I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.
The Letters From No One
Harry receives a mysterious letter in the mail, but before he can read it, the Dursleys confiscate and burn it. More letters follow. Uncle Vernon nails up the mail slot, but the letters find their way through the cracks in the doors and even shoot down the chimney at high speed. An increasingly crazed Uncle Vernon takes the family on an impromptu road trip to escape the letters, which chase them across the country all the way to the coast. Uncle Vernon rents a shack on a tiny island, convinced that with the approaching storm, no one will be able to find them. Harry lies awake on the shack floor, counting down the minutes until his eleventh birthday, when suddenly he hears a loud knock on the door.
I still really enjoy this chapter. We’ve had a lot of buildup in a short span of pages, but the Dursleys are finally getting what’s coming to them, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the gleeful anticipation.
This is the first point in the book where we really get the sense of the character of magic: mischievous, but still polite and proper in a very British way. Much like Dumbledore, in fact; I was reminded of the floating glasses of mead Dumbledore serves the Dursleys much later in Half-Blood Prince, which clunk themselves against their recipients’ heads when no one drinks them. Magic is the perfect foil for the Dursleys: like one of those inflatable punching dummies, the harder they try to knock it down, the faster it’ll spring back up, smiling implacably and refusing to get ruffled by anything they do.
This chapter is also where Rowling really starts to hit her stride as a writer. Compared to the first two chapters, there’s not much summary, and the narrator almost never comments on the action. We’re simply invited to observe as the characters interact with each other. Scenes like this reinforce the characters without having to blatantly reiterate any of their traits:
They heard the click of the mail slot and flop of letters on the doormat. "Get the mail, Dudley," said Uncle Vernon from behind his paper. "Make Harry get it." "Get the mail, Harry." "Make Dudley get it." "Poke him with your Smelting stick, Dudley."
There are some other nice, economical moments throughout. I liked this one, which describes Uncle Vernon as he nails boards around the edges of all the doors and windows in the house:
He hummed "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" as he worked, and jumped at small noises.
There’s a real patience to this chapter, and a confidence in the writing that wasn’t quite there in the first two. The only thing missing is description. The family spends two whole days driving across England, but we get no specifics about their surroundings for any of the trip. There are mentions of “a plowed field,” “a suspension bridge,” and “the outskirts of a big city,” and that’s about it. We get a little more detail once the family reaches the coast and heads out to the shack on the rock, but not much:
It was freezing in the boat. Icy sea spray and rain crept down their necks and a chilly wind whipped their faces. After what seemed like hours they reached the rock, where Uncle Vernon, slipping and sliding, led the way to the broken-down house. The inside was horrible; it smelled strongly of seaweed, the wind whistled through the gaps in the wooden walls, and the fireplace was damp and empty. There were only two rooms.
Rowling’s best-known strength as a writer, arguably, is the care with which she builds her imagined world, but we’ll have to wait until Diagon Alley before that really kicks in. At this point she seems to be most interested in moving the story along and getting to the good bits, which again feels like a concession to young readers. We’re left to fill in a lot of the scene’s details on our own: how choppy and bumpy the water is, how much of a strain all that rowing is for an overweight man like Uncle Vernon, how big and steep the island is, etc.
Still, this is a solid chapter. The misery of Harry’s existence is well-established at this point, so it’s fun to watch this last gasp from the Dursleys before Hagrid sweeps in and changes everything. We’ll get to that in Chapter 4.