Quantcast

«

»

Oct 30 2007

Is Dumbledore gay?

By now everyone is aware of the bombshell dropped into the Harry Potter world by creator J. K. Rowling announcing that she had always envisaged Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore as gay, although she had not made it explicit in the books.

Advocates of gay rights have welcomed Rowling’s statement, although some have said that they would have liked to have had this development made clear in the books itself, rather than revealed as an afterword. Those who already saw the books as evil because its magical aspects appeared like witchcraft to them, now have another reason to condemn the books, seeing it as an attempt by the author to ‘further the gay agenda.’ They fear that by making the most universally admired character in the books gay, young children will become (oh, the horror!) more tolerant of gay people.

But Rowling’s announcement raises a different issue that has not received much attention and that is the question of to what extent an author has control of the content of her books after they have been published. In this case, does the fact that Rowling wrote Dumbledore thinking of him as a gay character actually make him so?

When I read the Harry Potter books, the question of Dumbledore’s or any other adult person’s sexuality rarely crossed my mind. The books are quite innocent in that respect and this is typical for this kind of British boarding school fiction where teachers tend to be portrayed as aloof, asexual figures, with no real life outside the classroom and school. On rare occasions I did idly consider the possibility of whether any romance existed between Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall that would be revealed at the end. There was nothing in the books to suggest this. It simply seemed like they would make a nice compatible couple, spending a quiet retirement together.

So is Dumbledore gay? One school of thought would argue that if his creator says so, then he must be so. After all, the entire Harry Potter universe is a product solely of her imagination so surely she has the right to determine the nature of each character. But the relationship of the author to her creations is not that simple because another school of thought says that once a book is published, it is no longer ‘owned’ by the author and the meaning of the books now lies with whatever meaning the reader assigns. While the reader cannot change the text in any way or create new facts, the reader’s right to interpretation is on a par with that of the writer.

According to the latter view, since I had never considered the possibility that Dumbledore was gay while reading the books, he is not so, at least to me. Of course, now that this possibility has been raised, a re-reading of the books might cause me to change my mind, seeing in his character things I had not seen before. We all have experienced occasions when a conversation we have had or a film we have seen or a book we have read is suddenly recollected in a dramatic new light because we subsequently received new information. But whether Dumbledore is gay that is something that has to be determined by each reader, not the author.

I recall an author whose novels were sometimes assigned as texts by high school teachers and students would be asked to write essays on what was meant by such and such a passage. The author said that some enterprising students, realizing that he was still around, would track him down and call him to ask what he meant, hoping to get the ‘correct’ answer to their essay prompt. He would reply that he didn’t know any more than they did. He was not trying to dodge the question, he was just expressing the view that once a work is published, the author has relinquished control of the meaning of the work. The same issues arise with the meaning of a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music.

This does not mean that all creators are comfortable relinquishing control of their work. I recall the story of an art museum docent who was horrified to find a visitor painting over a work hanging on the museum wall. Upon arrest and questioning, the ‘vandal’ turned out to be the original artist who had not been quite satisfied with the work he had sold, and had decided to make some changes.

A colleague and friend of mine Professor Christine Cano wrote a fascinating book called Proust’s Deadline (2007) which dealt with the publishing history of Marcel Proust’s epic multivolume novel In Search of Lost Time (formerly called Remembrance of Things Past). The volumes were published over the period 1913-1927, the last three edited and published posthumously after his death in 1922. Proust, like Rowling, had never published a novel before and yet ambitiously conceived of the first novel as an epic work whose story needed many volumes (seven in both cases) to tell. But whereas Rowling’s story lent itself to being split into episodes and she seemed to have been a highly disciplined writer and mapped out the plotline carefully from the start and stuck to it, Proust had a much harder time of it. He was constantly rewriting, backtracking, changing course, and making revisions.

In 1987, long after Proust’s death, one of his original publishers issued a revised version of Proust’s novel based on an original manuscript in which Proust seemed, just before his death, to have deleted a huge 250 page chunk out of one of the novels. This posed a dilemma for Proust readers. Which was the ‘real’ novel: The longer version that had long been considered the canonical one? Or the 1987 abridged version that seemed to represent Proust’s ‘final’ thoughts on his own work? Cano and most Proust scholars think that what was originally published is the final word. Once a work is published, the author’s control over the story is over.

In a very minor way, I face the same problem with this blog. Sometimes, just after I have posted an item, I think of a revision that might improve the text. But I somehow feel that it is not quite correct to make the change, even though it is still ‘my’ work and I am the publisher. Once it has appeared on the internet, to be seen by the world, it no longer seems to belong to me except in the purely technical sense of owning the copyright. The only changes I make to published posts are if I discover a glaring factual error or a typo. I avoid making any substantive changes in meaning.

My discomfort with post-publishing changes may be because I have grown up with the older publishing model, where the appearance of a book was a landmark event simply because of the complex nature of creating a physical object. A bound book in one’s hand has a sense of finality. Internet publishing, where changes can be easily made in a few minutes, has created a new dynamic. As it gains ground, it is not clear when any work will be seen as the author’s final word.

POST SCRIPT: Janeane Garofalo

Watch actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo on a talk show a month before the invasion of Iraq. Notice that she was right about almost everything, unlike the idiotic interviewer. And yet she, and other people who were equally right, are almost never seen or heard from on the mainstream media while those who were wrong about everything (like the interviewer) are still there, this time yelling for war with Iran.

13 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Erin

    Thank you for an apolitical handling of this interesting question :). I found myself subtly annoyed after the Rowling press conference — something about it felt ‘cheap’ — but the only people who’ve echoed those feelings have been, well, rabid right-wingers looking for a fight, basically, who can’t leave the superficial stuff out of the substantive question about ownership. Ugh.

  2. 2
    Paul Jarc

    My discomfort with post-publishing changes may be because I have grown up with the older publishing model, where the appearance of a book was a landmark event simply because of the complex nature of creating a physical object.

    Even with online text, I’d say it’s still a good idea to avoid making major changes after the fact. The early responses from commenters will be based on the original text, so if later responses are based on different text, the conversation is likely to get confused.

    I’ve run into the same situation publishing software online. I may find a simple mistake just after publishing a new version of a program, but I’ll fix it by putting up yet another version, rather than changing the existing version, so there’s no confusion over what is contained in each version. Once published, a version becomes entirely static, but it can be easily superseded by a new version. Text lacks the easy fixability that versions provide, but that’s probably for the best, since following a conversation with version references would be pretty difficult.

    (Ok, I admit I’ve cheated on the not-changing-published-versions rule, but only when I checked my server logs and seen that no one has downloaded the erroneous version. If it hasn’t been observed yet, then its wave function hasn’t collapsed to the erroneous state. :) )

  3. 3
    jensen

    I found an interesting survey that discusses Rowling outing Dumbledore, it’s definitely worth a look.

  4. 4
    Joshua Terchek

    While I think Rowling’s revelation is important for several reasons, I believe it to be entirely different than the example you gave of Proust’s work or editing your own blog. Rather than actually changing the text, Rowling is merely providing background omitted from the text. While important to some, its omission or inclusion has little affect on the events surrounding Mr. Potter. I also don’t believe it changes the overall “meaning.”

    One example I find more fitting is Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. In creating the world of Middle Earth, Tolkien had hoped to publish “The Silmarillion” as a companion in order to provide a history of the world he had created. That work was not published until after his death. It does provides us information not included in the text, but also not necessary for the story telling in LoTR.

    To no small degree, Rowling’s works are loved because of the detail she does provide. If she happened to write a prequel to Harry Potter or a History of Hogwarts which included information not in texts, does this change the original work?

  5. 5
    Mano

    Joshua,

    I think that if Rowling were to write some more, the effect on meaning would depend on what she wrote. If she wrote a prequel or a sequel that was part of the regular narrative structure, then what she says in the new novel would become a ‘fact’ that is incontrovertible.

    But if she wrote a commentary like the history of Hogwarts that sought to provide background, that would not have the same force, though it would be influential.

    I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes stories. As aficionados know, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle got sick of him and had one story ending with him supposedly falling to his death in the Reichenbach Falls but his body was not found. So was Holmes dead or not? Some thought so and some did not and one could not say that either was correct. But enough readers were outraged at the thought that Holmes was dead and protested so much that Doyle wrote a new story that brought him back too life. After the new story, the fact that Holmes was alive was a fact, and it was not longer possible to hold on the theory that he had died in the fall.

    Before the new story came out I am not aware if Doyle ever made any public comment on this topic.

  6. 6
    bob

    I think an important question is whether Rowling wanted her readers to know that Dumbledore was gay?

    If she did, then she was not effective in conveying this character element.

    If she did not, then why is she adding it later?

  7. 7
    David Kotsonis

    I think that, while the meaning of the work is constructed in the mind of the reader, world-building details are not so. That is, once a work is complete, the meaning(s) of the work are directly reliant on the text and solely on the text. The author is no more privileged than the reader in that respect. However, world-building details, nestled in the background, are solely the author’s domain. The knowledge of so-and-so’s upbringing or the exact way such-and-such *really* works are not open for interpretation – they are created by the author ahead of time in order to construct a self-consistent world with believable characters, and as such the author’s word on these matters, whether or not such an explanation is within the text, is definitive.

  8. 8
    Mano

    I would tend to agree with Bob that for an author to have to explain some aspect of a novel outside the novel itself signifies a failure on the part of the novelist.

    But David’s point about distinguishing between interpretation and world building details is interesting.

    Is there a precedent for this in other novels where the writer was able to introduce world-building details outside the novel and it became definitive?

  9. 9
    Greg

    Mano,
    I think that getting lost in all this is a fundamental point. What would Dumbledore have wanted? I find Rawling’s waiting until well after his passing to out him to be completely insensitive to his wants and his memory. If he had wanted to come out, he would have done so while he was alive. While he was alive, Dumbledore’s private life was exactly that, private, and in making it posthumously public, Rawling’s defiling his memory. He can’t even respond to her statements. She’s being a cowardly, rumor mongering Muggle. And in doing so, she only gives the Malfoys of the world more ammunition to point at why Muggles should be oppressed.

  10. 10
    Joshua Terchek

    Sometimes you read something like David posted, and wish your original post could have been concise.

  11. 11
    David Kotsonis

    Mano,

    Joshua brought this up before, but I feel that it can be expanded upon: Tolkien’s legendarium is possibly the best example of the sort of thing for which you’re asking.

    The Tolkien canon primarily consists of works that were *not* published by Tolkien himself. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings themselves, while intriguing glimpses of the world of Middle-Earth, are no more than that: glimpses. The cosmology of his world, the histories of his characters, the grammars and vocabularies of his languages – all of these were hinted at in the works he published, but not developed except in his own private writings (Tolkien strove for internal consistency, and developed a massive amount of material relating to Middle-Earth before his books saw publication), which his estate has been posthumously editing and publishing.

    Obviously, this is an extreme example. But, in my opinion, it’s the example that is best representative of the rule. Most instances in which this post-publication detail is added are small: Neil Gaiman confirming that his Sandman and Titania were lovers, or C.S. Lewis creating a timeline of his Narnia books to explain exactly how many years went between certain events.

    In all cases, the details added don’t serve to supplant or drastically alter the original work: they clarify.

    For the record, while I never seriously suspected that Dumbledore was gay, I had a very strong belief that everyone who was trying to hook him up with McGonagall was fundamentally misguided – for one reason or another, Dumbledore was no longer in the romantic sphere. No, Rowling never strongly hinted at his orientation in the books – but neither did she give any reasons to believe that he was straight beyond the statistical distribution of orientation.

  12. 12
    Evan McMahon

    I really think Rowling was trying to tap-into the GLBT market. After reading the all the books, I have found no real hints to Dumbledore being gay.

    I’m almost offended, as a gay male, that she would just off-the-cuff “out” a character that has no way of now expressing that identity.

    Evan McMahon

    BadEvan.com

  13. 13
    Ryan

    This is a well thought out article, though I have to disagree with it. If the creator of the character states a fact about that character then it is fact. There is no debate over it. If I interpreted someone as being straight and they turned out to be gay, then they are still gay no matter how I wish to continue to interpret it, it does not make them “not gay”.

    Since Dumbledore is fiction he cannot truly state whether or not he is gay and so we must rely on the next best thing, which is not the reader but the creator and rights-owner of the character. One can wish to interpret anything anyway they want to, but that does not make fact or reality. The author has stated what the fact of the fiction created is, and people simply have to accept that in this fictional reality Dumbledore is gay, whether or not he is in their own personal reality is up to them, but that would not be JK Rowling’s Dumbledore, it would be their personal one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>