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How does Alchemy apply to Rowling's book?

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Tiffany Toombs Ontario High School Student 4
13 March 2013
Equivalent Exchange in The Casual Vacancy
DISCLAIMER: SPOILER ALERT (Prior knowledge of plot advised)
Ideas of the protoscience alchemy, specifically the fictional concept of equivalent exchange, are strewn within J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Through her portrayal of her characters’ actions, the results of those actions, and the effect the actions have on other characters, Rowling shows how characters receive reactions in exchange for an equivalent action. This paper’s purpose is to examine the alchemical equations that exist within Rowling’s novel. Understanding Rowling’s implementation of equivalent exchange will display to readers an array of complexity hidden between the superficial vulgarities of the novel.
Equivalent exchange is a concept in which an individual can gain gifts (or punishments) when something of equal value is first sacrificed. Alchemists have used this concept to gain power, for instance, giving up something of equal value in order to change an object into a more useful form –the most commonly known goal of alchemy was to transmute the base elements of lead into gold (Equivalent 1). In the chemical process equivalent exchange is logical considering in the world of chemistry both sides of a reaction equation must contain equivalent- although not necessarily opposite- elements. Alchemists therefore can also be thought of as specialized chemists who take something and then rearrange its makeup into a more advantageous form, or even sacrifice something as raw material in order to create or to enhance other objects (Equivalent 1).
A direct reference to alchemy is inserted when Andrew has recently been hired for a job at a delicatessen. He is eating bread in his room and “never yet had reason to observe the first tiny bubble of fermenting yeast, in which was contained an inevitable, alchemical transformation” (Rowling 299). Later in the novel Andrew is deciding what to wear on his first day of work, the very same day that Simon shares with his family that he has lost his position at work, declaring that “They’ve made [him] redundant” (Rowling 344). Andrew can now be considered superior to his father since he is the one that is employed and his father is now the one who has to seek a replacement job. In this alchemical equation, Simon’s loss of a job was the equivalent sacrifice necessary for Andrew to attain a job. Both sides of the equation remain balanced since a reaction on Simon’s side causes an equal -and in this case, opposite- reaction on Andrew’s side. Rowling includes an example of an alchemical reaction where one character’s reaction has an identifiable opposite reaction on another character in order to demonstrate the fundamentals of maintaining the equivalency of an equation. Deeper analysis of the novel reveals that Rowling implements more subtle alchemical equations, including one where the exchange occurs solely inside a single character.
Earlier in the novel, Rowling inserts background information on Parminder, informing readers that Parminder had already experienced the death of someone very close to her before Barry. The death of her close friend reminds Parminder of how she reacted when her father died. “…Parminder kept her unwept tears locked tightly inside where they seemed to undergo an alchemical transformation, returning to the outer world as lava slides of rage” (Rowling 40). Through equivalent exchange, the death of Parminder’s father was the necessary sacrifice for Parminder to gain rage. In Parminder’s equation her father is taken while rage is given. In a similar situation, Barry’s death is also the necessary equivalent component for Parminder to once again attain rage. Barry’s sacrifice actually gives Parminder a powerful rage that acts as fuel and motivation for her future efforts in Pagford politics. “With an almost welcome gush of fury and hatred she thought, They’re glad. They think they’ll win now.” [in reference to her political opponents] (Rowling 40). Notice Rowling’s selective word choice in describing the gush of fury as “welcome” The diction allows readers to infer that Parminder is not resistant to the anger, but instead almost embraces, or “welcomes” it. Connecting this new anger with her realization that Barry’s opponents will use his death to their advantage, readers may also infer that Parminder will use this rage as motivation in her efforts to ensure that Barry’s enemies do not succeed. Parminer’s usage of rage in Pagford politics is actually displayed near the end of the novel when she shoots down the arguments of Barry’s opponents. Parminder shocks her political rivals because her counter arguments were not given in a normal tone of voice but instead “she shouted it.” (Rowling 385). By including the council’s shocked reactions, Rowling conveys how Parminder’s anger is indeed abnormal to a political meeting and thus shows the alchemical nature of Barry’s death as fuel for Parminder in politics. With Parminder’s equation, Rowling demonstrates that an alchemical reaction does not always have to consist of two completely separate elements, or characters; some reactions are more complex and involve only a single element, or character, that experiences a change. The author’s most complex alchemical reaction however is saved until the climax of the plotline, demonstrating how one element may be the necessary component for multiple equivalent exchanges with multiple reactants.
By far, the most complex example of equivalent exchange in Rowling’s novel is the death of Robbie and its effect on surrounding characters. An obvious reaction to the sacrifice of Robbie can be seen in Fats. Throughout the novel Fats was known to be cold and selfish because of his quest for achieving complete “authenticity” in other words, “to toughen up inside, to become invulnerable, to be free of the fear of consequences: to rid himself of spurious notions of goodness and badness” (Rowling 74). However after the death of Robbie there is a major change in Fats, so major in fact that he seems to change into a different character. Near the end of the novel, readers discover Fats feeling immense guilt for Robbie’s death which is contradictory to the Fats that repulsed readers prior to this critical changing point with his complete lack of compassion. The rebellious teenager thinks he is personally responsible for the boy’s death as it is conveyed in Rowling’s words: “He kept imagining the little coffin. He had not wanted to [have sex] with the boy so near. Would the weight of the dead child ever lift from him?” (Rowling 476). In the context of the quote, Fats regrets having sex with Krystal because he distracted her from watching Robbie and therefore convinces himself that Robbie drowning under water was his fault. Fats’ reaction to Robbie’s death is an alchemical one. In the concept of equivalent exchange, Robbie was the necessary equivalent sacrifice for Fats to attain parts of his humanity. Robbie, representing childlike innocence and purity, was equivalently exchanged for Fats’ sense of remorse and ethics; Robbie’s goodness was given in exchange for Fats’ humanity. While Fats was majorly impacted by Robbie, he is certainly not the only character to undergo an alchemical reaction because of the child’s death.
Robbie’s death was also the equivalent sacrifice in an alchemical reaction where Samantha Mollison gains awareness of the needs of other people. Throughout the novel, Samantha was portrayed as a haughty woman with an ego that only allowed for self-centered interests. Even the conflict of Barry’s open council seat, which involved most of the town, failed to attract Samantha’s interest; she did not “give a damn one way or another. She held herself above the smallness of local politics” (Rowling 89). Samantha’s haughty nature is mainly exhibited through her interactions with her family. In one instance, readers will notice how Samantha’s self-centered ego disguises her infatuation with her daughter’s favorite boy band as her desire to provide Libby with merchandise and a concert as a sign of a good mother. When suspicious eyes would wander to her purchase of a magazine featuring the boy band, Samantha would simply disguise her own interest saying “It’s for Libby” (Rowling 278). Samantha’s selfish infatuation expands to the point where she disregards her father-in-law’s sixty-fifth birthday in the interest of attending the boy band’s concert. Her neglect of family matters is exhibited when she tries to talk her way out of attending the birthday party and accompanying her daughter at the concert instead. Her mother-in-law states, “Howard’s been planning this for months. We’ve all been talking about it for ages” The egotistical Samantha shows no recognition of any previous discussion of Howard’s birthday and immediately responds “…that’s the night of Libby’s concert,” in an attempt to excuse herself from having to attend the party displaying her haughty nature (Rowling 352).
After Robbie’s death however, Samantha is horrified by the fact that she saw the child for a brief time before he died and could have potentially prevented his death. “‘…Miles, I saw that boy. Robbie Weedon. I saw him, Miles.’ She was panicky, pleading.” (Rowling 493). After experiencing the guilt associated with Robbie’s death, Samantha became a different person. When analyzed a certain way, her change is an alchemical equation. She experienced Robbie’s sacrifice and in exchange begins to think of the problems of other people; “She thought that she might like to hear the arguments for Bellchapel Addiction Clinic” (Rowling 494). The desire to hear the arguments of an unpopular addiction clinic shows Samantha’s elevation over her previous selfish desires and her newfound concern for the people around her. Because the novel ends not too long after Robbie’s death, readers will not be able to see Samantha display her new selflessness in full, but Rowling does insert words that reassure readers of Samantha’s change; “In the last three weeks, a desire to be absorbed in something bigger than herself had grown in Samantha” (Rowling 493). The change of heart of such a selfish character is proof of Robbie’s death acting as an equivalent sacrifice for Samantha to shed her arrogance and gain altruism. Rowling demonstrates how the death of Robbie transmutes multiple characters into completely different people, however Rowling also demonstrates an equivalent exchange where the reaction takes place within a single character with the same identity-changing effect.
This is part one of the essay: Part two is in the comment which follows.
Works Cited
"Equivalent Exchange." Tvtropes.org. TV Tropes Foundation, LLC, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

John. "Alchemy & Literature, Alchemy of Literature, Literary Alchemy." Hogwarts Professor. N.p., 2 June 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown and, 2012. Print.


Tiffany Toombs This is part two of the Alchemy essay.
Ontario student 4
Rowling displays an example of self-sacrificial equivalent exchange in Sukhvinder, where both sides of the alchemical reaction are solely parts of herself. “…she yelled ‘He’s in the river Krys’ and dropped, feetfirst, into the water. Her leg was sliced open by a broken computer monitor as she was pulled under the current (Rowling 462). In Sukhvinder’s equation her sacrifice contains the physical aspect of her leg as she plunges herself selflessly into the river to save Robbie. In exchange, the way that other characters treat her is positively altered. Before her act of heroism, Sukhvinder was openly insulted at school. Students referred to her as “hermaphrodite” and described her as “mustachioed” (Rowling 120). After her act of sacrifice however, “…on her first day back at school,” Rowling includes that there are “admiring stares following her down the corridors” (Rowling 496). Additional examples of other characters’ changed outlook on Sukhvinder can also be found in her parents, who previously thought of her as a failure and ignored her. When Sukhvinder begins suggesting ideas for the Weedons’ funeral service, her mother agrees; “to [her father’s] surprise she said abruptly, ‘Yes, all right. We’ll have to see what we can do.’” (Rowling 497). Readers will immediately notice that after Sukhvinder’s sacrifice, her voice is now being heard by her mother. Rowling also includes the crucial detail that “there was no snap in [her mother’s] voice anymore when she spoke to her daughter” (Rowling 496). By clearly emphasizing these details, Rowling affirms that Sukhvinder has indeed become a different person after her alchemical transformation, adding to her repertoire of equivalent exchanges.
Considering the various alchemical equations involving the characters within The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s implementation of equivalent exchange becomes undeniable. She includes multiple direct references to alchemy with her equation pairing Simon and Andrew, and her equation pairing the death of Barry and Parminder’s rage. In addition, more vast and complex equations involving the death of Robbie are also hidden behind the illusion of a simple climax, while Sukhvinder’s equation displays an indetity-changing reaction involving only one element. Borrowing alchemy’s concept of equivalent exchange and displaying her expertise at creating reactions between her characters, Rowling authenticates The Casual Vacancy as a complex and literary novel with her true genius hidden beneath superficial vulgarity.
Works Cited
"Equivalent Exchange." Tvtropes.org. TV Tropes Foundation, LLC, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

John. "Alchemy & Literature, Alchemy of Literature, Literary Alchemy." Hogwarts Professor. N.p., 2 June 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown and, 2012. Print.


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