Is Tom Riddle inherently evil, or is he just the product of a traumatic childhood?
It’s a good question, one that people seem to think a lot about if they’ve ever considered the whole nature vs nurture argument in relation to the Harry Potter franchise.
Ultimately, we can’t answer that one. There were multiple children in the orphanage, most of whom we must assume did not go on to become first mass-murders, then to attempt genocide and commit war crimes in order to avoid death and achieve immortality. As Rowling tells us, he’s the product of a loveless union, and thus is unable to love. Had Tom’s mother survived, perhaps things would have been different. Maybe she would have loved him.
But as old Mrs Cole asserts, as a baby Tom never cried, and thus from the offset there was something different about him. When Dumbledore visits she states that ‘he scares the other children’, and that he must be a bully but it’s difficult to catch him at it. We learn about what happened at the beach, what he did to animals, and that he steals from the other children. We learn that Merope hoped he’d be like his father, and he becomes so – cruel, but that implies that Merope’s dying wish also acted as a curse – furthering the argument for an inherent wickedness. It appears that he was at least ‘different’ from the start, but ‘different’ does not necessarily mean cruel. Perhaps he learnt that from being different came attention, and from being cruel came extra attention. Perhaps he revelled in being different.
Moreover, the children at the orphanage seemed happy for the most part. But children raised in state homes are often statistically more likely to become involved in crime as adults, have higher rates of mental health issues, and so on and so forth. Tom was raised in in a British orphanage, from 1926 until he became an adult (with spans of course at Hogwarts). He was 13 at the start of World War II. Discrimination is complex, but even Britain did express anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist and oppressive attitudes in the lead-up to the War. Tom was born before all adults in Britain could vote. But arguing that he was a product of his time is highly unfair to all others born in the 20th century. But being surrounded by ideas that power exists by making yourself central, and others as exactly that ‘others’ to oppress and exist against, seems to have at least contributed towards his later embracing of anti-Muggle, blood-purity obsession.
Because as a white, British man, Tom was special and as someone with powers he was special. Perhaps, had he not discovered the Wizarding World, he would not have become Lord Voldemort. But he did, and so he became different, he learnt about another form of blood-purity and he craved it – all the while distinctly aware that he couldn’t have it. And then there’s the whole reason he was in the orphanage – the death of his Mother, a misunderstanding of that could lead a child to fear death more than anything. Plus, the ultimate form of power, the ultimate thing that might set you apart from all other humans – is immortality surely? A thing a lot of people who hurt others have in common, is a lack of respect, and a belief that they have power due to their existing in contrast with the person they harm. Perhaps Tom’s actions are an excessive form of this.
Perhaps he was cursed by his Mother to never love. Perhaps he had a chance at Hogwarts, but people like Dumbledore took that away from him, by suspecting him of wrong-doing in each and every action. Perhaps having a house for those who identify as ambitious is really condemning them to fail in the way Caesar did. Nothing wrong with ambition, but often it’s mixed up in some dodgy stuff. Perhaps being surrounded by folk who considered themselves ‘pure’, who valued the oppressive morals of a twisted mindset, just set him right up. But then again, Tom was the one who went looking for Slytherin’s Monster and murdered a girl with it while still in school. Surely, he was beyond redemption by this point? Then again, what was Slytherin doing hiding a giant monster snake in the school? Apparently we’ll never know (my class had a mouse and that was considered exciting).
Tom wasn’t like good old Gelert going for World Domination (hence why he literally didn’t reach further than Britain). He wasn’t like his Death Eaters, who often seem to act out of passion. He couldn’t love, and therefore could he really care about much? Without love, could he really even appreciate himself? Or was the entirety of his life’s work simply to try to establish himself as a character, a person, or what? Was he becoming immortal, or was he becoming Lord Voldemort? And is there a difference?
Whether he was beyond redemption or not is a different matter entirely. When Harry appealed to Tom Riddle, at the Battle of Hogwarts, could he even answer? Born without love, named after a cruel but also abused man, raised without knowledge of who he was, was Tom Riddle ever real? It seems like just a name, that eventually was replaced with another that made more sense. There’s something empowering about choosing to name oneself. Maybe Tom Riddle never existed, all that existed was a child trying to become someone – and become someone he did.
But whether Tom Riddle’s becoming Lord Voldemort was down to nature or nurture is unanswerable. It was likely a combination of both, as most of these arguments tend to end.