The Harry Potter books are not neutral when it comes to the Hogwarts house system. The reader is clearly meant to see Gryffindor as the best house, Slytherin as the worst, and Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff as unimportant but generally inoffensive. However, the traits that define the houses are not necessarily good or bad on their own. One can fight bravely for the wrong cause, be loyal to the wrong person, or use the wrong methods in search of knowledge, and ambition can take on other forms besides lust for power at all costs.
What I think is most interesting is that the few “bad” characters – whether evil or simply difficult to like – who do not come from Slytherin seem to be the antithesis of what their house stands for. Instead of a Gryffindor who is brash, bold, and truly convinced Voldemort is right, we have Peter Pettigrew, whose most defining trait is his cowardice. (Read more about Pettigrew as a Gryffindor here). Instead of a Hufflepuff who is loyal and hardworking but strongly misguided, we have Zacharias Smith, who is mostly out for himself and pushes past first-years to get away when they’re evacuating the castle. And instead of a “knowledge before ethics” sort of Ravenclaw, we have Quirrell and Lockhart, neither of whom even seems particularly intelligent. It seems that the message is that Slytherin is “bad”, the other three are “good”, and anyone who doesn’t fit that is a poor fit for their house in terms of personality as well as morality.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what Gryffindor traits (or Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff) would look like taken to their worst extreme? There aren’t many examples in the Harry Potter series itself, but I’ve turned to other stories to find characters that I think embody the worst of the three “good” houses.
Gryffindor: Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast
Gaston is certainly brave. He certainly fits the description of Gryffindor far better than the other houses: he’s not loyal or fair, not ambitious (although perhaps cunning), and certainly not intelligent or wise. He’s everything Gryffindor stands for, warped into something completely despicable. He’s brash and bold, showing no consideration for other people, particularly not Belle. He brags about his skill with hunting and his good looks, basking in the admiration of others. And by the end of the movie, he leads a mob with torches and pitchforks to kill the beast. He very much wants to be the hero who slays the monster and wins the beautiful girl as a prize, but he’s also very wrong about what kind of story he’s in, not to mention what his role is.
I think that a Gryffindor villain would always have to see themselves as the hero, and would suffer a crisis of conscience if that illusion was shattered. The exception to that is Peter Pettigrew, who I would say always saw himself as the victim rather than as the hero.
Hufflepuff: Inspector Javert, from Les Miserables
Javert is unfailingly loyal to the French monarchy. He works tirelessly in his pursuit of Jean Valjean and his duties as a police officer, and he’s preoccupied with justice, which he sees as being inseparable from the letter of the law. His black-and-white view of the world forms a strict set of rules to which he firmly adheres. In his own harsh way, he could even be described as fair; he shows no leniency toward anyone, including himself. He’s a Hufflepuff through and through, albeit without the warmth and kindness usually associated with Hufflepuff house.
I said before that a Gryffindor villain would have to see himself as a hero. I would say that Hufflepuffs are less concerned with personal heroics, but that a Hufflepuff villain would have to see their actions as being for the greater good.
Ravenclaw: Victor Frankenstein
The doctor, not the monster. Although Frankenstein is the protagonist of his story, his actions are far from being morally sound. He places science above morality and ends up creating a monster, metaphorically becoming a monster himself. While Frankenstein has been warped over the years into a generic horror story, the original novel by Mary Shelley warns of the danger of discarding ethics in the name of scientific discovery.
If a Gryffindor villain has to see himself as a hero, and a Hufflepuff villain has to see himself as serving the greater good, then I would say a Ravenclaw villain would prioritize knowledge and discovery above right and wrong.
This is already getting too long, so expect a part 2 soon with my thoughts on what a heroic Slytherin character might be like.