Reading the Harry Potter books is a bit like sitting down and having someone tell you a really great bedtime story. There's something very personable and engaging about the novel, and this welcoming quality definitely comes across in its tone.
First off, we have humorous. The narrator is often pretty funny and tends to make little dry remarks and side comments to readers that make fun of the characters and their surroundings.
They had Potions that afternoon, which was an unqualified disaster. [...] Snape, standing watch with an air of vindictive pleasure, scribbled something that looked suspiciously like a zero onto his notes before moving away. (16.2.8)
"Er – Mr. Black – Sirius?" said Hermione.
Black jumped at being addressed like this and stared at Hermione as though he had never seen anything quite like her. (19.119-20)
Neither of these scenes are all that funny, of course. Harry failing and the entire Shrieking Shack sequence aren't hilarious as a whole. But the narrator here definitely makes us laugh – there's a kind of dry, amused delivery to the scene with Snape. You can picture Harry craning his neck trying to see what Snape, who's so over-the-top awful that it's funny, is writing. And Sirius's double-take reaction to the overly earnest Hermione is pretty darn amusing.
This is never done in a mean-spirited way, though. The humor here is just a part of the story and the world of the novel itself – the wizarding world is very fun and often very funny, so it makes sense that the overall tone of the novel reflects that. However, the world that Harry Potter inhabits isn't all fun and games, of course. There's a lot of darkness there. And while humor can help lighten up the darkness, the novel often lets the darkness stay as it is and speak for itself. Some things simply aren't funny.
And this brings us to another major part of the tone: sympathetic and empathetic. We're drawing a distinction between the two, so bear with us. First, we have sympathetic, which means that the novel invites us to sympathize with and feel compassion for many characters. How does the novel accomplish this? Well, it uses tone and imagery to create pathos, which is a fancy term that means that the writing create sympathy for someone or something. Here's an example in a scene with Hermione:
After ten minutes or so, during which the Firebolt was passed around and admired from every angle, the crowd dispersed enough and Harry and Ron had a clear view of Hermione, the only person who hadn't rushed over to them, bent over her work and carefully avoiding their eyes.[...]
Harry looked around at the cluttered table, at the long Arithmancy essay on which the ink was still glistening, at the even longer Muggle Studies essay [...] and at the rune translation Hermione was now pouring over. (12.5.51, 60)
In this passage, we have an image of Hermione being isolated from everyone else, and it sets up a contrast between the excited crowd of Gryffindors and the lonely, stressed out, and shunned Hermione. And the narrator adopts a sympathetic tone to Hermione here, through the voice of Harry, who clearly feels bad for her.
And now we come to empathy – empathy is sort of like sympathy on steroids, in a way. Empathy means that you totally identify with someone else's pain or suffering and that you understand it on a personal level. When you empathize with someone, you actually feel what they feel. We get some empathy in the novel's tone because of the fact that the narrator identifies so strongly with Harry. The novel is told primarily through Harry's point of view and we readers are invited to actually feel Harry's emotions, including his suffering, much more acutely than any other characters. The novel spends a lot of time analyzing Harry's thoughts and feelings and the tone reflects this interest in Harry's emotional state.
Children's Literature: The Harry Potter books are obviously children's literature. In fact, they're probably the most famous children's books of all time. So what's with all the adults reading them? Well, really good children's books can appeal to all ages. The Harry Potter books are considered children's books because kids can and do read and enjoy them, and because the protagonist is a kid. But, beyond that, Azkaban really blows the "typical" definition of children's literature out of the water. Which is why we have all these other genres to cover, so let's get going. But first, here's what J.K. Rowling herself has to say about the whole children's book distinction:
That's such a, such a very hard question to answer, because... without being disingenuous. I wrote what I wanted to write. And I wrote the sort of thing that I knew I'd like to read, I'd like to read *now* as an adult, and I knew that I would have liked to have read it when I was 11. (source)
Fantasy: Sadly, Hogwarts isn't real. We know, it's very depressing. In fact, the only thing "real" in the Harry Potter books are the Dursleys and their little suburban neighborhood in England. Which is even more depressing. But that's a cool thing about the fantasy genre – it creates imaginative worlds that can help shed light on things that are wrong with the "real" world that we inhabit. With the wizarding world, the Harry Potter books tackle lots of real-world issues in a new and inventive way. And like all good fantasy, we totally wish we could go live in the wizarding world after reading a book like Azkaban. OK, so we might pass on the whole soul-sucking Dementors, evil Voldemort thing. But still.
Adventure: A good hallmark of an adventure tale is that characters run around a lot and have various showdowns with evildoers. And we definitely get that here. Harry spends the whole novel rushing around Hogwarts, around Hogsmeade, around the Quidditch field, and around...time? Time travel always complicates matters. At any rate, Harry rushes around and has a series of heroic showdowns, with his friends at his side and against a series of villains, from Slytherin bullies to traitors hiding as rats. This novel has lots of excitement, action sequences, and the adventure staple of all staples: battles between good and evil.
Coming-of-Age: All this fighting the good fight against evil is more than just fodder for adventure; it's also part of another genre: coming of age. Coming-of-age stories are ones in which the hero or heroine undergoes a lot of trials and grows up as a result. We definitely see Harry progressing towards adulthood and maturity in Book 3. Though, really, the entire Harry Potter series is one giant coming-of age saga. So Harry doesn't complete his emotional and character journey yet in this book, which is only number three in a seven-part series.
In the series, this was the first title that mentions a person rather than an object. This title also stands out for being the most misleading in the series thus far... which happens to be really fitting. Azkaban is largely a mystery story (with elements of fantasy and Bildungsroman – a fancy German word for a coming-of-age story). The title helps set up the mystery elements of the novel from the get go – who is this prisoner? What did he do, and what does he want now?
Of course, just when we, and Harry, think we have the whole thing figured out, the novel throws us for a loop and we learn that we were wrong about everything. The Prisoner of Azkaban (as in, the character, not the title) isn't the real villain of the story at all. Consider our minds blown.
This title also ties in two more of the book's major themes – family and the past. As we learn more about the prisoner, one Sirius Black, we start to get an entire story-within-the-story – a history of the conflict with Voldemort, a crash course in the lives of James and Lilly Potter, and the strong family ties that Harry, one of the most famous orphan characters of all time, still has in the wizarding world. The Prisoner of Azkaban starts to work as a kind of metonym, which is a fancy way of saying a word or short phrase that stands for an entire concept or idea (try busting that one out on your next AP exam!). The Prisoner here stands for the entire first war with Voldemort and the ways in which Harry's personal history is closely linked to that conflict.
Harry Potter books tend to follow a certain formula, which is cool to consider. They start off with Harry's birthday. And they end with Harry returning to the Dursleys' house for yet another summer. The ending of this book is no exception to this format. After yet another adventure, Harry and his BFFs journey home on the Hogwarts Express, and Harry manages to sneak in another "gotcha!" moment when he reunites with the Dursleys. This year it's "Oh, did I forget to mention that my godfather is an escaped convict?" Good times, Harry.
However, this ending does stand out a bit from the previous two books in that Harry now has new family members in his life and a connection to his parents that he didn't have before. Sirius's letter to Harry at the end points to how things are going to be changing for Harry in the future – he's connected not only to his past but to the entire wizarding world more fully now (through his knowledge and through his ties to Remus Lupin and Sirius). The ending of this novel fittingly sets the stage for the more adult novels to come in the series.
If that brand new Harry Potter theme park in Orlando is any indication, the Harry Potter books have very memorable settings. But there are more settings than just Hogwarts in Azkaban, though the super cool school is probably the first thing people think of in relation to Harry Potter. So, instead of just talking about Hogwarts (it's huge, it's awesome, it's magical), we're also going to look at some of the smaller settings that play a big role in Azkaban. First up, the Dursley house.
Azkaban and the previous two novels start off at the Dursley house. Often, an initial setting is used to set the tone for the entire novel, but in this case the Dursley house is used to set up a contrast. By the time we get into the magical world (Chapter 3), it seems even more magical by comparison to the dreary suburbia of the Dursley house.
Harry went down to breakfast the next morning to find the three Dursleys already sitting around the kitchen table. They were watching a brand-new television, a welcome-home-for-the-summer present for Dudley, who had been complaining loudly about the long walk between the fridge and the television in the living room. (2.1.1)
The Dursley house is like a prison for Harry. It's boring, it's colorless, and it revolves around consumer items like televisions. Compare this to Hogwarts, which is practically a riot of color and people:
It was a sea of pointed black hats; each of the long House tables was lined with students, their faces glimmering by the light of thousands of candles, which were floating over the tables in midair. (5.240)
The golden plates and goblets before them filled suddenly with food and drink. [...]
It was a delicious feast; the hall echoed with talk, laughter, and the clatter of knives and forks. (5.262-263)
It's notable that the Dursleys don't really function as a cohesive unit. They watch TV while eating breakfast and don't really interact with each other. We can contrast this to meals and activities at Hogwarts, where everyone is always talking (as the pages of sometimes uninterrupted dialog indicate) and where magic seems to create a community.
There's a common thread uniting all of the smaller settings that play an important role in the novel and that's invasion – the outside world is constantly intruding on Harry and his friends this year, which is a sign that they are starting to grow up and become more a part of the adult world.
So it's fitting that Harry spends part of his summer by himself in Diagon Alley. It serves as a nice foray into the adult wizarding world, but it's also a childhood fantasy come true. Harry's free to hang out, go shopping, and eat ice cream all day in Diagon Alley. The wizarding world is pretty insular, in a lot of ways – it's top secret, it has a fairly small number of people in it. But insular doesn't mean safe, as we see with the Sirius Black threat.
(Click the map infographic to download.)
The idea of a threat intruding upon nice, safe parts of the wizarding world occurs throughout Book 3 – the Dementors decide to hitch a ride on the Hogwarts Express, Sirius Black breaks into Hogwarts two times, Dementors crash a Quidditch game, executioners pay Hagrid and Buckbeak a visit, and a traitor disguised as a rat has been hanging out in Gryffindor for the past few years. All of these threats contrast with the more home-grown threats in the earlier books – the basilisk in Book 2, for instance, was very much inside Hogwarts itself. This is the first book where we get a strong sense of dangers aside from Voldemort that come from the wider wizarding world.
This idea of the wider wizarding world is a part of the other smaller settings that play a huge role in the book too: Hogsmeade and the Shrieking Shack, in particular. Harry and his friends are continually trying to get out of the castle in this book, which is a theme best represented by the Marauder's Map.
Hogsmeade itself is similar to Hogwarts in a lot of ways – it's fun, it's magical, and there's lots to do and see. But it's also a right of passage; going there is a sign of growing up. So it makes sense that the most important scenes in Hogsmeade don't take place in joke shops or candy stores. They take place in the Three Broomsticks, a pub that both adults and kids frequent, and in the Shrieking Shack, a place of danger where secrets are revealed among literal ruins of the past.
It was extremely crowded, noisy, warm, and smoky. A curvy sort of woman with a pretty face was serving a bunch of rowdy warlocks up a the bar. (10.3102).
Though kids are welcome in the Three Broomsticks, it's a place that serves adults as well, which the trio discovers to their dismay when their professors come in for a drink. It's also notable that the kids don't just run into adults they know there; they also encounter random adults, coming in for a drink. This is a place removed from the confines of the school, out in the real wizarding world. So it's really fitting that this is where Harry learns a ton of dark information about his father and Sirius Black. It's even more fitting that he gets the truth about everything, finally, in the Shrieking Shack.
Her wide eyes were traveling around the boarded windows.
"Harry," she whispered, "I think we're in the Shrieking Shack."
Harry looked around. His eyes fell on a wooden chair near them. Large chunks had been torn out of it; one of the legs had been ripped off entirely. (17.57-59)
Quietly as they could, they crept out into the hall and up the crumbling staircase. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust [...] (17.62)
We spend more uninterrupted time in the Shack than in any other location in the book. The Shack becomes the set of a play in a lot of ways, where characters come and go while we stay rooted inside one room of the Shack for multiple chapters. It's really fitting that very dark revelations about the past occur in a literal ruin and relic, namely Lupin's painful and haunted past. The dark, decaying house also serves as a sort of stand-in for the other places we hear about during Sirius's tale – the forbidding and horrible Azkaban prison (which we never actually visit in the narrative) and James and Lily's house, which was destroyed by Voldemort (and by Peter, second-hand – we shake our fists at him!) on the night of their murder.
Despite its dark appearance, though, the Shack was also home to some good times between Lupin and his friends in the past, and it's where Harry finally meets his real godfather, who isn't the mass murderer everyone assumes he is. Appearances can always be deceiving in the world of Harry Potter, and the Shack is no exception to that rule. Want to read more about how the Shack ties into some of the novel's major themes? Check out the "Symbolism" section.
Danger tries to come in while heroes try to go out, and overall the settings here link school and the outside world, and Harry's childhood and oncoming adulthood, closer together.
If you're wondering what on Earth the distinction is between descriptive and detailed, don't worry. We haven't decided to run amuck with synonyms. First, let's tackle descriptive. In terms of style, descriptive means that the book spends a lot of time telling us about things: how they look, what color they are, how they sound, what they resemble. Since the wizarding world is so alien to us, it makes sense that the novel spends a lot of time telling us all about it. Descriptive applies to characters too – we hear a lot about what certain characters look like. Check out the description of Lupin, when we first meet him:
Professor Lupin appeared to be holding a handful of flames. They illuminated his tired, gray face, but his eyes looked alert and wary. (5.161)
We learn a lot about Lupin here, before he even starts to speak much. We know that he looks tired and aged beyond his years, but that he's still "alert" and is presumably a good wizard, if that flame trick is any indication.
Overall, the novel's style uses descriptions to give us a vivid picture of Harry's world and the people in it. Which brings us to detailed.
Detailed here means that we get tiny tidbits and information that actually mean a lot to the novel's plot, to characterization, and especially to the novel's multiple mysteries – think of details as clues that a careful reader will notice. Let's check out another example with Lupin.
"But Sirius Black escaped from them," Harry said slowly. "He got away [...]"
Lupin's briefcase slipped from the desk; he had to stoop quickly to catch it.
"Yes," he said, straightening up. "Black must have found a way to fight them." (10.2.40-2)
There are a lot of tiny details in this scene that give us clues to Lupin's state of mind and to some of the larger mysteries going on in the novel. And it's worth noting that the style shifts when we get details like this – the sentences grow a bit shorter and are set off in their own paragraph. It can be easy to skim over a sentence like that if you're reading quickly, but in terms of style, the book also offsets the minor details and make them stand out to those who are paying attention.
Finally, we have fast-paced. This novel is a lot of things: fantasy, mystery, drama. But it's also an action/adventure tale in places and the style definitely reflects this. We get long action sequences with short sentences and/or clauses, lots of dialogue, and limited input from the narrator (just check out the sequence where Sirius the dog attacks and drags Ron into the Whomping Willow in Chapter 17). In action scenes, the narrator gives us a blow-by-blow of the action and the style is very quick and to-the-point.
We can contrast this with downtime passages, such as places where we get insight into Harry's state of mind (see Harry's nighttime musings in the infirmary at the start of Chapter 10). Here, the style shifts towards longer sentences and paragraphs, more descriptive terms, and little to no dialogue. Passages like this aren't too common in the book, though. Generally, the novel proceeds at a pretty fast pace and the style, with a tendency to favor shorter sentences and dialogue, reflects this pace.
It's fitting that Harry and his buds start taking Care of Magical Creatures this school year, since we have a lot of animals running around in this book. There's various Animagi (Animaguses?), as in wizards and witches who can transform into animals; there are Patronuses (Patroni? someone needs to publish a Harry Potter grammar guide) that resemble animals; there's Harry's ever-faithful and smart owl Hedwig; there's Buckbeak, the hippogriff who's hugely important to the plot; there's a werewolf, who is also Professor Lupin; and there's Crookshanks the cat, who pretty much steals the show in some places. So why does this novel resemble a bizarre menagerie?
Well, it's notable that all the animals featured in this book are smarter than your average bear, er, animal. Many of them are people in disguise and the ones that aren't have very strong personalities and are clearly quite intelligent (see genius Hermione's super genius cat).
In a way, this book is largely about respecting animals and taking them seriously. Crookshanks is far from just a stupid, mean cat, as Ron often yells. Buckbeak isn't just a mindless brute – he attacked Malfoy because the kid didn't show him proper respect (6.2.61-68). And Scabbers is far from a boring, scabby old rat. While we could read this as animal rights advocacy, we think there's something else going on here.
Animals represent themes of appearances being deceiving. From the grim that turned out to be Sirius, to the childhood pet that turned out to be a traitor, animals constantly stand in for disrupted expectations. Through the various animals in the book, Harry and his friends learn to look beneath the surface of things, and to not just dismiss things just because of how they first seem, be it stupid or dangerous or boring. There are hidden depths to everything, not just animals, in this novel.
Animals also reflect certain things about the people around them, sometimes unintentionally. It's extremely fitting that the traitor Pettigrew turns into a rat, after all. And Crookshanks acts like a cat version of Hermione – brilliant, relentless, and too curious for her own good sometimes.
Death has always been a large part of Harry Potter's story. After all, the series pretty much begins with a double murder, which results in an orphaned Harry being dropped off at his horrible aunt and uncle's house, like some sort of modern day David Copperfield (funny fact: Daniel Radcliffe starred as a young David Copperfield in a TV movie adaptation of the novel before he made his first Harry Potter movie). But Azkaban kicks the death imagery and symbols up a notch. We have the recurring image of the grim, a black dog/death omen that stalks Harry throughout the novel:
Harry saw something that distracted him completely – the silhouette of an enormous shaggy black dog, clearly imprinted against the sky, motionless in the topmost, empty row of seats. (9.5.35)
The Dementors are also like Grim Reapers come horribly to life. Death is closely linked to fear via the Dementors in this novel. The lesson that Harry learns is how to combat fear and how to deal with death.
So it's notable that death imagery isn't all negative or terrifying. In fact, this book makes it a point to say that death doesn't have to be scary or awful; it can be a part of life that we accept.
In terms of imagery, how is this point demonstrated? Through the Patronus, mainly. The Patronus, a literal bright white light that scares away the darkness and combats what may be the ultimate evil in this book: fear. A Patronus is kind of like a near-death experience come to life. Patronuses are about hope, and it's extremely fitting that Harry's Patronus was a way to sort of bring his dead father back to life, to combat fear, and to come to terms with death itself.
We're pretty intrigued with how Azkaban is so concerned with the past. So what's the deal with Divination, which is all about predicting the future? Divination plays a big role in the novel – we get more scenes in that class than in nearly any other in this book. Divination seems kind of shifty, when it comes right down to it. Trelawney is basically a hack and none of her students ever manage to predict anything. Trelawney herself only manages one prediction the entire year, and even that isn't really her – she comes off like she's possessed there, like something out of Ghostbusters.
The scenes and images surrounding Divination in the book hint at how the future is pretty much impossible to predict, something Dumbledore actually points out to Harry at the end of the novel (22.3.42). The Divination classroom itself hints at how inconsequential and lacking in substance the "art" is.
At least twenty small, circular tables were crammed inside it, all surrounded by chintz armchairs and fat little poufs. Everything was lit with a dim crimson light [...] (6.1.57)
It's a fluff class, basically, and it's not surprising that the super pragmatic skeptic Hermione storms out of the class in a huff.
So, aside from teaching us that we shouldn't ever call a psychic hotline and expect a useful or accurate answer, what's divination doing in the novel? On a symbolic and thematic level, divination actually works with the book's focus on the past to emphasize the present. That's kind of a wacky idea, so let's break that down. Divination demonstrates that you can't predict the future. And we continually learn that you can't change the past, no matter how much you may want to. Harry can't bring his parents back from the dead with his present actions, and no one can go back in time to prove Sirius's innocence. For all its concern with the past and the future, this book is really about living in the present and accepting that while you can't change the past, you can affect your future, which isn't set in stone.
The Time-Turner only appears at the very end of the novel, though we see its effects throughout in Hermione's stress and odd appearances and disappearances, her heavy course load, and her weird conversation with McGonagall at the start of the year. The Time-Turner basically becomes the star of the final chapters of the book; the entire plot hinges around it.
So what does it represent in the novel? Oddly enough, it represents limitation as much as it does possibility. The Time-Turner seems like a super power, like something someone on Heroes would own – and who wouldn't want their own personal time travel machine? But, as Hermione reveals, it comes with a lot of rules (21.112). And even when Hermione and Harry break those rules and go back in time to save Sirius, they can only do so much. Time and Time-Turners are dangerous, and Hermione knows (and Harry learns) not to mess around with it.
In a way, playing with time is too much like playing god, which is pretty much the problem with the power-hungry Voldemort in a nutshell. It's no mistake that Hermione returns her Time-Turner at the end of the year – the stress of using it and the danger it poses are a bit too much for her.
Seriously, how cool is the Marauder's Map? It's pretty darn cool. First off, what does Marauder mean, though? That's a good SAT word to know. "Marauder" means a looter, an outlaw who roams about pillaging and plundering. So, like a pirate, basically. The Marauders themselves – Sirius, Peter, James, and Remus – weren't stealing stuff from Hogwarts (we assume). So what were they "looting"? Well, they essentially looted knowledge itself. They uncovered secrets and found out and did things that students normally don't do. The map itself basically represents the old adage that "a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing." It's fitting that Harry recalls Mr. Weasley's word of caution after he gets the map:
Never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can't see where it keeps its brain. (10.3.52)
The map may be fun and ridiculously awesome, but it's dangerous too. It leads Harry to both truth (namely about his father's past at Hogwarts) and to a lot of danger (such as near-suspension by Snape after his map-sponsored misadventure in Hogsmeade). At least Draco got some much-deserved mud in the face after that.
We can't help but picture the Shrieking Shack from the movie whenever we hear/read about it now – creepy, dilapidated, and looking like it hasn't been dusted in about twenty years. This place is a lot more than just a creepy old house, though. It actually has more in common with a high school cafeteria than it does with a haunted house. Really – the Shrieking Shack is ground zero for grudge matches, gossip, and drama. The Marauders laid the foundation for Snape's long-term hatred of them with their practical joke gone awry; Lupin's secret, and later his friends' secret Animagus identities, were housed in the Shack; and the truth about Sirius and Peter finally came out in the Shack, in the novel's climactic chapter.
In a way, the Shrieking Shack is the nexus point for the novel's major theme of misconceptions. The shack itself appears "haunted" and forbidding, but it was really nothing more than the hang-out for a poor werewolf kid and his friends. It just happened to look darn scary to others.
Still, it's inside the Shrieking Shack that more secrets than you can shake a stick at come to light, which makes the Shrieking Shack a sort of dual symbol of both secrets and truth. For some, it was just easier to think that the shack was haunted and that you couldn't enter than to make the journey inside – sounds a bit like getting to the truth sometimes, doesn't it? Want to read more about the Shack? Check out the "Setting" section!
We never actually see Azkaban in the book – none of our main characters go there (thank goodness). But it's in the title and the presence of Azkaban is felt throughout all of Book 3. Azkaban works overtime as a symbol in the book – it represents themes of death and fear through its Dementor guards; themes of entrapment and imprisonment, of course; and themes of isolation, since it's an inaccessible island prison much like a real-life prison with a similar name: Alcatraz. It also ties in to themes of mystery, since Harry and his friends know little about the place. Adults seem reluctant to discuss it and overall the prison maintains a fairly forbidding aura.
So it's significant that Harry and his friends never see Azkaban in person in this book; seeing it for themselves would undermine the themes of fear and mystery that Azkaban represents in the novel. And not seeing the prison, in a book that's largely about imprisonment, helps to emphasize how prisons come in different shapes and forms and aren't just Alcatraz-like jails on tiny islands out at sea.
J.K. Rowling's voice comes out pretty distinctively in the Harry Potter novels – if you've ever read an interview with her, you can definitely hear hints of the narrator who guides us through the vivid world of Harry Potter.
Our third person narrator is funny, with a pretty dry sense of humor. He helpfully explains weird wizarding world things to us Muggles, carefully relates all the action to us, sits back to let the characters talk (sometimes for pages on end), and gives us clues to help us along with the book's various mysteries. This narrator isn't totally omniscient, though – the action is largely filtered through Harry's perspective. We see other characters as they come into contact with him, we hear what he hears, and we experience his thoughts and feelings. Which isn't surprising: these novels are called "Harry Potter and Whatever" for a reason.