Not only do we get to see a peek into Lord Voldemort’s family history, but we also get a glimpse into his childhood. Through the Pensive, we see Dumbledore meeting Tom in the orphanage – which honestly reminded me a bit of Annie, though that’s supposed to be a group or foster home (depending on which version you’re watching) and not an actual orphanage.
But I digress. The point is that we get at least a tiny glimpse of Tom’s upbringing, and it raises some very interesting questions about nature vs. nurture and that sort of thing (I’ll get into that more later, though). Because it’s pretty clear that Tom already has a sense of superiority about himself, that is probably disproportionate to his actual situation as an orphan dependent on the charity of others. And it’s clear that he’s already got something of a sadistic streak – he’s clearly stolen from the other children, and the headmistress has a pocket full of stories that she believes are tied to him, though she doesn’t have proof. He was flexing his evil muscles at a very young age, it’s made clear.
But it raises the question – what if he wasn’t dependant on charity, and borderline neglected? What if his mother had lived, and possibly found a new husband or a strong support system, and he had grown up with adults who were attentive to him and he didn’t have as much unsupervised time – in other words, if he didn’t get to practice those evil muscles before arriving at Hogwarts – would things have turned out differently? If he had been surrounded by love and family and happiness, would the evil part of his personality have developed as fully? Or would he have simply become an Umbridge, devoid of compassion or empathy but without a drive for genocide?
The books strongly hint that nature is stronger than nurture, and that we’re born good, evil, or somewhere in between – but I wonder how different the wizarding world would be if Tom Riddle had had a happy childhood.