Harry Potter is a phenomenon that has captivated millions of readers around the world, both children and adults. But what is it about the boy wizard that appeals to grown-ups? This is the question that Mary Jerram Pyle, an 84-year-old psychotherapist, explored in her PhD thesis, which made her the oldest graduate in the history of Trinity College Dublin.
Pyle, who received her doctorate at a ceremony on November 4, said she was a “lateish developer” who always wanted to do a piece of academic work, but did not have much time when she was working. She had a long and distinguished career as a psychoanalyst and a founding member of the Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. She also helped establish the MSc in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in Trinity.
She came up with the theme for her thesis when she bought the Harry Potter books for her grandchildren and started reading them herself. She then passed on the books to her partner, Christopher Moriarty, a marine biologist, who also enjoyed them.
“Coming from the psychoanalytic point of view, there had to be an unconscious reason,” she said.
Her thesis, entitled “Harry Potter and the Unconscious Dimension”, used psychoanalysis to examine the unconscious reasons for Harry Potter’s popularity with adults. She argued that the books tap into universal themes such as identity, belonging, love, death, and morality, which resonate with readers of all ages.
She also suggested that the books offer a positive intervention for enhancing well-being, especially by sparking hope in their readers. Hope is one of the positive psychological character strengths most associated with happiness and life satisfaction, yet is one of the least endorsed worldwide.
Pyle’s supervisor, Ussher Associate Professor in Children’s Literature Dr Jane Carroll, described her work as “an exciting and important contribution…to the wider critical conversation about children’s literature”. She added that “this is an interdisciplinary thesis and there is so much in it for both scholars of psychoanalysis and scholars of children’s literature to learn from and benefit from”.
Pyle said she was more relieved than proud of her achievement, which was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. She said she was proud to be part of the Trinity lore, so to speak.
She also said she did not think being older was a reason not to do things if one was interested in doing stuff. She said she liked learning and discovering things, and that learning the cello and doing the PhD brought her into contact with young people who were at the same stage as her.
“I won’t say that age is just a number because I don’t think it is. I still want to go on learning things,” she said.