kerylr (kerylr) wrote in hp_essays,

Take Umbridge

One of the best indicators of the HP world growing up comes in OOTP where we are introduced to a new kind of character.  Someone who is evil, and not a Death Eater.  It’s the first time we see a blurring of the traditional  Us V. Them lines.   It is also the first time we see a main character (Hermione) act in a manner that could, probably would, get someone killed, on purpose.  I’d like to take a few moments to look at who Umbridge is, and why Hermione’s actions are appropriate to the moral lessons she’s been absorbing in the Potterverse over her five years at Hogwarts. 
Who is Umbridge?:  Or, Why She’s Evil as Opposed to Unpleasant

Let us begin with a definition of evil in the human being.  A person who has no regard for human (or in the case of the Potterverse, we may as well say intelligent) life, enjoys the pain of others, gets off on humiliation and power, and does these things consistently, with no remorse, is my idea of evil.  Yes, most people fall into one of these categories on occasion, but they usually feel bad about it later, and try to avoid it in the future, and very rarely indulge in all three.

How does this apply to Umbridge?  OOTP begins with her greatest crime (that we see.)  She sets the Dementors on Harry.  This is especially heinous for two reasons. 

First off, it is unlikely that she knows Harry can reliably produce a full Patronus.  Yes, she may have seen him create one against a Boggart.  Maybe.  We don’t know if she was at the final task of the TriWizard Tournament.  We do know that’s the only place she could have learned that he can cast the spell.  But if she was there, all she knows is that he can produce one against something that looks, but doesn’t feel, like a Dementor.  We know that producing a Patronus against a real Dementor is a very different game than doing it against a Boggart.  Most full grown Wizards cannot do it.  She is not trying to get Harry expelled for underage magic.  (That’s an unexpected bonus.)   She is trying to destroy him.  She also shows that she has no regard for the lives of any muggles that may be near him.   

Secondly, she probably knows he is telling the truth about the return of Voldemort.  If she doesn’t her reaction is overkill.  The rest of the Ministry seems to think that discrediting Harry will do the job just fine, and if Voldemort isn’t back, they are correct.  Everyone old enough to have survived VoldWar I remembers what it was like.  Dark Marks all over the place, neighbors and friends acting oddly, Inferi wandering about.  If none of that starts happening, and one is barraged with stories of Harry Potter the Boy Who Wanted Fame, the Ministry will be safe.  People may be scared, but fear only lasts so long, especially if nothing scary happens.  However, if Voldemort is back, odd things, (like all the Death Eaters getting out of Azkaban) will begin to happen, and people will expect the Ministry to protect them.  Since it’s not very good at protecting people from Voldemort, and has no desire to change regimes to someone who may be better at it, the best thing that can happen to the Ministry is anyone who says Voldemort is back vanishing.  Umbridge places the value of maintaining her regime at the Ministry higher than the life of anyone who may endanger that regime.

We learn shortly after Harry’s trial that Umbridge is a racist.  She’s the force behind legislation that keeps “Non-Humans” in poverty and on the fringes of Wizard Society.  Later we’ll see her interact with Hagrid, and the Centaurs, creatures that aren’t full human, but are just as smart, competent, and able, if not more so, than many of the humans around them.  She can’t see them as anything of value.  Hell, she can’t keep her prejudice at bay long enough to try and save her life when it comes to dealing with the Centaurs. 

When we watch her teaching DADA we get to see her display many of her less attractive qualities.  First off, she is so scared of children that she is making sure they are handicapped in their ability to defend themselves.  This tells us that she is incapable of making a rational threat assessment.  Any threat to her power base is unacceptable, and must be destroyed.  There are about 400 students at Hogwarts ranging in age from 11 to 18.  We do not know how many Aurors there are, or if the Ministry has something equivalent to an army, but it’s very hard to believe that there aren’t enough adult Wizards to put down an uprising of students. 

More importantly these children live in a dangerous world.  Fenrir Greyback, anyone?  Even if she does believe the whole Voldemort thing is a total lie, and that everyone is safe on that front, all of these kids clearly live in a world where there are some seriously bad actors.  Preventing her students from learning how to defend themselves is tantamount to child endangerment.  If she does know that Voldemort is back she’s gone from endangerment to abuse.  Once more the lives of those entrusted to her care are not as important to her as maintaining her power at the Ministry. 

Her actions in DADA also allow us to see how she punishes people, specifically Harry, but later in the story we find that he is not the only victim of her poison pen.  She has a child carve words into his own flesh.  And it’s not like she just happens to have a pen knife lying around, she owns a tool specifically designed for the purpose of carving words into people’s flesh.  The only reason to own a pen like that is for causing pain.  (Yes, you could use a pen like that for blood contracts, but what exactly would be the point of the pen carving the words into your hand?)  Plus, she makes sure that Harry is marked for life as a liar.  Anyone who sees that hand from then on will see in lovely white scar tissue, “I will not tell lies.” Those are not the actions of a teacher just doing her job.  This is a sadist in action. 

In her treatment of Tralawny we see her show off her joy of the pain and humiliation of others.  After all, if you can teach DADA perfectly well from a text book with no practical work, discussion, or practice, why would you need to be a seer to teach Divination?   She then sacks Tralawny in front of everyone to rub the embarrassment in further.  The only reason she’s tormenting Tralawney is because she enjoys it.   You’ll note that when she runs into personalities that do not allow themselves to be bullied (McGonagall, Snape) she doesn’t even try, even though McGonagall is probably the professor ‘closest’ to Dumbledore.  (At least if you don’t have the perspective of a member of the Order of the Phoenix.) 

Once more on the disregard for intelligent life front, she sends a group of wand wielding henchmen to take out Hagrid.  Since when is it necessary to stun someone to fire them?  Also, her orders apparently included instructions to fire at anyone who gets in the way.  Which conveniently takes out Prof. McGonagall, the last of Dumbledore’s pet professors.  For all we know that was part of the plan.  Umbridge obviously can’t fire McGonagall, she’s too much the professional, but if she gets caught in the crossfire while the attack on Hagrid rages; well, that’s collateral damage.  (How does McGonagall know the attack is going down?  Is she just in the right place at the right time?  Or is she actually lured out there?  After all, she got hit with five stunners, that sounds like the henchmen knew to look for her.)

Our last real view of Umbridge allows us to see her talking herself into using the Cruciatus curse against Harry to obtain information.  (You’ll note this is what landed Bellatrix and pals into Azkaban.)  Umbridge is a high Ministry official, she’s standing in front of a working fireplace that could take her right to the Ministry and allow her to give Harry to the Aurors, who probably have some veritus serum on hand for interrogations.  There is no reason for her to revert to pain as a tool of interrogation.  There’s no reason for her to interrogate Harry herself.  Except for the fact that she likes it.  She wants to break Harry.  She wants to see him in pain.  She wants to defeat him, overpower him.  Does anyone really see her hitting him with a bit of pain, getting the information she needs, and letting him go?  First off, I don’t see Harry breaking all that easily, he’s tough enough to throw off the Imperius Curse, and as we saw in GOF, he can stand quite a bit of pain.  Secondly, the woman who tried to destroy him in the beginning of the book doesn’t strike me as the person who would leave him sane after she gets what she wants.   

And here, Hermione steps in and does what one of the grown-ups should have done long ago.  She takes action against Umbridge.

Who is Hermione?:  Or, Why She’s Acting in a Manner Consistent With Her Moral Upbringing

At this point in the story Hermione has been part of the Wizarding World for a little under five years.  She’s learned a lot of spellcraft.  She’s gotten great grades.  She’s the brightest witch in her year.  She knows more history, and current events than anyone of her contemporaries.  And, all of these things are important to the moral character of Hermione, but there is another, more important factor that overrides these.  She’s spent five years learning from the adults around her to be self sufficient, and that the rules do not matter. 

The message begins in PS/SS when the Trio goes after the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Is it against the rules?  Sure.  Should they have left it to the grown-ups?  Yes.  We’re they lauded for their bravery and cunning?  Yes.  What else do they learn?  Stopping Voldemort trumps just about everything else.  Quirrel is killed to keep the stone out of his hands.  It's not like they see anyone lamenting the loss of Prof. Quirrel. 

COS shows us that the grown-ups cannot be relied on to protect you.  Just when you need them most they try to run away, and you have to depend on yourself.  Now, Hermione was unconscious for the first hand action in this story, but she certainly heard about it later, and saw how fantastically happy everyone was that Harry and Ron had broken more rules, gone forth, and saved Ginny.  Even though it results in the permanent incapacitation of Prof. Lockhart. 

POA she begins to learn the Ministry is corrupt.  It cannot be depended on to act justly.  And, this time Dumbledore, the most respected adult she has any contact with her, tells her to break the rules, and do what she considers right. 

GOF, once more adults cannot be trusted to keep you safe.  Also, the Wizarding World in general is not morally trustworthy, after all we’re talking about slave holding racists.  I think one of the major shocks for Hermione is discovering that the Ministry supports a system that enslaves other magical creatures, and winks at a double standard between humans and non-humans.  A worse shock comes at the end of GOF, and during the summer between GOF and OOTP, when she finds that the Ministry is more interested in staying in power than in doing what is right.  The second main lesson of GOF is that the Death Eaters are really evil.  They kill Cedric without a second thought.  Had Harry been a bit slower, he would have died too.  Hermione changes after the TriWizard Tournament, becomes more ruthless, and I think this has quite a bit to do with the fact that she has finally realized exactly what is at stake. 

By OOTP we find that every adult wizard Hermione likes or respects is part of an extra-legal (possibly illegal) vigilante group dedicated to the defeat of Lord Voldemort.  By this point, none of them hold any respect for the Ministry, and those who work for it are moles bringing information back to the Order.  With the curse she uses to safeguard Dumbledore’s Army we see that Hermione is convinced that learning to fight back is the most important thing they will do that year.  She is more aware of the risks of the Ascension of Lord Voldemort than probably anyone at Hogwarts who doesn’t remember the first time.

So we find ourselves as little flies on the wall watching Umbridge talking herself into torturing Harry for information.  The Junior Order members are being restrained by the Hogwarts Inquisitorial Squad.  They are unwanded.  Harry believes that Sirius is being tortured to death, and Kreatcher has confirmed his belief.  The last adult left in Hogwarts who could have helped them just left the office in a huff.  Maybe he’s getting help for Sirius, but he definitely won’t be there to protect Harry and friends.   The rest of the Junior Order are acting like typical teenagers, they are physically struggling, but not thinking.  Hermione is thinking.  She’s spent a year watching Umbridge.  She knows exactly how to push Umbridge’s buttons.  She uses her brains and gives Umbridge a tale of mystery weapons in the forest.  She gets herself, and Harry, out of that office.  

She knows that the Centaurs have no use for adult humans, and that Umbridge has no use for any sort of non-human.  She’s hoping the Centaurs will consider her and Harry foals who are friends of Hagrid, and let them out of the forest again.  Does she think the Centaurs will kill Umbridge?  Maybe.  I like to think no, based on the fact that Hermione thinks all reports of non-human brutality are just Wizarding prejudice.  But even if she does think the Centaurs will kill Umbridge, she is still within the bounds of reasonable action based on the moral precepts of the last four years.  To the best of her knowledge she can save the life of Sirius, the mind of Harry, and keep the Death Eaters from getting whatever they’ve been trying to get at the Ministry for the last year.  (Since the Trio is under the impression it’s a weapon, who knows how many lives she thinks are hanging in the balance.)  That’s a lot to trade for the life of an evil woman who has done everything she could think of to make life miserable for anyone who thinks Voldemort is back.  Hermione makes the decision quickly, but I do no think lightly.  

But doesn’t that mean the ends justify the means?  Sometimes they do.  Part of being a moral thinker comes from being able to assess the situation, the options arising from said situation, and the possible repercussions of those options.  If killing, as opposed to murder, is the Ultimate Evil of the Potterverse, then the Order is just as morally corrupt as the Death Eaters, and the only correct action for them is to roll over and let themselves be killed.  I'm fairly sure that isn’t Rowling’s moral message for the reader. 

Tags: characters:dolores umbridge
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