It's no news that the sorting hat in the Harry Potter series is far from perfect. At the very least, it's a considerably more complicated system than what is at first suggested. As it's introduced to us in the Sorcerer's Stone, the sorting hat seemingly- and very clearly- sets the parameters of good and evil. By the end of Deathly Hallows Dumbledore reflects, "perhaps we sort too soon," but 19 years later the hat is still being used to sort new coming students into separate houses. What, then, is the larger purpose of the sorting hat? And what can we learn from Harry's experiences with it in one of his most pivotal years at Hogwarts?
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The four houses of Hogwarts come to represent a variety of witch and wizard character traits, but one of the first things Harry learns in the Sorcerer's Stone is to associate certain houses with certain type of people. Before even stepping foot in a magical community Hagrid tells Harry, “There's not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one” (Stone 80). Later on, Hermione likewise states that Gryffindor “sounds by far the best; I hear Dumbledore himself was in it” (Stone 106). The houses are set up as an antithesis of good and evil- a system by which to measure to the very best and the worst of wizarding kind. This is also gives interesting insight into how the wizarding community regards Hogwarts Houses: the Sorting process extends far beyond a witch or wizard's school days. It is not a one time judgement of character, but a continual sign of status that is clearly both shaped by and helps shape reputations of witches and wizards. Because despite graduating Hogwarts long ago, Voldemort and Dumbledore's standing connection to their Hogwarts house show Harry the long term, real world effects of sorting, and gives Harry clear examples of evil and good.
The house Sorting gets more complicated in The Chamber of Secrets as the role of magical bloodline begins to play a more important and more visible role. The threat of Slytherin's Heir throughout the second novel links bloodline with Hogwarts houses and thus prompts Harry to question how much weight family blood has when it comes to the Housing sorting. Even a quick look at the Weasley family for instance, suggests that family blood and houses are very connected. All the Weasley children are placed in Gryffindor and even the extended Weasley family members (excepting a mysterious Lancelot who "nobody talks about") are as well. Similarly Just as Draco and his father share the “same pale, pointed face, and identical cold, gray eyes” (50), so too do they share similar Slytherin values. Draco's menacing shout of “ Enemies of the Heir, Beware! You'll be next, Mudbloods”(139) is both a word for word echo of the Slytherin Heir's writing on the wall, as well as an echo of his fathers earlier sentiments of how terrible it is that “wizarding blood is counting for less” (52). Although family blood does not ensure placement in a particular House, Harry believes it has a significant bearing, convincing Hermione, “look at [Draco's] family...the whole lot of them have been in Slytherin; They could easily be Slytherin's descendents. His father's definitely evil enough” (158).
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Harry spends a lot of time in the second book worrying about being "Slytherin". But even when Harry is at his most Slytherin (using Parsletongue, or his polyjuice-induced literal transformation into a Slyhterin) he is also at his most Gryffindor. For instance, after witnessing Draco sneering at Percy, Harry-as- Goyle “almost said something apologetic to Percy but caught himself just in time” (220). Throughout the series, and most particularly in Chamber of Secrets, Harry also exclusively uses Parseltongue for very Gryffindor-like reasons, not only stopping the snake from attacking Justin, but using it to enter the chamber of secrets and ultimately save Ginny.
Harry's second year at Hogwarts introduces us to the complicated prejudices and animosities between houses, wizarding blood, and magical creatures. Yet at the end of the novel, despite knowing the eerie similarities between himself and Voldemort, Harry knows he is not destined to be anything like him- not merely because he is in a different Hogwarts house, but because he is more aware of his own actions and choices. When Dumbledore offers Godric Gryffindor's sword to Harry as “proof ...that you belong in Gryffindor” (333), Dumbledore is not just comforting Harry's one time accomplishment of being sorted into Gryffindor, but comforting Harry that is it his consistent “choices ...more than our abilities” (333) that continues to shape who he is. Although Slytherin and Gryffindor respectfully remain representative of evil and good, Harry's struggle within the Chamber of Secrets ultimately broadens our understanding of houses, preparing us for the surprises and betrayals in the likes of Sirius, Regulus, Peter Pettigrew, and Snape in the following novels.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press. 1997. Print.
- - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press. 1999. Print.