The one in the hat. The Sorting hat. You know which one I mean.
The caste system of Hogwarts is one of the things we’re most acutely aware of in the series. At the age of eleven, children deemed “brave” are sent to Gryffindor, the “wise” are sent to Ravenclaw, the “noble” to Hufflepuf and the “cunning” to Slytherin. This is problematic, not just because most children are a lot more than one of these above traits, or even because we don’t know, as Harry notices, for sure if eleven year olds can be deemed to be any of these at all. It is problematic because of the effect it has on them.
We see this caste system from Harry’s point of view, a “true Gryffindor”. Like any caste system, it leads the people within their caste to believe that their caste is the best one to be in. Aldous Huxley shows us that in Chapter two of Brave New World. Beta children sleeping are conditioned to be glad that they don’t have to work as hard as those above them, don’t have to live like those below them, etc. Harry, too, believes that Gryffindor is the best house. Draco Malfoy believes Slytherin is the best house, again, because Slytherin treats this young boy well. Social acceptance is not something anyone can give up lightly, especially when they’re in their teens. It would be a mistake, therefore, to believe what Harry believes- that the house of Godric Gryffindor is the best one. It would be falling prey to the social injustices depicted in these books, advocating the expectations that comes with each house.
“Remember”, JKR writes in the Sorting Quiz on Pottermore, “The Sorting Hat’s decision is final”. That is probably one of the biggest problems with this system. The aspirational qualities of the houses are not aspirational, they are supposedly inside the children, and the children must live up to them for their whole lives. This, for one, leads to gradations in these qualities, with Neville never being seen as brave compared to the others, and Hermione being considered a Ravenclaw by many. Children who don’t fit in their houses, can’t change their houses.
Sirius Black, for instance, comes from an entire family of Slytherins, but believes that he will be in Gryffindor. This desire to be in Gryffindor is part of what ostracizes him from his family. Perhaps this is merely a symptom, not a cause. I would argue that we don’t have enough textual evidence to support either side, because we only hear stories of rebellion from after he joined Hogwarts. However, we know that he is a Gryffindor, and his family hates him; I cannot dismiss this as a coincidence. He manages to transgress the family based nature of the house system. The Weasleys are all Gryffindors, the Malfoys are all Slytherin. Neville Longbottom’s Gran isn’t sure he will be a Gryffindor, because he is coward. The Potters, all the way till Harry’s son, though I’m not sure if Cursed Child is canon. More on him later.
Regulus Black is another rebel to the system. He is a Slytherin, the largely vilified house, but both represents the best of Slytherin and sacrifices himself to stop Voldemort. Sirius raises the question of individualism versus family expectations with regard to Hogwarts, he falls prey to the tensions that follow. he grows to hate his family, he grows to be anything as long as it isn’t them. He cannot answer this question satisfactorily, but Regulus Black answers it. Why, though, should a Slytherin be Regulus or Snape before they are deemed good? Because we are looking at a Gryffindor-centric world, through the eyes of one Gryffindor. Where Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs are happy to play second fiddle to the lions, or so we are told.
If it is not all right for Draco Malfoy to call Hermione a “mudblood” or for Snape to call Lily one, how on earth is it all right to dismiss all Slytherins as “evil” because they are Slytherin? If you tell a kid they are bad long enough they will believe it. If you expect evil from an eleven year old, you are creating evil. How is it acceptable for Hufflepuffs to be dismissed as “duffers” unless they resemble pre-Twilight Robert Pattinson? However, this shows the second big problem- the amount of importance families place on the Sorting. The adults in this series seriously consider the Sorting a reflection on their children’s characters. This is ridiculous, and infuriating and exactly why The Sorting Hat can be likened to dystopia, but I am not interested in talking about genres.
Enter Harry’s choice. Until this moment, no one is apparently even aware that the Sorting Hat can even take your choice into account. Harry is made to realize the Slytherin inside him- which unfortunately just refers to the evil piece of Voldemort’s soul. But he chooses Gryffindor. If JKR is positing an answer to the questions she raises, it must be examined as a possible solution. This carries more weight because this comes from the Protagonist of her novels. Therefore, this raises other questions- how informed can this choice be at eleven? How well do you know yourself at that age? How well do you understand the consequences of this choice? Why would any eleven year old choose to be “loyal, helpful and kind”? Does having a choice imply self imposed exclusion to other traits?
Harry’s character arc as a protagonist begins literally from his first active choice- to be a Gryffindor. It doesn’t end when he kills Voldemort, that living symbol of everything wrong with Slytherin. It ends in the epilogue, when he tells his son that it is fine to be a Slytherin, because Slytherin is a good house, while his friends joke about their daughter making eyes at the young Malfoy son. It ends when he sees the sorting isn’t a remark on character, personality, or, more importantly, morality. It is indeed absurd when you realize the people who were placed in these structures are teenagers. Is Harry only special because he’s the only one in the wizarding community who gains common sense when he grows up?
Hermione is acknowledged to possess Ravenclaw-like traits.- “The Sorting Hat had a hard time choosing between Ravenclaw and Gryffindor”. So then, the children are indeed acknowledged to have more than one trait, just in different proportions. However, like with any system, there will be people who don’t fit. Even with the use of magic, the Sorting Hat cannot keep students from falling through the cracks. The oppressive house system is already flawed in many ways, but this accentuates the problems, because the casualties are young children. The Slytherins Draco, Crabbe and Goyle taunt Neville, telling him he “shouldn’t be in Gryffindor, he should be in Hufflepuff instead”.
He is seen from the beginning as someone who is shy, quiet, timid and diffident; someone who inevitably always gets in trouble. Ginny Weasley, too, starts the school year shy and timid, even though being a Gryffindor, but quickly blossoms into everything Gryffindor holds dear. Neville almost for the entirety is the same, but the pivotal scene in his characterization occurs when he quietly grieves over his parents in St. Mungo’s. He is now a boy who wakes up every morning both with the absence of any parental figure, but also with the crippling knowledge that they have been tortured into insanity. In my opinion, a swift heroic death of your parents in Harry’s case is much more bearable than seeing your parents reduced to a shell of human beings. Neville is brave, incredibly brave, just not conventionally so. He is not the spell wielding, hex flinging, athletic, aggressive brave of so many of the Gryffindor heroes. He’s quietly brave, privately, and his fight is internal, as is his bravery. This I loved. I felt that JKR was acknowledging the many kinds of brave that can exist. I felt Neville might be acknowledged by his peers, might not be, but that didn’t matter to his personal journey. He didn’t need to be improved, like so many of his classmates and bullies believed.
The sixth novel, however, showed Neville becoming a copy of fifth year Harry. I felt someone with Neville’s childhood, understanding of cruelty and experience with victimization would not stand by and watch as young children were killed. He didn’t, but he didn’t do it as Neville would believably have. He did it like Harry, and one Harry Potter is enough for this book series.
Skip to the scene in question. This is the one time we know of that the Sorting in the school is cancelled, and it is by Lord Voldemort. The hat is placed on Neville’s head, the boy who never fit in, and erupts into flames. Neville is literally being tortured by the instrument that placed him in the house that never understood him. The other thing that stands out is Voldemort’s complete faith in the house system. He believes so strongly in the qualities and their relation to the houses, that he assumes that by making everyone a Slytherin, he can manufacture endless Death Eaters and the problem of resistance is void. He assumes that all Slytherins will be like himself. The hat which was a cause of oppression, hatred and division in numerous accounts throughout the novels is transformed by Voldemort into a beacon of individuality and agency, as he attempts its destruction. And Neville Longbottom, flames surrounding his eyes, is the one who is most affected by its destruction.
Neville turns this moment of pain into Voldemort’s most visible moment of defeat- he pulls the sword out of the hat, and kills the snake Nagini. As far as actions go, I will argue, again, that this doesn’t seem character appropriate, any more than his stirring speech to everyone around him, but this isn’t particularly relevent, as it is my opinion, and largely pedantic. He is only seen as a true Gryffindor when he has repeatedly performed acts of conventional bravery, throughout the night. He is only appreciated for said bravery by his classmates, when he has picked up a sword and killed a snake- an act that is both conventionally brave and conventionally masculine. They may be victims of this system, believing that this is the only bravery worth noticing, but there is poignant narrative approval in these scenes, if everything turns around for this character in terms of friends because of a moment’s aggression. JKR says Gryffindor is the house to be, the house of bravery. She then says, Oh, and by bravery, I mean the conventional kind. Neville is allowed privacy for his personal tragedy, but he should also not have to conform to everyone’s expectations of what he should be. He should be in some way acknowledged for what he has suffered. That is what novels have narrative for, when they can’t express through dialogue or conversation.
In fact, JKR didn’t tell us Neville’s tragedy. She walked us in to St. Mungo’s, right into the closed ward and let us experience it ourselves, trusting that we would understand and empathise. The power of that moment, the narrative laying out raw emotion an fact came with an expectation. It was expecting something from readers who are told that chocolate frogs are indeed, frog shaped chocolate. The supportive, devastated boy in that scene that the narrative trusts every reader with deserves much more and much else than what he is finally given.