Just in case you hadn’t noticed, we’re approaching another general election. This got me thinking about what it means to be evil and the nature of villainy. Seriously though, it did. So I’m taking this opportunity to talk about the literary villain I most love to hate: give it up for the oh so aptly named Dolores Jane Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic and Big Bad from book five in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
At first glance, Professor Umbridge might seem a bit tame compared to other literary villains, or even previous Big Bads in the Harry Potter series, which were mostly a variation on the End Level Boss Lord Voldemort himself – either growing out the back of someone else’s head, possessing a student, or being brought back to life; but Umbridge was always the one I hated the most.
To understand part of what makes Umbridge so dangerous, I think we have to look at the context in which she operates. The magical community has been rocked by Harry’s revelation that Lord Voldemort is not only back but gaining power and followers, and that a student at Hogwarts died directly by Voldemort’s hand earlier that year. People are frightened, and when they are frightened, they tend to do stupid things. Nobody wants to believe that Voldemort’s back, because nobody knows how to deal with it. So we have an active campaign against Harry, comprising of personal attacks in wizard paper and propaganda machine The Daily Prophet, stating that he is an unhinged liar, a physical attack via two Dementors, and an official government attack through Ministry of Magic channels as Harry is taken to a full wizard court on trumped-up charges for defending himself against the Dementors. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, embodies the effect fear can have; he has up until this point seemed a rather benevolent if bumbling character, but now he becomes increasingly paranoid, preferring to believe that Harry is a liar and somehow being used by the Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore to undermine Fudge’s position as Minister rather than acknowledge the threat posed by Voldemort. Like Star Wars teaches us, fear is the path to the dark side; fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
When we first meet Umbridge, she’s one of many shadowy figures present at Harry’s farcical trial. She doesn’t do or say much, and seems fairly unthreatening, being described as “simpering” and speaking in an affected, infantilised manner, although she is one of the few who votes against Harry. It’s therefore no more than a slightly unpleasant surprise when she pops up at Hogwarts later on, and is introduced as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.
Two phrases come to mind here: with great power comes great responsibility; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Umbridge is all about abuse of power.
Umbridge begins her term by giving a speech to the school, during which most of the students get distracted and bored. While the speech is disguised by its grey dullness, and doesn’t clearly state her intentions outright, it’s actually the classic villain’s monologue: “…progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged…some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognised as errors of judgement. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning where we find practices that ought to be prohibited.” If James Bond had to sit through such a speech from, say, Goldfinger, he’d have nodded off long before realising what Goldfinger was going to do with that laser. It takes Hermione to pay attention, realise there was “important stuff hidden in the waffle” and understand what it means: the Ministry will use Umbridge to interfere at Hogwarts.
It doesn’t take long for Umbridge to show her true colours. In Harry’s first lesson with her, her assertion that none of the students will need to practice self-defence leads to Harry speaking out about Voldemort’s return; Umbridge promptly calls him a liar and gives him detention. Fair enough, you might think. She’s just doing what she thinks is right, just doing her job. However, leaving aside what a rubbish excuse that is, she’s far more than just a jobsworth. The sadistic punishment she sets is for Harry to write lines with a special pen that writes in Harry’s own blood, causing a scar which says “I must not tell lies” on his hand. What’s more, she clearly enjoys it. Even if Harry had been telling lies, he is a student to whom she has a duty of care, and this is a disgusting abuse of her position of power and no less than torture. There’s an added squick factor when you realise that she, like all abusers, knows her victim will be too ashamed to tell.
If you think this is bad, it gets way worse. But in the meantime we learn a bit more about Umbridge: she drafted some anti-werewolf legislation which makes it practically impossible for her predecessor Lupin to get a job, and campaigned for mer-people to be rounded up and tagged. This is all classic Dark Side stuff, and it’s reflected in our society too, with fear of people who are deemed different or “other” leading to hate crimes, be the victims of another race, faith, culture, sexual identity, or simply poor or sick. Umbridge is ignorant and arrogant. She fears and hates anyone she doesn’t understand, that is anyone who isn’t a “pure” witch or wizard, several times using “half-breed” as an insult, while simultaneously believing herself to be part of a superior race. She is a racist and speciesist who perpetuates xenophobia by making discrimination legally and therefore socially acceptable.
Not content with abusing her students, Umbridge gets herself appointed first ever Hogwarts High Inquisitor, with the power to inspect, assess and sack her fellow teachers. She also has the power to implement new school rules, which she gleefully takes advantage of. The Educational Decrees (by the end of the book there are almost thirty), are hugely passive aggressive, blanket rules which make everyone’s lives a bit more difficult just so she can target a few individuals – namely, Harry and his friends. A bit like the way the benefits system in the UK has become increasingly difficult to navigate for the sake of a tiny minority who abuse it, it’s spiteful and ineffective.
Umbridge wastes no time inspecting the other teachers. Poor Professor Trelawney, teacher of Divination, fares the worst. It’s true that she has never knowingly made an accurate prophecy (and only a couple of times unknowingly) but there is absolutely no call for Umbridge’s vicious cruelty towards her. Put under pressure which she simply cannot handle, Trelawney is literally driven to drink and eventually dismissed in the most callous way imaginable. Umbridge publicly humiliates her by dismissing her in front of the whole school, while Trelawney cries piteously on the ground. What’s more, Umbridge does this believing not only is she taking away Trelawney’s means of income, but also her home, since Trelawney lives at Hogwarts. Umbridge is just fine with making Trelawney jobless and homeless in the same day. Far worse than a budget deficit, Umbridge has a compassion deficit.
For her next trick, Umbridge forms the Inquisitorial Squad, which is as sinister as it sounds. These students, who she’s hand-picked, are given powers above and beyond those of prefects, and act as her spies. Hey it’s a big school, and she can’t make everyone miserable without some help. Speaking of which, she then gains the support of hateful school caretaker Filch by promising him that he will be granted the power to torture students who he catches breaking school rules by whipping them or stringing them up the ankles in his office. The really dangerous thing about Umbridge is that she believes she is on the side of right, so if it’s something she is doing as a means to an end, then it must be ok. It’s the same flawed reasoning which led to the atrocities in Guantanamo Bay.
This morally precarious line of reasoning comes to a head when Umbridge convinces herself that it is perfectly ok for her to use the Cruciatus Curse on Harry to get information out of him. The Cruciatus Curse is a tool of Voldemort and his followers which inflicts excruciating pain on the recipient and is actually known as one of the three Unforgiveable Curses, use of which carry an automatic sentence of imprisonment in Azkaban. Yet here we have Umbridge convincing herself it’s fine for her to use on a student: “I am left with no alternative…this is more than a matter of school discipline…this is an issue of security…yes…yes….” before she reveals that it was she who set the Dementors in Harry in an attempt to have him expelled from Hogwarts before the school year even began.
Fortunately, Umbridge is defeated by Hermione’s quick wits. And a herd of centaurs, who drag her away after she stupidly insults them by calling them “filthy beasts”. After a stint at St Mungo’s Hospital, Umbridge briefly returns to her old ways before finally being imprisoned in Azkaban, and there I hope she stays.
You might think I’ve been a bit hard on Umbridge; after all, it’s not like she actually murders anyone. But earlier in The Order of the Phoenix, Sirius says something which really struck me and explains why I loathe Umbridge so much: “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters“, he tells Harry. He’s right. It’s easy to spot the Voldemorts and Bellatrixes of the world, whereas the Umbridges are creepingly insidious, inserting themselves among us under the guise of improving things, of doing what is right, of protecting our vulnerable, while all the time they are fear mongering, inciting hatred, enabling and validating cruelty, and believing the worst of people because they think everyone else is as scheming and heartless as they are. They are hypocrites who focus on upholding the letter of the law even when that goes against the spirit of the law, yet think nothing of changing the law as and when it suits them. We may not notice them until it’s too late because the face they wear is an unthreatening one and they are easily underestimated.
Umbridge is a very adult villain. While it’s highly unlikely any of us will ever meet a Voldemort, it is sadly extremely likely that all of us will at some point struggle with an Umbridge. JK Rowling has even stated that the character of Umbridge is based on someone she knew in real life. It’s an Umbridge who enjoys telling you that your benefits have been cut off for three months because you missed an appointment at the job centre to attend a job interview; it was an Umbridge who drafted legislation to say that the long term sick and disabled must undergo fit-to-work assessments carried out by unqualified strangers; it’s Umbridges who spread fear, intolerance and hatred by blaming everything that’s wrong in the world on people who aren’t like us. Umbridge is the face of mundane, legal evil which thrives in fear and bureaucracy. There are far too many Umbridges in British politics at the moment.
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray