In Too Deep: Why Is Umbridge Such An Effective Villain?
Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
In 2003 Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) described Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge “greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.” (Yes, that Hannibal Lecter). In 2014 I managed to put it best as â€œDolores Umbridge makes kittens look badâ€. Suffice it to say, Dolores Umbridge is pretty horrible. But why is she such a great villain? Why does she strike a chord? Well, lets find out.
So first off, who is Dolores Umbridge? Well Pottermore reveals Dolores has always been a bit of a horrible person right back in her childhood, where her father gave her preference over her Squib (read, non-magical) brother, causing her to become very vain and big-headed. Naturally she did what any vain and big-headed person would do: She went into politics. So she rose up through the ranks, denounced her father (much like he had convinced her to denounce her muggle brother and mother) and eventually got into a position where she could become the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. So seems like a standard enough story, right? Vile person goes into politics and rises through the ranks, before getting into a position where she has direct power over the protagonist. A nice, corrupt, evil politician. Except, not evil. Because apparently, according to the lore, any evil person that tries to cast a Patronus (aka a spell powered by all happiness and joy) they’d be eaten alive by maggots that come from their wand. So Umbridge can’t be wholly evil, at least not as evil as Lord Voldermort. So why then is she seen as being worse than the series’ embodiment of evil?
Well, to put it simply, Umbridge is the one thing that we all fear: the fear of those above us using their power to hurt us. Now we can go from the extreme (aka the government is going to assassinate you) to the simple (aka your boss making you do extra work because they don’t like you). But this fear that those above us can and will hurt us with power that we don’t have is one that exists in pretty much all humans. I mean the fear of hurt is universal, with these people being the ones that can hurt us. Hell, one could even make the argument that ‘power-hungry’ people are people who are so scared of being hurt by those above them that they have to put themselves on top to be safe. Which would actually explain both Voldermort and Umbridge quite well, but I digress. Umbridge is a representation of this fear. During her rule at Hogwarts, Harry Potter loses several freedoms he once previously had. The freedom of speech, for example. That’s the first one that disappears almost right away, when he stands up to Umbridge. Likewise Harry loses his privacy and his peace from having to deal with the woman. But Harry loses this in relation to Voldermort though, doesn’t he? He has to go on the run for his life, unable to communicate much with the outside world, having most of his freedoms stripped down. But why is it different when Umbridge did it (despite her doing it first)? Why is it worst when she did it? Well, simple, really. When Harry was on the run, it was expected that he wouldn’t have much more freedom. But when he was stuck in Hogwarts, where he’s suppose to be safe, he’s at his most vulnerable. Because he can oppose Lord Voldermort, that’s fine. Even if he’s in hiding, he can oppose him at the same time. But here, Umbridge is a teacher. And Harry can’t oppose a teacher, at least not openly. While he does find a way, it’s still an interesting dilemma. How do you oppose someone who holds all the cards? How do you oppose your boss when your boss can get you fired? Umbridge is that horrible concept of the abusive powerful that she’s a sickening joy to read about. We hate her because of how powerless she has made our lead hero, of how there is very little that can actually stop her. He cheer when she finally gets stood up to and taken down, because that’s what she deserves. Umbridge symbolizes all that we fear and hate in powerfully corrupt authority figures… which is why her appearance is a wet squib when the seventh book rolls around.
See, while Umbridge was a great villain in Order of the Phoenix, she’s not that great in Deathly Hallows. In Phoenix, she is essentially invading the safety of the hero’s life. She’s invaded his home and taken control of it for her own purposes. However, in Hallows, she’s essentially in her own realm. A corrupt politician in a corrupt courtroom is… very standard. She is no more evil or out of place than the rest of the ministry. She’s that same symbol, sure, but it’s not as effective this time round. The hero is invading her place, not the other way round. Likewise Umbridge doesn’t have any control over our heroes. Sure, she’s a danger, but she’s not a constant one that’s always in control. She’s a different type of threat and menace. So while it’s neat that she came back… Yeah, she’s not really that effective the second time round. But what about the Patronus I mentioned earlier? About how evil people can’t cast it. Well evil people probably can’t… If they think they’re evil, that is. Voldermort probably couldn’t cast it because he doesn’t care for good or evil, he has no concept of it, so he has no concept of happy or sad thoughts (at least, not in the normal sense). You need to be happy to cast a Patronus and Voldermort, a sociopath incapable of feeling emotion, can’t cast it because he doesn’t know what it means to be happy. Umbridge, on the other hand, must clearly know what happiness is on some level. She must know what it’s like to be happy, even though it might seem like a horrible thing to us. She must be able to find joy in something. And that’s what makes her so much worse than Voldermort. Voldermort would probably kill you, but he wouldn’t think that it was a good thing or have any real joy from it. He’d torture you, but he wouldn’t think he was a good guy for doing it. Umbridge, on the other hand, thinks that everything she does is done for good reasons. She thinks she’s a good person, which is what makes her so much worse. A person doing bad thing for a ‘good’ reason is one of the most horrifying things around, especially true when that person is a leader. So combine that with the fear of abusive power, and we have a pretty good reason about why Umbridge is so foul.
So there you have it. A disjointed look at one of the best villains in the history of fiction. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.