Throughout Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone readers are led to believe that the culprit behind the mysterious goings on at Hogwarts is Severus Snape, the seemingly villainous Potions professor. So, it came as quite a shock to many to find out that Professor Quirrell was in fact behind the true villain. Perhaps the most shocking aspect about this reveal is that Professor Quirrell is arguably a minor character up until the last chapters of the novel. Added to that, everything that readers are told about Quirrell gives the impression that he isn’t worth paying attention to; his odd mannerism, his physical description, and his stutter make him inconsequential. Of course, you could argue that J.K. Rowling purposefully wrote Quirrell this way so the ending would be more surprising, the same way she purposefully wrote Snape to appear to always be the bad guy. However, Rowling uses Quirrell’s disability, his speech impediment, as a tool to make him appear less threatening, weak, and incapable of perpetrating any of the events at Hogwarts during Harry’s first year.
Before we dive in, stuttering is considered a disability by the American Disabilities Act. They define disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity” (ADA). Stuttering is a condition that affects speech and can limit that person’s ability to participate in “major life activity”; the term disability isn’t only attributed to physical disabilities. Quirrell’s stutter, at least in America, would be considered a disability as it affects his ability to do his job and interact with students and other professors.
The first introduction to Quirrell is at the Leaky Cauldron when Harry and Hagrid are on their way to Diagon Alley. “‘P-P-Potter,’ stammered Professor Quirrell, grasping Harry’s hand, ‘c-can’t t-tell you how p-pleased I am to meet you’” (Rowling 70). The first impression the reader get of Quirrell is that he has a stammer and the second is that he is constantly nervous and afraid. Hagrid says about Quirrell, “Poor bloke. Brilliant mind…scared of students, scared of his own subject” (Rowling 71). This leaves the reader with the impression that Professor Quirrell is not a very intimidating character, even for a professor at Hogwarts. For comparison, Snape’s first introduction is a description of his appearance at the sorting hat ceremony. He has “greasy black hair, a hooked nose, a sallow skin” and when he makes eye contact with Harry, Harry feels a “sharp, hot pain” in his scar (Rowling 126).The immediate impression of Snape is that he’s creepy and he somehow poses a threat to Harry. Professor McGonagall’s introduction as well is very different than Quirrell’s. As Harry and the rest of the First Years enter Hogwarts for the first time, McGonagall is waiting for their arrival. Harry describes her as “a tall, black-haired witch in emerald-green robes” as well as having a “very stern face and…not someone to cross” (Rowling 113).
As with Snape, the description given of McGonagall is fierce and intimidating and the reader is almost invited to forget all about Professor Quirrell.
Quirrell’s stammer is his defining characteristic and marks him as ‘other’ from the rest of the professors at Hogwarts. Rosemarie Garland Thompson, author of Extraordinary Bodies, states,
“a disability functions only as visual difference that signals meanings. Consequently, literary texts necessarily make disabled characters into freaks, stripped of normalizing contexts and engulfed by a single stigmatic trait” (11).
Arguably, it is this characteristic that makes his villainous identity so surprising. Joseph Jordan, a writer for the Journal of Popular Culture, states that “the least likely suspect is usually guilty. But we seem to forget the rule when the least likely suspect is physically disabled, or seems to be” (855). This is true for Quirrell as well. He is the very least likely character to be searching for the sorcerer’s stone and therefore he should have been the number one suspect. Here’s an article on Pottermore that lists all of the obvious signs that Quirrell was the villain all along. The signs are indeed glaringly obvious and yet those signs were ignored or overlooked because there was no way Quirrell was intelligent enough to pull something like this off. So, instead of being undesirable number one, Quirrell is cast aside as an incapable, weak, and even comic relief character. Quirrell is the professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts but not a very good one as his “lessons turned out to be a bit of a joke” and he “smelled strongly of garlic” to protect himself day and night from a vampire (Rowling 134). Quirrell’s stutter gives him the air of ineptitude that Harry, as well as most of the Hogwarts population and the reader buys into. The problem with this is that Rowling’s strategy for throwing her audience off the scent of the real villain is to give that character a disability which automatically renders him incapable of the crime in the mind of her audience.
For example, the moment when Quirrell runs into the Great Hall and says, “Troll- in the dungeons- thought you ought to know” seals his fate has a weak, timid, and unsuspicious character (Rowling 172). Quirrell is described in that moment as having “terror on his face” and after delivering his message he “sank to the floor in a dead faint” (Rowling 172). While this is clearly a plot device to cast Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s suspicions elsewhere, it also works to hammer in the uselessness of Quirrell as a wizard and a professor and therefore not even considered to be the villain; because someone that scared of a troll could never skillfully make their way through the protections to the sorcerer’s stone.
Rosemarie Garland Thompson argues the context around the disabled body is “informed more by received attitudes than by people’s actual experience of disability” (9). The assumptions made about disabled characters like Quirrell in literature are formed by the social treatment of people with disabilities which is often uninformed. Similarly, Michael Hart writes in an article for The Journal of Modern Literature that “it does not matter whether Character X has disability Y. What matters is the web of social relations that constitutes other people’s responses to Character X” (186). It’s not the actual speech impediment itself that casts Quirrell as an inept character, it’s how the other characters and how the reader responds to Quirrell that allows his character to be pushed aside. The general misunderstanding and misinformation about people with disabilities allows for Quirrell’s character to be assigned the same assumptions that are made in reality about people with disabilities. Quirrell’s nervousness, oddness, and skittish nature help the audience to buy into the stereotype his stutter already planted. Garland Thompson makes another great point about the representation of disabled bodies in literature that is applicable to Quirrell. She states,
“representation tends to objectify disabled characters by denying them any opportunity for subjectivity or agency. The plot or the work’s rhetorical potential usually benefits from the disabled figure remaining other to the reader- identifiably human but resolutely different” (11).
Throughout the novel, Quirrell continuously aids the plot by being ‘other’. His stammer separates him from the other professors and allows the students to not take him seriously. Without either of these, the shocking ending would not be as powerful. Quirrell’s stammer only operates to discredit Quirrell as an option for the villain to make the ending much more shock inducing.
What makes Garland Thompson’s point that much more fitting for Quirrell is that as well as revealing himself as the villain, he also reveals that his stammer is fake. Jeffery Johnson writes, “Quirrell feigns stuttering in order to appear weaker and this not be suspected of his crimes” and “when he stops pretending to be meek, Quirrell also stops stuttering, and is shown to be a powerful villain” (250). This casts people with disabilities as people who can’t be strong or powerful. Johnson further states that “stuttering is often used as a visual shorthand for weakness” and characters depicted with a stutter are “rarely cast in the role of the hero” because the typical hero, or villain for that matter, must be “strong and confident” (251). This very reason can be attributed to Snape being the primary suspect; it goes beyond character description, Snape was thought to be the villain because he is powerful and confident enough to have been one. Rowling plays into the stereotypical disability trope with Quirrell’s character and perhaps does more damage by making Quirrell’s disability fake in order to appear weaker. In the final pages of the novel, Quirrell’s true identity is revealed to Harry and he makes the comparison to Snape’s seemingly suspicious behavior. Quirrell tells Harry,
“Severus does seem the type, doesn’t he? So useful to have him swooping around like an overgrown bat. Next to him, who would suspect p-p-poor, st-stuttering P-Professor Quirrell!” (Rowling 288).
Here’s a YouTube clip of the ending to get a better impression. In this passage alone, Rowling makes multiple statements about people with disabilities. By mentioning Harry’s suspicions of Snape, Rowling is pointing out that Snape not only looks and acts the part of the villain, but that he’s strong enough to be the villain simply because he’s the opposite of Quirrell. Rowling is also making a point that Quirrell’s fake stutter was to make him appear less threatening and weak by having Quirrell make fun of it. It’s also implying that people with a stutter are automatically looked-down upon and pitied.
Quirrell’s disability is represented in such a way as to make him appear nonthreatening, weak, and largely incapable of being the villain Harry must face in order to get the sorcerer’s stone. The idea that disability equals ineptitude is perpetuated in literature as well as in reality. Literature has the unique capability of assisting in shaping our perceptions and “especially regarding situations about which we have little direct knowledge” (Garland Thompson 10). Literature has a great power over its readership and the way people are represented in what we read effects a least part of our perceptions of the world. Poor representation of disabilities in literature leads to a negative perception of disabilities in reality. Using disability as a plot device to avoid suspicion of a character shows that people with disabilities are to be assumed incapable.
Garland Thompson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia University Press, New York, 1997.
Hart, Michael Patrick. “Narrative Strategies and Fictional Intellectual Disabilities”. Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 42, No. 2, 2011, 185-191.
Johnson, Jeffery K. “The Visualization of the Twisted Tongue: Portrayals of Stuttering in Film, Television, and Comic Books”. The Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 41, No. 2, 2008, 245-261.
Jordan, Joseph. “The Man with Two Faces: Stuttering Characters and Surprise”. Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 50, No. 4, 2017, 855-870.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic, New York, 2008.
“What is the Definition of Disability Under the ADA?” ADA National Network. July 2019. https://adata.org/faq/what-definition-disability-under-ada.