The parallels between Harry Potter and Tom Marvolo Riddle—and the ways in which their differences and similarities influence their choices—is one of the most significant dynamics in the entire Potter series. A key aspect of this duality is introduced in The Half-Blood Prince in the form of Voldemort’s parents. Merope Gaunt: poor, unloved, and magically inept despite her pure-blood status, is the antithesis of the gifted, affluent, and adored Muggle-born Lily Evans. Inversely, Tom Riddle Sr. and James Potter had several things in common: both treasured only children of privileged backgrounds, their upbringing led them to be arrogant and entitled (though James apparently changed his ways later in life). They also happened to be killed by the same person, so there’s that, too…
The contrast between the two couples and their narrative roles is underscored by what we’re told about their respective deaths: whereas Lily and James died within moments of each other while trying to save their son, Merope willingly abandoned hers, giving up on life after being forsaken by Tom Riddle Sr., who was killed sixteen years after the fact by the child he deserted. Given this interpretation of events, it’s clear that the Potters’ bravery inspired their son to strive to do good, while Merope and Tom’s cowardice and neglect drove theirs to crave power. This narrative condemns the latter two for not only producing the most evil wizard of all time, but inspiring him to become so.
But is this the best interpretation of the story of Voldemort’s parents? I believe the prevalent characterisations of both Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle Sr. are not only unfair but unfounded. I wish to argue that despite contrary evidence (including authorial Word of God), Merope didn’t willingly desert her son and was stronger than many give her credit for, and that Tom Sr., though far from flawless, was as much a victim as the woman who victimised him.
It’s important to recognize that all “information” about Merope not confirmed by the single visited memory in which she is present and the accounts of Mrs Cole and Morfin Gaunt is merely theorised by Dumbledore, whose self-confessed guesswork is widely taken as fact. (Note: emphasis mine in all of the quotations below.)
Dumbledore: …Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life.
Harry: But she had a choice, didn’t she, not like my mother—
D: Your mother had a choice, too. Yes, Merope Riddle chose death in spite of a son who needed her, but do not judge her too harshly, Harry. She was greatly weakened by long suffering and she never had your mother’s courage…
This exchange between the story’s hero and the most knowledgeable—and perhaps most intelligent—character in the series is shockingly insensitive, especially since it occurs right after Dumbledore theorises thusly:
But it is my belief—I am guessing again, but I am sure I am right—that when her husband abandoned her, Merope stopped using magic…it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attendant despair sapped her of her powers; that can happen.
At the point of this conversation, Harry and Dumbledore have already witnessed Merope struggling to perform a simple summoning charm while being berated by her father, so their assumption that she would have been able to accomplish whatever incantation could have saved her while drained from labour, cold from the winter, malnourished from her destitute life, heartbroken by Tom’s departure, and possibly guilt-ridden by her mistreatment of him—on top of all the abuse she had endured herself—is baffling. Besides, who can say she had the knowledge, let alone the power? Healing spells are a specialised area of magic; that’s why ill or injured Hogwarts staff and students are (usually) brought to Madam Pomfrey or sent to St Mungo’s instead of healed by whoever’s first on the scene. The girl could barely use magic to pick up a pan while being yelled at; how could she have been expected to stop herself from dying while dying?
As for “refusing to raise her wand to save her life”, who’s to say she still had one? If her powers escaped her along with Tom Sr., why would she keep it? She sold Slytherin’s locket, why not her wand too? Being poor, she probably inherited her wand (as Ron inherited Charlie’s) and therefore felt no true connection to it.
Even if she did have the wand while at the orphanage, is it not understandable that the relative of two men imprisoned for violating the Statute of Secrecy wouldn’t want to risk drawing the attention of the Ministry? They would have probably sent her to Azkaban if they discovered the disturbing circumstances that led to her son’s conception (if they weren’t caught and cast out by the Muggles sheltering them first). What would have become of Tom Jr. then?
Regarding the love potion theory: where and how could Merope have learnt to brew such a complicated concoction, as well as get the ingredients and equipment required? Did the Gaunts have stashes of pearl dust and the like lying about their shack, or did Merope buy everything she needed to brew several months’ worth of the stuff with all that money she never had? I think her utilising the Imperius Curse to force Tom Sr. to be with her is the most logical theory, if not the most romantic (though what romance can possibly be found in a fantastical case of enslavement, rape, and possible reproductive coercion?). Between love potions and the Unforgivable Curses, it’s easy to guess which the Gaunts were more familiar with.
The above critique of Dumbledore’s theories demonstrates his unrealistic view of Merope’s situation. The most powerful wizard of modern times, whose knowledge of the Muggle world seems to extend little beyond sweets and suits, clearly had a scant personal understanding of surviving without magic in extreme poverty, as well as being unfamiliar with a manner of death apparently unheard of in the wizarding world: maternal mortality.
This chart shows the annual maternal death rate in England and Wales was about 40/1000 in 1926, the year Tom Jr. was born. For perspective, the UK rate in 2016 was about 7 people per 100,000 live births. Maternal mortality may have never been an issue in the wizarding world, but it has only been reduced by Muggles in the last century.
Neither Tom Jr.’s birth nor Merope’s death is witnessed by Dumbledore or Harry, yet the two men feel comfortable in assuming she died simply because she wanted to, and subsequently judge her for it. Is it such an improbability that Merope didn’t die from “despair” or any other vague emo-malady used to explain her passing, but from:
- Malnourishment, as well as the Gaunt custom of inbreeding, making her physically unfit for childbirth,
- Spending the majority of her pregnancy alone and in even worse poverty than she had suffered in Little Hangleton,
- Wandering the streets of London while in labour in the middle of a “bitter cold” winter, and
- Giving birth for the first time at age nineteen, with only a few strangers with little to no medical experience to aid her?
After all this, Dumbledore and Harry expected her to accomplish the magical equivalent of performing surgery on oneself after giving birth? Given everything she had endured, it would have been more surprising if Merope had survived.
To even imply, much less declare, that someone who died within an hour after giving birth chose to abandon their child out of cowardice is appalling. Merope, despite everything, did have courage—more courage than Lily Potter ever had. If Lily had gone through what Merope had, would she have turned out as perfectly angelic as she was after having lived a life full of love, opportunity, and financial stability?
Comparing Lily’s life and Merope’s existence is like comparing that of a princess and a peasant. Pretty, popular, smart, and kind, Lily was near universally loved in life and practically deified in death. Even the few who dared to dislike or mistreat her (Voldemort, Death Eaters, and blood purists aside) only did so because of their negative reactions to her perfection: Petunia cut contact with her out of jealousy, and Snape called her a slur partly out of frustration for his unrequited feelings for her—feelings that became his single motivation in life even after she married one of his tormentors. Even in death Lily surpasses Merope; the former was honoured with a memorial statue dedicated to her and her family while the latter probably was buried in an unmarked, unmourned grave.
Lily’s lionised self-sacrifice is integral to the Harry Potter story and she is all but given goddess status for it, but is it not unfair to praise Lily for simply standing between her child and someone resolved to kill him (as any half-decent mother would do) but decry Merope for succumbing to what was most likely maternal death and ignoring all evidence of her considerable inner strength?
Merope could have just waited for her father to return home, falling back into the only life she had ever known, but the chance to finally do as she pleased and get what (and who) she wanted was laid before her, and she picked it up for no one’s sake but her own—albeit to the detriment of everyone she had known, Tom Sr. in particular. When her admittedly terrible plan failed, she did not throw herself into the Thames or allow herself to freeze or starve to death. She lived alone, poor and pregnant, yet not only managed to keep herself alive, but her unborn child, too. If she was as despairing and utterly despondent as is widely assumed, how could she have achieved such a feat?
Along with outstanding (if tragic) perseverance, Merope did exhibit compassion at the end of her life. She freed Tom Sr. from her control, possibly out of guilt as well as hope that even if he couldn’t forgive her, he would at least care for their child. She gave all she had to provide for Tom Jr. before he was even born. She spent her last day finding a place where he would be fed and sheltered. She named him after two men she had loved, and her last words were of hope—hope that he would take after his rich, handsome, privileged father, whom she had loved, lost, and, through her own selfish actions, doomed.
Within a few months of their runaway marriage, Tom Riddle reappeared at the manor house in Little Hangleton without his wife…Tom Riddle left her while she was still pregnant…and never troubled to discover what became of his son.
Tom Riddle Sr., like Merope, was slandered by Dumbledore, a man who never knew him in life except through another’s memory, yet felt free to judge him in death based solely upon that single reminiscence, the opinions of others, and his own fanciful speculations.
Tom’s most commonly alleged character traits and the evidence available for them only make sense when judging his actions with the most puritanical morality: he’s snobby because he showed disdain toward the Gaunts for nailing snakes to their door and attacking people (including himself). He’s smug because he once mentioned to his companion how much land his family owned. He’s heartless because he laughed at the sight of a man wearing a frock coat, spats, and a striped one-piece swimsuit running into his horse.
As with the slanted view of Merope’s bravery in comparison with Lily’s, young Tom Sr.’s callousness is overblown by the narrative, while James Potter’s behaviour—including his hexing of random people for fun and attempt to emotionally blackmail his (somehow) future wife into dating him while bullying her friend—is written off as youthful cheekiness, even though his son was perfectly capable of being sassy at that age without physically assaulting people just because he could.
As for Tom Sr.’s other “crimes” such as wilfully abandoning the mother of his child and never seeking them out, again, just as with Merope’s actions and motivations, Dumbledore’s assumptions are taken as assertions of fact.
Did Tom and Merope actually get married? Given the account of Bill and Fleur’s wedding and the general Eurocentrism at play throughout the Harry Potter books, it’s safe to assume their marriage would’ve operated like a typical Western Christian wedding. So…who officiated? Who bore witness? Where was it held? Where’s the certificate? Does Dumbledore have a theory for those questions? Maybe he should’ve spent more time recovering that information, rather than trying to free the violent, unstable man who helped set in motion the events that led to Voldemort being born.
If Tom and Merope weren’t married, that would have given Tom yet another reason to escape—not “abandon”—Merope. Not only did she rob him of his will, forcing him to leave his cushy life and sleep with her (which, let’s be very clear, is rape), she may have ended his magical enslavement only to try and force him to support her and their illegitimate child (keep in mind that in 1920s England, illegitimacy was heavily stigmatised and not something one would want to be associated with.)
This is assuming he even knew she was pregnant—there is no evidence that confirms Tom was aware he was going to be a father. Merope probably didn’t know herself until she started showing.
There are those in the Potter fandom who theorize that, since we don’t know what truly transpired, it could be that it was Tom who manipulated Merope, taking pleasure in leading the poor girl on. Personally, I don’t see any logic in this theory. Tom, a handsome squire’s son, decided to leave his pampered life, cause scandal in the village (the inhabitants of which he seemed quite well acquainted with) and dishonour his family and pretty darling Cecilia by mock-eloping with the tramp’s daughter (described as “no beauty”) and taking her over 200 miles away to London where they lived together for months (having sex at least once during that time), only to abandon her and return home, all for…the lols?
Merope’s actions ruined Tom’s life. He must have returned home—astounded, disgusted and traumatised after suffering months of being trapped in himself and forced to do the bidding of someone he barely knew—only to be greeted by his family’s shame, his sweetheart’s contempt, and the locals’ derision. It’s likely he lived the rest of his life questioning his sanity, wondering what really happened, wondering what could have been if that witch hadn’t ensnared him, cursing her and blaming himself as he grew older, less handsome, and more bitter by the day.
And then his son showed up. A son he might not have even known about. A son the spitting image of himself in his prime. A son he had possibly always dreamed of having. A son who killed him, because just as Tom Sr. was an object of desire for Merope, he was an object of loathing for Tom Marvolo Riddle. Just like his mother, Voldemort never saw his father as a person, but as a target for obsessive passion and a means to an end. Tom Jr. killed his father not only out of hatred, but in order to use the man’s death to achieve his selfish, perverse goals. Not content with simply killing him, Voldemort later desecrated his father’s remains for his own sinister purposes, just as Merope had violated Tom Sr.’s living body.
Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle Sr. lived tragic lives that came to tragic ends. In addition to this, the complexities of their tragedies have been stripped down and distorted in order for them to fit the narrow-minded narrative conjured by Dumbledore and passed onto Harry and the reader. We are all but instructed to see Merope as a weak, pitiable figure devoid of accountability for her crimes, and Tom Sr. as someone only fit for detached contempt, the crimes against him never addressed as such. This is Harry’s story, and Voldemort’s parents are clearly meant to serve as a tarnished contrast to the golden couple James and Lily, the truth of their tribulations buried under biased guesswork that belies itself.
In the end, it’s no wonder that Voldemort rejected the power of love that, twisted as it was, led to his mother’s downfall (and to Lily Potter’s, thanks to him) and lashed out against the autonomy of Muggles that left him outcast and stranded among them (a burden he would later force upon Harry). More than anything, though, perhaps the greatest mystery is why he chose to obsessively pursue immortality when both his parents led such painful, miserable lives.
Mairead McNulty is an aspiring writer born and raised in London, currently aspiring to write her way out of a bad case of Weltschmerz. Find her on Twitter here.