I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.
The Vanishing Glass
Ten years have passed since the first chapter. Harry is still living with the Dursleys, who make him sleep in a spider-infested cupboard and generally treat him like crap. Harry’s tendency to subconsciously make use of his latent magical abilities doesn’t help matters. It’s Dudley’s birthday, and thanks to unusual circumstances, the Dursleys begrudgingly allow Harry to come to the zoo with them. Harry manages to have a good time until he accidentally frees a boa constrictor from its cage, which earns him yet another harsh punishment. Locked up in his cupboard, he speculates as to why strange things keep happening around him, and why he regularly meets oddly-dressed people who treat him with reverence before abruptly disappearing.
The Dursleys are at their most monstrous and most cartoonish in this chapter, save perhaps the next few chapters to come. We’re in very familiar territory here: the appallingly cruel family and the orphan who doesn’t know how special he is are tropes straight out of Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, and that whole Victorian tradition of subjecting literary children to major abuse.
More than anything, though, the Dursleys really remind me of the Wormwoods from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. They’re nasty, they play favorites with one kid while openly despising the other, and they indulge constantly in the worst that their culture has to offer while shunning anyone who tries to better themselves. In fact, Matilda shares a lot in common with the Harry Potter story: a very special, very talented, but most importantly good-hearted child has to put up with a poisonous home life and at least one evil authority figure at school before using magical powers to save the day. I was going to declare Matilda a major influence on Rowling until I looked at the copyright and discovered it was published in 1988. This came as a surprise. I had always assumed that Matilda, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, was published back in the ’60s, but no. Rowling says that she started writing Philospher’s Stone in 1990. She may well have read, and taken inspiration from, Matilda before that point; however, not enough time had passed for Dahl’s book to become a classic, so I can’t assume she was familiar with it.
Still, the parallels are striking, particularly the indictment of consumerism and materialism. This is how both Dahl and Rowling update the classic Victorian story for the modern age. The Wormwoods watch terrible television and are annoyed that Matilda reads so much. The Dursleys have spoiled Dudley so thoroughly that he only cares about the quantity of presents he receives; he’ll never ride the fancy bicycle they bought him, but he got it, which is all that matters. The selfishness, cruelty, and blindness to the true value of things is the same as it was in the 1800s, but it’s taken a new shape in the product-driven society of today. Yes, it’s a little ironic given how much Harry Potter merchandise would later flood the market, but I’m not going to take Rowling to task for that.
Anyway, back to the story. When I first read this book I thought it was pretty, well, cartoonish (a word I’m starting to abuse) that the Dursleys reacted the way they did to Harry’s displays of magic. Sure, it’s not uncommon for cruel people to blame everything on their favorite targets, but you’d think they’d be at least a little perplexed when Harry does something like grow all his hair out in one night, instead of just being angry. On this re-read, though, it makes more sense, because they know - or at least Mrs. Dursley knows - that Harry is using magic, and it is his fault, sort of.
Petunia’s own issues with magic won’t be fully explained until the last book, and they don’t excuse her awfulness, but they do cast her in a more human light. I’m not really seeing that here, though. Rowling wants us to relate to Harry and see his life as utterly atrocious. That will make his later transition to the magical world an unabashedly joyous one, with no doubts about leaving his old world among the Muggles behind. I don’t think Rowling considered it important to portray the Dursleys as flawed and human at this point in the series. Again, a big example of the books growing up with the readers. Moral ambiguity won’t come into play for a while.
Besides establishing Harry’s life as a ten-year-old and his burgeoning magical skills, this chapter has one more important factor to note: the snake. Specifically, Harry’s ability to talk to it. We’ll find out in the second book that Harry speaks Parseltongue, probably because of the little bit of Voldemort’s soul that he contains thanks to the flubbed Death Curse, and it’s all part of his uneasy connection to his worst enemy. I’ll comment on that more as we come to it. Right now, it just seems like another of his natural magical leanings, and not particularly ominous.
One more note: Harry gets to go along to the zoo because Mrs. Figg, the weird cat lady he usually spends Dudley’s birthday with, broke her leg. This is interesting becuase Mrs. Figg is actually a witch, as we find out later (in Order of the Phoenix, I think, although I’m not sure). This poses some questions. If she really broke her leg, can’t she just use magic to fix it? Unless she’s pretty inept, I would think a witch as old and presumably experienced as she is wouldn’t have much trouble with a simple non-magical injury. Perhaps something magical came up and she used the story as an excuse. I also wonder why Mrs. Figg never revealed herself, even implicitly, as a witch to Harry when he was younger; perhaps she explains this in the later book, but it seems a little odd that she’d be so restrained, given how famous he is and how odiously the Muggle world treats him.
And of course it’s also possible that Rowling didn’t originally intend for Mrs. Figg to be a witch, and just inserted that later on, but I’m going to try to avoid that kind of speculation. A good critique always assumes everything is intentional; otherwise it would be easy to get bogged down with go-nowhere conjecture. I’ll do my best to stick with that rule.
EDIT: Okay, I looked it up and she’s a Squib, with no magical abilities. Mystery solved!
Lots of letters await us in Chapter 3, next post.