So J K Rowling is having second thoughts about pairing off Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter. She says that it would never work and she ought to have allowed Hermione to marry Harry, but didn’t as she followed some “wish fulfilment” of her own – although she fears it might “break the hearts” of her readers to learn this.
Really? What exactly is going to break our hearts? If we’re talking about plot credibility, what happened to the suggestion that Harry would die in a final self-sacrificing battle with Voldemort – wasn’t that the point of all that “one cannot live if the other dies” stuff? Had Rowling stuck to that plot-line Hermione and Ron could have married each other as an act of mutual consolation and a way to perpetuate Harry through their abiding partnership. I bet the first child would have been christened Harry, or maybe Harriet, given Rowling’s love of a wry joke.
Why tell us the Hermione/Ron match is “wish fulfilment” at all? This is surely no surprise to her readership, the majority of whom are far more likely to relate to being the hapless sibling of cool older brothers and bright younger sisters, than the Chosen One, regardless of whether we are male or female. It’s not just Rowling’s wish that is fulfilled then, despite the suggestion that the will of the narrative is to pair Hermione and Harry.
But enough of discussing characters as if they were real people. What is possibly more interesting here is what this interview implies about the continuing power of the readership over the author; or the fans over the writer.
Rowling’s comment reveals a split between readerly heart – all those who want the Rons of this world to get their girls – and the authorial head that follows the narrative line which makes Hermione and Harry the obvious pair. The heartbreak is thus the result of telling her readership, what they, like her, already knew: with Harry still alive, Ron and Hermione’s marriage defies the plot.
It’s a quandary – does an author follow their head and the plotline, or acknowledge the heartfelt power of their readers? There are literary precedents here which might have helped Rowling out as we enter a longstanding literary tradition of endings being changed or plots being altered for fear of what the readers would say.
Think of Charlotte Brontë blurring the end of Villette so that it is no longer explicit that M. Paul dies at sea, leaving a Lucy Snowe who is not entirely unhappy with that outcome. Or consider Great Expectations. In the original ending (now thankfully persevered in Angus Calder’s Penguin edition and Rosenberg’s Norton Critical edition), Pip ends neither married nor likely to be, having discovered that the much despised Joe has had the wit to marry Biddy when Pip himself did not.
The final encounter with Estella is likewise sobering as it presents an Estella now safely married to a country doctor, while Pip himself is accompanied by a young Pip who is not his son, but Joe’s. Estella assumes the boy for Pip’s and thus the novel ends with a mistaken assumption, just as it has been dominated by one throughout.
It’s a great ending, but not the one that the public desired, so Dickens replaced it with the promise of Pip and Estella uniting, although, like Brontë, was compelled to retain the hint of his original intention in the shadow that Pip as narrator does not see: “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”
So it seems Rowling differs not in bowing to the inner wish fulfilment, or in fearing to break the hearts of her readers, but in not retaining a suggestion of the alternative for those who prefer a sense of realism in their romantic endings. Ron gets his girl, but we all know it’s just not going to be as good as he hoped.
Perhaps his literary predecessor is not Pip but Thackeray’s faithful Dobbin, who finally gets his girl in Vanity Fair, but who also, thankfully, sees through the shallow doll that is Amelia.
George Bernard Shaw knew that Dickens’s original ending for Great Expectations was the better one, but he also thought that the eventual one was “though psychologically wrong… artistically much more congruous than the original”. Demonstrably, Shaw was also an incorrigible sentimentalist and it is this sentimentality on the part of reader and author alike that shines through Rowlings’s interview. Hermione wouldn’t need counselling to cope with being married to Ron, she’d just need to be a real person in an actual marriage. Fortunately for her, she’s a fictional construct at the end of a book. She doesn’t need counselling, she’s got closure.
So never mind breaking our hearts, Rowling, just cut the cackle and let the books be. Sometimes the readers might be right and you could bear to leave them in possession of the ending, without troubling them with notions of authorial wish-fulfilment. We’ll work it out, and, like you, we may even change our minds.