In which Harry is begrudgingly included in Dudley’s birthday visit to the zoo and is sadly really happy about eating a lemon pop. He spoils a good thing by talking to a snake and somehow sets it free from its exhibit. Also, the Dursleys continue to be the worst.
The Vanishing Glass
Harry was used to spiders, because the cupboard under the stairs was full of them, and that is where he slept.”
Harry’s living condition is mentioned almost in passing here. It’s practically an aside. The Dursley’s exaggerated cruelty and how these lines are sometimes played for comedic absurdity reminds me very much of Roald Dahl. Because the situation is presented as ridiculous, it makes it bearable to read, particularly as a child. As a kid, this rolled right off me. “Oh, yeah, horrible people being horrible, got it” instead of imagining how terrible this would be to experience.
Aunt Petunia looked as though she’d just swallowed a lemon.” “And come back and find the house in ruins?” she snarled.”
Reader poll. Do you think this is just meant to be an exaggeration of how little she thinks of Harry? Or do you think there’s something here about what happened in Godric’s Hollow, when they really did find Harry in the middle of a destroyed house? It sounds like Dumbledore told Petunia this story in the letter he left her, and that’s what she’s remembering here. Which, in turn, could be read as fear for Harry, or just concern for her property. Still, it adds a layer here.
That car’s new, he’s not sitting in it alone…”
What on earth does Vernon think Harry will do to the car? Here’s another bit of Rowling writing these people and their fear in a way that is both funny and wretched.
The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.”
I love this. Some people think this is morbid or a sign of something darker, but I think it’s just a soon to be eleven-year-old kid digging a weird, unique aspect of his appearance.
Aunt Petunia, tired of Harry coming back from the barber looking as though he hadn’t been at all, had taken a pair of kitchen scissors and cut his hair so short he was almost bald except for his bangs, which she left to “hide that horrible scar”….New morning, however, he had gotten up to find is hair exactly as it had been before Aunt Petunia had sheared it off.”
This is followed by the anecdotes of a shrinking sweater, Harry jumping on the roof of his school, talking to the snake, and of course, the vanishing glass at the zoo. Like the Dursleys in the previous chapter, Harry doesn’t readily notice or identify magic, even when it’s something he’s doing. He’s about as mystified by it as everyone around him. It’s fantastic how these events are just odd, quirky incidents in his otherwise dull life. Bless his oblivious self. Also, I so wish I could grow my hair like this after a bad cut. #muggleproblems
But he wished he hadn’t said anything. If there was one thing the Dursleys hated even more than his asking questions, it was his talking about anything acting in a way it shouldn’t, no matter if it was in a dream or even a cartoon – they seemed to think he might get dangerous ideas.”
I’m so glad this chapter isn’t the tone of the entire books, quite honestly. It’s a brilliant set up for everything that happens next, but it’s so horribly oppressive. Again, Rowling is fantastic in how she exaggerates their actions to the point of dark humor, because this really is such a dreary atmosphere for an eleven year old kid. It’s hard to swallow. The magical fancy and the delightful new world are all the more wonderful because they are juxtaposed with this oppressive world where you can’t even share a dream or talk about a cartoon without someone jumping down your throat.
Lingering Questions and Oddities
- Dudley gets 37 presents for his birthday. I just tried to come up with 37 gift things I would like and can’t do it. Does that mean the child in me is dead?
- The snake at the zoo is NOT Nagini. I see that all the time on lists of Harry Potter Facts and it’s hot, stinking garbage. This snake is a boa, Nagini is a viper. No truth to the rumor, JKR didn’t say it, and it isn’t a thing. Stop spreading that around, people, before I lose it.
- Does any one feel a little sympathy for the Dursleys? I’m not defending them, but let’s be real, they have a lot of understandable baggage. Petunia is jealous and bitter because she wasn’t allowed access to something she desperately wanted. While her sister was at school they weren’t speaking, and they hadn’t spoken for several years when Harry was left on their doorstep. She doesn’t have any real knowledge of magic other than a vague understanding of Azkaban, that her sister went to a magic school and their relationship fell apart, and that her sister was murdered. That’s the extent of it. Vernon has that knowledge secondhand. It’s a completely foreign world that they have no positive association with, then a child who the darkest wizard of all time just tried to murder after successfully killing two adults is dropped on their door with only a letter. That little bit of knowledge is dangerous enough to make magic and magical people terrifying. Combine terrifying with a deep-rooted desire for normality and order, and you get the insanity of the Dursleys. They are terrible people, but there’s something more to this than unmotivated cruelty.