Draco Malfoy is a catalyst, a source of information, a bellwether and a lesson: the boy who made all the wrong choices. He is Harry Potter’s rival and spurs Harry on. Draco is the best mate who wasn’t, the unfriend. Despite himself, despite Harry, Draco guides the Trio. He is the ferret in the enemy camp. The poisoned grapevine. He is Radio Slytherin. Death Eater TV.
As an antagonist, Draco hits each of the Trio at their weak points, but pushes them to greater heights. They all quarrel with him. They all punch him. He niggles and upsets them in similar and disparate ways. He provokes Harry’s fear of not belonging, poor-boy Ron Weasley’s feelings of being second best and Hermione Granger’s status as an outsider, a Muggle-born. He illuminates their ignorance (despite his own). He brings them society’s harshest criticisms, which turn out to be a prediction. He fires up the Trio’s sense of injustice. Draco is the original and most constant of a series of bullies produced by the magical world. He is the first clue that wizardkind has the same problems as Dursleyland. He prepares the Trio for the challenges to come.
Draco is the first character to mention the school Houses, Quidditch, duelling and Azkaban. He introduces the word Mudblood and the concept of class. His dickery with the Remembrall makes Harry the youngest Seeker in a century. He encourages Harry’s debut Hogwarts sneakabout in Book One’s “The Midnight Duel” and is first to engage Harry in a wand fight, in Book Two’s “The Duelling Club”. He is the first tyrant that Neville Longbottom challenges, another whisper of the future: “I’m worth twelve of you, Malfoy.” The persecution of Buckbeak launches Hermione’s career as a defender of magical creatures.
Draco correctly identifies Ginny Weasley as Harry’s would-be girlfriend and, ironically, Ron as the king of Keepers. Indiscreet, he drops gossip on Hagrid and his own father. His disregard for Dobby, so much like Sirius Black, contributes to the House-elf’s shift of loyalty to Mr Potter. Draco drives Harry and the Weasleys to sporting triumph. He reignites Ron’s dormant brain: the escape from the Inquisitorial Squad via tainted sweets in ‘Order of the Phoenix’.
Such is Draco’s value as a trusted source that in Chamber of Secrets Hermione spends months surreptitiously making Polyjuice Potion for five minutes with Draco at Christmas.
Draco is not raised to be a Death Eater. He is raised to rule. An only child, he is expected to be number one, under pressure to be number one, top gun. Narcissa and Lucius, ma and pa Malfoy, teach Draco that the wizarding world belongs to them. And then the Trio prove otherwise. Draco’s instinct is to befriend and to help Harry Potter. Instead, he is coldly knocked into the sidelines. Harry, not Draco, becomes the school’s hero. Ron takes Draco’s place as the hero’s best friend. Hermione is the top student of the year. As things don’t go his way, Draco defaults to his father’s ideas: about poor families and Mudbloods and bribes and Hogwarts going to the dogs.
“He’s sensitive, people bully him, too, and he feels lonely and hasn’t got anybody to talk to, and he’s not afraid to show his feelings and cry!”
– Moaning Myrtle on Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter and the Half–Blood Prince
Draco represents privilege, entitlement and snobbery. He wields wealth and knowledge like a mace, relighting Harry’s anxiety. On the Book One train ride to Hogwarts, Draco warns Harry about “the wrong sort”. In their first encounter in the robe shop, after establishing that Harry is going to Hogwarts and some bravado about brooms, Draco asks: “Know what House you’ll be in yet?” These comments foreshadow the Sorting Hat, presented in the following chapter, and reveal Draco’s own anxiety. Despite his drawl and swagger, Draco needs the Hat’s endorsement, which confirms his status as a true Slytherin, not a shameful Hufflepuff (the wrong Sort). Won’t father be pleased!
Draco targets the Trio’s weaknesses because he has the same weaknesses. Draco’s early life is almost as weird and troubled as Harry’s. Another summer baby, Draco is born at the height of Voldemort’s ascendancy. His father and aunt are high-ranking Death Eaters. He is a child of the revolution. And then, oops, Bellatrix goes to Azkaban and Lucius Malfoy must pretend he was under the Imperius Curse, the Albert Speer excuse: I had no idea. Daddy Malfoy escapes gaol but not suspicion. The Malfoy name is an exemplar of old money blood purity and right-wing trash. Dark artefacts are hidden under the floor. Lucius’s own face becomes the mask that hides his true politics. The mask of honest citizen, honourable statesman, maintains the Malfoys superficially. Galleons do the rest.
Harry makes Draco feel inferior. Harry and Hermione remind Draco that he is on the wrong side of history, and best him at every turn. But Ron represents all that Draco fears. The Malfoys could have lost everything when Voldemort fell: status and wealth and daddy in Azkaban. While Professor Dumbledore is headmaster, Draco (not Harry) is the one who stands apart, isolated. Draco does not belong. Draco is second best. Only Dolores Umbridge recognises Draco’s worth, a short-lived elevation. Harry does not realize, but Draco is jealous of him.
Draco shares Ron’s desperate craving for approval. The attendance of lunkhead companions Crabbe and Goyle screams insecurity. Draco’s father belittles him. Voldemort, his sorta stepfather, abuses him. Professor Slughorn rejects him. Draco is not so lucky in father figures as Harry. How would Draco have fared with Dumbledore, Remus Lupin and Sirius in his corner? Harry was fated to be in opposition to Voldemort: the Dark Lord killed his parents. Draco, compromised, must make more complicated choices.
Draco is at his most creative when acting as Slytherin’s version of the Weasley Twins: stoking conflict, ragging on the other team, “Potter Stinks”. A natural agitator and gossip, Draco is Rita Skeeter and the Daily Prophet’s perfect Hogwarts source during the events of ‘Goblet of Fire’. Mischief not mayhem. But when the chips are down, Draco is devoid of ideas. His plot against Dumbledore borrows the Room of Requirement from Harry/Dobby, the Protean Galleons from Hermione, and the Vanishing Cabinet and Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder from the Weasley Twins. Finally, he is bailed out by Snape. His role comes to nothing more than Year Two spell “Expelliarmus”.
That said, Draco has gifts. He masters Occlumency where Harry cannot. Repairs the Vanishing Cabinet. Employs the Imperius Curse on Madam Rosmerta. Flies well. Outstanding in Potions. And he can write a catchy song. But Draco is distracted by the chip on his shoulder, or from the Golden Snitch that is right by his ear. Reprogrammed, Draco would be an excellent addition to Team Harry. Each book’s mysteries would be solved in a single term.
In Book Two, young Malfoy revels in the attacks at the school, believing the Heir of Slytherin will raise him up, the purest of Purebloods. His reasoning is base: Hermione, the Muggleborn, “the other kind”, has beaten him in grades, which Lucius implies is a humiliation. Four years later, Draco takes the Basilisk’s place. He becomes the monster that hurts kids at Hogwarts.
In the Mirror of Erised, Draco would be the Chosen One. When the Trio visits Malfoy Manor in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and Draco face each other, as if looking in a mirror. This is a brief moment of detente. They see each other anew. Harry, his face swollen by Hermione’s stinging jinx, pities his terrified blond rival. Draco recognises that the hero life, Harry’s life, is not to be envied, and refuses to sell him out. He briefly banks on the Chosen One.
Draco reflects several other characters. He is James Potter, wealthy and well-cared-for and a bully. He is Severus Snape and Barty Crouch Jr, drawn into the dark stuff. He is young Dumbledore, high on his own superiority. He is Regulus Black, out of his depth. He is his father, the Dark Lord’s squirming agent. And he is very nearly Moaning Myrtle, dead on a bathroom floor.
Harry denies Draco his friendship. At the end, Crabbe and Goyle reject Draco too. Like Voldemort, Draco has no real friends. And while Lucius is pulling Fudge’s strings, Draco needs no friends. Status is honey. In contrast to slick orphan Tom Riddle, posh boy Draco is no more charming to his fellow Slytherins than he is to the Gryffindors. He is unpleasantly superior until cold reality strikes in Book Six. Later, he is forced to perform torture and witness murder, which repulse him. Unlike Crabbe and Goyle, who make cruelty a lifestyle, Draco wants a nice world (with himself as the warm centre). Draco and Harry are both Seekers, they both need to know. They both suffer Voldemort up close. But only Harry has been blessed by Saint Lily. Draco must suffer an ordinary, living mother who loves him.
Funnily enough, Harry cannot tell the wrong sort for himself. He overlooks Professors Quirrell and Moody and incorrectly identifies Snape as a villain until the very end.