedes February. Though these things aren’t explicitly stated in the books, they are consistent with the story’s primary truths, and they help fill out the imaginary world in a way that seems useful and natural. But we can’t accept that everything true in the actual world is also true in the world of Harry Potter: for that would make it true in the world of Harry Potter that you are reading this article right now.
So what should our principle be? Instead of a single principle, I think that we should be looking instead for rules of thumb. As Aristotle famously said, “Our discussion will be adequate if its clarity fits its subject-matter. . . . The educated person seeks exactness in each area to the extent that the nature of the subject allows. . . . It is just as mistaken to demand demonstrations from the rhetorician as it is to accept merely persuasive arguments from the mathematician.”
With this in mind let’s return to our central question – is it true in the world of Harry Potter that Dumbledore is gay? – and think about what sorts of considerations we can bring to bear in answering it. As we noted above, there seem to be four places we can look: textual evidence, reader response, authorial intent, and genre-constraints.
As far as textual evidence goes, it’s clear that “Dumbledore is gay” is not a primary truth in Harry Potter: that sentence appears nowhere in the 4,100 or so canonical pages. So the question is whether it is a secondary truth. Clearly it’s not the sort of secondary truth that can be imported directly from the actual world, since Dumbledore is a fictional character. But is it the kind of implied secondary truth that astute readers can be expected to pick up on – for example, from the way Rowling describes Dumbledore’s intense relationship with Grindelwald in Deathly Hallows (“You cannot imagine how his ideas . . . inflamed me”), and the fact that no heterosexual romantic interests of Dumbledore’s are ever mentioned? Here it seems fair to say that while it is compatible with the story’s primary truths, it is not strictly implied by them.
So our best evidence here is what Rowling herself said. But why should that matter? As readers have complained: “If the series is truly at an end, then the author no longer possesses the authority to create new thoughts, feelings, and realities for those characters. And, indeed, this sort of view of authorial authority is held by a number of leading critics of authorial intent. They point out that language is a social creation, and that authors do not have the power simply to make words mean what they choose. By this reasoning, it’s not up to Rowling to say whether Dumbledore is gay: her texts need to be allowed to speak for themselves, and each of her readers is a qualified listener.
By contrast, “intentionalist” literary theorists such as E.D. Hirsch Jr. argue that authorial intent is what fixes a text’s correct interpretation. Without such a constraint, Hirsch contends, one uses the text “merely as grist for one’s own mill.” And, at least to the extent that readers’ primary concern is with understanding what an author meant to communicate, intention is obviously central.
Why? Because for most Potter fans, Rowling is the patented owner and creator of the Potter universe. When she told the audience at Carnegie Hall that Neville went on to marry Hannah Abbott, or that Petunia “almost wished Harry luck when she said goodbye to him” at the beginning of Deathly Hallows, no one wrote in to say that that those things didn’t happen. After all, Rowling invented the world of Harry Potter, and she has the unique prerogative to authoritatively fill out, embellish, and continue her story. Rowling herself seems to endorse this view, claiming that Dumbledore “is my character. He is what he is and I have the right to say what I say about him.”
Though, for many readers, Rowling’s declaration settles the matter, it is nonetheless interesting to think about the question from the perspective of our final theme – that of genre. One way that a reader might argue against the suggestion that Dumbledore is gay would be to contend that Harry Potter belongs to a genre of children’s stories in which issues of adult sexuality do not arise. On this sort of account, it simply isn’t faithful to the story to say that Dumbledore is gay – not because he’s straight or even asexual, but because it doesn’t make sense to speak about his sexuality at all.
But given that Hagrid and Madame Maxine have a book-length flirtation, and that Snape’s hatred of Harry is partly explained by his unrequited love for Lily, this seems like a difficult line to take. Indeed, one might even counter that facts about genre help the case that Dumbledore is gay. For the Harry Potter books do belong to a genre of young adult fiction in which adults’ personal needs and desires are largely invisible to the youthful protagonists. And this would help explain why no mention of Dumbledore’s sexuality is made in the text, despite its being an important fact about the larger imaginary world.
Finally, one might argue against Dumbledore’s being gay on the grounds that it does no work in illuminating the story, rendering Rowling’s declaration at best an irrelevant fillip. But it seems clear that Dumbledore’s love for Grindelwald does important plot work. As Rowling remarked at Carnegie Hall, “To an extent, do we say it excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extent? But he met someone as brilliant as he was, and . . . was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him.” Throughout the Harry Potter series, characters fall in true love with those who are their authentic peers. Could it be that Dumbledore is gay because the person Rowling was able to conceive of as being his intellectual equal was a man?
Tamar Szabó Gendler is professor of philosophy at Yale University
This article is abridged from The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles, edited by Gregory Bassham, and is part of a continuing series of extracts from the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture Series
Keep up to date with articles like this, by subscribing to the magazine