I was late to the party. The Harry Potter Party that is. Finally, over the past month and a half, I succumbed and read the Harry Potter novels with the goal of finishing before my Birthday on Thursday. I finished them today — so Happy early birthday to me! But that was not the only early birthday present I received — I found in my mailbox a copy of Thomas and Snyder’s The Law and Harry Potter. Just like it was an eighth installment of the book, I tore it open, looking to see if my entrée’ into the wizarding world was similar to others. While the essays I read were quite good (I still have several more to go) one overwhelming question popped in my head “where is remorse.” Indeed, scaling the chapter of contents and the essays on criminal behavior, very little is said about Rowling’streatment of this central theme. In fact, its not until we get to Darby Dickerson’s essay titled “Professor Dumbledore’s Wisdom and Advice” that we see remorse dealt with. So why doesn’t a book dealing with Harry Potter and the Law deal more directly with remorse? Maybe that in and of itself suggests the answer — that the law is as uncomfortable with the idea of remorse as, well, Voldemort is. For example, what happens when a lawyer, doctor or other professional says “I messed up?” How do companies, universities and governments apologize? How are apologies in the criminal context treated? As mere evidence of reform, no more powerful or less powerful than other factors, like can the person conform to other important social norms — making up one’s bunk, not fighting with inmates, etc… or the need to provide for retribution. Perhaps the editors of the volume realized this fact — that often, the law and remorse have little to do with each other. Perhaps the authors simply had nothing to say.
This criticism became most clear when reading Andrew Morriss’ essay Moral Choice, Wizardry Law, and Liberty: A classical liberal Reading of the role of law in the Harry Potter Series. (I completely agree with Morriss’ assessment by the way that Rowling’s posits a calibration model inviting readers to evaluate themselves against the text). But what is it that we should be calibrating? I think Rowlings theme (since the third book — and likely before) is the role that remorse plays in shaping humans as humans, and humans as a part of a greater social group. As a proponent of the “progressive view of law” that asks what law should look like as a reflection of human advancement, I think we should consider greatly the role that remorse plays on the human condition, and how the law should account for it.
Remorse as Regenerative — One broad theme we find in the Harry Potter saga is the regenerative effect of remorse — that remorse renders the characters as more human (and those that refuse to engage it are less so). For example, Ronald and Percy Weasley both seem less than human during parts of the novels (like their responses are not a result of their agency, but rather are outside of their control). Notably, the human character traits that Rowling emphasizes as most important – family and friendship — are challenged by whether Percy or Ron will seek to repair damage relationships. Percy’s haughtiness calls into question his position within the rest of the Weasley clan. After all, is Percy a blood traitor like the rest of the Weasley family or is he different, and therefore should not belong. For Ron, his betrayal of friendship causes the reader to question Ronald Weasley’s reason for beginning the quest. Indeed, we have much to worry about leading up to the seventh installment when Ron’s connection to Potter is concerned — a constant internal battle between individual heroics and choices to continue a quest which seems more likely to lead to oblivion rather than exultation. But through their remorse, both Percy and Ron are restored — Percy to his name and family, and Ron to his self-less role of friend and companion. Other remorseful characters whose humanness becomes more focused because of their remorse is Lupin, Dudley Dursley, Albus Dumbledore, Regulus Black, Aberforth Dumbledore, Kreacher, and Snape.
But Rowling’s most visual depiction of remorse’s regeneration is when remorse is lacking. For example, Tom Riddle shows no capacity for remorse, and therefore begins to lose his humanness (we see the humanness slipping from Tom thanks to Dumbledore’s memories in Book VI and realize that the form that we come to recognize as Voldemort has very little human left in — even in appearance, his humanity has slipped away. When we encounter the fully formed Voldermort from Book IV onward, he is far less human, either by appearance, or action. In Rowling’s world, its the lack of remorse that renders Tom Riddle as Voldemort and Voldemort as splintered and doomed. Voldemort’s lack of remorse, begins with his perception that he he superior, with nothing to be remorseful of. And the things that he does remorse over, are things he can chalk up to other people’s shortcomings — his family, his followers, or his advisors.
Misplaced Remorse — Rowling identifies two forms of remorse that seem to be as harmful as not being remorseful at all. The first is automated remorse, or remorse that is so covered by one’s transgressions, it simply cannot reveal itself in any conscious manner. Sometimes, then, remorse becomes the catalyst for betraying our own self-interests. It may actually be so latent that the holder does not necessarily realize that remorse is working to define the individual’s behavior. For example, remorse provides the fodder for Peter Petegrew’s betrayal of his own self-interest in the Malfoy manor basement (even if that remorse is automatic, rather than contemplated, as Dumbledore suggests it may be). Automated remorse deprives the holder of the pain that works upon one’s soul. It therefore, only leads to the destruction of the person. Interestingly, it is the least human part of Peter Pettegrew (his hand) which demonstrates his most human quality (his mortality). Perhaps this is the most visible depiction of the reality that remorse holds in the law. One might say that the very least a person seeking parol must do is “say your sorry” to his victim. Perhaps the law understands how difficult it is to convert automated remorse into a regenerated human. Though, perhaps there is even a virtue to being able to say your sorry — even if you don’t mean it. As Ira Glass says at the beginning of the This American Life episode “Mistakes were made,” sometimes, the fact that people say their sorry is enough to let us know they at least respect the social code of apology, even if they are too hardened to believe the apology themselves.
The second category of misplaced remorse in Rowling’s work could be misdirected remorse (or remorse for the wrong things). For example, at the end of the seventh novel, I am not sure anyone is fully convinced that the Malfoy’s are remorseful for anything more than choosing poorly. Likewise, we learn that Aunt Petunia was merely sorry she was turned away. These instances tend to demonstrate how inhuman, humans are without proper remorse. Said slightly differently, the Malfoy family and Petunia Dursley are like Voldemort — they are human in form, but lack the central defining feature of regret and the ability to come to terms with one’s own inadequacies. For these characters, remorse is to be applied to a failure of others, not to their own short comings. They conveniently omit the reality that humans are at their core, broken and fallible. Perhaps this remorse is most dangerous — the remorse that regrets actions not because they have consequences for others, but because they have consequences for themselves.
I invite your comments to weigh in. Should the law consider remorse and if so how?