Rene Girard’s mimetic theory, or theory of triangular desire, is fundamental to this particular interpretation of Lily Potter. The theory made waves when it was introduced in the 1960s and has had influence in several academic fields including (but not confined to) literary criticism, biblical studies, and anthropology. The theory is multi-faceted and examines many aspects of Western culture, but two of its tenets are of primary interest to this project: the idea of imitated (mimetic) desire, and the scapegoat mechanism.
The basis of Girard’s theory is an idea that is simple yet profound: our desires are not our own but rather imitated. We see another person and take them as a model, consciously or unconsciously imitating their desires. Whenever we covet a material object, the attention or affection of another person, or some intangible objective (such as fame or status), it is the result of this mediation. And so desire, instead of being a bilateral relationship between subject and desired object, is in fact triangular, with the three points being the desiring subject, desired object, and mediator.
This existence of the mediator, the model who dictates the aspirations of the subject, does not necessarily mean that the desires felt by the subject are any less real or powerful. Likewise, it does not mean that these desires cannot be good; Girard points toward the imitation of Christ as an example of positive mimesis, or positive imitation. However, the existence of the mediator does mean that some relationships, those in which the subject and the mediator are peers or occupy the same social sphere, can quickly devolve into rivalry.
Rivalry occurs when the model whose desire the subject imitates is an inhabitant of the same social sphere (for example, in Philosopher’s Stone Harry does not and cannot enter into a rivalry with Dumbledore, but does with Draco Malfoy). Therefore, as Girard describes in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, “the mediator can no longer act his role of model without also acting or appearing to act the role of obstacle” (Girard 7). As subject and model pursue the shared object of desire they will continue to imitate one another, each acting as model for the other; for both parties, the desire “is checked by the mediator himself since he desires, or perhaps possesses, the object” (10). This leads to a cycle of reciprocal imitation as model and imitator descend into a circle of imitation that is nearly impossible to break oneself out of and nearly always comes to a violent conclusion.
The Harry Potter series illuminates the existence and consequences of mimetic rivalry. The plot of the series is driven by Harry’s rivalry with Voldemort, as both wizards chase first the philosopher’s stone and later horcruxes and hallows, each acting as obstacle to the other. Harry’s maturation throughout the series, too, is shown through his participation in and rejection of rivalry, from his schoolyard conflict with Draco Malfoy to his eventual forgiveness of Voldemort. Finally, the series exposes the violence demanded by mimetic rivalries, and shows, through characters such as Lily, how it can be resisted and even transcended.
The scapegoat mechanism
The scapegoat mechanism, according to Girard, is the violent result of mimetic rivalry. When rivalry gets out of hand to the point that it threatens the society, one victim is arbitrarily singled out as the cause of the conflict; that victim assumes all guilt in the eyes of the society and is either physically or symbolically ‘lynched.’ The ‘lynching’ of the victim does not necessarily mean a physical murder; it can mean the expulsion of the victim from the society or simply the stripping away of their status within the society. In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s oppressive regime is founded on the scapegoating of muggle-borns, blaming that sect of wizarding society for all the problems facing British wizards and using that as a reason to imprison and expel them. According to Girard, this scapegoat mechanism is what allows a community to purge the violence between its members and restore unity, peace, and a sense of its own innocence.
Ann Astell, in her article Maternal Compassion in the Thought of Rene Girard, Emil Fackenheim, and Emmanuel Levinas, explores the idea of compassion, specifically maternal compassion.
Girard does not write often about mother figures or maternal impulses. Astell points to his analysis of the Judgment of Solomon as the one time such figures enter into his theory. The Judgment of Solomon is a story which appears in the Hebrew Bible in 1 Kings 3:16-28.
“Now two women who were harlots came to the king, and stood before him. 17 And one woman said, “O my lord, this woman and I dwell in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18 Then it happened, the third day after I had given birth, that this woman also gave birth. And we were together; [a]no one was with us in the house, except the two of us in the house. 19 And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 So she arose in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your maidservant slept, and laid him in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. 21 And when I rose in the morning to nurse my son, there he was, dead. But when I had examined him in the morning, indeed, he was not my son whom I had borne.”
22 Then the other woman said, “No! But the living one is my son, and the dead one is your son.”
And the first woman said, “No! But the dead one is your son, and the living one is my son.”
Thus they spoke before the king.
23 And the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son, who lives, and your son is the dead one’; and the other says, ‘No! But your son is the dead one, and my son is the living one.’ ” 24 Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to one, and half to the other.”
26 Then the woman whose son was living spoke to the king, for she yearned with compassion for her son; and she said, “O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him!”
But the other said, “Let him be neither mine nor yours, but divide him.”
27 So the king answered and said, “Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him; she is his mother.”
28 And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice.”
In this story, Girard claims that the good harlot, the true mother of the child, is a perfect Christlike figure in that she is willing to give up her own life in the interest of saving that of her child. Astell looks back at this analysis and identifies in the maternal figure of the good harlot an assumption of absolute innocence. The good harlot sees the child as innocent simply because he exists, because of his personhood, and not because of what he has or has not done. She claims that in any sacrificial ceremony, “the ‘innocence’ of every victim is reducible to the innocence of the infant” (Astell 15). This innocence is not relative, not a reflection of the deeds or misdeeds of the victim, but absolute. The victim is innocent because they are a person.
More than just asserting the innocence of the victim, though, the compassionate, merciful figure inserts themselves in the sacrificial ceremony as a substitute for the victim. They assume the supposed guilt of the victim and accept the persecution in the interest of sparing the innocent victim of the same. In Harry Potter, the most perfect example of this compassionate figure comes in Lily. Not only does she consistently assume the innocence of others, but she also willingly substitutes herself for a victim being scapegoated. Like the good harlot, the one whom Girard asserts is the perfect Christlike figure, Lily is willing to give up her own life in order to save that of her child.