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Sophie Hatter is our heroine, the daughter of a well-to-do hat shop owner in the village of Market Chipping in the fantasy land of Ingary. As the eldest of three sisters, Sophie is sure that she is doomed to failure, because that's how fairytales go—just think of Disney's wicked stepsisters in Cinderella. Sophie believes that the youngest sister—in this case, Martha—always wins in this kind of story, and Sophie spends the bulk of Howl's Moving Castle learning to overcome her certainty that she was born a failure by being born first.
Sophie's resistance to acknowledging her own power and talent makes her a pretty unusual central character for a fantasy novel. In fact, it's not until Chapter Twelve—a bit past halfway through the novel—that Sophie stops denying that she has magic at all, even though we have seen subtle evidence of her abilities starting in Chapter One.
Sophie's lack of self-confidence is actually one of the reasons we like her so much: she has something personal to overcome, which is even more important than her external enemy, the Witch of the Waste. Sophie's internal struggles with herself make her seem three-dimensional and believable as a character, which is more than we can say for Cinderella or Red Riding Hood or the generic kind of beautiful, sweet fairytale heroine that Diana Wynne Jones is clearly contrasting with Sophie.
Once the Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into an old woman in the second chapter, it's like a switch has been flipped for her. We know that Sophie can be sassy when she's still a young woman—we see it in the hat shop, when she tells a rude customer that, "If you're fool enough to wear that bonnet with a face like that, you wouldn't have the wit to spot the King himself if he came begging" (2.39)—but mostly Young Sophie sits on her rude comments and tries to be nice all the time.
All of that meekness and mildness changes when the Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into an old woman. Suddenly she is no longer paralyzed with embarrassment whenever she meets a new person. She gets much bossier—and she gets results. Sophie basically bullies her way into Howl's moving castle, making a place for herself as Howl's cleaning lady/assistant/companion in bickering. Sophie uses her time as an old woman as a vacation from her old life, which gives her some much-needed perspective on her sisters, her stepmother, and what she wants to do with her future.
Sophie's time as an old woman teaches her that really terrible things can happen to you—you can suddenly find yourself ninety years old with no way of getting back at your attacker on your own—but you can still have a life afterward. Failure doesn't have to be a permanent, ongoing career choice, as Sophie seems to have imagined. Her flexibility in bouncing back and making the best of her curse is reassuring, because it teaches Sophie (and us readers) that she is creative, lovable, and dependable—no matter what she looks like or what her birth order might be.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and Sophie outgrows her curse by the conclusion of the novel. Once she realizes that she has magic and that she loves Howl, Sophie gets frustrated with the restrictions on her life that the curse appears to have imposed. She's tired of being separated from her family, and she seems ready to deal with her old life again, this time with more confidence and honesty than before.
Once Howl arranges for Sophie to have a family reunion with her two sisters and her stepmother, and once Sophie manages to free Howl from his contract, Sophie lets go of the old age curse. As she presses Howl's heart back into his chest, Sophie tries to ignore that her hair is falling "across her face in reddish fair hanks" (21.91). Sophie's willpower (which is clearly very strong) has been keeping her old as long as she wanted the protection of the Witch's curse, but now she's willing to take a risk on herself and on Howl. Sophie returns to her younger self just in time for a happy ending.
Michael warns Sophie that Howl "hates being pinned down to anything" (4.66), and Sophie accuses Howl directly of being a "slitherer-outer" who slithers "away from anything [Howl doesn't] like" (5.76). But Sophie is a champion at avoiding things she doesn't want to think about.
When Sophie first arrives at Howl's castle, she loses herself in cleaning to avoid her worries about whether or not Howl will let her stay and what will happen to her in the future now that she's ninety. She admits later on that she was so frightened of the scarecrow partly because she wanted "a convenient excuse for not leaving the castle because she had really wanted to stay" (20.84). And her decision to leave Market Chipping once she turns old, without contacting her stepmother or her two sisters, suggests that she would rather hide away than confront their unhappiness at her sudden change.
Later on, Howl tells Sophie that he has tried repeatedly to break the Witch's old age curse. He's talked to Lettie and Mrs. Fairfax about it, and he brought Sophie to Mrs. Pentstemmon to see if his old tutor could do anything to help Sophie. At last Howl has to conclude that Sophie, "liked being in disguise" (21.84). This comment makes Sophie spitting mad, but it also makes a lot of sense to us: even at the start of the novel, Calcifer mentions that Sophie's curse isn't just from the Witch of the Waste, but that it has "two layers" (3.38).
This raises the question of why Sophie would want to be an old woman. As we said earlier in this section, Sophie uses her time as an old lady as a kind of vacation from herself. As an old woman, she gets to try out a whole new, more liberated personality, without the crippling embarrassment and despair that keeps her trapped in her boring day-to-day life as a hat shop worker. Who wouldn't want that kind of freedom? And once Sophie is ready to face her new, improved, more magical life again, she lets the curse drop.
While we can totally sympathize with Sophie's desire to avoid her family and leave her stupid hat shop job behind her, we do think that the curse becomes an extreme example of her usual avoidance tactics. Sophie seems uncomfortable fighting with her family, so she uses her new, cursed appearance as an excuse to avoid talking to them for oh, say, eighteen chapters out of twenty-one total. No wonder Sophie and Howl make such a good pair, since they share a similar love of slithering out of things that make them uncomfortable.