To Hermione’s increasing frustration, Harry continues to follow the Half-Blood Prince’s instructions and becomes even more beloved by Professor Slughorn. He’s becoming more curious about the book’s previous owner, who seems to be a remarkably gifted potioneer and has also written notes about spells he seems to have created himself.
Harry’s willingness to accept hints and clues from an anonymous author reflects his desire to receive external guidance in a world that appears increasingly dangerous and volatile.
On Saturday night, Harry arrives promptly at Dumbledore’s office and gives the password to his gargoyle sentry; he finds the professor seated and in his cluttered office. The professor announces that it’s time for Harry to learn more about Voldemort’s motivations and intentions. Dumbledore has told Harry almost everything he knows, and from this point they will venture “together through the murky marshes of memory.” A little skeptically, Harry asks if this knowledge will help him survive, and Dumbledore responds cheerfully that he hopes it will.
While Harry and Ron tend to focus on action above all else and view their feelings as irrelevant, Dumbledore is intent on plumbing Voldemort’s psyche. In this sense he’s much like Hermione, who is deeply attuned to the feelings of others and uses them to gain valuable insight. In this sense, Dumbledore is teaching Harry not just how to defeat Voldemort but how to adjust his values.
Dumbledore turns to his Penseive – a device that allows people to view others’ memories. Pulling a small bottle from his pocket, the professor explains that they are going to see the recollections of Bob Ogden, a former Ministry employee. They both plunge into the Pensieve, emerging in a country road behind Ogden, who is very poorly disguised as a Muggle. With Dumbledore and Harry in pursuit, Ogden trots off down the lane towards the town of Little Hangleton.
Diving into the memories of others forces Harry to literally experience events from another perspective. As his behavior towards characters like Draco shows, this is not a skill that comes naturally to him. His sessions with Dumbledore will give him new insight into Voldemort’s history while also helping him to develop his character.
Harry can see the entire village in the valley below, with an impressive manor house standing on the other side. However, Ogden turns into a tiny and crooked path which eventually opens up into a dark copse sheltering a dilapidated cottage. As Ogden proceeds cautiously, a filthy man in rags drops from a tree, brandishing a knife and telling him to go away. Seeming nonplussed, Ogden protests that he can’t understand what the man is saying; Harry realizes that the man has been speaking in Parseltongue.
Even though Harry is as disgusted and confused as Ogden, he’s also intimately connected to the filthy man by virtue of the sinister language they can both speak. Moments like this remind Harry that, even though he’s locked in battle against Voldemort and his allies, they share many essential qualities.
Suddenly, the filthy man jinxes Ogden, throwing him to the ground. Another man, this one much older, hurries out of the cottage and laughs nastily, telling Ogden that “this is private property” and his son is entitled to “defend himself.” The older man, whom Ogden addresses as Mr. Gaunt, sends his son inside. When Ogden protests, saying that it’s Morfin he’s come to see, the father changes the subject and asks aggressively if he’s a pure-blood.
Mr. Gaunt’s preoccupation with Ogden’s ancestry reveals that he shares Voldemort’s racial biases. However, given that this episode predates the rise of Voldemort, his words are a reminder that the Dark Lord’s evil principles are nothing novel, but rather stem from the prejudices that are common and sometimes accepted in the mainstream Wizarding world.
Ogden insists on entering the house, saying he’s here to investigate a “serious breach of Wizarding law.” Reluctantly, Mr. Gaunt allows Ogden to enter the grim and dirty cottage, where Morfin sits on a couch playing with a live snake. At the stove, a “defeated-looking” teenage girl stirs a pot; Mr. Gaunt briefly introduces her as Merope.
In the present day, Harry usually distrusts the Ministry of Magic; however, Ogden represents a stalwart governmental effort to address social ills. This part of the novel gives some nuance to Rowling’s criticism of government ineptitude.
In a stern voice, Ogden accuses Morfin of performing magic in front of a Muggle last night. Merope suddenly drops a pot and Mr. Gaunt excoriates her, calling her a “useless sack of muck,” laughing further when she tries and fails to repair the pot with magic. Politely, Ogden raises his own wand to assist her.
The starkest indicator of Mr. Gaunt’s deplorable character comes not through his rudeness to Ogden but his abuse of his own daughter.
Turning to the Ministry wizard, Mr. Gaunt dismisses the charges, saying that Morfin “taught a filthy Muggle a lesson.” Undeterred, Ogden produces a scroll summoning Morfin to the Ministry for a hearing. Mr. Gaunt completely loses his temper, calling Ogden a Mudblood and asking how he dares to give orders to a family as ancient as theirs. He brandishes an ugly black ring, which represents his family lineage, and drags Merope over to show off her necklace, which once belonged to Salazar Slytherin. As Slytherin’s last descendants, they’re worth more than anyone in Ogden’s family.
Mr. Gaunt’s outburst displays that he sees family not as a group of people who love and support each other but as a mark of social standing, which entitles certain people to privilege and impunity from crime. The fact that Mr. Gaunt considers himself a member of a venerable family even while his home is dismal and his child is vicious testifies to the fundamental inaccuracy of his views.
As Ogden, stone-faced, reads out the date of Morfin’s hearing, a loud carriage filled with laughing people passes by. Merope looks out the window in keen interest. Everyone inside can hear a young woman complaining about the hovel and asking her companion why he doesn’t remove it. The young man, Tom Riddle Sr., responds that this is the only land in the village that doesn’t belong to his family. Morfin starts to get up, but Mr. Gaunt warns him in Parseltongue to stay still.
Tom views the Gaunts as social undesirables because of their squalid home and eccentric ways. Meanwhile, Morfin and Mr. Gaunt disdain him for being a Muggle. Neither party is interested in the humanity of the other or considers their worth from any perspective except the social mores of their respective cultures.
Morfin taunts his sister in Parseltongue, saying that the Muggle clearly has a girlfriend, and would never like her. Mr. Gaunt asks Morfin what he’s talking about, and the son says viciously that Merope is always “hanging out the window” waiting for Tom Riddle Sr. to pass by. Furious that his daughter is “hankering after a filthy, dirt-veined Muggle,” Mr. Gaunt calls Merope a blood-traitor. Morfin puts in that this is the Muggle he jinxed with hives. Meanwhile, Ogden watches the incomprehensible argument with increasing trepidation.
In a sense, Morfin’s misuse of magic and the entire dispute stem from his desire to control Merope’s love life: after discerning that she’s interested in someone considered inappropriate, he’s punished both her and the object of her desire. These family actions are defined not by love but by a sense of male entitlement to control female sexuality.
Now completely unhinged, Mr. Gaunt throttles Merope, eliciting a yell from Harry. Ogden jinxes Gaunt, causing him to fall back; but when Morfin leaps up, Ogden has to run away from the cottage. On his way down the lane, he crashes into the carriage and its handsome driver Tom Riddle Sr., who laughs heartily at Ogden’s panic. Dumbledore tugs on Harry’s arm, pulling him out of the memory.
Tom Riddle’s behavior testifies to his solipsism and arrogance. In a sense, he’s the Muggle counterpart to the social obsessions displayed by Mr. Gaunt.
Immediately, Harry asks if Merope survived. Dumbledore responds that Ogden soon returns with reinforcements; both Morfin and his father, Marvolo, do stints in Azkaban for their history of Muggle attacks. Recognizing the name, Harry realizes that the old man is actually Voldemort’s grandfather, and Merope his mother. Dumbledore explains that, although they were once a prestigious Wizarding family, the Gaunts gained a reputation for violence and insanity – especially due to their habit of marrying their cousins. The family money was gone long before Marvolo was born, but their arrogance and entitlement remained.
Harry’s immediate concern for Merope’s safety displays a sense of compassion and an ability to consider people’s actions in their specific contexts: even though Merope is the mother of a villain, she’s also a victim within her own family and thus deserving of sympathy. Harry is much more capable of suspending his judgment while watching the memories than when he’s confronted by morally compromised characters in real life.
Moreover, Dumbledore reveals that the Muggle attacked by Morfin is Tom Riddle Sr., Merope’s secret love and Voldemort’s father. Harry can’t believe that two such mismatched people got married, but Dumbledore hypothesizes that, without her father and brother to terrorize her, Merope tapped into her latent ingenuity and somehow slipped Tom a love potion. The fact is, within a few months of this encounter Tom and Merope had run off together, causing a village scandal.
Even though Harry sees the Gaunts and the Riddles as essentially different, they’re actually not that different – both families share a preoccupation with social standing that ultimately dooms their offspring.
When Marvolo returns from Azkaban, he expects his daughter to be waiting with dinner; perhaps because of the shock of her desertion, he dies soon after his release. While it’s hard to tell exactly what happened between To Riddle Sr. and Merope, Dumbledore explains that some months after his elopement, Tom returned to the village claiming to have been “hoodwinked” by a fraud. It’s likely that, believing he had come to truly lover her and the baby she was carrying, Merope chose to lift the enchantment on her husband. However, this was clearly a misstep, as he abandoned her and never took an interest in his son.
It’s increasingly clear that Voldemort inherits his lack of compassion from his father. In a way, by using the love potion, Merope tries to do what Harry has done organically over the past few years: extricate herself from a family with pernicious values and build relationships that are based on emotional support and love. It’s her tragic failure to achieve this that leads to Voldemort’s cold upbringing and his development into a sociopath.
With that, Dumbledore concludes the lesson and Harry stands up. Before leaving, he asks Dumbledore again if it’s important to know about Voldemort’s past, and the professor responds that it is imperative. Harry asks for and receives permission to tell Ron and Hermione what Dumbledore is teaching him.
Even though Harry is being definitively singled out for special treatment by Dumbledore, he still wants to share this privilege with his friends. This shows that he considers the fight against Voldemort a fundamentally collaborative process.
As he turns to go, Harry notices that Dumbledore’s new black ring looks very similar to Marvolo Gaunt’s. When he points it out, Dumbledore admits that it’s the very same one and that he “acquired it very recently.” Astutely, Harry asks if he got the ring at the same time that he injured his hand. With a smile, Dumbledore tells him that it’s a story for another time.
Dumbledore is being more frank than ever in these new lessons, but he still keeps some things secret from Harry. Even as he trains the teenager to take a more active role in fighting Voldemort, he also acts as a protector and caregiver.