Harry Potter and the Magic of Narrative Closure


I finished Deathly Hallows this morning. I have some things to say about the book, the series, the nature of storytelling, authorship, reading, faith, and the meaning of life. I’m not claiming that they are profound or original things – just things.

So if you have finished the book or do not mind having some of its events revealed, continue onward. If you haven’t finished yet, please come back when you have…

My sense as I steamrolled through the final 100 pages was “J.K. Rowling knows what she’s doing.” I see that as high praise. For many (but not all) types of storytelling, I find that a central, if not the chief, pleasure of narrative consumption is that sense of authorial control making the most out of her characters, settings, and storyworld. For series fiction with ambitions to construct large arcs, that sense of control needs to span the entire series, structuring the narrative so that readers feel the early installments were needed to set-up the climax, digressions along the way tied in to convey relevance where it might not have previously appeared, a macro-unity of the whole.

The Harry Potter books convey that sense of control tremendously – as I read the conclusion, I felt the pieces tying together, previous actions gaining justification and depth, digressions earning relevance. I realized that Rowling had really started her books in media res, in the midst of a number of stories that only fully take shape by the end of the series – we’re not just experiencing Harry’s adolescence, but also those of Lily, James, Snape, Tom Riddle, and eventually Dumbledore, encountering the formative stories that provide depth of character and the elaborate plot mechanics for the series. The lengthy digressions into the politics of elf/human relations from earlier books pay off both during Dobby’s heroic rescue and in triggering the long-awaited Hermione/Ron snogging.

I’ve talked about pleasures in observing the mechanics of storytelling in an article on television narrative, considering how viewers experience this operational aesthetic while still being wrapped up in a story. I felt the same sensation most profoundly in the brilliant chapter “The Prince’s Tale” – as we learn the backstories of Severus, Lily and Petunia (!), I saw all the gears falling into place, humanizing these characters and explaining what had been motivating virtually the entire story of the series! And, importantly, I had faith that this had been Rowling’s plan all along.

As I’ve written before, I see faith in storytellers’ abilities to control their narrative world as crucial to the consumption of complex narratives. If we doubt that the creators know what they’re doing, it’s hard to weather the lulls, doubts, and digressions encountered along the way – one of the many reasons I can’t bear to watch 24. As narrative consumers, I believe we want to give over some degree of control to authors, placing our attention in their hands to guide as they see fit. If we doubt that they know precisely what they’re doing, our pleasures are weakened, losing faith in the coherence and rationale of their narrative vision. (I’m not saying this is the only pleasure, nor that it applies to all types of storytelling – but that it seems crucial for plot-driven popular narratives like genre fiction and television.)

More than any other narrative experience in recent memory, I’ve felt complete faith in Rowling’s ability to control the world, pay off the characters & themes she’s been weaving, and offer satisfying resolution to both her plot and mode of storytelling. DH redeemed this faith, providing satisfaction on many levels of engagement. As I wrote before reading the book, my compelling interest was less in the narrative present of Harry’s fate (in part because I had no doubts that he would remain The Boy Who Lived) but more in how the backstory of a previous generation would be woven into the tale – and in this regard, DH surpassed my expectations by interweaving the youthful stories of Snape/Lily/James as before, and Dumbledore for a surprise. As I said, Rowling knows what she’s doing.

And onto the meaning of life: I’m not someone with much use for faith regarding the macro-issues of existence – I believe that the order of the universe comes from emergent interactions on the micro-level, whether it be human relations, birds flocking, or atomic physics. I have no faith in any supreme macro-force, no author in the sky – nor do I much understand why rational educated people place their faith in some unknowable being or consciousness.

The closest I can get to connecting with this impulse to faith is the experience of consuming a great narrative – that sense of order within chaos you get when you see the pieces of a story put together, the revelations of meaning where it had not appeared, the creation of art where it had not been before. When it comes to storytelling, I do place my faith in a higher being, willfully surrendering to the power of a creator to construct coherence and guide my attention, offering little miracles of plot twists, character revelations, and emotional response to words on a page. There is a pleasure in feeling that the world makes sense, that there’s a wise woman in charge who knows what she’s doing. But for me, that sense of order ends in the epilogue, in closing the book on a well-told tale.

And a few final random asides to anyone making it this far: one of my few complaints about previous Potter books was a lack of clarity and coherence in the action set-pieces – I often found I had to reread these climactic battles repeatedly to figure out who was casting what, and how the characters were interacting with each other. DH features the best action scenes in the whole series, with a completely engaging and clear set of battles at the end, and what might be the best action sequence in the series, Dobby’s heroic rescue from the house of Malfoy. At the end, I felt Rowling was issuing a challenge to Warner Bros. to see how much they’d be willing to invest in special effects to film the Battle of Hogwarts and the Gringotts robbery…

I loved how the book gave so many supporting players their moments in the sun, from Neville’s fulfillment of his role in the prophecy to Mrs. Weasley’s maternal smackdown of Lestrange, to Dobby and Kreacher’s heroics. These moments were completely predictable in the concluding book of such a series, but I found each thoroughly satisfying, reminding me why narrative formulas tend to work so well.

Finally, had someone told me two days ago that DH might become my favorite HP book (I’m not sure that it is, but it’s in the running), I would have said they’re crazy. I found the first half of the book unrelentingly grim and depressing, mired in hopelessness and angst to the point of displeasure. I’m really curious how kids react to this part of the book – I know I wouldn’t want mine to read through this one until their teen years ideally. Even knowing that things were bound to turn for the better, Ron’s departure and Harry’s sullen streak were agonizing to read, and I really missed the routine of Hogwarts and any info about Snape.  But Rowling knew what she was doing, pulling us down to pay off the redemptive ending.

7 Responses to “Harry Potter and the Magic of Narrative Closure”

  1. Jason,

    Like you, I thoroughly enjoyed DH. If had any complaints about the book it would be the final chapter–19 Years Later. In many respects, I could have done without this chapter. Although Rowling answered some of the basic questions, like who married who etc. She also left us with a few dangling elements. For example, we know where Neville works but beyond breeding what’s Harry been doing? Also, who raised Teddy?

    Do you think Rowling may have been using this chapter to plant seeds for a future endeavor or was she just trying to wrap up a few loose ends for her readers? Of course, she can’t answer everything but drawing the parallel between Teddy and Harry seems awfully convenient, yet it’s also left quite unresolved. Could her main character simply float to the background and relinquish his stage to the next generation of wizards and witches? In essence, I really loved the way that she left the door cracked open for a return to some of these characters. Based on her obvious abilities to plan her narratives, I can only hope that there’s more even if it’s only wishful thinking.

  2. Chad – thanks for the comment. I’ve thought about the epilogue for awhile now, and it seems like it’s the most divisive part of the book among fans. Many want to know more, like you, and find what she did tell us is just unsatisfying in its mundanity. I didn’t find the epilogue particularly compelling or disappointing – it was just kind of there.

    My take on it, influenced by some reading around the blogs: it shows what matters most to Harry is a happy family life. He doesn’t want to be a hero, taking the place of his idols at Hogwarts or in the Ministry. He just wants what he never got as a kid, and is content to share it with the extended Weasley family. My career speculation has always been that Harry would take his place as the stable Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher that Hogwarts never had, but I totally understand the choice to avoid his career ambitions for highlighting his family accomplishments. The one part of the epilogue that I really found moving is calling Severus the bravest man he knew – nice posthumous praise for the series’ most compelling character.

    As for sequels: nope. I really think she’s done with the world of Hogwarts, although Rowling’s said she could imagine writing a “non-fiction” book about the wizarding world, with proceeds to charity. But I don’t see these loose ends as an invitation to another series – Teddy is a cyclical tie-back, giving Harry a chance to be a better godfather than Sirius was, but I don’t see it as the seeds of Hogwarts: The Next Generation. The surest sign of that is the message of the epilogue – after years as the center of undesired attention and notoriety, there is a desire to step back and enjoy the comforts of family life out of the spotlight. Rowling seems not interested in reliving the Potter-mania that a sequel would bring, so I can’t see it happening (or at least for decades).

  3. 3 Bob Rehak

    Jason, eloquently said, and you capture my own pleasure in finishing Deathly Hallows with appreciation — almost awe — at Rowling’s command of the sprawling, seven-book corpus. And like you, I found myself almost granting her divine powers of foresight and planning: Did she have all this worked out in advance?

    I like the deft way in which you introduce a kind of “authorial deity” to explain our perception, fleeting or otherwise, of the organizing intelligence behind a text. My question would be, how do you see this auratic presence shifting in an era of collectively-authored texts like those in television, film, comics to some degree — really anything beyond the literary novel? I’m not trying to resurrect the hoary “death of the author” argument (the Dark Lord Barthes rising from the grave, *shudder*), but I am curious to know how the figure of the TV showrunner who supposedly presides over the unfolding of a complex narrative both follows and complicates the logic of the singular print author epitomized by Rowling.

    My own sense is that, when it comes to serial TV narrative, the author becomes increasingly a construct in the viewer’s mind, a metaphysical necessity that brings (the illusion of?) pattern and order to a product that has in reality passed through many hands, many meetings. It’s the Walter Benjamin in me; I see the author in the age of mechanical reproduction as becoming ever more “taken on faith” rather than physically, empirically traceable.

  4. 4 Paul Ramaeker

    Good stuff, mate, and certainly you celebrate Rowling’s accomplishment here in ways that gibe with my own experience of reading the series. Personally, though, I think of the author less in terms of religion than in terms of S/M, as a way to explain my pleasure in this kind of control, but I am still working that theory out.
    Otherwise, I think it’s true that TV complicates authorship claims, but there are still empirical grounds on which to make some authorial claims, grounded in TV mode of production, just as there are in film. I think that contemporary approaches to the question of authorship certainly need to take social, cultural, industrial, etc., contexts into account, but that is no reason to abandon the idea of authors; rather, it calls for us to abandon the idea of the author as a figure through which to claim an overarching unity to the text, and to abandon Romantic notions of the author as creator. But it does not necessitate abandoning the author as an agent working within those contexts, and traceable as a figure constituted by certain kinds of systematic choices made such agents.

  5. 5 Ruth

    I’ve read you blog and am now leaving you a comment as proof. The Goddess of Narration, eh? Is there already a Greek or Roman god who can claim such a title? I agree with Bob that TV and its multi-author trend, as well as the pressures of the industry, complicate this authorial authority. I know you often have trust in the TV authors like Joss and those associated with Wire & BG, but they are not granted the same level of control that Rowling was able to maintain even through 7 books. Her ability to fill in holes and tie up loose ends was exquisite, beyond the abilities of any long running TV author, and even better, I dare say, than the “fathers” of her genre. She also has complete command of tone, something that might even be more difficult than simple narrative construction. And for the record, I like the peace of the epilogue, void of any cynicism that it is simply there to set up more storytelling. Harry has family, wisdom, calm. All is well. Gotta go – Ruth

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