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I came across this "somewhere" (it's supposed to be an excerpt from a biography) -

Rowling's quality control has become legendary, as her obsession with accuracy. She's thrilled with Stephen Fry's taped version of the books and outraged that an Italian dust jacket showed Harry minus his glasses. "Don't they understand that the glasses are the clue to his vulnerability."

So what is JK Rowling referring to here - How are his glasses a clue to his vulnerability? What Vulnerability?

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    There's another answer on this site where someone give a link to an interview of JK Rowling. Apparently she used to wear glasses when young and wanted a hero to wear glasses, instead of always being the nerdy one. scifi.stackexchange.com/a/9489/108065
    – Jemox
    Feb 20, 2023 at 23:48
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    I'm from the same era as her, and despite being worn by the lead character of popular puppet series, wearing Joe 90-style NHS specs made you a target for being a speccy four-eyed git. And young Potter's John Lennons weren't any cooler.
    – Ken Y-N
    Feb 21, 2023 at 5:33
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    This question is based on a source that is obviously faulty and should be disregarded. "Rowling's quality control is legendary"? "Her obsession with accuracy"? scifi.se.com begs to differ ...
    – davidbak
    Feb 21, 2023 at 23:23
  • This makes me wonder if a wizard is unable to cast a spell against an opponent unless he/she can clearly see the other wizard.
    – user143126
    Feb 22, 2023 at 15:55
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    Regarding vulnerability, I thought it was showing his relationship with the Dursleys. They afforded him only the cheapest/worst glasses and when they broke he had to use tape. The glasses are a symbol that he is unsupported.
    – Buh Buh
    Feb 22, 2023 at 16:22

5 Answers 5

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As has been noted in other aspects of her opinions, Rowling is a member of an older generation with attitudes to some aspects of modern culture that could at best be called old fashioned.

Wearing glasses being a sign of weakness is possibly the mildest of those old fashioned attitudes. See also Clark Kent vs. Superman (glasses on vs. glasses off) and the old phrase "you wouldn't hit a guy with glasses*".

The origins of this trope probably has roots in two things from Western culture: first, there was a time when wearing glasses was considered to be a sign of enfeeblement, as the only people who would need glasses were old folks, people with truly severe sight disabilities, and people that read too many books. - TV tropes (link above).

*TV tropes, you were warned

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    Do you have any independent evidence that this was Rowling's objection? Say, as opposed to him relying on glasses to see, which he originally couldn't get properly fixed (until magic fixed them)?
    – fectin
    Feb 20, 2023 at 21:14
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    Though this looks like a plausible answer, it's pure assumption (a good one).
    – shanu
    Feb 21, 2023 at 3:48
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    This isn't an answer, because it actually make any claims; any information imparted is implication. If we look at each sentence, this is the information/argument they make: "JKR is old and has bad beliefs. 'Glasses = weakness' is one of them. Clark Kent wears glasses and there's a folk saying about them. TvTropes talks about hitting someone with glasses." Not only that, but it doesn't cite any sources other than intuition (and TvTropes, but for a point that hasn't been shown to be applicable), and beyond that, it takes an unnecessarily-negative tone.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Feb 21, 2023 at 18:21
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    @AosSidhe, you know, sometimes a trope is just a trope, it doesn't have to be anything more. Orphan boy finds he has magic and goes off to wizard school is a pretty major trope to start with, but tropes exist because they work, it doesn't make them bad.
    – Separatrix
    Feb 22, 2023 at 8:30
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    @Sep I'm confused as to what you mean. I have no problem with the trope; my issue with your answer was the lack of a clear argument, providing no evidence other than the fact that a trope exists about hitting people with glasses, and the implications that A) it is wrong to consider needing glasses to be a weakness/flaw, and B) JKR believes this and is morally wrong for it. I dislike many of her beliefs but making assumptions about her other beliefs and judging her for them seems unreasonable. If it's the basis for an answer, it must be backed up by evidence, not intuition or speculation.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Feb 22, 2023 at 15:35
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A quote from a BBC interview she did in 2005 supports Separatrix's answer:

Eun Ji An for Raincoast.com, Canada - I was wondering why Harry had glasses?

JK Rowling: Because I had glasses all through my childhood and I was sick and tired of the person in the books who wore the glasses was always the brainy one and it really irritated me and I wanted to read about a hero wearing glasses.

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    Is there anything that would bear directly on the question about a "clue to his vulnerability?"
    – DavidW
    Feb 21, 2023 at 17:04
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    Excellent find. However, I don't see how this supports Separatrix's answer - it seems to do the opposite, she wanted to subvert the stereotype, not reinforce it
    – Nacht
    Feb 22, 2023 at 1:02
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    @Nacht, I wouldn't say that, I'd suggest it's just a little light self-insertion, something that's always at the author's discretion.
    – Separatrix
    Feb 22, 2023 at 8:28
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+25

Glasses - Before & After:

When we first meet Harry Potter his glasses are taped. They are reflective of how he has not been cared for, even to the point of emotional abuse by his begrudging Aunt and Uncle.

On the train ride into Hogwarts for the first time, he meets Hermione Granger, who performs the first truly generative act of magic Harry ever sees. She uses magic to repair his glasses.

Magic fixes his glasses. Magic, as an opportunity, is an escape from his abusive family.

Tom Riddle was also a student of Hogwarts, but is a tortured soul. The reason it is a clue to Harry's vulnerability is the beaten up taped glasses are representative of the risk that Harry could have gone down a path of dark magic himself, considering the nature of his upbringing.

So in summary his vulnerability is the emotional abuse he has experienced, in his home setting away from Hogwarts.

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Both the link with the perceived fragility/physical limitation as "humanization" of an otherwise (too) powerful character and the trademark come to mind. I will draw a few lines on a piece of paper and ask you what hero/story cycle they mention: first, I draw a capital S . Superman, right? Yup. Then I draw a stylized bat. Batman, right? Yup. I draw a circle with two straight tangent lines. Green Lantern? Yup...so on But again not only "superheroes" need a trademark. I draw a pipe, a loupe and an old style hat... Sherlock Holmes, right? Yup... Now I draw a lightning bolt and a pair of Lennon style glasses. Guess who? That is why the author made such a fuss about the importance of Harry's glasses. Trademark item, emblem or symbol. Tell me it's Harry Potter without saying Harry Potter..

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    "Both the link with the perceived fragility/physical limitation as "humanization" of an otherwise (too) powerful character and the trademark come to mind." Yes, but the question seemed more interested in the former, whereas your answer chooses to focus on the latter. Also, you haven't really provided any evidence to demonstrate that this is what Rowling had in mind; an answer which is supported by evidence carries a lot more weight than an unsubstantiated opinion. Feb 22, 2023 at 11:03
  • This appears to be your own headcanon. Can you offer any evidence to back this up?
    – Valorum
    Feb 22, 2023 at 11:05
  • It is derived from the author quote ..stating "the glasses are important", and also that they are a link to his vulnerability (author's words). Then there's the direct observation that any "protagonist" needs a symbol , something to set them apart from other generic similar characters. About the bolt scar- remember the author's own words- HP. -The boy who lived. (scar is proof). In her own words, the character is initially remarkable because he lived -where other, much more powerful ones, died-and then she emphasizes how it was not because he was especially tough/resistant- not a superhero. Feb 22, 2023 at 11:11
  • The author herself said it in the quote so if /how this translates to modern sensibilities is besides the point. Basically the author says : HP is a vulnerable character and I chose to signal this by having him wear glasses. No mysteries here. All evidence is there. And about the trademark, yes, it is speculation but it's enforced by observation of these types of characters and their associated symbols . Have you seen the banners/promo material saying just Harry Potter and an outline of the glasses and scar? I have- even some omitted the character's name still recognizable though.. Feb 22, 2023 at 11:21
  • Another real-life fact linked to representations of fictional characters on visual artwork. They can be based on the actor's physical appearance at the time of the movie, or it can be based on the description in the book/original text, not always identical. Plus there's the matter of copyright/clearance/fees to use an actual actor's face, and the accuracy problems: is this the real character or is it the actor? So a trademark accessory , costume or otherwise notable feature can and does bypass this. How many different depictions of Batman. Superman, etc have you seen in comics/movies/artwork? Feb 22, 2023 at 14:09
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Glasses as a Symbol

In most stories, glasses symbolize intelligence, foresight into the future, and enlightenment. But glasses also mean that if they are taken away, the person who needs them will be either hobbled or in need of new glasses . . . but none of these apply as a "vulnerability".

Relatively long answer, if unwilling to read, go to the conclusion.

Vulnerability Related to Glasses

Disclaimer: I do not know if JK Rowling meant this as I cannot find it in an interview

From my reading, I came to believe that Harry's glasses represented more than just glasses. In Diagon Alley when Harry's glasses break, he is alone (or as alone as he will be at that moment).

Harry waited for a minute in case he came back, then, quietly as he could, slipped out of the cabinet, past the glass cases, and out of the shop door.

Clutching his broken glasses to his face, Harry stared around.

He had emerged into a dingy alleyway that seemed to be made up entirely of shops devoted to the Dark Arts. The one he’d just left, Borgin and Burkes, looked like the largest, but the opposite was a nasty window display of shrunken heads and, two doors down, a large cage was alive with gigantic black spiders. Two shabby-looking wizards were watching him from the shadow of a doorway, muttering to each other. Feeling jumpy, Harry set off, trying to hold his glasses on straight and hoping against hope he’d be able to find a way out of there.

An old wooden street sign hanging over a shop selling poisonous candles told him he was in Knockturn Alley. This didn’t help, as Harry had never heard of such a place. He supposed he hadn’t spoken clearly enough through his mouthful of ashes back in the Weasleys’ fire. Trying to stay calm, he wondered what to do.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The other times that his glasses break, Harry is usually alone (or feeling alone), such as when Dudley and his gang beat him up.

Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember, and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had gotten it.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

What Vulnerability?

The vulnerability I believe JK Rowling to be saying is Harry's friendships/relations to other characters. Harry's glasses are usually broken or gone when he is alone. The glasses seem to be a symbol of Harry's friendships and how delicate they are. With Voldemort rising, everything Harry cares about is in danger and can be destroyed in a moment - just like his glasses.

Besides being destroyed, Harry will do anything to save his friends, as seen in book 7 where he chooses to sacrifice himself like his mother did. This is exploited by Voldemort (which backfired on him, so this is both a vulnerability and a strength of Harry's).

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