Friday, November 2, 2007

The Metaphysics of Albus Dumbledore

I’ve long been a fan of the Harry Potter books, and I’ve long been puzzled by the metaphysics of fictional characters. These two things came to a head for me recently when J.K. Rowling, the author of the books, mentioned that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, invaluable mentor to Harry, and perhaps the most powerful wizard alive (up until the end of the sixth book), is gay. Which raises the question: What does it mean for a fictional character to be gay? (Not a thing about Dumbledore’s sexuality is mentioned in the books, and it’s not like Dumbledore had a life “behind the scenes,” did he?) For that matter, what does it mean for a fictional character to be anything—tall, male, human, kind? What are fictional characters anyway? And who determines what properties a fictional character really has?

Perhaps the natural answer to that last question is that the author determines what the character is like. But it’s not as easy as that: what if the author changes his or her mind, or hasn’t decided on some important feature like the height of the character? Besides, some may disagree that the author has this power. Consider, for example, Andrew Rothstein’s response to Rowling’s announcement from a recent article in the New York Times.

But it is possible that Ms. Rowling may be mistaken about her own character. She may have invented Hogwarts and all the wizards within it, she may have created the most influential fantasy books since J. R. R. Tolkien, and she may have woven her spell over thousands of pages and seven novels, but there seems to be no compelling reason within the books for her after-the-fact assertion. Of course it would not be inconsistent for Dumbledore to be gay, but the books’ accounts certainly don’t make it necessary. The question is distracting, which is why it never really emerges in the books themselves. Ms. Rowling may think of Dumbledore as gay, but there is no reason why anyone else should.

So is Dumbledore gay? Perhaps there is literally no answer to that question. For my part, I’m with Rothstein. Sexuality doesn’t really figure into the Harry Potter books at all, even if romance and marriage do. The issue is distracting, and when in a few years I read the books with my kids, I probably won’t bring it up.


timothy in new haven said...

Fictional characters are very interesting. I suspect your questions are largely about the ontological status of fictional characters (how to analyze property attribution, relations, ontological commitment, etc.). In these cases, I'm willing to attribute everything to fictional characters ("Dumbledore has white hair and is standing to the left of Harry") that we would to actual persons, because I think what it is to be a fictional character is considerably different, and thus we don't have any obnoxiously bloated ontology by admitting these fictional things.

As for whether there are hints in the books, I think there is more than a suggestion in Book 7 that this is so. (A good look at the evidence is at Salon, which may require a log-in). However, it is certainly possible to read all the books without noticing that. Which points, for me, to something very interesting: Dumbledore, who "loves too much", doesn't need to be gay to motivate the plot and character points that turn on his being gay. His celibacy, his being scarred by a teenage attachment, and so on don't require (for the purposes of the story) that he is gay, although that is certainly one plausible explanation. This is why it is especially interesting that Rowling's first statement was, "I always thought of Dumbledore as gay." It's as if even she isn't quite sure.

A common accusation against her writing is that her characters got away from here, which would seem to underline this point. (One of the fascinating things about what novelists say about their writing process is how varied the claims of control are. Some talk like they are puppeteers. Others talk like they are being carried along. One author, who's previous writings reach a broad audience, apologized at the opening of one of his books because of the bad language of one of the characters, so he apologized and said it wasn't his fault: it was the character's - which makes you wonder how he could apologize if he really believed that.)

So here is the question that interests me: How much additional life do fictional characters have beyond the printed page? Does Rawling have any control any more now that the (presumably) last book is printed? If it's not demanded by the story we have, can Rawling be wrong about D's being gay? (Relatedly, it is popular now to write about famous fictional characters (the Wicked Witch, Mr. Darcy) and continue their stories. But are these about the *same* fictional persons or not?)

I'm tempted to say that what Rawling says now matters, but is not definitive. It's not definitive for two reasons. 1) No one text or statement has priority of interpretation over any other. Just as we would want to read her statement into the books, we must also read her books into the statement. 2) Unpublished (or 'outside the canon') words have lower status than published/inside.

Sorry for how this rambles. I've suggested more than I've argued for, but it's time to stop now.

Ray said...

Timothy from New Haven,

I'm inclined to agree with most of what you said. I just came across a review of a new book by Alberto Voltolini called _How Ficta Follow Fiction: A Syncretistic Account of Fictional Entities_. From the review it appears that Voltolini endorses a theory of fictional characters that fits well with my view and, I expect, yours. Very roughly, it seems that for Voltolini a fictional creature is an abstract entity with a set of properties and a creative process by which it is brought into existence (in a work of fiction) and developed. You can read the review here:

One thing this theory is intended to do is respond to the following problem. Suppose Rowling and I, completely independently and by sheer and wild coincidence, write qualitatively identical books about characters named Albus Dumbledore. Have we in fact written about the very same character? Voltolini says no, because those characters are the products of two different "make-believe process-types."

On the other hand, this doesn't answer the question of whether Dumbledore is gay. If it had said so explicitly in the text, I guess he would be. If Rowling takes it upon herself to write a new book detailing the events of his early life, which include his being gay, I suppose that then too he would be. Rowling, being the originator of the process that produced Dumbledore, would seem to have control over his properties in such a way that if someone else violated copyright law and published a book in which Dumbledore enjoys an early secret life of monogamous heterosexual marriage, THAT Dumbledore would not in fact be the same fictional character that played such an important role in the Harry Potter books. But here I'm definitely speculating about what Voltolini might say, since I haven't read his book myself.