Recently I began re-reading the Harry Potter series. In part this was spurred by the films, but essentially I wanted to know how it held up now that it has been finished. When I initially read those first novels, I was young and knew little about literature. Now here I am in the middle of a Creative Writing Masters. It seemed to me to be an interesting exercise. To get through it, I’ve been reading a chapter each night before bed. I’ve just started The Prisoner of Azkaban.
One thought that occurs to me now is that the Dursleys got a fairly raw deal in the retelling of the story. Muggles as a whole get pretty terrible descriptions, with the possible exception of Hermione Granger’s parents. Even they are pushed into the background. Obviously, the magical world is the focus of the series, but to wizards, muggles seem laughably ignorant to the world around them. They bungle about, not really seeing and make up for magic with technology as a substitute. The Dursleys get the worst of it though.
Let’s start with Petunia Dursley, nee Evans, shall we? Of all the muggles, she probably gets the most character development. It’s largely in relation to her sister, as though she had no life other than the life she shared with her sister, but its character development all the same. In the beginning she’s characterised as nosy and spoils her son. This is clearly meant to come across as unlikeable, but I have this suggestion: these both stem from her knowledge of the magical world. Of all the muggles in the series, Petunia is the one muggle we know to have an understanding of the magical world before Harry enters into it. She is aware of this other world, hidden in plain sight. I don’t think she gossips and eavesdrops on her neighbours because she’s actually interested in other people’s business, but rather knowledge of the magical world has made her paranoid.
Think of it this way: there is something out there. It’s not just a hypothesis; she knows it to be fact. Her sister was a part of it. When she looks out her window, how can she help but wonder if her neighbour is a witch? Perhaps behind that Shed is a portal to another world? Is that cat really a cat? Knowing that there is, without a doubt, something greater than your eyes can see or your ears can hear out there has to have a crushing effect on your mental state. Her parents thought having a witch in the family was a marvellous thing. She must have wanted to see it, and be a part of it. She knows now that she can’t be. She never can be. Instead then, she rejects it totally. Not only does she look for it everywhere, but she rejects every mention of it and detests the very name of her sister’s family. Calling Harry a ‘common’ name is a good front, but she must know that Harry is a rarity compared to anyone in their whole family.
This absolute rejection affects Dudley too. Petunia, completely aware of how her parents lauded her sister for her magical qualities, dotes on Dudley because he isn’t. Such is her irritation towards her parents and her sister, that she is even happy that her son is nothing but normal. It doesn’t matter if he’s fat, so long as he isn’t magical. Then Harry Potter arrives, and she knows he has to be magical. There’s Dumbledore’s letter, but even without it, she knew of her sister and her husband. She must know that Harry must be a wizard, and within him is everything her parents saw in her sister. Afraid of letting Dudley feeling what she once felt, she swings to the extreme in the opposite direction: praising Dudley and treating Harry with complete contempt. The hatred isn’t directed at Harry himself, but at the magical world which he represents, and that she can never be a part of.
Vernon is a little more difficult to fully understand. His dislike of anything magical could simply stem from his wife. More likely is that, Vernon is a very dull, normal man, and it was for this reason that Petunia married him. In rejecting the magical world, she embraces everything that is normal and mundane. How else can you explain the attraction to a man whose main concern is drills? That is to say, he’s concerned with very normal interests, and Petunia probably found this extremely endearing.
Normal men have a habit of trusting normality like a comfort blanket though. Jack Kerouac was always eager to leave the world behind and hit the road. William Blake walked with angels in the evenings. F. Scott Fitzgerald ripped his heart out and put it on a page. Those are examples of abnormal men; people who raged against the standard and to whom normality was a crutch or a disease. Maybe they’re right, or perhaps they’re just crazy, but on the other side, a lot of their critics demanded realism and conformity. They held to the normal way; that there is a certain way of writing and publishing and what people should do in their spare time. Vernon seems to be one of these people. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it. Some people just enjoy the security of a normal life. In essence, anything that isn’t a regular part of their life breaks that normalcy.
The presence of Harry Potter ruins the order and control that Vernon has in his life. Much like Petunia, I suspect that he doesn’t actually hate Harry, but detests what he represents. Magic is rare and special. It doesn’t even work under normal laws, like physics. Any sense of order and control that Vernon has goes out the window when he accepts the presence of magic. I imagine he relishes the months that Harry is at Hogwarts because he can forget that magic even exists. The life, the world and the laws he knows so well and understands, even in the simplest sense, come back to him.
It’s not even really the case that his ignorance blinds him, because he is given absolutely no opportunity to learn of the magical world. He has it thrust upon him by strangers who do little to educate muggles. It seems the entire wizarding world lives under the fear that if they were to be revealed completely, muggles would rise up, en masse, and conduct a grand witch hunt. They are treated like animals; safe and stupid at a distance, but violent and dangerous in close quarters. Given that Grindelwald rose to power in Europe and was defeated in 1945, we can assume that the greatest human achievements and the darkest moments of history are both truly the work of Wizards. Furthermore, given the complete lack of information that the Prime Minister is even awarded during dire situations (such as the escape of Sirius Black and Voldemort’s second rise to power.), muggles are actively kept from understanding the magical world, even when it would benefit both sides. Vernon Dursley is given the slightest insight into this, but is denied any further understand. It is little wonder that this infuriates him, and unfortunately this fury is directed at the one magical being in his life: Harry Potter.
Dudley Dursley is by far the easiest to understand. As with so many children raised in a home of ideals and by parents with severe tautologies, they grow up to adopt these ideologies themselves, believing it to be normal. He sees his parents say and do one thing, and imagines this is ok, because his parents are doing it. Thus, he grows to hate magic as much as his parents but without any real reason for doing so. Yet, after Harry uses magic to save him, later in the series, he grows to rethink his opposition.
If J.K. Rowling were to ever return to the magical world of Britain, I would implore her to explore this concept. I for one would be interested in seeing how the world would come to terms with the muggle and wizarding world becoming known to each other. It could possibly be similar to the X-Men, with magic rather than mutants, but with her own stamp on it. In seven books she focused on the rise to power of one wizard, the war that followed and made reference to two wizarding wars prior. A story of social and political upheaval might be a nice change of pace from all the war and death. That is, of course, if J.K. Rowling isn’t sick of magic all together herself.