A Fractured Consciousness: Harry Potter’s Search for Himself

Harry Potter is the hero of a series of books written by British author J.K. Rowling. The books have become a cultural phenomenon and have made the transition to the big screen, video games and even theme parks. J.K. Rowling created an extremely rich environment where magic is not only real, it exists along side the reality we perceive today. In this magical world, witches and wizards can accomplish amazing tasks or conjure the darkest evils. Harry Potter is cursed with both.

Harry Potter’s story is that of the underdog hero who triumphs. The book’s darkest wizard, Lord Voldemort, murders Harry’s parents. When Lord Voldemort turns to murder Harry, Harry is mysteriously protected. Harry’s parents magically protected Harry in their selfless act of dying for him. Lord Voldemort was vanquished and Harry was left unharmed except for a small scar on his forehead. Lord Voldemort eventually regains his strength and he and Harry Potter repeatedly meet until the end of the story when Harry realizes his true self and ultimately defeats “the dark lord.”

In the following paper, I will explain the development and self-actualization of Harry Potter through the theory of personality espoused by Rollo May. I will demonstrate how Harry Potter struggles to balance the desires of others and the demands of his own psyche. I will explain the ways in which Harry Potter attempts to find closure within these conflicts and how that affects his personality and relationship with others. Finally, I will show how Harry Potter’s awareness of the true self leads to his success in defeating Lord Voldemort. Harry transforms from the “Hollow Man” May describes in his writings to someone who finally realizes his full potential in magic.

For May, the greatest source of neuroses in modern America is a lack of knowing one’s self. He writes, “that the chief problem of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness” (May, 1953, p. 14). May describes this emptiness as not knowing what one wants. Modern man is overly concerned with what others want. This has caused a crisis and prevents us from achieving our full potentialities (May, 1953, p. 15). Harry Potter’s life begins with not knowing and of emptiness. After the dramatic event where Harry loses his parents, he lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin. His aunt and uncle are blindly amazed by their mediocre son and force Harry to live in a cupboard under the stairs and treat him like a second-class citizen. He often exhibits moments of unintentional magic but these events are quickly covered up and his aunt and uncle push him – and his potential – back into the cupboard under the stairs.

Because of continually being repressed, Harry finds himself alone in his world. His cupboard becomes both solitary in its location in the home but also a place of solitary confinement for his psyche. Driven by the emptiness explained in the previous paragraph, Harry is unable to find his own strength. His loneliness his forced upon him and he is unable to fend it off. May’s explanation of the relationship between emptiness and loneliness relates to Harry’s struggle:

For when a person does not know with any inner conviction what he wants or what he feels; when, in a period of traumatic change, he becomes aware of the fact that the conventional desires and goals he has been taught to follow no longer bring him any security of give him any sense of direction.

(May, 1953, p. 13)

So Harry’s life is one of continuous disappointment. In his current state, living as an unwanted child in an unloving home, nothing Harry does seems to bring him any satisfaction. Tragically, this is the only reality Harry knows.

Harry’s story shifts quickly when he is invited to The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is suddenly thrust into a world to which he relates. He begins to realize a new life and a new approach to valuing himself and others around him. This is important because May’s theory points to the loss of value as one of the reasons men have become so unhappy (May, 1953, p. 28). Harry’s value system was controlled by his aunt and uncle who ensured that nothing Harry did was considered valuable, especially the elements of his behavior related to magic. However, at Hogwarts, as it is known among the students, the value system is centered on the intelligent and appropriate use and control of magic.

Hogwarts becomes a hot bed of transformation for Harry’s life. Where he was once lost, empty and alone, Hogwarts is like a rebirth into a new world. Harry so strongly identifies himself with his new peer group that book one closes with Harry realizing that Hogwarts provides the nurturing environment his aunt and uncle never have. However, Hogwarts does not complete Harry’s transformation but only provides the context with which his new identity and self-actualization will grow. While Harry learns the practical aspects of magic – how to cast spells, etc. – he is met by a number of trials that test his ability and psyche – each of them punctuated by Lord Voldemort’s presence.

Each book, Harry is forced to feel his own anxiety. May defines anxiety as “the human being’s basic reaction to a danger to his existence, or to some value he identifies with his existence” (May, 1953, p. 23). Indeed, Harry’s very existence is tested in each book. His success is only ensured by his ability to find strength within. Each book forces Harry to realize and act upon his own strengths. This strength is tested at each books’ climax with Harry facing Lord Voldemort alone. It should be noted that these moments when Harry is alone are not that of loneliness but quite the opposite. These are moments when Harry is fully comfortable with his own being and uses that strength to face his greatest enemy.

The remainder of Harry’s story is full of struggle. May writes that the process of becoming includes the severing of a psychological umbilical cord. Harry is certainly tied to a number of others in his life from which he must break. First, the spell that protected Harry when he was child will only remain as long as he remains at his aunt and uncle’s home – regardless of how unpleasant they may be. Though the spell protects Harry from many dangers, it also tethers him. Harry cannot become his own person. “Unless the psychological umbilical cord is also in due time cut, he remains like a toddler tied to a stake in his parents’ front yard” (May, 1953, p. 86). In Harry’s case, though his mother has passed, she has created a magical umbilical cord that connects them to each other and protects him. Professor Dumbledore explains to Harry “that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin” (Rowling, 1997, p. 299).

We see in the seventh book that this same sort of connection exists between Harry and his wand. Harry’s wand is unique in that it is considered a twin to that of the wand used by Lord Voldemort. This has protected Harry. Two wands that share the same core will never fatally attack each other. Each time Lord Voldemort attacked Harry, Harry’s wand responded on its own accord in Harry’s hand. In the seventh book, however, this wand is broken as Harry escapes another dangerous situation. Harry reflects on his feelings regarding his broken wand:

…Never, until this moment, had he felt himself to be fatally weakened, vulnerable, and naked, as though the best part of his magical power had been torn from him. He knew exactly what Hermione would say if he expressed any of this: The wand is only as good as the wizard. But she was wrong, his case was different. She had not felt the wand spin like the needle of a compass and shoot golden flames at his enemy. He had lost the protection of the twin cores, and only now that it was gone did he realize how much he had been counting upon it.

(Rowling, 2007, pp. 350-1)

Harry was living within the leash of his wand, which allowed him to feel completely normal. However, once outside of that protection, once the wand was broken, Harry feels completely uncomfortable and unprotected. He is forced to face a world on his own and questions whether he can do so.

Yet Harry has not finished his development. Though his aunt and uncle have much less power over him, Harry experiences emptiness again but this time it is true emptiness and loneliness. Harry still lives in a world where much is expected of him. As he attempts to finish his quest to defeat Lord Voldemort, he wonders whether this is a task that makes him happy or is making those around him happy. Specifically, he questions the intentions of Professor Dumbledore. “He thought of mysterious objects left without explanation in Dumbledore’s will, and resentment swelled in the darkness. Why hadn’t Dumbledore told him? Why hadn’t he explained? Had Dumbledore actually cared about Harry at all? Or had Harry been nothing more than a tool to be polished and honed, but not trusted, never confided in?” (Rowling, 2007, p. 177). Harry’s doubts about Dumbledore’s intentions actually reflect his own doubts of the task he has been given – to find and destroy the Horcruxes that protect Lord Voldemort. Harry’s loneliness is punctuated in this same passage when he notices his two friends, Hermione and Ron. They were building a relationship that excluded Harry. “Ron had had a fit of gallantry and insisted that Hermione sleep on the cushions from the sofa, so that her silhouette was raised above his. Her arm curved to the floor, her fingers inches from Ron’s. Harry wondered whether they had fallen asleep holding hands. The idea made him feel strangely lonely” (p. 176). We see Harry’s crises in this passage, as he is both feeling empty because of his doubts and alone because of his position within the story. It is he alone who can and must defeat Lord Voldemort and this task weighs heavy upon him.

However, Harry’s story has a happy ending both literarily speaking and psychologically speaking. Harry’s story is one of ultimate freedom. May explains that one of the goals of integration is freedom of the self. He writes:

Freedom is man’s capacity to take a hand in his own development. It is our capacity to mold ourselves. Freedom is the other side of consciousness of self: if we were not able to be aware of ourselves, we would be pushed along by instinct or the automatic march of history, like bees or mastodons…and by turning over in fantasy different alternatives for acting, we can pick the one which will do best for us.

(May, 1953, p. 119)

Attaining this freedom, according to May, requires that the individual choose oneself (p. 125). In Harry’s case, he must choose himself and see himself as responsible for his existence. He must recognize his own agency and influence over the direction of his life. This is critical in Harry’s story because it is this very task that allows him to ultimately vanquish Lord Voldemort. It is what allows him to survive. May recognizes the importance of this by stating, “choosing not to exist, that is to commit suicide” (p. 125).

Harry’s story reaches a climax in the seventh book when he chooses himself. And this ability to choose himself comes from a moment of clarity in which Harry finally becomes fully self-aware of who he is and what his ultimately potential might be. Harry’s self-awareness comes quite clearly and obviously, as is the benefit of fiction. Dumbledore explains:

Tell him that on the night Lord Voldemort tried to kill him, when Lily cast her own life between them as a shield, the Killing Curse rebounded upon Lord Voldemort, and a fragment of Voldemort’s soul was blasted apart from the whole, and latched itself onto the only living soul left in that collapsing building. Part of Lord Voldemort lives inside Harry…And while that fragment of soul, unmissed by Voldemort, remains attached to and protected by Harry, Lord Voldemort cannot die.

(Rowling, 2007, p. 686)

Harry’s enlightenment finally reveals the purpose of his life. Harry’s destiny is to vanquish Lord Voldemort by being murdered by him. Certainly this is not an easy task but it is a task that Harry embraces because of his self-awareness. Harry realizes who he is, what it is he wants to do, and how it can be fulfilled. The next chapter opens with what both Harry and the reader have longed for throughout the series, “Finally, the truth” (p. 691). Harry finally had the courage to see the truth.

I hope not to leave you thinking that death is Harry’s happy ending. It would be foolish of me to say that. However, it is Harry’s courage to face death that saves him. It is his courage to see his truth, to recognize himself, to fully embrace his feelings and his potential and to seek it, that enable Harry to achieve self-actualization. This is what keeps Harry alive. As he walks into the Forbidden Forest to face Lord Voldemort, he chooses himself. Harry finally chooses his own desire over the desires of those around him. He never raises his wand. He never doubts his conviction. Harry knows his fate is to die at the hand of Lord Voldemort. He faces him and Lord Voldemort casts the Killing Curse at him “and everything was gone.”

Harry awakens in what appears to be heaven. Finally, he meets Professor Dumbledore, who had previously been killed. Dumbledore explains to Harry that Harry is not dead. Harry’s act of complete selflessness protected him. Harry’s decision and courage to face death made him more powerful than Lord Voldemort. This courage is the same courage May speaks of when he writes, “We refer…to courage as an inward quality, a way of relating to one’s self and one’s possibilities. As this courage in dealing with one’s self is achieved, one can with much greater equanimity meet the threats of the external situation” (May, 1953, p. 169). Harry’s courage made him stronger. His courage to face what he knew to be his ultimate fate – death – in the end enabled him to survive the darkest wizard of his world for a second time.

So we see that Harry’s story is indeed a happy one. Not only for the fact that he survives, that he and his friends eventually defeat Lord Voldemort, but that he eventually becomes completely self-aware. Harry has struggled for years to understand himself. He was thrust into a fate he did not know of until many years after the fact. He faced challenges and threats to his life that he just barely survived. Over and over again Harry faced the anxiety May speaks of. He faced an absolute threat to his own existence. Yet it is through self-awareness that he grows. It is under the protection of others that he learns to be independent. Harry is supported by the psychological and magical umbilical cord of many who love him and when he is ready to break free of his dependence on others, he does so in a healthy way. He finally becomes aware of his true potential when he learns that he must die. It is in this knowledge that he becomes his healthiest – his strongest. It is only with this knowledge that he is able to defeat Lord Voldemort. Harry Potter is not only one of the greatest stories of my generation but it is also one of the most magical illustrations of May’s theories.


May, R. (1953). Man’s Search for Himself. New York: W. W. Norton. Retrieved November 6, 2011, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=104825401

Rowling, J.K. (1997). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.New York: Arthur A Levine Books.

Rowling, J.K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.New York: Arthur A Levine Books.

Rowling, J.K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.New York: Scholastic.

Rowling, J.K. (2000). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.New York: Scholastic Press.

Rowling, J.K. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.New York: Scholastic Inc.

Rowling, J.K. (2005). Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.New York: Arthur A Levine Books.

Rowling, J.K. (2007). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.New York: Arthur A Levine Books.