Analysis: The Boy Who Lived With Really Mean People

Amateur Analysis of Harry Potter Part 1

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Ch. 1-5 Analysis

The themes for this reading are family and belonging

Cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone book

The first five chapters of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (AKA Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) set the stage for the hero who will dominate seven books and a latter-day stage play. We are introduced to the Magical World even before before young Harry realizes that he is a part of it. We observe him being placed into the care of his Aunt and Uncle as an infant by a wizened and robed wizard and woman who can change into a cat. Not to mention the flying motorcycle that brings him to the village of Little Whinging where he will live the first eleven years of his life.

This week, we are looking at the first five chapters through the lens of family and, in the broader sense, belonging.

We are introduced first to the Dursleys who are “quite normal, thank you very much.” We learn very quickly that they are a rather bigoted pair who have clear ideas of what normal is and is not. Mrs Dursley’s sister, Lily, and her husband and son are firmly in the “not” column. When Mr Dursley witnesses and overhears some peculiar things he puts them out of his mind resolutely. As more strange things happen, he goes to great effort to protect his wife from the bad news that wizarding things might be afoot. He only tells her after a television report of a great number of owls in the daytime skies over Britain force his hand. In this sense, as twisted as it may seem to the reader, Mr Dursley is putting his family first, trying to protect them from a perceived threat. Belonging and being seen as the right sort of people is very important to the Dursleys. On Privet Drive, as in the world, a strong need to belong can paradoxically cause a person to become bigoted. By rejecting all who do not check the correct boxes of inclusion (race, religion, gender, economic rank, magical abilities, etc.) they reinforce their own self-concept of belonging.

But as much as the Dursleys wish it were not so, magical things are happening in Little Whinging. A animagus (a witch or wizard who can transform into an animal at will), a great wizard, and a half-giant on a flying motorbike are all conspiring on the dark street below the Dursley’s bedroom window to leave a very magical bundle on their doorstep, a wizard baby named Harry Potter, the Dursley’s nephew. So in a sense, Mr Dursley was right to feel threatened. His family’s “normal” and regimented existence was official under attack.

The idea of family is brought very much to the fore as we learn the tragic story that necessitates the delivery of baby Harry into his aunt and uncle’s care. His parents have been murdered by a wicked and powerful wizard. Harry himself surely would have been killed but he somehow resisted the dark magic of Voldemort, driving the latter away, presumably for good, to the great relief of the entire wizarding community. This tragedy will change Harry’s life in many ways, and the first way it will change is abundantly clear. Rather than live with loving parents who will nurture him and his gifts, he is to be raised by relatives who will, it is obvious even this early in the story, do all in their power to squelch anything magic or different within him.

I always wondered about Dumbledore’s decision to leave Harry with such unsuitable and distasteful people. Professor McGonagall’s protests echo my own — they will be unsympathetic and unkind– a fear that is borne out in further chapters for this reading. Dumbledore believes that the Dursleys will follow his instructions and tell Harry the truth of his past when he is ready. He feels that growing up away from the spotlight which his role in Voldemort’s departure has shone on him will be in Harry’s best interest.

In Hagrid, the half-giant wizard on the flying motorbike who spirited Harry away from terrible scene in Godric’s Hollow, we meet a character who will come to have a nearly parental bond with Harry later in this reading, underscoring the loss of family that Harry is subjected to early on.

“Could I- could I say goodbye to him, sir?” asked Hagrid. He bent his great, shaggy head over Harry and gave him what must have been a very scratchy, whiskery kiss.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Dursely family clearly resent Harry and show their disdain in every transaction with him. The way the his aunt and Uncle treat their son Dudley is a poignant counterpoint to the contempt they show Harry. Harry sleeps in a recessed cupboard under the staircase, even though it is later revealed that Dudley has two bedrooms to himself. Other contrasts are made, such as Harry being small and thin for his age while Dudley, ever a bully, is huge in comparison. The thing Harry likes best about himself, his lightning-shaped scar (which unbeknownst to him was left by Voldemort when he tried to kill Harry) repulses his aunt. They have no common ground.

On Dudley’s birthday he is belligerent at receiving fewer gifts than on his previous birthday (only 36 presents!) His parents rush to promise him more. I wonder as I read this why they spoil him so; is it misguided love, a fear of being rejected by him, a need to make a show of having a child who wants for nothing?

A planned family outing to the zoo goes awry for the Dursley’s when the childminder with whom they planned to leave Harry breaks a leg tripping over her cat and can’t take him. (No sympathy for poor Mrs Figg, just irritation that they have to take Harry!) Parenthetically, while Mrs Figg is portrayed as a mad old cat lady whom Harry dislikes visiting, I suspect she is rather kindly and he would do better to appreciate her, especially in the circumstances. Apparently, though not surprisingly, the Dursley’s have not got friends to call on to mind Harry. The only other option is Vernon’s sister Marge who “hates the boy.” They distrust Harry and are unwilling to leave him on his own and thus they are forced to bring Harry along.

All of this really highlights what an island the Dursleys are. They have no contacts, no friends to call on when they need help. Their rigid worldview and superiority have isolated them , which seems to suit them fine. Their notion of family is very narrow, not even including their actual nephew. Of course also evident is that Harry has no family ties, no friends, and no support system. It’s achingly clear that he belongs nowhere.

The Dursley’s distrust of Harry is really ill-disguised fear. We learn of several incidents over the years where magic seems to have been at play, protecting Harry. Harry himself has no insight about this. He knows nothing of his magical connections.

At the zoo, Harry meets a Brazilian python. The snake’s plight is a perfect a metaphor for Harry’s life. This charming creature was raised in close captivity, never knew his home or family and never experienced what it is to be among your own tribe in your own land. Dudley and his snotty friend Piers (named for Piers Morgan?? Hmm) tease the snake through the glass of his enclosure (much as they bully Harry) but Harry connects with him, they seem to instantly understand one another. He even understands the snake’s speech. The glass of the cage suddenly vanishes and the snake slithers out with a smile to Harry saying “Brazil, here I come… Thanksss, amigo.” (The boa, born in the zoo, still managed to pick up a smidge of Portuguese, it seems.) Once again it appears that magic has intervened without Harry’s control or knowledge. Of course, Mr and Mrs Dursley suspect as much and they punish Harry roundly.

“Oh these people’s minds work in strange ways, Petunia. They’re not like you and me,” said Uncle Vernon, trying to knock in a nail with the piece of fruitcake Aunt Petunia had just brought him.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Dursleys won’t allow Harry to talk about his parents or ask any questions about that. In my view, denying Harry knowledge of his heritage is diabolical and smacks of the type of tactics used to dehumanize victims during real world political and religious conflicts. Though Harry has no friends at school, largely due to bullying pressure of his cousin and his gang, he muses that he sometimes feels there are other connections out there, people who are strangers to him but treat him as if they knew him. The reader knows these are witches and wizards who recognize Harry as the hero who stopped Voldemort. This is comforting because we know that his people are out there and there is still hope for him to be part of this community. There is a family for Harry, if he can find it.

Letters from Hogwarts start coming for Harry and Vernon becomes increasingly frantic that Harry will read one. The last thing that the Dursleys want is for Harry to know the truth, for him to know that he is special, that his parents were magical or that there is a whole world out there waiting for him. Their desire to “stamp that rubbish out of him” may be terribly misguided protection, but based on the nearly automatic cruelty that they treat him with, it is easier to make the case that it is just bald-faced bigotry. Vernon takes off work, obsessed with preventing the inevitable. He knows that the facade he has created, the lies he has told, are about to come crashing down. And crash they do; letters start shooting out of the chimney and Vernon packs up the family and they flee in the car. Vernon brings them through treacherous conditions to a small primitive hut on an island in a stormy sea, letters following them at every stop. His need to preserve his self-concept of normalcy drives Vernon to put his whole family at risk, taking them from the safety of home to a cold, damp one-room shack in a thunderstorm. The irony of this is inescapable.

Harry’s savior comes in the very large shape of Hagrid, the same man who saved him in his crib and delivered him to Dumbledore. Hagrid is such a wonderful embodiment of family and love in this section. When he comes to the shack to deliver Harry’s Hogwarts letter in person, he immediately takes the protective and instructive role of a father figure. He opens a huge world to Harry from within that squalid hut. The family he describes to Harry and the world he opens to him gives Harry his first taste of belonging.

As Hagrid and Harry travel to Diagon Alley, they are stared at and are more out of place than Harry has probably ever been and yet, for the first time, Harry is with someone who loves him and with whom he belongs. I feel that Diagon Alley represents a transformative experience for Harry.

“…yet somehow, even though everything Hagrid had told him so far was unbelievable, Harry couldn’t help trusting him.”

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone

To me, Harry stepping into Diagon Alley is a metaphor for crossing a threshold from his old life of bondage and neglect into a life of mystery, knowledge, power, and the bond of family and friendship. I will always be grateful to Hagrid for the love he showed Harry then and always.

What are your thoughts on the first five chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? What do you think Rowling is saying about family? Comment below or– even better– pop over to our book club page and join the discussion boards then join the chat room for the episode on Twitch!

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