Thes chapters really got me thinking about the difference between Harry and Voldemort vis a vis their childhoods. I had always had in my head that they were similar – both having grown up without their parents – but the key difference that determined their divergent paths was that Tom Riddle was abandoned whereas Harry had lost his parents through a demonstration of their love for him.
However, if we look at their circumstances, Harry actually had a “worse” upbringing during his formative years. Tom Riddle at least seemed to receive decent care through the orphanage whereas Harry was openly despised by his caregivers. Yet Tom was up to nefarious deeds already as a child while Harry seemed to be a mostly decent human being.
Tom may have held a grudge once he learned that he had been abandoned by his parents but he wouldn’t have been able to comprehend that during his most formative years. Harry, on the other hand, doesn’t even learn that his parents made the ultimate sacrifice to save him until much later in his life.
In the nature vs nurture debate, JKR seems to be presenting that Tom Riddle was just a bad seed and Harry just a good egg from the get go. She [probably unintentionally] is channeling Aunt Marge’s “bad blood will out!”
“Choices” is definitely the theme – and Dumbledore even states it explicitly in Chamber of Secrets – but what leads us to make the choices we do? Generally we attribute choices to the “nurture” part of childhood development with the belief that we can raise children who make better choices by loving them, teaching them, etc.
In this case, however, Harry has not been the beneficiary of better loving, teaching, etc. than Tom Riddle, so why does Tom make such bad – evil, even – choices, while Harry does not? Harry has not had better “nurture” than Tom Riddle and you could even make the argument that he has had it worse! So I’m forced to conclude that “nature” is the explanation for Tom’s evil choices and Harry’s good ones. Or, more pointedly, they both are the result of protagonist / antagonist exceptionalism rather than the result of development.
This is also relevant to my previous discussion about how Harry is “just good” at some stuff, like flying and defensive magic, rather than working hard to develop those skills. Tom Riddle, it seems, is the same.
Let’s not forget, however, that Voldemort actually made Harry who he is in many ways due to the prophecy! That actually gives us a better explanation of why Harry is the way he is than just . . . reasons; he is the way he is because . . . magic!
Voldemort is probably the way he is because . . . magic . . . too. Perhaps there was a curse on the house of Gaunt (or perhaps Marvolo put one on Marope), or perhaps there was another prophecy about the birth of the Dark Lord that we never knew. Regardless, explaining things away with magic is super acceptable in a book series about wizards!