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.