Unmuted: Standing Up to Friend and Foe
Or: Bullying Revisited
Bullies are common in children’s literature, they often take the place of the anti-hero, the enemy that needs to be overcome; or – quite often and rather idealistically perhaps (am I mixing fact and fiction?) – integrated, understood, pitied. Bullying behaviour, however, is not limited to bully figures.
Don’t do that!
That’s not for climbing!
Should ring a bell.
Telling children off – with the best intentions – and bullying is not the same thing, of course not. But the line between the one and the other can be rather fine and the position the child is in seems clearly defined: it is at the receiving end. A power constellation that plays a role in bullying situations and narratives as well: the apparently stronger part feels themselves to be in charge (or rather needs to feel themselves in charge), the weaker part has to passively react, to comply with what is done to or demanded of them*:
At that moment Neville toppled into the common room. How he had managed to climb through the portrait hole was anyone’s guess, because his legs had been stuck together with what they recognised at once as the Leg-Locker Curse. He must have had to bunny hop all the way up to Gryffindor Tower. Everyone fell about laughing except Hermione, who leapt up and performed the counter-curse. Neville’s legs sprang apart and he got to his feet, trembling. ‘What happened?’ […] ‘Malfoy,’ said Neville shakily, ‘I met him outside the library. He said he’d been looking for someone to practise that on.’ ‘Go to Professor McGonagall!’ Hermione urged Neville. ‘Report him!’ Neville shook his head. ‘I don’t want more trouble,’ he mumbled. ‘You’ve got to stand up to him, Neville!’ said Ron. ‘He’s used to walking all over people, but that’s no reason to lie down in front of him and make it easier.’ ‘There’s no need to tell me I’m not brave enough to be in Gryffindor, Malfoy’s already done that,’ Neville choked. (Rowling 233-234)
Neville has no say – not only with Malfoy, but also with everyone else (including the reader). The first reaction to his involuntarily comic entrance is “laugh[ter].” His movements are uncontrolled, slapstick-like: he “topple[s],” “bunny hop[s],” “trembl[es].” He’s clearly not in charge. When his friends “urge[…]” him (count the exclamation marks!) to “[r]eport” Malfoy, he simply “sh[akes] his head” – wordless again. When the words eventually do come, his voice is “shak[y],” he “mumble[s]” his reply, is left with no breath, “choke[ing]” his final reply. His passiveness, his muteness in word and action, his acceptance of the situation is what he needs to overcome.
And he does overcome it. Not for the last time in the series and in a rather unexpected way:
‘You can’t go out,’ said Neville, ‘you’ll be caught again. Gryffindor will be in even more trouble.’ ‘You don’t understand,’ said Harry, ‘this is important.’ But Neville was clearly steeling himself to do something desperate. ‘I won’t let you do it,’ he said, hurrying to stand in front of the portrait hole. ‘I’ll – I’ll fight you!’ ‘Neville,’ Ron exploded, ‘get away from that hole and don’t be an idiot –’ ‘Don’t you call me an idiot!’ said Neville. ‘I don’t think you should be breaking any more rules! And you were the one who told me to stand up to people!’ ‘Yes, but not to us,’ said Ron in exasperation. ‘Neville, you don’t know what you’re doing.’ (292-293)
Bullying behaviour – whether justified or not – is not limited to bully figures. Though both Harry and Ron point out that Neville is unaware of the context which justifies their actions, they do not bother to enlighten him. (To be fair, there’s no time for that anyway.) As Neville tries to incorporate Ron’s lesson to “stand up to people” (see also above), our three heroes have to realise that “people” includes them, too. And their behaviour – which echoes the earlier situation – calls for action on Neville’s side. Now, far from being silenced, Neville is the one raising his voice first: “‘What are you doing?’ said a voice from the corner of the room” (292). He is in charge, asking the questions, telling the three others what (not) to do: “‘You can’t go out,’” “‘I won’t let you do it,’” “‘Don’t you call me an idiot!’” (exclamation mark!). He won’t take the insult and though he’s yet a little hesitant – “‘I’ll – I’ll fight you!’” (my emphasis) –, he eventually finds the courage to literally stand up to them: “hurrying to stand in front of the portrait hole,” later even “raising his fists” (293). The new Neville and his proactive behaviour in word and deed, however, is met by his friends with “exasperation” (293), “desperat[ion]” and, finally, the “full Body-Bind” (293), a close relative to the Leg-Locker curse put on him earlier by Malfoy. The effect is, once more, comic and Neville’s role again the ‘weak’ one: “Neville’s arms snapped to his sides. His legs sprang together. His whole body rigid, he swayed where he stood and then fell flat on his face, stiff as a board” (293). Though enforced, passiveness pervades and Neville is muted once again. The question remains: who’s the bully now?
In the end, Neville’s perseverance is rewarded: “‘There are all kinds of courage,’ said Dumbledore, smiling. ‘It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends[’]” (329). By sharing Neville’s story publicly – and awarding his actions with the final points that mean Gryffindor’s victory in the House Cup –, Dumbledore unmutes Neville’s act of rebellion, self-confidence and (Gryffindor-like) courage (329). Neville, “white with shock” (329), is hugged and cheered by everyone, the silence resolved into a “noise” sounding like “some sort of explosion” (329). To complete the reversion of earlier events, Malfoy, the original bully, “couldn’t have looked more stunned and horrified [at the news] if he’d just had the Body-Bind curse put on him” (330). This time, the magic is only metaphorical, the justice, poetic. A power constellation, the characters cannot escape: good to the brave, bad to the wicked. Now, it is Malfoy who is passive, muted, humiliated.
Who’s the bully now?
*The OED defines a bully as “a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak” (“bully, n.1” II.3.a.). Chapeau. It also points out the obsolete positive meaning of the word: “A term of endearment and familiarity, originally applied to either sex: sweetheart, darling” (“bully, n.1” I.†1.a.). The term bully seems to be somewhat adaptable by nature.
“bully, n.1” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/24601. Accessed 28 December 2020.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 1997. Bloomsbury, 2014.