Why the four houses in Harry Potter are actually a really clever way to get into the heart of Harry, Hermione, and Ron
In the early Harry Potter books, the reader may be forgiven in thinking the four school houses are a little incoherent. They seemingly divide into good (Gryffindor), evil (Slytherin), academic (Ravenclaw) and picked-last-to-play-kickball (Hufflepuff).
But as we delve deeper into the books, it becomes apparent that the descriptions of each of the houses are more nuanced than that, and, in turn, that allows author J.K. Rowling to examine the difference between characters superficial traits and the essential traits underneath.
Beyond good and evil, the essential trait of those in the Gryffindor house is bravery, which is shown throughout the books. However, the essential trait of those in the Slytherin house is ambition, not evil.
We get to see that ambition doesn’t necessarily mean evil in book six with the introduction of Horace Slughorn. Slughorn is obsessed with accruing influential friends and allies, but ultimately sides with Dumbledore’s Army in the Battle of Hogwarts.
The essential trait of Ravenclaw is knowledge and learning, while the essential trait of Hufflepuff is loyalty and honor (something shown in book four when Cedric shares victory with Harry to his own detriment).
If you look at the superficial traits of the three main characters of the series, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, your best guess would probably place them in houses other than Gryffindor.
Ron, a (mostly) able and loyal friend, would be a Hufflepuff. Hermione, ever obsessed with academic success would be Ravenclaw. And Harry, always out to prove himself would be Slytherin (something the sorting hat mentions when it’s placed over his head).
But beyond these superficial character traits, the essential core of each of the three of them is the bravery to step forward and do what needs to be done for the cause of justice.
Beyond the core three, the best example of this in the books is, of course, Neville Longbottom. Neville starts out the series as clumsy and introverted, but fiercely loyal to his friends. He seems like prime Hufflepuff material. However, as the plot becomes darker and more dangerous, we get to see Neville as just as brave and heroic as anyone else in Gryffindor.
The brilliance of Rowling’s presentation of this is that our more simplified impressions of each house and each character are introduced at the start of the story when all of the characters (and the readers) are the youngest and they grow in nuance and complexity as the characters (and the readers) age.