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12 May 2006 @ 10:59 am
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. 

Sylviaticklethepear on May 12th, 2006 03:31 pm (UTC)
Nice essay!

What makes Umbridge even more sinister who is that she *appears* harmless with her headbands, fuzzy sweaters, and frolicking kittens. Quite a contrast to Bellatrix (the other evil female in the Potterverse) who seems to have the classic "Vampira" look.
Sylviaticklethepear on May 12th, 2006 03:32 pm (UTC)
Sorry, here via hp_essays.
(no subject) - kerylr on May 12th, 2006 03:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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(no subject) - xikum on May 12th, 2006 04:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - xikum on May 12th, 2006 04:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - snorkackcatcher on May 12th, 2006 11:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
kiki: (hp) me and lavender say...beyond_pale on May 12th, 2006 03:58 pm (UTC)
This makes an excellent counterpoint to "Revising the Rules: Hermione's Selective Ethics," the essay that I wrote (nearly two years ago), arguing that Hermione's likability as a character is inextricably linked to her wriggly moral compass, and directly dealing with her tendency of both clinging to and disregarding the laws and guidelines she is presented with.

In that piece, I blamed her willingness to break and bend rules on the Wizarding World without much further analysis; you do an excellent job here of breaking down, and tracing the progression of that moral development: bravo! The book-by-book summary of her moral glide is incredibly structured and compelling, and the emphasis you place on hard lessons of self-sufficiency are unique and strongly convincing.
WILL WORK FOR CAKEmlle_petal on May 12th, 2006 03:59 pm (UTC)
i love this essay, because you've managed to neatly explain why i've always had a niggling feeling that the 'omg hermione is totally an evil murderer for luring umbridge into the forest!!11' arguments were a bit off. when you put hermione's actions into context they seem a lot more reasonable and, in true hermione style, rational :)

well argued. good job!
Michael Blumedudley_doright on May 13th, 2006 03:40 am (UTC)
omg hermione is totally an evil murderer for luring umbridge into the forest!!11

I've always found those arguments fairly disgusting, and I'm quite glad to have something to point to and say why =)
pixie AKA Maleficent: bullystatic_pixie on May 12th, 2006 04:10 pm (UTC)
Actually, you're right. HBP backed that logic even more, what with Harry wrenching information out of Slughorn by exploiting his affection for Lily and, also, Harry's feeding the potion to Dumbledore at the end because they needed that Horocrux (or so he thought). In fact, it's why I think that Snape's not evil, he just had to make a call not unlike Hermione's up on the tower and he made the best one under the circumstances. JKR's gradually brought this kind of thinking into the Potterverse because it needs it, no matter how noble the mostly-Gryffindor cast feels it needs to be. War isn't noble mainly because it's fraught with decisions just like these, and I think that's why it's a good thing that Harry has a bit of Slytherin in him, because sometimes you really do need to use any means to get your ends.
Lynnetlynnet on May 12th, 2006 04:48 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! I've always been incredibly frustrated by people taking Hermione's actions against Umbridge as some sign Hermione is evil. I've never actually been able to formulate a coherent argument beyond "They're in a WAR, for goodness sakes!" I'm so glad to read this essay, and find a well written, rational argument for the views I've never been able to articulate.
Sollerssollersuk on May 12th, 2006 05:30 pm (UTC)
Once SS!Umbridge is established - and the pen is deliberate, unnecessary cruelty - as far as I am concerned there is no moral ambiguity about Hermione's actions.

Mind you, where I am coming from is belatedly learning that most of my teachers when I was between 7 and 11, and indeed most of the teachers in the entire school, were ex members of the Gaulist Resistance (How did I find out? I discovered why they all started crying at the song "La haut sur la montagne). Not to put too fine a point upon it, these people were ex terrorists and a number of them had been assassins. And I'd have to be a Quaker to disapprove of what they did.
(no subject) - dwa20 on May 13th, 2006 08:01 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sollersuk on May 13th, 2006 10:39 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - juniatha on May 15th, 2006 03:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
tree_and_leaf on May 12th, 2006 05:52 pm (UTC)
This is a great analysis. Umbridge is a really nasty character - the quill pen is one of the nastiest things I've read of in children's fiction (or anywhere - unpleasant flashbacks to Kafka)
Laura: hogwartsdruidspell on May 12th, 2006 06:11 pm (UTC)
Wow. This was a very well thought and well written essay. I especially enjoyed and appreciated your take on the lessons that Hermione has been learning from her time spent in the Wizarding World.
Another thing that you might consider when discussing Hermione's actions is the fact that she must be aware that, even as the smartest witch at Hogwarts, she might not be able to save her family--she's away in a remote area of Scotland for nine or ten months out of the year, while her Muggle parents could be targeted by Death Eaters who are surely aware that a simple way to eliminate a threat is to divert their focus: if Voldemort rises, Hermione's family and neighbors will be targeted.
Not only has Hermione's experience in the Wizarding World taught her to be self-sufficient and that sometimes, the rules are meant to be broken for the greater good, and sometimes adults can't (or won't) protect you; she's a Gryffindor, and has learned the values of bravery, nobility, and chivalry. As a Gryffindor, and as a member of the Golden Trio, Hermione's learned to take care of her own. Not just to do what's best for the greater good, but also to protect and serve your own family and friends, so that they can help you win the battle in the end. The intense and immeasurable value of family and friends are two morals that JKR seems to be promoting in her series. We can hardly expect Hermione to act in a way that is contradictory that the morals and lessons she's paid a heavy price to learn.

Very well done.
kerylrkerylr on May 12th, 2006 07:24 pm (UTC)
Good point. I'm not sure in this particular instance she's thinking quite that far afield, but I'm sure it's part of the reason that she is so aware of what may happen should Voldemort win. (Muggle slavery? Hunting them for sport? Extermination camps?) If anything she's had the Slytherin's do a good job of showing off how much they despise half-bloods, who knows what they would do with actual Muggles.
larilee: Queenlarilee on May 12th, 2006 11:11 pm (UTC)
This is a wonderful look at Umbridge and Hermione's reaction. Very nice comparison between the two. Added to my memories!
snorkackcatchersnorkackcatcher on May 12th, 2006 11:25 pm (UTC)
Good essay. I was expecting something more critical of Hermione's actions, but this seems very fair. I don't think she expected Umbridge to be killed, but yesshe does seem to follow a meta-rule that the formal rules can be discarded in a good cause (which is hardly unreasonable, mind you).
Ani Besterani_bester on May 13th, 2006 01:07 am (UTC)
You know I was gonna try and explain why Umbridge scared me more than Voldemort but now I don't really need to.

Now I can just link to your essay wand say "and she's still in a position of legitimized power!"

What really mkaes it scary is knowing that people like this exist in posiitons of power for real!
The Emerald Serpentizmeina on May 13th, 2006 05:13 am (UTC)
Pink is the colour of evil
Yesss. At least you know where you stand with Voldemort. He's looking out for Number One and will unleash his evil greenness on those who stand in the way. Umbridge also has the same "Whatever it takes" philosophy and the desire to inflict pain simply for her own personal pleasure but hides behind the aura of respectibility and authority to justify her utterly evil indulgences.
That opening speech at the Start of Term feast was a wonderful taste of all the wickedness to come - all cleverly cloaked in managerial mumbo jumbo.

Whether or not she truly believes that "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you" or "It's for your own good" is not quite clear but a whole bunch of people in high places are sucked in by her seeming veneer of respectibility, sweetness and light such as Percy Weasley, Marietta and Fudge of course.

And all those folks who complain at how totally over the top she is, Izzie has had the misfortune to be acquainted with half a dozen of these evil pink and fluffy sorts and all of them seemed to sincerely believe that they were on the side of the angels. (At least two of them were nuns!)

So fighting these sorts of creatures is infinitely more difficult and frustrating that the more openly evil sorts such as Voldemort as it is so much harder to get support and to know who can be trusted
Summersummerborn on May 13th, 2006 01:43 am (UTC)
Fabulous essay. I think you do a good job exploring what makes Umbridge actually evil, though you talk about her "merely" unpleasant characteristics as well. But the part on Hermione is truly spectacular analysis. Thanks so much for posting!
lilacsigillilacsigil on May 13th, 2006 05:39 am (UTC)
This is a magnificent essay. I sometimes come into contact with people who, while not committing the acts Umbridge doss, I'm fairly sure would, given half a chance. Local councillors, medical administrators and the other banal little tyrants who care more about their own organisation and its/their power more than anything else in the universe.

I have heard the argument that Hermione is acting just like Umbridge in her actions at the end of the book - putting her own agenda above the lives of others. I haven't really had a coherent argument - because Hermione does do this in full knowledge of the likely consequences - but your argument that Hermione is acting in a moral coherent way is something I will be pointing people to in the future!
Sollerssollersuk on May 13th, 2006 08:03 am (UTC)
This is my feeling about Umbridge: the truly horrible thing is that we all know people like her; this is the real meaning of "the banality of evil" which is partly a mistranslation - the real meaning is that it is commonplace, it's all around us, it's not a rare diabolical figure, it's the jobsworth you can't get away from.

The saccharine persona is a particularly telling touch.

As for comparisons with Hermione: I'll go into morality in the wizarding world myself some time soon (I've got something nearly ready) but Hermione does operate in terms of moral absolutes, though she has changed her attitudes in the course of the book, and whereas Umbridge is convinced that she is right, the basis on which she views her actions as right is different from the foundation of Hermione's behaviour.
(no subject) - kerylr on May 13th, 2006 01:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Who will rid me of this turbulent priest? - woman_ironing on May 14th, 2006 02:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - teawithvoldy on May 13th, 2006 07:31 am (UTC) (Expand)
fishityfishity on May 13th, 2006 12:19 pm (UTC)
Great analysis! I especially liked how you retraced the facts throughout the books that made Hermione act the way she did in OotP. And I totally agree with your appraisal of Umbridge's nastiness. That quill...*shudders*
Glynnis: Tonksquean_of_swords on May 13th, 2006 01:21 pm (UTC)
When Umbridge came on the scene, she became the Character I Hate The Most. For exactly the reasons you outline above. Your analysis of Hermione does explain that doubt I had in my mind over Hermione's actions with the Centaurs.

Good essay.