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Character Deep Dive: Minerva McGonagall

Portrayed by: Maggie Smith
Book | Films: Harry Potter series

Minerva McGonagall is a f*ucking queen, and so is the brilliant and incomparable human being that portrays her, Dame Maggie Smith. She’s sassy, strict, stern, as well as a badass professor/deputy headmistress who cares deeply for her students and stands firmly on her beliefs. She may be known to have a sharp tongue and a no nonsense attitude, but she is very fair and every now and then, she still manages to surprise those around her whenever she reveals her mischievous side. As head of Gryffindor, she embodies the courageous spirit and bravery of her house while commanding high regard from her peers and her pupils. Therefore, it is only fitting that we dedicate this character deep dive to the one and only professor who provided us with one of the greatest plot twists of the Wizarding World. (“Have a biscuit, Potter.”)

One of the aspects I dearly admire about Professor McGonagall is the amount of instantaneous respect she effortlessly demands. The first time Harry set eyes on her, he determined that this was a person he shouldn’t get on the wrong side of, and he was correct. Our beloved Transfiguration professor is the master of a stern glare with an obvious message: “Don’t try me.” It’s no wonder that students are quick to hush whenever she opens her mouth to speak. One of my favorite moments in Chamber of Secrets is how quickly she shut down Oliver Wood with a quick “Silence, Wood” after he protested a Quidditch match cancellation.

As a professor, she is strict and practices tough love in her classroom, but she is extremely dedicated and determined to help her students in any way she can–she ultimately brings out the best in them by holding them down to a high standard, especially those in Gryffindor House. She pushes Harry to take potions in his sixth year (and to take Ron with him) to fulfill his ambition to become an Auror rather than have two of her students spend a free period doing nothing. Most noticeably, she is responsible for Harry’s Quidditch success–not only does she convince Dumbledore to bend the first year rule, she even makes the effort to secure him a Nimbus 2000. She loans her classroom to Harry so he could freely prepare for the Triwizard Tournament and arranges for Hermione to have a Time-Turner for her academic pursuits.

“Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice–a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate. But let me make one thing very clear. You are not going to pass off your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”

-Minerva McGonagall, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Aligned with her tough approach, Professor McGonagall is fiercely protective towards her students and fellow staff members. In many ways, she was the default leader against defying Umbridge’s actions during her reign as High Inquisitor, showing no signs of wavering against Umbridge’s tyranny. In Order of the Phoenix, we see McGonagall having a shouting match with Umbridge after she finds out Umbridge’s disciplinary method was essentially torturing students. Additionally, she scolds Mad-Eye Moody for almost the reason after Moody transfigured Draco Malfoy into a ferret. Furthermore, she charges to Hagrid’s defense when Umbridge goes after him in the middle of night and was ready to exchange some words after Umbridge had fired Trelawney. Most notably, she leapt between Harry and Snape during their confrontation in the Great Hall without hesitation. During the Battle of Hogwarts, McGonagall sets out immediately, taking charge in securing the castle and ensuring the students get out safely. And of course, I have a huge amount of respect for her for remaining at Hogwarts in The Deathly Hallows, simply to watch over and protect the students from the Carrows’ wrath at her own personal risk of safety. Despite the exceedingly dangerous times, she stands resolute with providing her high standards to her students.

“It’s high time you grandmother learned to be proud of the grandson she’s got, rather than the one she thinks she ought to have–particularly after what happened at the Ministry.”

-Minerva McGonagall, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Professor McGonagall is not one to fail noticing her students’ efforts to succeed or their growth. Her belief and encouragement in Neville shows her compassionate side as a teacher, particularly to someone who lacks confidence like Neville. Throughout his years at Hogwarts, Neville faced many negative experiences that affected his already low self-esteem. By encouraging Neville to play to his strengths, Professor McGonagall shows not only her genuine care for the success of her students, but her skills as an educator by providing positive motivation, assurance, and impact to one that needed it most. 

Another admirable trait of the deputy headmistress is her staunch loyalty to Albus Dumbledore. We see just how highly the Transfiguration professor regards the headmaster in The Sorcerer’s Stone–the only information she considers reliable are from his own mouth. Her loyalty to Dumbledore can also be considered one of the contributing factors towards her resistance against Umbridge’s interference at Hogwarts. She displays how far she is willing to stand by Dumbledore’s side when she pulled out her wand and declared Dumbledore would not be “single-handed” when Cornelius Fudge attempted to detain Dumbledore. Her act illustrates the loyalty, courage, and belief that she has not only for Dumbledore, but for the ideals that the Order of the Phoenix stand for.

“Dumbledore would have been happier than anybody to think that there was a little more love in the world.”

-Minerva McGonagall, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

McGonagall asserts this statement in the hospital wing after Dumbledore’s death when Tonks professes her love for Lupin, which Lupin brushes off. It’s an acute statement that’s befitting of Dumbledore’s beliefs. McGonagall’s choice to state this not only brings a sense of comfort in a time when the Order has lost its leader, but ensures that Dumbledore’s legacy and reason for their pursuit against Lord Voldemort remains ignited. In the film, her character is the first to light her wand, with the rest of the crowd following her lead. Although it is a dark and difficult time, she immediately honors her friend and displays an act of defiance against the Death Eaters and the Dark Mark.

Finally, I’d like to delve into McGonagall’s relationship with Harry, which I think is often neglected and underrated. There’s a passage from the fifth book, after Harry learns that Professor McGonagall has been transferred to St. Mungos, that I think wonderfully exemplifies what McGonagall meant in Harry’s life.

“Terror was rising inside him. There was nobody left to tell. Dumbledore had gone, Hagrid had gone, but he had always expected Professor McGonagall to be there, irascible and inflexible perhaps, but always dependably solidly present.”

Professor McGonagall was a steady presence in Harry’s life and in a way, played a large role in his life and provided stability, even if Harry wasn’t always aware of it. We always tend to think of Molly Weasley as the surrogate mother figure in Harry’s life, understandably so. But I believe that McGonagall also had a maternal role towards Harry. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, she explicitly states her concern for Harry staying with the Dursleys, which is unsurprising as she is overcome with emotion when hearing about the death of his parents. In the fourth movie, she puts a reassuring hand on Harry’s shoulder after his name is called up for the Triwizard Tournament and is seen as the only one arguing with Dumbledore to not let him compete, stating that Harry “is a boy, not a piece of meat!” We gain a good look into how much McGonagall cares for Harry during his career advisement, and McGonagall tells Umbridge off, vowing to help Harry reach his dream to become an Auror. The entire scene is littered with unforgettable lines from McGonagall that simultaneously insult Umbridge and defend Harry, but the gist is this: she is proud of Harry and has faith in him, more than he originally ever thought.

That pride in Harry becomes evident in the final book. McGonagall proudly claims to Amycus Carrow that Harry was part of her house, which causes a surge of affection in Harry for his professor. When Carrow spat in his professor’s face, Harry was able to successfully cast the Cruciatus Curse. In order to cast the curse, you have to truly mean it. Even after Sirius’ death Harry was unable to curse Bellatrix, but unleashing his rage, and being able to cause physical pain, to defend Professor McGonagall’s honor indicates just how truly important she is to Harry. I believe that in that moment, he truly recognized just how much of a supportive and stable figure she has been in his life. Likewise, we see McGonagall display a similar emotional outburst when Harry is believed to be killed by Voldemort–the first person to react is McGonagall, her scream so terrifying that it shocks Harry. In that moment, we realized that Harry meant more to her than just as a student. In the film, we get a short but sweet scene in which she understands his presence must have a purpose. She does not hesitate when he asks for time, simply trusting him and telling him to do what needs to do while she words to protect the castle. But my favorite moment is when she takes to a moment simply to say, “It’s good to see you.” A short sentence, but one that encompasses all the care she has for him and her relief that he’s alive.

There’s a lot more that can be said about Minerva McGonagall, and we can’t help but gush about her and the awesome witch that she is. She’s incredibly strong and unyielding while remaining warmhearted and devoted to her job and students. She is without a doubt one of those people that will have an undying impact in the lives she comes across, and we’re thankful that we’re one of them.

Alice Sarkisyan View All

Born and raised in Los Angeles. Fluent in sarcasm and film references.

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