In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore tells Harry it is our choices that reveal what we truly are. In other words, it is not the things that happen but what we choose to do about them that defines us.
Draco Malfoy chose to be cruel when he attended Hogwarts. So what does that choice say about Draco? And why, given his bullying reputation, should we care about Draco’s choices at all?
Draco is as hampered by destiny as Harry is – but where Harry’s childhood was spent in ignorance, Draco grew up with an ego installed in him. As the only child of Death Eater Lucius Malfoy and his wife Narcissa, sister of Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco inhabits a world that is deeply dark, both in the magic it favours and its emotional impact on a young boy. With his early years marked by his family’s downfall, Draco has grown up hearing stories about Harry Potter, including rumours of his prowess as a Dark wizard.
It’s these rumours, and the knowledge that his father would support a pure-blood champion with powers to rival Voldemort’s, that make Draco initially extend the hand of friendship to Harry. But his overtures fall on deaf ears. And for Draco, Harry’s rejection makes him an enemy and he realises his father’s hopes are unfounded.
Yet it’s these two people – the father he’s desperate to impress and his school rival – that drive Draco’s behaviour. As J.K. Rowling writes, Draco envies Harry’s unasked-for fame and his flying ability and makes petty attempts to undermine him, like staging a duel so Harry will get caught and pretending to be a Dementor to frighten him.
But it’s his attitude to others that really highlights Draco’s cruelty. From his bullying of Neville to the nasty comments he throws at the Weasleys, calling Hermione a Mudblood and getting Buckbeak sentenced to death, it’s fair to say Draco is not a nice guy. And yet, as J.K. Rowling reveals, there is some ‘unextinguished good’ in him. As he matures, we start to see flashes of it.
Draco came to Hogwarts a spoiled boy. All his life he’d been told he was special, as a pure-blood wizard and a Malfoy. At Hogwarts, students are encouraged to be treated equally. With his ego further dented by being schooled alongside Harry Potter – the reason for his family’s downfall – Draco’s dislike for Harry and those associated with him only increases. In part, this is because Harry makes Draco feel inferior, something he is not used to. On the contrary, the privileges of wealth and prestige endow Draco with such a sense of entitlement he feels able to pick on Neville, another boy from a wizarding family, for no reason other than Neville’s nerves and, perhaps, his parents.
Harry’s background, his choices, and his friendships all challenge Draco’s understanding of the world. In response, his views become more firmly entrenched and his bullying escalates. He spouts off pure-blood rhetoric, disdains ‘Mudbloods', panders to Umbridge and uses his family name to secure a place on the Slytherin Quidditch team. He also cultivates an arrogant, superior manner that echoes his father.
Draco mimics his father’s behaviour because it’s all he has. Growing up in Malfoy Manor can’t have been easy. Narcissa clearly loves him but she is not a warm woman, and Draco’s father is certainly not one to demonstrate affection – ‘I would have thought you’d be ashamed that a girl of no wizard family beat you in every exam,’ he tells Draco coldly.
Lucius doesn’t even seem to trust his son. After wishing he could help the Heir of Slytherin in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, it must have been galling for Draco to learn his father was largely responsible for the Chamber’s opening.
So much of what Draco does is about capturing his father’s attention. From using his Buckbeak injury to discredit Hagrid to his promise to Voldemort, his family is often his motivation. Yet blindly following his parents is not sustainable.
Certain things are demanded of Draco, and the world he has constructed – a world that Harry, with his Muggle-born mother, challenges – starts to crumble. When Voldemort tells Draco to kill Dumbledore, he expects Draco to fail. Draco agrees anyway – not for glory, but because Voldemort has threatened him with death, and because he wants to restore his family’s standing.
It’s a hard, lonely task. Draco resists Snape’s help, cries in the toilets and makes crude attempts on Dumbledore’s life. In the end, though, he acts as everyone expects him to – even Voldemort – although of course Voldemort thinks weakness, not inherent goodness, stops Draco killing Dumbledore. But in the end, Draco can’t bring himself to commit murder.
In crucial moments, Draco’s reluctance to commit treacherous acts – killing Dumbledore, sending Harry to almost certain death – shows that though he is cruel and boastful, he is not completely amoral. He is also unhappy about Greyback’s appearance in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and visibly uncomfortable about the death of Professor Burbage.
Alone, these moments show a frightened teenager. Collectively, they demonstrate Draco questioning his parents’ path. Their championing of Voldemort’s pure-blood line has shaped Draco’s life but ultimately, against his own instincts, he’s better than them.
As to why it’s important to try to understand Draco – well, there is value in knowing your enemy. But it also matters because everything is a matter of perception; Draco isn’t Harry’s true enemy, Voldemort is. In the end, they are both subject to the manipulations of this very Dark wizard.