I’ve written on this blog before about my love of Dickens. Another author that I admire the more I read her is J.K. Rowling and it occurred to me that Dickens and the creator of Harry Potter have some marked similarities. Here are some parallels that I’ve noticed.
Complex plots with a large host of characters
Both Dickens and J.K. Rowling create their stories on very large canvases with a huge cast of characters. Their plotting is intricately planned but never so complicated that the reader loses the thread of the story. Sub-plots gel seamlessly with the main plot and every character, no matter how minor, has some significant role to play in the story as a whole.
I recently analysed the story structures of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and was struck both times by how tightly plotted they are. Nothing happens by chance or purely for its own sake.
Characters that are sharply drawn and highly memorable
Both J.K. Rowling and Dickens have given us some of the most memorable characters ever created.
There are far too many famous Dickens characters to name them all. Some of the most famous include Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), Fagin (Oliver Twist), Miss Haversham (Great Expectations), Uriah Heep (David Copperfield) and Tulkinghorn (Bleak House).
Many of Dickens’ characters have become archetypes. So, when we think of a mean miser we instantly think of Scrooge, or when we think of a bitter, jilted bride we picture Miss Haversham in her wedding dress, the clocks stopped at twenty minutes to nine.
Like Dickens, many of J.K. Rowling’s characters are memorable because they are so vividly drawn. From the giant, hairy Hagrid with the heart of gold, to the lank-haired, hook-nosed and sallow-skinned Snape, their physical descriptions mesh with their personalities and actions.
Interestingly, orphans play a key role in the works of both authors. Harry Potter is, of course, the most famous fictional orphan of modern times. His nemesis, Tom Riddle aka Lord Voldemort, is also an orphan. Orphans in Dickens include David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and the three orphans are at the centre of the legal case, Jarndyce and Jandyce, in Bleak House.
Both writers take care in naming their characters. Tulkinghorn sounds like a formidable and dangerous opponent, as indeed he is for Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. Voldemort literally means “flight of death” from the French “vol” meaning “flight”, “de” meaning “of” and “mort” meaning “death”. “Voleur” also means “thief” so another interpretation might be “thief of death”. And by the way, the final T is not pronounced because it’s French.
A strong social conscience
Dickens is renowned for his keen interest in the social issues of his day. His novels span the full range of society from the destitute to the aristocracy. He is scathing about the injustices he sees in the society around him. When the poverty-stricken, shunned and ill roadsweeper, Joe, dies in Bleak House, we get one of Dickens’s most impassioned outbursts:
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.
Rowling explores societal inequalities most explicitly in The Casual Vacancy. The fictional Pagford is a picture-perfect, quintessential English village and assuredly middle-class. On its doorstep is The Fields, a crime-ridden council estate inhabited by drug addicts and social outcasts. When the town councillor Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly, a casual vacancy arises on the council. Grievances, prejudices and widely differing opinions, not least what to do with the troublesome council estate, threaten to tear the community apart. This novel is a comic-tragedy (not a tragic-comedy – it would have to end differently for that) in which Rowling ably demonstrates her satirical credentials.
The idea of social contrasts is one that Rowling continues to explore in her first detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.) The novel explores society’s obsession with celebrity and the super-wealthy contrasted with the lives of the poor. Society judges badly those it considers to be living outside of normal rules and this raises the ire of Rowling’s detective Strike:
Leda, Lula and Rochelle had not…taken every reasonable precaution against violence or chance; they had not tethered themselves to life with mortgages and voluntary work, safe husbands and clean-faced dependants: their deaths, there, were not classed as ‘tragic’, in the same way as those of staid and respectable housewives.
How easy it was to capitalise on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.
A strong vein of humour throughout
Amidst the tragedy, death, squalor and poverty, both authors have the power to make us smile, even to laugh out loud.
Dickens is well known for his satire, particularly his pillorying of public institutions such as the legal system in Bleak House or the fictional Circumlocution Office in Little Dorritt. There’s a similar sharp-edged humour in Rowling’s treatment of the middle classes in The Casual Vacancy or, say, her dissection of the publishing industry in The Silkworm, the second Cormoran Strike book.
But often their humour takes a softer turn. Take, for example, the hapless Mr Guppy in Bleak House who is unable to win the hand of Esther Summerson despite promising that his mother can be trusted with the gin, or the equally hapless Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter whose spells often end in disaster.
Both Dickens and J.K. Rowling are authors that I will happily re-read and have done on several occasions. Sadly, one of them is no longer with us, but I look forward to whatever J.K. Rowling produces next.