Five years ago this October, J. K. Rowling outed one of the principal characters in her Harry Potter series before a delighted audience at Carnegie Hall. The final installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, had appeared three months earlier, and Rowling was riding a high tide of critical acclaim and reader goodwill. Throughout the evening she fielded audience questions about unresolved Potter plot points and ambiguities, obligingly filling in the blanks each time. One such question concerned Harry’s mentor, Professor Albus Dumbledore:
Q: Did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?
JKR: My truthful answer to you... I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. [ovation] ... Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. To an extent, do we say it excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extent? But, he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. Yeah, that's how I always saw Dumbledore. In fact, recently I was in a script read-through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script saying “I knew a girl once, whose hair...” [laughter]. I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter: "Dumbledore's gay!" [laughter] If I'd known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!
The media reaction to this announcement was as overwhelmingly positive as the reception at Carnegie, and Potter fans generally agreed that the revelation squared well with the character presented in the books. In other words, it didn’t come totally out of left field (in fact, it threw light on a few coded passages, one involving a white handkerchief conjured from a wand), nor did it register as a publicity stunt (after hundreds of millions of copies sold, how much more press could Rowling need?). And so that was that; the character was gay; the author had said so.
At the time I was impressed by Rowling’s instantaneous, wizardlike creation of a gay icon. Still, I couldn’t help thinking: can she just do that?
D. H. Lawrence famously said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” He meant that just as authors are not the most objective critics of their own work, neither are they always the most reliable authorities on its intentions and meaning. It therefore becomes the purpose of criticism to provide impartial analysis, based on argument from textual evidence—or as Lawrence blusteringly put it, “to save the tale from the artist who created it.”
We don’t need to go that far in order to see the problems inherent in trusting the teller. Literary history is full of writers whose public comments on their writing were, by any measure, biased, bizarre, obscurantist, misleading, or just plain wrong. To choose a fairly tame example, F. Scott Fitzgerald blamed poor sales of The Great Gatsby on its mediocre title and lack of an “important woman character.” Does this mean that we, as readers, must fall in lockstep and agree with him? Not at all—it’s perfectly reasonable to agree with Charles Scribner III that “both the title and Daisy Buchanan appear to lie at the very heart of the novel,” and to chalk Fitzgerald’s claims up to bitter disappointment.
Some critics have so embraced the gospel of “trust the tale” that they’ve argued for ignoring everything outside the given text: not only an author’s public or private comments but also her biography, historical circumstances, and so on. This is the so-called New Critical approach, fashionable in the mid-twentieth century and now in abeyance (though some of its methods, such as “close reading,” have survived). A doctrinaire New Critic would dismiss Rowling’s comments at Carnegie Hall as hearsay, believing that to credit them would be to commit the “intentional fallacy.” (Who cares what an author intends to do, this line of reasoning goes, when what matters is what she did do?) He would treat the Harry Potter series as a sealed, self-contained aesthetic object and conclude that on the available evidence Dumbledore might be gay—but then again he might not be. The question would remain open, or if you prefer, the closet door closed.
In the age of fan fiction and the Internet, questions like these have coalesced into the terminology of “canon” vs. “non-canon.” Do an author’s public comments count as “canon”—that is, officially part of the story’s universe—or not? The Harry Potter Wiki, a popular fan website, decrees that they do, and helpfully adds that “When J. K. Rowling contradicts herself, the newest source is to be taken as the ‘most’ canon.” But if Rowling said that she thought of Dumbledore as a former Chicago roller derby champion, would readers be expected to grant this claim equal status with her claim about his sexuality?
I’d rather not get lost in the funhouse of this debate, which is nearly as intricate as the Internet itself. Instead I’d like to ask whether there’s any reason in this particular case to distrust, or at least qualify, the teller’s remarks about her tale. Has Rowling given us grounds on which to be skeptical—or, alternatively, do we gain anything as readers by treating Dumbledore’s sexuality as unresolved?
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Rowling had ten years and seven books to out Dumbledore, yet she saved this revelation for an after-the-fact Q&A session. Possibly she assumed his homosexuality would be an “open secret,” apparent to any careful reader. But this seems unlikely: her anecdote about the scriptwriter suggests that she knew intelligent readers had been fooled. So her omission must have been deliberate.
“If I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!” From this we might be tempted to speculate that Rowling feared public backlash from the revelation. She surely knew that it would make headlines, as it did after her Carnegie Hall appearance. But given her cheerful candor when actually faced with the topic at the Q&A, I doubt she was unduly concerned about disgruntled homophobes. I think she felt beholden to her fans in the sense that she felt beholden to her story. Her coyness about Dumbledore was an artistic choice.
Novelists often develop elaborate backstories for their characters in order to understand them better, knowing that much of the material this process generates will never see the light of print. Similarly, novelists often experiment with subplots only to reject them as drags on the thrust of the main narrative. Dumbledore’s sexual history is a bit of character work, or maybe a subplot, that Rowling elided for aesthetic reasons—presumably feeling that it would clash with the central perspective, concerns, or tone of her series.
All we know for sure, again, is that she elided it by choice. Harry Potter was a decade in the making. She couldn’t possibly have left out such a major character detail by accident, or on a last-minute whim. Instead she presented Dumbledore, quite consciously, as sexually ambiguous.
That she later “resolved” this ambiguity, off the cuff and in ten seconds, after preserving it for ten years doesn't automatically negate it. As critics we might argue that the ambiguous Dumbledore better suited the texture of the work, or (if we're not wearing our New Critical hats) that he was more representative of Rowling's intentions. As Edward Rothstein put it in The New York Times:
…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.
Of course, Rowling could easily mock this argument by publishing something like the following:
HARRY POTTER: THE LOST SCENE
Dumbledore walked up to Harry. “I’m gay,” he said.
That would conjure a white flag of surrender from me, but even then there would still be those irascible readers who treat the original series as a closed, self-sufficient entity. (Think of Star Wars fans who scorn the prequels.)
In any case Rowling probably won’t write anything like this, and that’s probably for the best. An exploration of Dumbledore’s romantic past would have been compelling, but it wasn’t part of the story she chose to tell, and by the time she appeared at Carnegie Hall that story—as a literary artifact—was well and truly finished. (As a cultural artifact it continues to proliferate, having already spawned eight films, a theme park, and a website: the soon-to-launch “Pottermore,” emphasis on more). Harry Potter became the bedtime story the world kept demanding and demanding until, after seven books, Rowling said “Enough.” Then, as if sharing her fans’ addiction, she dropped a few more plot twists at the Q&A. I think “Enough” was the right call.
It’s also a call that merits renewed respect at a time when the boundaries of the author-reader relationship, as well as of texts themselves, are beginning to dissolve. Authors' self-promotional work now typically includes not only Q&As, signings, and readings but also regular engagement with readers via social media and personal websites. Concurrently, the e-book has made possible real-time updating and author-reader “collaboration” within texts—exciting innovations, but not necessarily a boon to the creative writer’s craft, which has traditionally encouraged revision before publication and not the other way around. (Here I sympathize with Jonathan Franzen, who caught hell when he voiced similar concerns earlier this year.) As authors become constant performers and texts fluid objects, there’s something to be said for writing that presents itself as a self-contained statement, and for criticism that treats it as such.
So is Dumbledore in the closet, or out? Five years after Rowling’s announcement, I'd say he remains at the threshold, frozen in a tension from which no easy spell can free him. Such ambiguity may not be what we look for in our icons, but it’s often exactly what we want in our literary characters.