Yale inspires comparisons to Hogwarts. Gothic towers loom overhead while secret tunnels hide for the most clever to find. Residential colleges, like Hogwarts houses, define and divide us. The New Haven Green is our Forbidden Forest — best avoided at night. In “Ninth House,” Leigh Bardugo ’97 extends this comparison one step further, creating a magical world centered in New Haven. “Ninth House” is a magical realism novel about Yale’s secret societies. Yale’s institutional power manifests in these enchantments. As a Yale student, the book feels more factual than fairy-tale. Familiar scenes fall from the pages: snoozing in Sterling Library, hearing the Harkness bells as you rush to class and avoiding eye contact with your dean in the Jonathan Edwards dining hall.
Some reminders are less quaint. Bardugo’s story reveals how she, a Yale alumna, believes the institution serves its own self-interest by abusing locals and students alike. She recalls the colonialism of Yale’s collections, the gentrification of New Haven’s neighborhoods and the racist stained glass windows in Grace Hopper née Calhoun College. For better or for worse, her portrayal is honest. By grounding the reader in the Yale routine, Bardugo cements the reality of her story. She uses magic spells and rituals to highlight existing injustices.
Bardugo juxtaposes the outsider perspective of her narrator with the reader’s presumed knowledge of Yale to force us to reexamine the evils of this institution. Alex Stern, the narrator, quite literally possesses the gift of sight; she can see ghosts, or “Grays,” an ability others can only gain by drinking a poisonous potion. Alex knows Yale’s undead victims haunt this campus. She stares at their decaying faces every day. Bardugo employs this supernatural element to personify Yale’s troubled history. There is only one way to defeat Grays. They retreat upon exposure to memento mori — reciting literature pertaining to death is a particularly effective repellent. At Bardugo’s Yale, the only way to survive is to memorize long passages without any actual engagement. The words’ power lies in their remaining unchallenged. Bardugo’s opinion on Yale’s pedagogy is clear: Shallow efforts beget reward. Bardugo is more overt later in the novel, calling academic prose “an entirely different language” that dissuades Alex, a self-proclaimed reader, from engaging in her English classes. Every incoming first year learns to expect this elitist academic culture. Bardugo challenges us to refuse to accept this and reject meaningless work that kills our passion while providing little in return.
In “Ninth House,” the institutional infractions are more insidious than snobby first-year seminars. Yale leeches off of New Haven, stunting the city’s growth and mutilating its citizens. The book centers on the murder of Tara Hutchins. Though Yalies send thoughts and prayers — that is to say, mourn performatively — her death is unimportant because she’s unaffiliated with the institution. For Yalies, New Haven is little more than a backdrop. Only Alex looks close enough to see that a Yale administrator, Dean Sandow, orchestrated Tara’s murder to eschew financial ruin. No Yale alumna is ignorant of Yale’s involvement with New Haven’s stratification, gentrification and bankruptcy. As a student, Bardugo watched her alma mater exploit its environment, driving her to write about the bribery, mutilation and murder of New Haveners on Yale’s behalf. Yale’s oppression leaves no question why “this town has been fucked from the start,” as a lifelong citizen of New Haven remarks in the book’s 17th chapter.
Though they are (tuition-paying) members of the university, Yale’s students also suffer from the university’s mistreatment. A lacrosse player sexually assaults Alex’s roommate Mercy, and the girls refrain from filing a report because they know an NCAA champion is more important to the university than a random first year. The magical world faces a similar case later in the novel; when a ghost assaults Alex, Dean Sandow suggests that she did something to provoke the specter, all but saying that she was asking for it. He makes these claims even though he surreptitiously organized the ambush, threatening Alex’s life and manipulating the situation to undermine her credibility. There were no witnesses to Alex’s attack because she is the only one who can see ghosts. This mirrors sexual assault cases in which the burden of proof relies on victim testimony and little other evidence. This impossible evidentiary standard, combined with a culture of victim blaming, creates an environment of institutional gaslighting. Sandow rejects Alex because he does not want to endanger his funding, just as colleges across the country discredit women who speak out against their more powerful abusers. One in four women in college experience sexual violence. Money matters; student safety is secondary.
Privilege is insufficient protection against Yale’s power. Alex and her mentor Darlington are the only two members of Lethe House, the fictional secret society whose responsibility is policing the other societies. They are the most powerful students on campus (magically), and yet they are still victims of Yale. Although Dean Sandow failed to kill Alex, he successfully murdered Darlington. I personally find it impossible to respect a character who calls himself “Darlington,” but he is exactly that: the school’s darling. He still dies. Yale educates some of the most privileged teenagers in the world — any kid in section could secretly be a billionaire. Bardugo asserts that Yale prioritizes itself over its students, whomever that student is.
Dean Sandow and Head of College Belbalm, the secondary antagonist, represent Yale’s administration. Their transgressions prove that Yale disregards its victims, whether they be anonymous locals or prized students. Open invitations to office hours obfuscate Yale’s position that human life is less important than the University’s reputation, longevity and monetary gains.
Darlington and Alex’s contradicting attitudes toward magic exemplify their contrasting levels of belief in the system and determine their inevitable fates. To put it frankly, Darlington drinks the Kool-Aid and Alex dumps her cup. Darlington believes “there should be more magic” in the world but Alex believes the stuff is “never good or kind.” To him, magic is otherworldly. It is salvation. But Alex knows that magic is power, and power cannot exist without oppressing the powerless. These same outlooks, Darlington’s faith and Alex’s skepticism, apply to their trust in authority. Darlington believes his superiors enact justice. When he learns about crimes in Alex’s past, he feels the duty to report her to Dean Sandow. Although he never gets the chance to do so, his efforts would have been fruitless because the dean already knew and he ignored it. Alex, on the other hand, knows that systems fail. She circumvents institutional channels and holds those guilty of rape and murder accountable for their actions. Trusting institutions, whether supernatural or scholastic, is futile. They fail to serve justice and they fail to save their dependents. Darlington is a believer, but Alex survives.
Leigh Bardugo knows how it feels to be a Yalie. She understands the cognitive dissonance between feeling grateful for Yale’s opportunities and guilty for its sins. Unfortunately, “Ninth House” proves that even magic fails to soothe this headache. The same can be said for Harry Potter fans attempting to reconcile J.K. Rowling’s deeply transphobic beliefs with their love for the series; even Hogwarts is unsafe. There’s nothing wrong with embracing our college experience, but that comes with the responsibility to assess the impact of our actions. While we traipse through our Bright College Years, it is essential to ask ourselves what shadows we’re casting.
Jordan Fitzgerald | firstname.lastname@example.org