Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Is Dumbledore gay?

I've been hearing lately that J.K. Rowling has announced that Dumbledore is gay. I haven't tried to verify it or anything because for the purpose of what I want to talk about it, it doesn't matter whether she actually said that or not.

This raises an interesting philosophical question for me about the nature of fiction. Dumbledore doesn't really exist. He's just a fictional character in a story. So Dumbledore can't really be gay in real life. If he's gay at all, he can only be gay as part of the story.

But the problem is that the story itself doesn't stipulate that Dumbledore is gay. In the story of Harry Potter, there is complete silence on Dumbledore's sexuality.

One might argue that the story gets its meaning, not merely from the words, but from the intention of the author. In that case, you might say he's gay just because J.K. Rowling had decided all along that he was gay, even though she didn't say so in the story.

But does the intention of the author matter if she doesn't include information in the story? If so, then Rowling could start making all kind of crazy announcements about the characters in Harry Potter that are not included in the story, and we'd all be obliged to take her word for it. She could just up and decide that Filch killed his own mother and that nobody ever found out about it. She could decide that Hagrid joined a monastary for a while after being kicked out of Hogwarts.

Let's suppose for a moment that Rowling's intentions matter even if she doesn't write her intentions into the story. Does it matter when her intentions came about? Does it matter whether she intended all along for Dumbledore to be gay, whether she decided he was gay half way through writing the books, or if she decided he was gay after writing the books? What if she changed her mind tomorrow? Would Dumbledore then be straight just because she said so? Could she change her mind a dozen times between now and when she dies, and would the story change as a result?


At 11/09/2007 6:48 AM , Blogger Timothy said...

Wow, you brought up the exact same point that was brought up in a newspaper article I read the other day! I found a version of the article online - take a look:,0,5083509.story?coll=chi-navrailnews-nav

It's interesting that you brought it up because it's not a point I would have thought of on my own. After I read that newspaper article, I kind of saw the point the guy was making, but not enough to really agree or disagree. But after reading your post (in which you laid out the logic behind the issue much more clearly), I began to see reason for complaint with Rowling's actions.

On the other hand, I can think of a lot of times when stories have been written, and fans have asked the author (after the story was over) to reveal things about a character's intentions or motivations that were left ambiguous in the story. "Did Carrie know that Thomas was her father?" "Was so and so actually the hero of legend that the story alluded to him being, or was he just a normal person who became a hero?" Unfortunately I can't think of any examples from actual stories right now, but hopefully you get the idea. These are situations in which there is some question left unanswered in the book and the fans want the author to tell them what their intuition or their plan for the story was. So how is this different from the questionable acts of Rowling?

Perhaps the difference is that Dumbledore being gay came completely out of the blue. Fans weren't dying to know "Is Dumbledore gay or not?" They just wanted to know if he ever found love (all the while assuming that he was straight). You could say that in these kinds of situations, fans are seeking closure for something in the story. But instead of closure, it was as if Rowling introduced a whole new chapter!

At 11/09/2007 6:51 AM , Blogger Timothy said...

It looks like that URL got cut. Here it is on three lines:

At 11/09/2007 8:05 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Thanks for the link, Timothy. That was interesting, and it's nic to know I wasn't the only one who thought there was a fly in the ointment. I agree with you that it's not quite a clear-cut as the author of that article made it out to be. Author's sometimes leave hints about a character's motives or personality that they never explicitly reveal in the story. But at long as it's hinted at and intended by the author, the author ought to be able to reveal the motive or personality trait to their fans later. But I didn't see any hints of Dumbledore's homosxuality in the Harry Potter books. Even when she described the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindwald, there was nothing gay about it. The relationship that was described in the books was simply different than the one she described when she say it was homosexual.

It seems to me that words get their meaning from the intention of the speaker or writer when they are speaking or writing. Sometimes people speak ambiguous intentionally. It allows them to insult somebody and still be able to say, "No, that's not what I meant" when confronted about it. But an insult doesn't become a compliment just because the person says so. In spite of what the person says to defend themselves, we still consider it an insult if they intended it as an insult when they spoke or wrote.

At 11/10/2007 1:45 AM , Blogger Aaron Snell said...

Hi Sam,

Actually, John Mark Reynolds at the Scriptorium Daily has recently blogged on this as well, with many of the same thoughts. Take it as a compliment - great minds think alike and all that :)

Here are the three articles:

At 11/10/2007 1:49 AM , Blogger Aaron Snell said...

Whoops, that didn't work. Here they are with line breaks:

At 11/10/2007 9:09 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Thanks Aaron. That was interesting.

At 11/19/2007 6:48 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

When I heard this I was reminded of a talk I attended given by Jonathan Miller (well known polymath over here in the uk). Apart from talking about binocular rivalry and consciousness, his main theme was that there can be no such thing as a canonical interpretation of a text. So how do statements by the author of a text affect the truth values of statements about it? The answer is probably 'as much as you let them'.
There are parameters within which such statements will have a degree of credibility. If J.K.R. said that Harry was in fact a tortoise with some human traits, I doubt that it would alter many interpretations very much. But if you are tempted to think that all bets are off because this is fiction, I would say that there is a sense in which 'Onegin shot Lensky' is true, whereas 'Lensky shot Onegin' is false.

I have not read any Harry Potter so I can't comment on whether there are any aspects of the text that are more resonant if Dumbledore is considered gay. I had heard that J.K.R. had said as much to a film director involved in the franchise before the book series was complete. That might influence how much you let it affect your judgement of how true the statement is. I suppose you have to ask yourself what your goal is. If you want to know whether, when J.K.R. plotted out the entire series prior to completion, she included back-stories for the characters and among them was the Dumbledore one in which he was gay, well...that is an empirical question. But what will it solve? You could still argue that she was wrong about him.
On the other hand, the only reason you might see nothing gay about the relationship between Dumbledore and Grimwald is that you don't have sufficient experience of suppressed love for somebody of the same sex. Who is to say?

At 11/19/2007 7:01 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac, when Jonathan Miller said, "there can be no such thing as a canonical interpretation of a text," was he just talking about fiction, or was he talking about any kind of text?

At 11/20/2007 11:28 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Miller was addressing fiction with reference to Shakespeare and his position is rather more subtle than I have presented it here.
The following quote from Miller might help:
"At the moment there are two millstones of folly which are threatening to grind the theatre into a state of pulverised idiocy. On the one hand, there is the existing notion that there is some sort of canonical version, the original version, the version which would most have pleased the playwright, the version that most realises the playwright’s intention. And on the other, the notion that there is no such thing as the playwright’s intention, that there is no such thing as a standard canonical formal meaning in a text, and that actually these texts constantly renew themselves under the pressure of interpretation, which allows there to be almost anything and the text is taken as an unstructured thing altogether. Both of these seem to me to be a misunderstanding of what the nature of a text is." Jonathan Miller.
It is interesting to consider whether this view is applicable to non fiction.

At 11/20/2007 5:49 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I think that is definitely true when it comes to plays or movies. I'm not so sure when it comes to fiction.

At 11/20/2007 7:51 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I'm not sure I see a sharp distinction. Care to elucidate?

At 11/20/2007 8:21 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

With fiction, the whole story is in the writing, but with plays and movies, the story isn't just in the writing. It's also in the production. Plays and movies are made from scripts, which is mostly just dialogue. The director creates (or interprets) the script by controlling how the actors read their lines and how the stage and scenery are set up, and stuff like that.

At 11/21/2007 9:20 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I see what you mean but am not yet convinced. As I see it, everybody who reads fiction mounts their own production of the work in their head. Sometimes this is with a cast, scenery and special effects that would cost a fortune if implemented on film.
If what you say were true, that all of the story is in the writing, then it would follow that anything J.K.R. says that is not part of the narrative itself is irrelevant to the story. But it seems unlikely to me that it won't affect some of the productions in readers' heads.
Also films don't always proceed just from dialogue. Some writer/directors use the storyboard technique to specify how the film will look in some detail. I don't know how extensive the notes and stage directions some plays might ship with can be, but the principle is the same. With fiction in any medium there is neither total freedom nor complete rigidity of interpretation.


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