Aside from Winky, I can’t think of a Harry Potter character I hate more than Dolores Jane Umbridge.
And on Halloween 2014, the stout, toad-like, pink-garbed, uber racist had her life’s story exposed by none other than Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. The online piece gave in-depth insight into her character’s backstory, motivations, and family life (or lack thereof according to Rowling).
Now far be it from me as a mere reader to question J.K. Rowling, but did anyone else feel like the story was reaching a little? I mean, there’s evil and then there’s Dolores Umbridge. The piece only explains what everyone already knows about her, but it also goes to great lengths to justify her horrid behaviour to students and to mixed-race individuals through only kinda-horrific motivations.
Throughout the story, we’re given paragraph after paragraph that go into detail about Umbridge’s every fault, personality disorder, and racial prejudice. We’re given passages like the one below that sums up why she’s racist:
Dolores Jane Umbridge was the eldest child and only daughter of Orford Umbridge, a wizard, and Ellen Cracknell, a Muggle, who also had a Squib son. Dolores’ parents were unhappily married, and Dolores secretly despised both of them: Orford for his lack of ambition (he had never been promoted, and worked in the Department of Magical Maintenance at the Ministry of Magic), and her mother, Ellen, for her flightiness, untidiness, and Muggle lineage. Both Orford and his daughter blamed Ellen for Dolores’s brother’s lack of magical ability, with the result that when Dolores was fifteen, the family split down the middle, Orford and Dolores remaining together, and Ellen vanishing back into the Muggle world with her son. Dolores never saw her mother or brother again, never spoke of either of them, and henceforth pretended to all she met that she was a pure-blood.
From this one paragraph, we learn so much about the pink-frilled high inquisitor that we start to wonder what’s left to learn.
As I talked about in a previous article on Squibs, Dolores Umbridge and Argus Filch hit it off when she arrived at Hogborts Tools of Hitchcraft and Buzzardry. The paragraph above tells us that she had a Squib brother, which then explains why she likes Filch and why she tolerates him. Umbridge longs to see her brother and mother who had forsaken her, but cannot come to terms with her hate-filled relationship with her parents.
See? All the facts are lined up in a cute little package with frilly paper and a bow, and then rammed down our lore-loving throats.
As much as I liked the deeper reading of Umbridge’s character, I couldn’t help feel that the piece was just giving added justification to why she is evil. It doesn’t go as far to say that her parents were killed by half-giants or that centaurs ate her favourite cat, but it goes far enough to outline the reasons behind her actions at Hogwarts and throughout her career.
Dolores’s appointment as Inquisitor at Hogwarts gave full scope, for the first time in her life, for her prejudices and her cruelty. She had not enjoyed her time at school, where she had been overlooked for all positions of responsibility, and she relished the chance to return and wield power over those who had not (as she saw it) given her her due.
Dolores has what amounts to a phobia of beings that are not quite, or wholly, human. Her distaste for the half-giant Hagrid, and her terror of centaurs, reveal a terror of the unknown and the wild. She is an immensely controlling person, and all who challenge her authority and world-view must, in her opinion, be punished. She actively enjoys subjugating and humiliating others, and except in their declared allegiances, there is little to choose between her and Bellatrix Lestrange.
- She didn’t like being at school, which explains why she treats the students like garbage.
- She doesn’t like half-breeds because she is one, which explains why she ostracizes people like Hagrid.
- She doesn’t like the unknown or the wild, which explains why she got rid of Professor Sybill Trelawney who can make the unknown known and why she hates the crazy centaurs.
- She doesn’t like Professor Minerva McGonagall because she’s awesome, tall, and was once married.
- She doesn’t like Harry Potter because he questions her authority.
- And she likes Argus Filch because he’s a Squib and a janitor, a mix of her father and brother into one person.
We even get insight into her name with Rowling stating that, “‘Dolores’ means sorrow, something she undoubtedly inflicts on all around her. ‘Umbridge’ is a play on ‘umbrage’ from the British expression ‘to take umbrage’, meaning offence’.”
It’s too much information. There’s a whole well of interpretation out there about characters like her, but when the creator of the series hammers down the details all of that gets thrown out. Sure, fan theories might not hold as much water as the actual author intent, but now I don’t know whether to sympathize with Umbridge or just hate her even more because even in the details she’s despicable.
If anything, we learn that Umbridge doesn’t have a real reason to be as evil as she is portrayed.
Dolores Umbridge is an ugly character for the sake of being ugly.
There’s a whole history out there of animation studios like Disney purposefully making the protagonists handsome/beautiful while making the antagonists ugly/grotesque. We see it in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 101 Dalmatians, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and even contemporary films like Tangled.
Rowling in her post-mortem goes on to tell a story about how she met a teacher who she instantly disliked due to her love of twee accessories, tendency to wear clothes too young for her, and possessed a poor personality to boot. Way to be judgemental, J.K. (I think I’d hate that lady too…).
The point is this, The story of Dolores Jane Umbridge gives readers what they want and what they hate most. It provides us with an explanation for the actions and motivations of a character without leaving any give for interpretation. Imagine how blatant it would be if Rowling writes another story, The story of Hedwig, that explained exactly what the owl was thinking and doing the entire film.
It would give us the exact lead up to when Harry Potter first bought Hedwig and how she felt about that, what it did during its time with Sirius Black including this amazing pirate adventure they had together, and describe in detail the moment she was hit by the killing curse in the final book and cried little owl tears as she fell to the ground.
You see, it’d be too much to handle. While Umbridge’s story doesn’t go that far it’s starting to reach the point where we’d all be better off without the added author fiction Rowling is adding in drip by drip. Rowling is doing one of the carnal sins of storytelling, she’s telling us about Dolores, not showing us Dolores.