I have to question why anyone in J.K. Rowling’s magical world even needs glasses. Wizards can mend bones and straighten teeth with spells, grow bones and cure colds with potions. They can create a magical eye replacement that not only sends visual data directly to the wearer’s brain, but gives the wearer superhuman x-ray and invisibility vision. So why aren’t wizards similarly fixing their poor vision with spells? The Muggle world existing next to J.K. Rowling’s wizards already had non-magical means (refractive surgery) to do the same job. A spell to fix refractive errors makes perfect sense in a fictional world where spells can mend bones and straighten teeth. But no. The magical world doesn’t even seem to have contact lenses.
Seriously? The Muggles can fix a vision problem with surgery, but the wizards can’t do it with spells? At the very least, some optometrist in Diagon Alley should be selling Dr. Everclear’s Magical Contacts—Now with Enhanced Telescopic Vision! Or Chameleon Colors! Or Aura Detection!
That nitpick aside, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series includes a relatively high incidence of bespectacled characters. Harry wears glasses, of course, and so do Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall, Mr. Weasley, Mrs. Weasley (for reading), Percy Weasley, Rufus Scrimgeor, Professor Trelawney, Madam Pince the librarian, Ernie Prang the Knight Bus driver, James Potter, Moaning Myrtle, Mr. Borgin, and Rita Skeeter. (Luna wears Spectra-specs, but they, like sunglasses, don’t count.) Fourteen whole people with glasses in the same fictional universe is a rather high number. And Rowling doesn’t always fall for the stereotypes. Brainy Hermione and the emotionally vulnerable and initially bullied Neville, for instance, can see just fine, and none of the nerdy Ravenclaws wear glasses, either.
Still, the characters have disproportionally good vision. So often we’re back to the old fiction cliché. Glasses Mean Something.
Dumbledore? Really old brainiac. Mr. Weasley? Middle-aged nerd (think of his esoteric hobbies). McGonagall? Madam Pince? Old and brainy, with a generous helping of old-maid-schoolteacher and old-maid-librarian. Mrs. Weasley and Rufus Scrimgeor? Middle-aged. Percy? Young brainiac (he’s not emotionally vulnerable enough for a nerd). Myrtle? Emotionally vulnerable, unattractive bully victim. Rita Skeeter? Brainy and physically unattractive. Trelawney? I actually think Trelawney’s glasses might be a thematic statement: the self-proclaimed Seer can’t actually see.
What about Harry? Harry actually has bad eyesight—Hermione comments on it in Deathly Hallows (52)—but his bad eyesight rarely gives him any trouble, even when his glasses become inconvenient. Harry’s glasses signal his physical and emotional vulnerability, just like his small size and his cupboard under the stairs.
Harry’s physical vulnerability is evident from the beginning of the series. We first meet him injured by Voldemort’s curse, and he is continually injured during the course of the novels. Rowling also shows Harry’s physical vulnerability in his depiction as a perpetual target for bullies. We first see him as the victim of all three Dursleys. But the bullying doesn’t stay in the Muggle world. Draco Malfoy and his sidekick-enforcers Crabbe and Goyle bully Harry—or make some good attempts—at Hogwarts. Even the teachers sometimes bully Harry: Snape and Umbridge both bully Harry, though in all (un)fairness, Snape and Umbridge bully other students as well.
Harry’s glasses signal his weakness and emphasize his victimization: note that the glasses are broken at the beginning of Sorcerer’s Stone, and his family won’t have them fixed (20). (As far as I can tell, no one ever fixes them in the first book though Hermione repairs them during the first movie.) In Chamber of Secrets, Harry’s glasses are broken (again or worse) on his first Floo trip (49) and are repaired by Mr. Weasley (57). The cover of the American edition of Goblet of Fire shows Harry in broken glasses, though he should be able to repair them himself by that point.
Harry is emotionally bullied, too. He’s unloved at the Dursleys, “not wanted at home” as Draco taunts in Sorcerer’s Stone (195). Dudley ensures Harry has no Muggle friends (SS 120). In Chamber of Secrets, Harry is shunned as the supposed Heir of Slytherin and as a Parselmouth; in Goblet of Fire, students exclude him and mock him with the “Potter Stinks!” buttons because someone has entered him in the Triwizard Tournament; and in Order of the Phoenix, students initially are wary of him because of Cedric’s murder. In fact, Harry makes very few friends at Hogwarts: only Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Fred, George, Neville, and later, Luna. These friends stick with Harry despite persistent emotional bullying (generally; Ron goes off in a snit several times). The only time Harry seems truly accepted by his peers is when he wins Quidditch games.
Harry, like many guys with glasses, also is romantically vulnerable. He’s tongue-tied with Cho, offends Pavarti (who has a right to be offended), and is paralyzed with Ginny. Strangely enough, however, Harry is able to see where others’ romantic relationships are going and doesn’t consider Hermione as a potential girlfriend—not out of lack of romantic acumen, but rather because he senses Ron’s interest.
Despite these physical and emotional vulnerabilities combined with the glasses, Harry does not fit the “nerd” stereotype. Harry is a jock. He’s smart enough, and he can do well in intellectual pursuits, but he doesn’t always choose to. Though we often see him read books, many of those books concern sports. And there’s another wrinkle in the jock stereotype: Harry wears glasses even on the Quidditch pitch. Only once are his glasses a disadvantage in the game—when the rain fogs them, a problem that Hermione promptly rectifies (PoA 177). And Harry never breaks his glasses during Quidditch, not even when he falls from his broomstick in Prisoner of Azkaban (179).
What surprises me most, however, is that Rowling never shows anyone exploiting glasses as a very obvious disadvantage in an actual fight. No magical student, not even Draco Malfoy, ever curses or summons Harry’s glasses to beat him up or even make fun of him. This puts Draco ahead of Dudley Dursley, who presumably broke Harry’s glasses in a fight before the start of Sorcerer’s Stone, but it’s weird: usually bullies don’t flinch at making a victim more vulnerable. Even weirder, neither Voldemort nor any of his Death Eaters curse Harry’s glasses in an effort to disable or kill him—not even in the books’ final duel in The Deathly Hallows, when Voldemort knows his life is on the line. Snape doesn’t even go after Harry’s glasses when Harry is chasing him down after Dumbledore’s death in The Half-Blood Prince. Depriving Harry of his glasses would have stopped him in his tracks without hurting him. But no—Snape, like Voldemort, just has to show off his magic instead of doing the sensible and practical thing to end the fight.
Although glasses in Harry Potter are used, as elsewhere, as markers of age, braininess, vulnerability, and nerdiness, J.K. Rowling seems to have built two more meanings into glasses. The first is familial connections. Harry’s glasses associate him with his father, who improbably wears the same glasses that Harry does despite years of fashion changes. In fact, many of Harry’s father-figures have glasses—not only James, but Arthur Weasley and Dumbledore. Percy Weasley’s glasses also represent him as his father’s son: Percy is the only Weasley child to wear glasses, like his father.
Rowling also associates glasses with Animagi in the series. We meet a total of four Animagi, Professor McGonagall, Rita Skeeter, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew, and we hear of a fifth, James Potter. Three out of these five Animagi wear glasses, and for McGonagall and Skeeter at least, their glasses are so integral, so important, that the glasses transform into markings when the women transform into animals. We don’t know whether this happens with James, because we never see his actual Animagus form, only Harry’s Patronus. Still, it is striking that Animagi tend to wear glasses more often than not, and that those glasses sometimes transform with their owners. Perhaps an Animagus’s eyeglasses indicate his / her braininess—Lupin tells us in Prisoner of Azkaban that the process is difficult and dangerous, thus requiring intelligence and dedication (354). But this is overall a strange association; we don’t generally think of animals as needing glasses.
One final note: many sets of glasses disappear in Harry Potter movies. Several of the characters who specifically wear glasses in the book—Percy, Mr. Weasley, Rufus Scrimgeor—never wear them in the movies. McGonagall’s glasses are initially present but disappear eventually. Why? I don’t have an answer. It seems like a strange place to skimp on props, and eyeglasses, unlike contacts, don’t cause eye problems or allergic reactions. Maybe there are lighting issues, but the filmmakers manage with Harry and several other people with glasses. Or perhaps the filmmakers went with the old stereotypes, and decided that characters should lose the Glasses That Mean Something.