The Philosopher’s Stone, Chapters 1-2: It’s a Dursley World

Hello, present and future friends. Welcome to the very first post of the Harry Potter Medicinal Re-Read. Over the next six months, myself and thirteen of my internet friends will be writing our way through a re-read of the entire Harry Potter series. I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to turn out, what crazy things they are going to write, or even how many people will show up to play along with us. I’m hoping it’s just going to be a ridiculous amount of fun, and knowing how smart and talented my friends are (not that I’m bragging, of course), I think it’ll be really interesting as well. So since I don’t have a crystal ball to gaze into, and I never learned how to read the alignment of the planets, I’ll just leave you with the wise words of Albus Dumbledore: “And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”

– – –

the-boy-who-lived-bmpCHAPTER ONE: THE BOY WHO LIVED

Certain things are always mentioned when anyone talks about why it is that so many people love Harry Potter so very much: the hero’s journey, the fish out of water thing, the wish fulfillment thing (very deliberately not using the word ‘escapism’ here), Harry’s dual role as an Everyman and as The Chosen One, etc. But something that I never really hear people point to in this context is J.K. Rowling’s voice as an author. This is especially astounding to me not only because it’s the very first thing that drew me to this book, but also because it seems to me that her voice is what holds the rest of it together — all those other lovely, constantly shifting pieces of word and story. Right from the very first sentence of the very first chapter of the very first book, it’s obvious:

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Even as a thirteen year old, this seemed different to me than the usual stuff I read. It was polite yet sassy. It was saying things that were maybe a bit over my head, things about being an adult, but which nonetheless were amusing and stuck with me. Every time that I’ve read it since, though it’s read a bit differently to me each time, it’s never failed to suck me in, to the point where if I accidentally pick the book up and read the first sentence, it’s often not until I reach the end of the chapter that I realize I’m still reading. I have done this on multiple occasions (including the first time I read the book — I found it abandoned on the floor of my sister’s room, picked it up, read the first chapter, and then stole it from her; I still don’t think she realizes I ever did that) . And the way she introduces the Dursleys! Uncle Vernon with his thick beefy neck, Aunt Petunia with her long skinny one, and both of them caring way too much about what other people think of them.

I have always loved that our first glimpse of Harry’s world is through the eyes of his aggressively normal Muggle relations, particularly the expansive Vernon Dursley. We know from later books (more on this in a bit) that while Petunia may certainly pretend a hatred and ignorance of the Wizarding World, she’s not exactly what she appears. But Vernon — yeah, it’s pretty much all on the surface with him. He kisses his priggish wife and chubby son goodbye, and then he spends the rest of his day alternately missing signs of the wonderful that occur practically under his nose, and pushing those he does see under the dusty rug in his brain that is reserved for Things That Cannot Be (“the get-ups you saw on young people!”). But cats reading maps, owls fluttering all over the place, people in cloaks, a whisper of the Potters . . . and then this:

“Mr. Dursley stood rooted to the spot. He had been hugged by a complete stranger. He also thought he had been called a Muggle, whatever that was. He was rattled. He hurried to his car and set off home, hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before, because he didn’t approve of imagination.”

For as much as Vernon Dursley doesn’t approve of imagination, he sure does use it a lot — mostly to pretend things. In fact, both of the Dursleys are champion pretenders, pretending being the main way they get though their days. They pretend Petunia doesn’t have a sister named Lily, who was a witch who went away to Witch and Wizard school and who married a wizard; Vernon pretends here that nothing odd is going on around him, squashing down reality into little bite-sized pieces until it fits into his preconceived notion of What The World Should Be, until he can once again believe that he lives in a world where everyone is just like him. (I’m also thinking of an incident from the beginning of Chamber of Secrets when the Dursleys force Harry to stay shut away in his bedroom “pretending he’s not there” — this could actually describe their entire relationship with him, but there it’s just made more explicit than usual).

Even though I think Mr. and Mrs. Dursley are very entertaining on their own, all that excessive Dursleyishness makes what happens next seem all the more wonderful. After Vernon has finally manages to fall asleep, we meet Albus Dumbledore, who “didn’t seem to realise* that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome.” Dumbledore is the living embodiment of everything the Dursleys work so hard pretending doesn’t exist. As soon as he puts out all the lights on Privet Drive with his ‘Put-Outer,’ we forget all about the Dursleys. And then the cat who’s been sitting on a wall all day, reading maps and upsetting Mr. Dursley with it’s non-cat behavior, turns into a severe looking woman who Dumbledore greets warmly. (“How did you know it was me?” “My dear Professor, I’ve never seen a cat sit so stiffly.”) The interaction that follows does a lot of heavy lifting in a short amount of time. By the time it’s over and everyone except Harry has left Privet Drive, we may not know exactly the details of their lives, but we do know exactly what kind of people they are, and we’ve barely met them.

We also learn the bare bones version of Harry’s story: that the reason owls have been flying around all day and people in strange cloaks ruined Mr. Dursley’s day is that someone called Voldemort has — unbelievably! — gone from the world, that Voldemort was unspeakably evil (to the point where people are reluctant to speak his name), and that according to McGonagall, Dumbledore is the only wizard Voldemort ever feared (“You flatter me . . . Voldemort had powers I’ll never have.” “Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.”) We learn all of this in an organic fashion, piecing together the bits and pieces of McGonagall and Dumbledore’s, and later, Hagrid’s, conversation. She eases us into the story without resorting to clunky exposition. This is exactly how these characters would talk if this had really happened (WHICH OF COURSE IT DID). We get just enough information to understand what’s going on, and to tempt us to read further to find out more.

But the meat of their conversation isn’t in the veiled clues about Voldemort and Harry, or even the Wizarding World, it’s in the deep human emotions that these people display even from the very first chapter. It’s these same deeply felt emotions that clue us in to their characters:

“It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold hard wall all day, for neither as a cat nor as a woman had she fixed Dumbledore with such a piercing stare as she did now.”

While everyone else was out celebrating, McGonagall — who has to be the most stubborn, immovable woman I’ve ever read about — waited all day to hear news that was only going to devastate her. She is fierce and hard and very contained, and yet she feels things very deeply. It’s a really nice touch that when she starts asking Dumbledore about the rumors, that Lily and James Potter are dead, that Voldemort tried to kill Harry and failed, he can only bow his head. That he was only moments before yammering on about sherbet lemons makes his lack of words here even more notable. There’s real grief under there, grief he doesn’t have the words for at the moment, grief perhaps he doesn’t want to feel quite yet, and so he talks of Muggle sweets and scars shaped like the London Underground. And that’s Dumbledore’s character in a nutshell. Eccentric and kind on the outside, dark and unknowable on the inside. And then there’s Hagrid, a giant of a man who shows up on a flying motorbike with a sleeping baby Harry wrapped up in a blanket. Hagrid, wild and hairy, who gives baby Harry a big whiskery kiss before letting “out a howl like a wounded dog” at the thought of leaving him there. Hagrid, who McGonagall questions, but of whom Dumbledore says, “I would trust Hagrid with my life.” (This statements tells us two things: 1) That Hagrid and his appearance are strange even in the world these people come from, and 2) that Dumbledore is the kind of man who places his trust in people the general world mislikes.)

I noticed on this read through that she sets up Voldemort as the series antagonist in a very strange way (no idea on how many times I’ve actually read this chapter, by the way, although I do know it’s probably an obscenely high number). “After all he’s done . . . all the people he’s killed . . . he couldn’t kill a little boy?” McGonagall asks Dumbledore. So of course we’ve got the first hook of the story, the thing that will presumably keep us reading until we fall in love with the world and the characters and just can’t help ourselves anymore: How could a baby defeat a dark wizard, a fully grown man who we have just learned has powers even the wizened old man we automatically trust won’t use? This is the central mystery of the series, and it will keep unraveling throughout all seven books, but what I’m interested in is the way that she downplays his threat, treating the central mystery almost casually, like she’s in no rush to get to the answers. More importantly, Voldemort’s defeat is presented in such a hopeful manner in this first chapter (despite the tragic deaths of Harry’s parents). I think it’s important that the first time we hear about Voldemort’s defeat, it’s couched in terms of utter victory, like Voldemort is definitely dead and gone. Even up until book four, most of the Wizarding World takes it for granted that Voldemort is dead and the world is safe. It’s only later that we gradually begin to realize that Voldemort is still in the game, and I think his eventual resurrection in The Goblet of Fire is all the more threatening and forboding for how slow it takes to get us there. It gives us enough time to feel the same as the rest of the Wizarding World, and to dread their worst fears coming true. Will this really happen? Is it possible?

And of course, it’s fun on re-read to spot all the things that will come to mean much more later on: mentions as small as Ted Tonks the weatherman talking about owls (he turns out to be Tonks’ Muggle father), Sirius’s Black’s motorbike (the first time I re-read this book after reading Prisoner of Azkaban, I screamed out loud in surprise — his name had been there the whole time!), the Deluminator (which only gets a name in book seven), and stuff in chapter two as well: old Mrs. Figg, Aunt Marge, and Harry being a Parseltongue (which is explained only a book later). And of course, Harry’s scar, but I don’t think we should count that, as it was pretty obviously going to be important.

And so we come to the end of chapter one. Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid leave Harry on the Dursley’s doorstep with nothing but a letter containing secrets that he won’t learn until more than ten year later. Again, it’s such a mix of tragedy and hope.

“A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen. Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours’ time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, nor that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley . . . He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: ‘To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!'”

I love the mix here of quiet normalcy and mysterious goings on all around it, the way that all the things Harry doesn’t know are like promises to us as well, that there are many things to come of which we know absolutely nothing, and that like Harry, sometime soon we will find out what they are. So ends one of my very most favorite opening chapters in literature, and a wonderful beginning to a story that has stuck with me (is still sticking heartily as we speak) for a very long time.

*Please note: I’m working from my British copies of these books, so all my spellings will be British, as well as the other instances that were edited for American audiences in the Scholastic editions.

– – –


Since I’ve spewed verbosity all over chapter one, I’m going to limit my discussion of “The Vanishing Glass” a little bit. Mostly, I want to talk about the heightened reality Harry Potter takes place in, especially during the parts in the Muggle world.

Fast forward ten years and we learn that Harry has had a rather miserable childhood. His aunt and uncle and cousin treat him like scum. He’s forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs and wear Dudley’s old clothes. He’s underfed in the physical sense — he’s described as small and skinny for his age, with a thin face and knobbly knees, black hair and bright green eyes — but he’s certainly malnourished in terms of love and affection as well. He has no friends, as no one wants to get on the bad side of Dudley’s gang at school.

As a teenager reading this for the first time, I never questioned the logistics of Harry’s horrible situation. It seemed right to me that it played out the way it did. Having recently been a child (arguably, I still was one), I think I inherently understood the naturally powerless state of being a child, albeit one from a family who loved and cared for her. But I think even the most well-cared for child, unless they are incredibly sheltered, knows what it means to live in a world full of grown-ups who have their own set of rules that you just have to live by. For me and for Harry, these were just the rules of the world that Harry lived in. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley may not physically abuse Harry, but they certainly don’t care for him. He has to adapt to his surroundings in order to survive emotionally, sneaking out to get food, making the most out of accidental treats, like eating Dudley’s old dessert, or being forced to go to the zoo when Mrs. Figg breaks her leg. And he seems to be a hardy, scrappy little thing. He finds humor in the little things, makes do with his cupboard, and gets on with his life.

As an adult, I look at it a bit differently. If this was real life, Harry would most likely have been taken away from the Dursleys a long time ago, or more likely, the state would have shamed them into the pretense of caring for him properly (as sort of happens when they think they’ve been found out for making him sleep in the cupboard and move him into Dudley’s second bedroom). The fact that the Dursleys do such ridiculous things and aren’t punished for it lends me to believe that they are living in a heightened version of reality — this isn’t precisely our world we’re reading about, even when we’re not in the Wizarding World. Everything is just a little bit MORE. (Which makes sense for children’s literature, both because it’s more fun that way, and because children see everything as being bigger and more important and momentous than it actually might be — inversely, they also have a tendency to normalize things that maybe they shouldn’t. For example, “Harry was used to spiders, because the cupboard under the stairs was full of them, and that was where he slept.”)

Despite the horrible situation Harry is in, the whole chapter is rather lighthearted. The humor lets us know that as bad as things are, Harry’s okay really. I also think that Dumbledore would have stepped in if he thought Harry were really in trouble. (And as we learn later, he has his reasons for keeping Harry with the Dursleys, reasons besides wanting Harry not to grow up being famous for something he can’t even remember.) Certainly his time with the Dursleys keeps him humble. The Dursleys, especially in the earlier books, represent every bad thing about humans Jo could think of: greed, fear, laziness, cruelty . . . and their bad behavior has created a monster in their son, Dudley. They’ve trained him to put more stock in his possessions than in his relationships, spoiled him rotten, and taught him by way of Harry that the way to make yourself feel more important is by pushing other people down.

Harry certainly presents a target, with his latent magical abilities popping up all over the place. They always give me a chuckle, and it always upsets me that they didn’t do them justice in the movies: His hair growing all over the place, shrinking an ugly sweater so he doesn’t have to wear it, jumping up on the school roof to get away from Dudley and his gang . . . Any magical child in a normal situation might have cottoned on to what was happening, thought, is there something special about me? But the Dursleys were so intent on stamping out anything abnormal in Harry that he really seems to have internalized his non-specialness as a given (although I think it’s important to note that he never seems to have lost his own sense of self-worth). Even when the featured event of the vanishing glass occurs later in the chapter, after he’s just had a conversation with a snake, he doesn’t quite catch on. He seems to know something is off about the way the Dursleys treat him, but not quite what, and you can only tell by the littlest of comments: “they seemed to think he might get dangerous ideas.” This is Harry’s life, and he deals with it the best he can. All those strange things that happen to him, all his childish dreams of escape, they all add up to nothing as long he still lives with the Dursleys.

“When he had been younger, he had dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take him away, but it had never happened; the Dursleys were his only family.”

We leave Harry as he falls asleep in his cupboard, dreaming of a better life, thinking he won’t ever get one. Little does he know. Aaaaand scene.

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36 thoughts on “The Philosopher’s Stone, Chapters 1-2: It’s a Dursley World

  1. Lindsay says:

    Yaaaaaaayyyyy!!! I’m going to go read now.

  2. Dan says:

    It wasn’t until I started reading this post that I realized how similar Rowling’s writing is to Dickens, in the “polite yet sassy” way.

    And, not to jump the gun here, but I’ve always been astounded at the way the readers were able to watch Rowling’s writing evolve. More than anything else, that is the one non-narrative thing that I always take away from this series.

    • Ashley says:

      Yeah, I’ve never really thought about it before, but you’re totally right. Dickens is definitely an influence on her writing, the way that she focuses on creating communities of finely developed people, and then creates systems where those people can then interact with each other. She’s also really focused on class and family. Dickens also had a social activist bent to his writing.

      And yeah, I’ve especially noticed that evolution this time through. She just gets more and confident about what she wants to say and how she goes about saying it. By the last couple of books it’s just like HELLO. This is magnificent.

    • Cass says:

      Wow, this is a really great comparison! I feel like the way she just casually name-drops and introduces important characters early on in an insignificant way is also very Dickensian; the instance of this that sticks out to me the most is her mention of Grindelwald on Dumbledore’s chocolate frog card, which doesn’t get pay off until the last book. It’s very masterful, how Rowling does that so effortlessly. I adore it.

    • curryalley says:

      Regarding the evolution, I wonder if Rowling intended to have the books mature as Harry did or if that was a result of widening the audience as the popularity grew and of her own increased skill. Even so, the first two books are the most childlike (the way the Dursleys are described make them sound almost like picture book illustrations) but she deals with some sophisticated concepts in just the first few chapters: grief, sacrifice, loneliness, evil and does it well – and in a way that shows what is to come.

      • Dan says:

        I feel like it was a conscious effort on her part for the books to get more mature as Harry–and her audience–got older.

      • Ashley says:

        I feel like it’s a mixture of both. It was deliberate to expand the scope of the books with his age, but also, practice makes perfect, so of course she’s just going to get better as she goes, if she’s paying attention, and putting the same care and thought (or more) into the later books that she did for the first couple.

        I do remember the first swear word in OOTP really threw me. Uncle Vernon says ‘effing,’ and then later, Ron says ‘damn.’ I was like, shiiiiit, she’s not messing around here. And the swears go completely unremarked upon, like they’re natural.

  3. Jen says:

    Poor Harry. No friends, emotionally abuse relations. This is why I get so sappy later when he finds out the truth about himself. Even the first time I read it, I was just so thrilled for the poor little guy.

    You are totally right though, if this were real, there would be another character, the social worker, who was called by one of Harry’s teachers.

    Something I (sadly) just now realized, is how much this beginning part reminds me of Matilda, my favorite book as a kid.

    • Ashley says:

      I love Matilda! And you’re totally right. Dan was talking about Dickens being one of her influences, but I also think we’d have to be idiots not to include Roald Dahl. Talk about sassy. His stuff was a bit more out there, more I don’t know, fable-like? than Rowlings, but they both have really sharp wit and aren’t afraid to use it to skewer their subjects. Matilda’s parents! Oy. I think Harry actually gets the better deal here — at least his parents loved him, and he knows it.

  4. Alyssa says:

    Aaahhh, yay, I’m so excited!

    I love that first chapter and, as you said, our introduction to Harry through his “normal” foster family. It’s the perfect acclimation to the magic of the books, placing us in the real world but slowly building up to and hinting at the magic that’s to come. When the story finally brings us to, “Yer a wizard, Harry” it’s like letting out a breath I didn’t know I was holding the whole time.

    I also love how Rowling knew her characters so well that she maintained their individual personalities, quirks, and characteristics throughout the entire series, never deviating from the beginning to the end. Of course, she developed them wonderfully (a perk of having seven books to do so), but I love that after finishing the series, I can go back to the first book and Dumbledore’s, McGonagall’s, and Hagrid’s personalities are there, shining through in their introductions.

    • Alyssa says:

      Or “Harry, yer a wizard” – why did the movie have to switch it up?!

      • Ashley says:

        That scene in the movie bothers me SO MUCH. This is going to sound weird, but go with me here for a moment. Good scenes in movies are like music. They have a natural rhythm, and dialogue and camera movements and everything else should fit inside that rhythm. That scene has always felt off to me, like Chris Columbus cut things out of the script, fast-forwarded ahead in the song. In the book, that moment is built up to so well, and in the movie Hagrid just drops it on him like a ton of bricks. So bothersome.

        • Alyssa says:

          I totally get what you mean. I feel like there were a lot of scenes like that, actually, throughout the movies. This is jumping way ahead, but one scene that immediately comes to mind is the Harry vs. Voldemort showdown in Deathly Hallows. I understand they wanted to make it more action-filled and box office friendly or whatever, but the movie version of the scene felt so disjointed and took out all of the brilliant tension and suspense of that scene in the book. It didn’t have to be all action. It should have been tension and buildup, then action.

    • Ashley says:

      Yeah, she’s really really good at setting up the story so it builds and releases tension in all the right places. She rewards her readers, like, almost constantly.

      I’m sure she didn’t have every little detail of all her characters planned out, but she always knew who they were, what kind of people, so any backstory or detail she added later just . . . fit.

  5. Jennie says:

    Hooray! It is SUCH a different experience reading these books as an adult. I was in high school (I think?) when I started reading these and never blinked an eye at how Harry is treated by the Dursley’s (other than, obviously, realizing it was really fucked up) because that’s just how kids were treated by adults in most of the books I read (which…weird). Anyway. I’m not sure what my point was other than yay Harry Potter!

    • Ashley says:

      Jennie, WordPress flagged your comment as spam, even though you are a registered author on this blog. I just wanted to come here and comment on how stupid that is. WordPress is dumb.

      I think maybe there are a lot of children’s lit authors who have parental issues . . . or maybe it’s just that the most important thing in a kid’s life IS their parents, so of course they’re going to be a huge part of their literature?

  6. albumbly says:

    Yay! I’m glad I’ve read the first book so I can understand all of the things in this first essay. This must have drained you to write, m’lady.

    • Ashley says:

      Remember writing papers for college? It was like that, except fun.

      You should read the rest of them! And soon! Because I think we’re pretty much going to spoil the whole series for you if you keep reading.

  7. Gretchen Alice says:

    Ted Tonks! I don’t think I would’ve ever put that together. Awesome.
    I’ve always wondered if Piers Polkiss being described as having the face of a rat was some sort of early, alliterative tip-off about Peter Pettrigrew.

    • Ashley says:

      Yeah, she never outright names him, but later we learn that Tonks’ dad is a Muggle and a weatherman and his name is Ted, so it wasn’t hard to put the pieces together after that.

      Well, they both start with PP . . .

      • nundu says:

        I’m very late to the party, but Tonks’ dad isn’t a Muggle, he’s Muggle born! He is a wizard. And I’ve never heard certifiable proof that he was a weatherman…only discussion within the fandom. I think that’s a bit of fandom hysteria, like Mark Evans.

        Fantastic start for a reread, by the way. I’m really enjoying it!

  8. curryalley says:

    One of the things that works about the cupboard under the stairs is that it’s a metaphor even younger readers can understand. Children reading the book may not be able identify with descriptive language about loneliness and feeling like you don’t fit in and wanting to be loved but they certainly have those feelings and the image of growing up in the cupboard under the stairs conveys without getting bogged down in language.

  9. […] The Philosopher’s Stone, Chapters 1-2: It’s a Dursley World ( […]

  10. […] can also, if you like Harry Potter and FUN, start here with the very first chapter. I hope you’ll enjoy reading this project as much as we’ve had writing […]

  11. ladysugarquill says:

    I’m loving these!

    The fact that the Dursleys do such ridiculous things and aren’t punished for it lends me to believe that they are living in a heightened version of reality — this isn’t precisely our world we’re reading about

    Working at a school, I can tell you it is not. These things do happen, and people really do nothing 😦 After all, Harry wasn’t that obviously neglected – he had clothes and glasses and food on his table and he went to school. Child care services don’t bother finding out if children are happy, unless they arrinve to school full of bruises…


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