How many boyfriends had Albus Dumbledore?
I was not always as you see me now.
Many years ago, in a graduate school far away, I was a student of what H.L. Mencken liked to call “beautiful letters.” And it was with dim recollections of a past life as a graduate student in English that I reacted to J.K. Rowling’s announcement last week that she had envisioned Professor Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, as gay.
However this may have titillated or energized her readers, I think that the remark was misguided — not because Dumbledore’s sexual orientation is in any way offensive, but because it appears to be irrelevant. While fresh scrutiny of the Potter novels may reveal hints, it doesn’t appear that Dumbledore’s sexuality matters in the books, which is the only place where it counts. He’s a character in fiction, not a person.
Seventy years ago, the British critic L.C. Knights published a famous (among academics) essay, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” It effectively demolished the older critical approach exemplified in A.C. Bradley”s Shakespearean Tragedy. Knights ridiculed criticism that treated Shakespeare’s characters as representing fully realized individuals, arguing that the characters exist only in the work to carry out the purposes of the work. They do not exist outside the play/poem/novel, and it is idle to talk of them as if they did.
That has been critico-literary orthodoxy for decades, and the attitude was pithily expressed by Vladimir Nabokov, who ridiculed the notion that characters could somehow “get away” from the control of their authors; his, he wrote, worked like galley slaves.
So Ms. Rowling, giving in to the avidity of fans who have not had enough Harry Potter with the completion of the series, offers them an additional crumb. No doubt in some electronic netherworld of which I remain blissfully unaware, avatars of all the Hogwarts characters are carrying on some further existence beyond the realm of copyright
But if Ms. Rowling wants to develop the characters further, she has a pen.