Forget the Hungarian Horntail, Fluffy, Aragog and the scores of other monsters that Harry faces, his biggest foe (alright, apart from the Dark Lord!) is Dolores Umbridge.
From the very beginning, we are invited to hate her. Not only is she one of the Wizengamot who votes for Harry to be punished for fighting off the Dementors (which she sent in the first place! Not cool Dolores!), but she is described as ‘squat’ and ‘toadlike’. No offence to toads, but they are generally regarded as being repulsive; covered in warts with poisonous skin and a voracious appetite. Umbridge’s lust for power and control knows no bounds, and as for the poison? Every one of her actions is loaded with venom and hatred.
Visually, Umbridge makes a fantastically unique villain, none of the black, wild, leather and lace imagery that we associate with Bellatrix, who conforms to the more traditional look for a baddie.
Umbridge’s love for everything twee and girlish dominates her look and there is something so chilling about the idea of a grown woman completing every outfit with a frill or a bow while essentially signing the death warrants of Muggleborns.
Also, why does EVERYTHING have to be pink? Less is more, Dolores! Of all of the films’ interpretations of the characters, Imelda Staunton’s portrayal of Umbridge is the best, especially during one of the most shudder-inducing scenes in Order of the Phoenix. Detention with Umbridge – three words guaranteed to make the back of your hand itch. The detail in this scene is magnificent: from the mewling, creepy kittens adorning the walls on decorative china plates (which reminds me of the Princess Diana-themed memorabilia found in some elderly Muggle homes), to the framed photograph of her beloved Minister on her desk. Every element is carefully cultivated to drive further home the point that her saccharine persona is actually a front for someone truly vile.
Staunton totally embraces Umbridge’s obvious excitement about torturing Harry during detention. Her mouth twitches with glee as she listens out for obvious signs of his discomfort when Harry picks up the inkless quill, and her baby blues are wide and innocent when she stares him down, daring him to submit to the pain. The tension between the two adversaries in this scene is potent and ensures that we know never to underestimate Dolores Umbridge.
Something particularly frightening about Umbridge is that we never really find out why she is the way she is. We get a whole book pretty much dedicated to Tom Riddle’s past – detailing how and why he became Lord Voldemort – but it is never explained why Umbridge has such a great dislike of those different to herself or what motivates her. As with most things, her hatred seems to be driven by fear; fear of ‘half-breeds’ like Hagrid, werewolves, Muggleborns and, of course, (clippity clop) centaurs. But what sparked that horror? Thanks to the J.K. Rowling canon, we have since been given some insight into Umbridge’s history and childhood.
Apparently, Umbridge’s mother was a Muggle and her brother was a Squib – a source of huge embarrassment for the family. Perhaps their abandonment and retreat back into the Muggle world had such a huge impact on Umbridge that it became the catalyst for her Muggleborn-targeted cruelty later on in life. However, her only ally at Hogwarts is infamous Squib Argus Filch, so evidently she is willing to relax her rules if she has something to gain…
But what makes Umbridge even more of a threat than Voldemort is how human she is. She knows that this isn’t about casting the mightiest spell, or mastering magic that no-one else is capable of understanding. She just needs to know how to manipulate and control others who hold positions of power.
Cornelius Fudge is happy to let Umbridge massage his ego because of his own insecurities regarding Dumbledore, which (of course) she exploits. When he and his lime-green bowler hat are kicked out of office, Umbridge not only retains her position at the Ministry but claws her way further up the pecking order. Fudge’s successor, Rufus Scrimgeour, allows Umbridge a seat at his table and even worse, uses her knowledge of Harry to try and bribe our hero – ‘Dolores Umbridge has told me that you cherish an ambition to become an Auror.’ As if Harry Potter could be so easily bought.
Like a cockroach, Umbridge survives the next cull, while Scrimgeour does not. She thrives once again as she is given even more authority to brandish alongside her stumpy wand. She is recognised by the Death Eaters as – if not exactly one of them – then at least as a kindred spirit. But this type of megalomania is sadly not restricted to the magical world – or indeed people who abuse positions of power for their own agenda. While Voldemort is evidently evil, with his red, snakelike eyes and despotic tendencies, Umbridge’s mode of wickedness feels much more insidious because it flies under the radar...
So, does that make her even more dangerous?
For all of Dolores’s doling out decrees and detentions and deducting house points, where is her punishment?! The last time we see her is in the Ministry, when she is Stunned by a furious Harry during her gleeful interrogation of poor Mary Cattermole. Yes, that moment is incredibly satisfying but we need some sort of resolution.
We obviously don’t see Umbridge at the Battle of Hogwarts, she is not a Death Eater and therefore wouldn’t have rallied around Voldermort. She would never have turned to come to fight for Harry in the way that Percy Weasley does, because that would have meant admitting she was in the wrong.
Dolores Jane Umbridge, ex-Headmistress, ex-High Inquisitor and ex-Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic appears to slip through the cracks, to a fate unknown. In reality, we don’t need one of Sybill Trelawney’s crystal balls to know that she ended up in Azkaban for the rest of her life, and I like to think of her “hem hem”ing crossly to herself in a corner of her cell, while reading Rita Skeeter's salacious takes on our heroic trio in The Daily Prophet.