By the time Harry arrives at Dumbledore’s office the next night, the school is abuzz with rumors about Katie Bell. Harry passes the gargoyle to find the professor sitting before his Pensieve and looking “unusually tired.” He says that while Katie is now recovering, she’s had a lucky escape – had she touched the necklace with an ungloved hand, she would have died instantly. It was only Professor Snape who was able to stop the curse from spreading.
As he will throughout the novel, Dumbledore emphasizes Snape’s role in stymieing Death Eater plots in order to affirm his trust in the professor. However, Harry refuses to accept Snape’s actions as proof of his loyalty – showing that his personal biases are overriding the evidence before him.
Harry repeats his suspicions about Draco to Dumbledore, but the professor merely says that he will perform a thorough investigation into the incident. He turns the subject to Merope Gaunt, saying that after her husband’s abandonment she was left alone in London with her infant son. He knows this because Caractacus Burke, one of the founders of the infamous antiques store, told him that Merope sold him her locket from Slytherin, naively accepting a tiny price.
The story of Merope’s life – and Voldemort’s origins – emphasizes the extent to which lack of family support can disadvantage an individual. Through moments like these, Harry learns to see his behavior as stemming not just from his good character but also from the safety and support offered him by his friends, the Weasleys, and even his dead parents.
Harry is indignant that Merope didn’t get more for the necklace, and wonders why she didn’t use magic to help herself. Dumbledore suggests that her despair at Tom’s abandonment sapped her powers, to the point where she couldn’t stay alive even to save her son. Seeing Harry’s distress, he asks if he’s actually feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort. Harry points out that Merope had a choice to die, unlike his mother, but Dumbledore warns him against judging her “harshly” – Merope was never as courageous as Lily.
Even though Voldemort is his sworn enemy, Harry is still able to identify with the despair his mother faced and the lonely childhood he suffered as a result. This indicates that, although his conception of good and evil is very rigid now, he will eventually take a more compassionate approach to morally ambiguous people.
Now, Dumbledore draws Harry into one of his own memories, in which he visits a grimy London orphanage to invite one of its charges, Tom Riddle, to attend Hogwarts. Although she’s initially distrustful, the overlooked matron Mrs. Cole opens up about Tom’s history. Merope gave birth in the orphanage and died an hour later; Tom has been strange for his whole life, frightening the other children and seeming to be responsible for many “nasty incidents,” although it’s impossible to catch him misbehaving. She won’t be sorry to see him go.
On one hand, this passage suggests that Voldemort’s nefarious character has been ingrained since birth – he’s always had the ability and the desire to harm others. At the same time, by emphasizing the fact that he grows up in a squalid atmosphere without any adults who genuinely love him, it demonstrates the effect that upbringing and lack of family can have on character development.
Mrs. Cole takes Dumbledore to Tom’s room, where he sits in front of the pale, arrogant boy and explains gently that he’s come to take him to a special school. Tom is immediately convinced that he’s being sent to an asylum, and protests that he never did anything to anyone. However, when Dumbledore says that Hogwarts is a school for magic, he seems to gain Tom’s respect; the boy boasts about being able to move things with his mind and “make bad things happen to people who annoy me.”
Unlike Harry, who at first has trouble believing that he’s a wizard, Tom is already convinced that he’s special and different from his classmates, and unsurprised to have Dumbledore confirm this. Moments like this show that, while Harry and Voldemort share some traits and experience similar upbringings, their instincts cause them to respond and develop in fundamentally different ways.
Tom demands that Dumbledore “prove” he’s a wizard, so the professor points his wand at the wardrobe, inside which something starts rattling. Reluctantly, Tom takes down a small box which contains various toys stolen from other children. Dumbledore warns that such behavior is not allowed at Hogwarts, and demands that Tom return the possessions. The boy agrees, but seems neither embarrassed nor contrite.
The young Tom Riddle sees his magical gifts as a license to harm others and exercise power over them. Instead, Dumbledore tries to communicate that possessing power requires thoughtfulness and responsibility – just as, through these lessons, he does to Harry.
Dumbledore explains that since Tom has no money, Hogwarts will provide his robes and supplies. Tom quickly rejects the professor’s offer to help him shop, instead asking for directions to Diagon Alley. When Dumbledore mentions that the Leaky Cauldron’s barkeeper shares his name, the boy wrinkles his nose – he doesn’t like the fact that there are so many Toms. Quietly, Tom says to himself that his father must have been a wizard; if his mother had magic, she wouldn’t have died.
Harry eagerly accepted Hagrid’s help after learning about his origins, earning himself a lifelong friend and protector. On the contrary, from his first days as a wizard Tom Riddle’s behavior leads him to become fundamentally isolated and friendless.
As Tom bids the professor farewell, Harry and Dumbledore step out of the memory, discussing Tom’s extreme readiness to believe in his own uniqueness. At the time Dumbledore had no idea what he would grow up to become, but he was disturbed by “his obvious instincts for cruelty, secrecy, and domination.”
Even though Dumbledore always encourages Harry to believe in the possibility of personal redemption – for example, in characters like Snape and Slughorn – his depiction of Voldemort as inherently and irredeemably evil suggests that he doesn’t think this possibility exists for everyone.
Dumbledore also points out Tom’s disdain for his own name, which shows his core desire to be “different, separate, notorious.” Like his adult incarnation, the young Riddle prefers working alone to accepting help from anyone. These days, even the most prominent Death Eaters aren’t really Voldemort’s friends or confidantes.
Riddle’s desire to think of himself as fundamentally distinct from others is another way in which he’s different from Harry, who consistently resists being set apart or treated preferentially.
Lastly, Dumbledore remarks that even as a child Voldemort was addicted to “trophies” from his exploits. He says this characteristic will prove important later. Before leaving, Harry asks why Dumbledore is no longer wearing Marvolo’s ring, but the professor just waves him away.
Dumbledore’s careful analysis of this scene demonstrates his belief that youthful actions heavily inform adult character.