Study Guide

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Themes

  • Memory and the Past

    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, there's a definite interplay between setting the stage for future and coming to terms with past. You have to deal with the past and get it out of the way before moving on. And we have two types of pasts that people deal with here: personal memories (such as Harry's haunted, Dementor-triggered flashbacks) and collective, community memories (such as everyone's "recollection" of what crazy Sirius Black did to get a one-way ticket to Azkaban). Perhaps this is the reason for the absence of Voldemort in Book 3. If the Chamber of Secrets was about Voldemort as young Tom Riddle, then Azkaban is more about the characters' personal and collective memories of Voldemort during the height of his power.

    The past also conveniently acts as an umbrella theme in the novel, meaning that it sort of encompasses all the other themes. More specifically, it's tied to themes of fear (see the lingering fears of all things Voldemort-related), themes of secrets (the past is a mystery that reveals itself to Harry), and themes of growing up (since part of growing older involves learning about and dealing with the past). The past is everywhere you turn in Book 3, so learning about the past and dealing with memories becomes a right of passage here that ultimately connects Harry to the wider wizarding world.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. In what ways does the collective memory of Sirius Black's crime give us insight into the wizarding world and its history?
    2. Aside from the lie surrounding Sirius Black, what other examples do we get of people misremembering or not knowing the whole truth behind past events? How is this theme significant in the book as a whole?
    3. How do themes of revenge and grudges tie in to themes of memory in this book? What are some examples of these connections?
    4. We get lots of "relics" from the past in this book, such as the Marauder's Map. What are some other objects from the past that are significant in the narrative?
  • Fear

    FDR would have a field day with this book. As you probably know, FDR (a.k.a. famous American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) was famous saying "there is nothing to fear but fear itself." Lupin gets his FDR on in this novel when he tells Harry that it's "wise" (8.4.53) to be most afraid of fear itself. Aside from letting us know that FDR would totally be a Harry Potter fan, that scene also highlights the lack of Voldemort in the novel. (Sure, we keep bringing up Voldemort's absence, but his MIA status is a hugely important thematic detail. See, this novel is more about internal battles and character development than external fights; having lots of big external conflicts would detract some from that.)

    Still, in Book 3, it's the Dementors that really highlight the theme of fear. These creepy, reaper-like characters embody fear, death, and darkness. The Dementors are giant walking (or gliding) metaphors for the world that Voldemort represents. Luckily, we also get the flip side of fear, as represented by the Patronus charm. Light is literally used to battle darkness here. It's worth noting that being around Dementors reminds people of horrors from their past and makes them forget who they are. The past itself can haunt and create fear. And forgetting happy memories can erase a person's identity, which implies that people aren't defined solely by their fears or their inner darkness. So while details like a character's boggart give us important insight into that character, the novel also cautions us against identifying people just by their fears.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Why is Harry's boggart a Dementor and not Voldemort? What does this detail tell us about Harry's character?
    2. What's the meaning behind Hermione's boggart (16.2.14) and what does it tell us about her character?
    3. How do the Dementors personify the idea of fear?
    4. How is the wizarding world as a whole characterized by fear? How does our newest peek into the past war with Voldemort help shed light on those fears?
    5. We learn that the wizarding world is largely afraid of werewolves, a fact that costs Lupin his job. Based on what we learn and see regarding werewolves, why might the wizarding world fear them so much?
  • Good vs. Evil

    The Harry Potter series is a classic tale of good vs. evil, ranking up there with things like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia. But Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban really starts to complicate ideas of good and evil – they're certainly not black and white. Nope, this book is about the transition to adulthood, and we all know that journey is full of moral ambiguities, confusion, and difficult choices. The details we learn about the Marauders (James, Sirius, Lupin, and Peter) epitomizes this – their actions as Animagi were dangerous and even morally questionable. We have lots of other good vs. evil complications too: Sirius doesn't always act like "an innocent man" (21.76), Pettigrew is a despicable coward but also pitiable, Snape is presented as both a victim and a villain, and even Ron and Hermione's fights boil down to neither being fully right nor fully wrong.

    However, the spells that Harry learns throughout the year put him firmly on the side of good and make certain distinctions clear. Harry uses laughter to fight fear, light to fight darkness, and happiness to fight despair. And we're guessing that these are a big hint that Harry will really need those good tools as he moves into a more uncertain, darker future.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. After learning more about the Marauders' history with Snape, can we judge whether one group was right or wrong, or were they all a mixture of both?
    2. What do the spells emphasized in this book represent, and what do they tell us about the novel's idea of good?
    3. Do the Dementors represent the idea of evil? How so?
    4. Pettigrew and Snape are arguably the book's "villains," but they appear very different from one another. How are these two characters villains, and what might they have in common? On the flip side, in what ways are these men not villains?
    5. Is cowardice considered evil in this novel? How can you tell?
  • Time

    The movie version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban really emphasizes time and clocks, which is quite fitting because Book 3 will probably always be remembered as the Harry Potter book with the time travel. Though it's downright tame compared to Lost (Hermione turns an hourglass, not a donkey wheel), this time tinkering is still pretty trippy. Harry and Hermione live out a time loop where everything somehow fits together in the end like a jigsaw puzzle.

    But time and its progression is far from neat and tidy and predetermined here. Time can seem impossibly, cruelly slow – see Harry waiting for his Firebolt or Sirius's interminable twelve (unnecessary) years in Azkaban. Time can be also insanely fast – see Hermione's jam-packed schedule or the meager time allotted to save Sirius. And time can be taken away as well – see Harry's lost time with his parents or Sirius's lost adulthood.

    It's fitting that the Time-Turner doesn't fix everything in the end; though Harry and Hermione use it to free Sirius and Buckbeak, they can't use it to clear Sirius's name. As the kids learn, time is what you make of it, and having more or less can be both a good and bad thing. So it comes as little surprise that Hermione returns her Time-Turner at the end of the year.

    Questions About Time

    1. What does the Time-Turner symbolize in the book and why is it significant that Hermione owns it rather than Harry?
    2. What sort of lessons does Hermione learn about time in this novel and how do these lessons get reflected in her character arc?
    3. How does time travel act as a symbol in the novel?
    4. How is the book's time travel episode thematically significant?
    5. Why do you think Ron isn't included in the time-travel episode?
  • Lies and Deceit

    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a partial mystery novel with a series of secrets and inadvertent lies, which may be the most dangerous kind. It seems like nearly everyone has a secret in this book: Harry tries to keep his reaction to the Dementors under wraps; Hermione doesn't tell even her BFFs about her Time-Turner; and all the adults try to keep the "truth" about Sirius Black a secret from Harry. It's notable that the secret of Sirius Black is actually a lie; the real secret there is only known by Peter and Sirius for much of the novel. Secrets and lies, both intentional and accidental, start overlapping in this novel and raise a lot of complicated questions: is it ever OK to lie to your friends? Do secrets protect people, or can they do more harm than good? The themes of secrets and lies are summed up nicely with the idea of the Secret Keeper, which played a crucial role in the fate of Harry's parents.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. How is the idea of a Secret Keeper tied into themes of friendship and love?
    2. Aside from the obvious, was Sirius's decision to not be the Potters' Secret Keeper himself a mistake? Did he do the wrong thing there morally by not taking on that duty himself?
    3. Adults continually keep things from Harry about his past. How do these actions help drive the plot of this book?
    4. How is knowing the truth, even if it is unpleasant, depicted as positive in this book? Are there consequences to knowing the truth?
  • Freedom and Confinement

    The Prisoner of Azkaban pays attention to the psychological effects of imprisonment and confinement on its characters. In Book 3, aside from the obvious prisoner in the title, Sirius Black, we also see the effects of different kinds of prisons on characters like Harry (a prisoner at the Dursleys' house), Hermione (trapped by her own overachiever tendencies), Peter (stuck living life as a rat out of cowardice and fear), and our new pal Lupin (trapped by his condition as a werewolf). But despite all these themes and images of prison, we do get some freedom in the book too. Freedom is most strongly represented by flight, be it on brooms or on Buckbeak the hippogriff.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How has Sirius been affected by his imprisonment? What clues do we have about how he has changed as a person and how he has remained the same through it?
    2. In what ways does Hermione's story arc embody themes of imprisonment and freedom?
    3. How does Harry react to being confined and what does this tell us about his character?
    4. How do secrets imprison characters in this novel? What are some examples of characters trapped by secrets?
  • Friendship

    The Harry Potter series really boils down to the power of friendship more than any other thing. But friendship isn't glossed over or presented with rose-colored glasses here. We see fights, personality conflicts, disagreements, and the difficulty of maintaining close friendships with people. But even with these difficulties, Harry, Ron, and Hermione always come back together after they are separated. Plus, we get some extra bang for our buck with this theme in Prisoner of Azkaban since it introduces us to an older generation of buds – the Marauders (James Potter, Sirius, Lupin, and Peter). Through tales of the Marauders and glimpses into their past, we get a chance to see how close friendships operate in the adult world and in a time of war. While our favorite trio is at the heart of novel, the other friendships we see, whether it's Lupin and Sirius or Hermione and Hagrid, play a very important role here too.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Have the members of the trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) crossed the line from friends to family?
    2. Are Ron and Hermione actually friends or are they brought together more through their friendship with Harry?
    3. Are Ron, Harry, and Hermione good friends to one another in this book?
    4. How are themes of forgiveness tied into themes of friendship throughout the novel?
  • Family

    If Harry Potter is searching for one thing in his life, it's probably family. And in a lot of ways he's found family – through his friends, through the Weasleys, and now through his father's old buds. Family is about much more than just blood ties here – it's about qualities like loyalty and love. Sirius sums up this theme best when he's interrogating Peter Pettigrew: family are people that you sacrifice and even die for, with the knowledge that they would do the same for you. With this, family ultimately boils down to trust. For example, trust supersedes things like the sibling rivalries and funny interactions we see between the Weasleys, who are probably the best representative of the theme of family in the Prisoner of Azkaban. And finally, above all else, family is about choice. Characters here choose to be or not to be families regardless of whether actual blood ties exist.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Harry's family history affect his daily life in the story?
    2. In what ways do the Weasleys epitomize the theme of family?
    3. Do we see any other families that contrast to the Weasleys? If so, which? If not, how is that omission significant?
    4. Harry gains a new family member in Sirius at the novel's end. How do Harry's interactions with Sirius contrast to the scenes with the Dursleys at the start of the novel? How does this contrast shed some light on the larger themes of family at work in the story?
    5. What do the Dursleys seem to think of family, and how are these views reflected in the way they treat Harry?
  • Justice and Judgment

    Justice isn't something that's set in stone in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It isn't the hardcore justice we see in Justified, the final "dun-dun" judgments we get in Law and Order, or even the vigilante justice of something like Batman in The Dark Knight. In fact, in the Harry Potter series, justice and punishment are issues that are up for debate. The scene that best demonstrates this is when Harry asks his father's friends to spare Peter. There are competing ideas of justice swirling around here – we have justice as vengeance, justice as mercy, justice as punishment, and justice as forgiveness (phew!).

    We can trace this theme backwards throughout the entire novel too – Sirius's imprisonment and punishment, Buckbeak's trial, Ron's grudge-match punishment of Hermione. Justice is hard to mete out but it's a responsibility that Harry and other characters have to struggle with throughout Book 3. As Gandalf tells Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, you shouldn't be too eager to cast judgment or dole out punishment for others. This is a lesson that a furious Harry, longing for revenge for the huge injustice of his parent's murder, has to learn over the course of the novel.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Did Harry make the right decision by sparing Peter's life? How does Dumbledore's view on this reflect the novel's take on it?
    2. Why did Harry decide to show Peter mercy? What does this tell us about Harry's character?
    3. What does Buckbeak's trial and conviction tell us about wizarding society?
    4. How does the legal system in the wizarding world compare to that in the Muggle world?
    5. Harry and Hermione take two different approaches to justice when confronted with Peter's guilt: emotion and logic. Does the novel overall seem to favor one approach over the other? And how do these approaches reflect on the characters of Harry and Hermione as a team?
  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn't so much about forgiveness as it is about the difficulty of actually forgiving someone. Forgiveness and compassion are ongoing processes here, and they are things that don't come naturally to every character. Throughout the novel we're confronted with situations that may or may not be forgivable. Ron manages to forgive Hermione for her role in Scabbers's "death," but Snape doesn't get over the almost-deadly prank that James, Lupin, and Sirius played on him as schoolboys. Some things seem unforgivable, such as Peter's role in the death of Lily and James. But, as Harry's actions toward Peter demonstrate, even unforgivable acts can inspire mercy.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. How is the moment when Ron and Hermione reconcile significant? What's happening there and why is it important?
    2. In what ways are grudges and revenge shown to be destructive in the novel? Which characters seem to suffer for their pursuit of vengeance?
    3. Why do Lupin and Sirius seem to be able to forgive one another for the past so quickly and easily?
    4. How is Snape's refusal to forgive past actions significant to understanding his character?
    5. Harry showed Peter mercy, but did he forgive Peter? Is it possible for Harry to ever forgive Peter?
    6. What examples do we get of Hermione's compassionate nature in the novel?
  • Education

    The Harry Potter novels sort of act as their very own The More You Know PSA – the things that Harry and his fellow students learn during the school year always turn out to be very important to the novel as a whole and to the adventures Harry inevitably gets involved with outside of school. Education does pay off, after all! Hermione's knowledge saves the day frequently, and the spells Harry and his friends get from class always have thematic significance. This year the theme seems to be happiness and light – things to fight darkness and fear. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a novel of preparation for darker fights to come in lots of ways, and the preparation and education occurs outside the classroom too. Learning how to be an adult and to start surviving and doing good in the wider world is an important part of Book 3.

    Questions About Education

    1. What do the spells that Harry learns have in common and how is this thematically significant?
    2. What are the different kinds of education and learning shown in the novel, and do any characters embody certain types of learning?
    3. What sort of lessons does Harry learn outside of school in this novel?
    4. How are the new classes added to the curriculum significant in terms of the book's themes?