Erikson’s Stages of Development Applied to Harry Potter hsp 315; Human Development

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Erikson’s Stages of Development Applied to Harry Potter

HSP 315; Human Development

Christina Meskil



In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry battles to develop his identity in the midst of ever changing and traumatic circumstances; many of Harry’s friends, family, and Harry himself are put in danger and some murdered by the character Voldemort. Harry struggles not only to cope with this trauma, but also with the fact that he finds many commonalities between himself and his oppressor Voldemort. Erik Erikson’s stages of development theory provide a good framework for understanding and predicting identity development. In particular his identity vs. role diffusion stage explains the identity formation of young adults ages 12-18. This paper will apply Erikson’s theory to Harry’s adolescent years with a particular emphasis on how trauma and maladaptation in childhood affect identity development in an adolescent.

Erikson’s Theory

A good place to begin with Erikson’s theory is the concept of the id, the ego, and the super ego. Erikson draws on Freud’s work in this regard, and illustrates the concept with the image of a see-saw. On one side of the see-saw is the id, which manifests when our mind steps out of the confines of what is achievable; this includes fantasies of what could have been, how things could be, were oneself in omnipotent control. The other extreme of the see-saw is the super ego, which is seen when the mind is consumed by excessive thoughts of “ought to”- what one should do, what one should have done, what should be done to undo what has been done. The equilibrium of this see-saw is the ego, the frame of mind which does not look beyond what can and would do and instead mediates between the id and the super ego. Within the ego there is no wishing one could be different than they are, nor feeling that one ‘ought’ to do anything. Erikson identifies the ego as the frame of mind in which one is least self-conscious and most one’s self (Erikson, 1950).

As the ego develops within an individual as they mature to adulthood, Anna Freud says, it begins to develop safeguards such as deferred satisfaction and adequate substitutions which allow the ego to create a balance between the id and the super ego. When the ego is successful in creating and maintaining these safe guards anxiety can be minimized while still securing some gratification. Erikson draws on Freud heavily to explain how the success of the ego means there is harmony between the id, super ego, as well as with the outside world (Freud, 1937). Failure to successfully establish these safeguards, as we will see, can create problems for the individual, as well as aggravate attempts to establish other safeguards (Erikson, 1950).

Erikson theorized that an individual going through life encounters a series of crises concerning their ego identity. In each crisis (or stage) there is a fundamental trait the individual is expected to develop (or, one could say, a safeguard they need to develop). If the individual fails to resolve the crisis and set up the safeguard for a given stage, negative traits can develop which can inhibit development in following stages. The crises (stages) are as follows: trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and self-doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role diffusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, and finally ego integrity vs. despair (Erikson 1950). These crises, rather than denoting the negativity that goes with our modern perception of crisis, simply represent turning points in the lives of individuals. If one crisis is not resolved, it does not mean that the individual cannot move on, only that the following stages are compounded and aggravated (Erikson, 1968). The individual can still go back and resolve other stages at any time, and often will need to in order to be successful in following stages (Atalay, 2007).

The question Erikson asked and tried to answer was: how does a person compose a life centered on the self? And how does one define themselves as an individual in a social context (Sorell & Montgomery, 2001)? To answer this question this question, Erikson developed a theory that is systematic (Ford & Lerner, 1992), and which takes in to account family, friends, intimate partners, and other social ties. These people influence the individual by imparting to them certain societal and cultural messages (Sorell & Montgomery, 2001).

Stage Five

Erikson’s fifth stage, identity vs. role diffusion, begins in adolescence and calls in to question all previously held identities of an individual (Erikson, 1950). Faber says that the identity vs. role diffusion is characterized by the youth going through all previous stages in a new way (1975). The way identity is successfully formed in this stage is when there is continuity between the way the individual perceives themselves and the way others perceive them (Atalay, 2007). When identity formation is unsuccessful in this stage the result is role diffusion (Erikson, 1950); role diffusion is experienced by the individual as a lack of wholeness in themselves and in their environment (Faber, 1975).

Critiques of Erikson’s Theory

Like the majority of theorists at the time of his career, Erikson was a white, upper-middle class male, and as such, there are those who argue that Erikson’s theory provides a limited scope when understanding development of women and minority groups (Miller and Scholnick, 2000). As Erikson’s work in many ways recounts his own personal search for identity within his specific context (1950’s-60’s, economic growth, ideals of industrial and consumer capitalism) his understanding of ‘normal’ psychology is limited (Miller, 1993). Feminist theorists Sorell and Montgomery criticize Erikson’s “sacrifice attention to the diversity of human experience in the service of abstract, universal principles” (2001).

Harry Potter

The setting of the Harry Potter series is in a magical world of witches and wizards running parallel to our own. As an infant Harry Potter lived with his loving and attentive wizard parents until the age of about one and a half when both his parents were murdered by another wizard who went by the name of Voldemort. Voldemort attempted to murder Harry as well but failed and instead was defeated forced into hiding for many years. Once the death of Harry’s parents was discovered he was brought to live with his aunt and uncle, a non-magical family called the Dursleys. As Harry grows up, the Dursleys tell Harry nothing of the wizarding world, saying only that his parents died in a car accident. Harry is frequently maltreated by the Dursleys; he is verbally abused, neglected, denied food, and made to sleep in a small broom cupboard underneath the stairs.

When Harry turned eleven representatives from the wizarding world came and informed Harry of his real past and his identity as a wizard, inviting him to a wizard only school called Hogwarts. Though at first skeptical, Harry accepts this invitation, overjoyed to know that his life is more than it had seemed and to have an identity other than that which his aunt and uncle have forced upon him. Harry flourishes in school, creating meaningful friendships, identifying his own skills and weaknesses, and working toward a desired career. All the while, however, Harry faces traumatic incidents where he and his friends are close to being killed, and several of his adult role models are. Harry also struggles within himself.

Lord Voldemort reappears several times over the next seven years, out to complete his task and murder Harry. Harry soon discovers there is some sort of magical connection between Voldemort and himself- he and Voldemort share a similar upbringing, similar interests and abilities, as well as the ability, at times, to see into one another’s thoughts and emotions. Meanwhile, others in the wizarding world refer to Harry as “The Chosen One”, believing Harry is the only person able to defeat Voldemort for good. These identities, to Harry, both seem outside of his control. A connection can be drawn between Erikson and Freud’s id with Harry’s uncontrollable bond with Voldemort and his visions of power and revenge. The super ego then can be related to Harry’s external pressure to be the good savior of man-kind and “Chosen One”. Meanwhile, the ego is regulating these two sets of desires within Harry while striving to arrive at an identity that makes sense of both sides (Erikson, 1950).

Between Harry’s internal struggle between good and evil, the expectations of those around him, and the traumatic circumstances that season Harry’s adolescence, Harry is given few opportunities to explore his identity for himself. In addition, Harry may be struggling with compounded anxieties from earlier stages in his development. In the remainder of this paper we will utilize Erikson’s model of development to further understand Harry’s struggles with identity vs. role confusion.

Trauma as a Developmental Impediment

Though Harry was not faced with a natural disaster in the sense we think of, the pervasive danger and loss in his life seems equivocal to individuals experiencing the effects of a natural disaster or profound community violence. Eth and Pynoos say that such experiences create “helplessness in the face of intolerable danger, anxiety, and instinctual arousal” (1985). Individuals exposed to disaster are at risk of being disrupted in their development; these survivors often show psychiatric dysfunctions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (Wiley et al., 2011). Findings show that individuals who experience disaster and loss due to the malicious intent of other humans experience trauma far surpassing those experiencing any other sort of disaster (Norris, Freidman & Watson, 2002).

A major consequence of trauma in adolescents is the premature entrance into adulthood, thus closing the stage of identity formation (Eth and Pynoos, 1985). In the case of Harry, we see that the trauma in his world causes him to drop out of school to seek the destruction of his enemy Voldemort. Though this was most likely the right decision for Harry to make, at the age of seventeen Harry exhibits many of the markers considered to identify an adult. Two of the markers of an adult identified by Stettersten and Ray are living independently and having a career (2010). By seventeen, though Harry doesn’t have a ‘career’, he has devoted all of his time and energy to the task of hunting and defeating Voldemort. He no longer attends school and lives off the money he has inherited from his parents; however he is completely independent of any living adults. Two other characteristics that are often associated with adulthood are accepting responsibility for one’s self and independent decision making (Arnett, 2000). Harry, in the seventh book of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, finds himself living independently without guidance save that of his peers. For over six months he and his friends travel the world, making their own food, building shelter, and evading their enemies while searching for the means to defeat Voldemort. The danger in this is that Harry may not have had adequate opportunities to develop his own identity and explore various options in the way that Erikson suggests is healthy for an adolescent (Erikson, 1968).

Maladaptation from Previous Stages

As Harry forms his identity in his adolescent years, he also finds himself re-confronting unresolved or poorly resolved crises from his youth. It is not uncommon for remediation of past stages to occur, particularly during adolescence, when much of what the adolescent has already learned about themselves is called into question (Erikson, 1968; Marcia & Josselson, 2013). For example, when Harry was an infant exploring the conflict of trust vs. mistrust (Erikson, 1950), Harry most likely was taught he could trust his parents who attended to his needs and gave him love. With the death of his parents, however, and the mistreatment by his aunt and uncle, Harry may have become distrustful of others. Harry had to resolve in his adolescence by learning to trust his friends, professors, and mentors. At the second stage of development, autonomy vs. shame and self-doubt, Harry most likely encountered a lack of support from the Dursleys. The development of self-doubt and shame at this stage leads to the individual desiring to be unseen and bury one’s face in the sand. Erikson identifies this sense of shame as rage turned against the self. He says that this occurs when a child is denied the “well-guided experience of autonomy” (1950). For Harry we see that he often wishes to avoid attention, and frequently admonishes himself for events outside of his control.

Harry’s “Split-Personalities”

Erikson identifies that the identity vs. role diffusion stage of development is characterized by the adolescent’s ego identity attempting to create continuity between the inner self, and the way others perceive the adolescent. Erikson associates this with the development of the super ego- a sense of obligation to others (Erikson, 1950). For Harry, this manifests in his war between his inner perception of his association and likeness to Voldemort and the external expectations of those around him, urging him to be a ‘hero’ and ‘savior’ character

According to Kidwell and Dunham, adolescents undergoing this sort of identity exploration are more likely to exhibit self-doubt, confusion, disturbed thinking, impulsivity, conflicts with parents and other authority figures, reduced ego strength, and increased physical symptoms (1995), many of which Harry exhibits on a regular basis- making rash decisions, putting himself and others in danger, frequent defiance of professors and other adults as well as general confusion about his own identity.

Ultimately Harry does establish an identity. In response to the classic Erikson question for the identity vs. “who am I going to be?” (Erikson, 1950) Harry decides to establish his identity as the sort of person who will give himself up for his friends. As we will see, however, this identity was not something that simply happened; it was a choice Harry had to make.


The character of Dumbledore identifies a key aspect of identity development when he says "It is our choices Harry that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." The individual does not simply achieve their identity; rather the individual must commit to their identity, and continuously make choices that support their identity (Stephen, Fraser & Marcia, 1992). For this reason self-efficacy, the ability to direct one’s behavior towards a task is an important trait for an adolescent to develop (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2010). For Harry, this meant choosing to face Voldemort. Though, yes, this was the expectation of many of the people in the wizarding world, it was Harry making the choice that made this a part of his identity. Harry made his choice, not based on his id (which told him to run) not on his super ego (which would have made him face Voldemort out of a sense of obligation) but by the balanced choice of his ego (Erikson, 1950).


Though trauma was a significant part of Harry’s adolescence, and Harry struggled with many barriers in his identity crisis, ultimately Harry was able to successfully establish an identity. It is possible that later in life Harry may struggle with some PTSD and maladjustment, however, it is likely he will be able to pass successfully through the adulthood stages of development.


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