Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 2-4.
These next three chapters basically describe Harry’s life at the Dursley’s (its terrible) and the reveal that he is a wizard. I am aware that the quote above is from the movie and not the book but it is a rare example of where I think the movie line is better. It was also used in like all the promotional material so it is stuck in my brain. We are also now firmly in Harry’s POV. I don’t think there is another chapter from outside of his POV until Book 4.
Harry’s Life at the Dursleys
Chapter 2 picks up 10 years after the first one and we learn that Harry has, unsurprisingly, been neglected and abused by the Dursleys this whole time. This being a children’s book a lot of the tone is still light and kind of whimsical, but if you really think about it, someone should be calling Child Protective Services (or whatever equivalent they have in England). They make him sleep in a cupboard under the staircase and when he is punished they don’t let him out. That alone should get Harry taken away. They treat him like their maid, he cooks and cleans while they yell at him.
In contrast to their hatred of Harry is their obsession with Dudley. Petunia has many revolting nicknames for Dudley including, “ickle duddykins” and “dinky duddydums”. They spoil him rotten, giving him 37 presents for his birthday, which he is not satisfied with so they agree to get him two more. There is a running joke throughout the series of the Dursley’s being blind to Dudley’s terribleness, always making ridiculous excuses for him.
Harry Discovers He is a Wizard
In the upcoming school year, Harry is supposed to be attending public school while Dudley is going to go off to private school. This makes Harry happy because he at least won’t be at the same school as Dudley anymore.
But then one day he gets a letter. Harry has never gotten a letter before because no one knows him. The letter is very specifically addressed to Mr. H. Potter, the Cupboard Under the Stairs. Vernon and Petunia snatch the letter away before he can actually read it and they are horrified by what it says. They refuse to tell Harry, or Dudley, what the letter is about and hope that it will just go away. But the letter sender is persistent and continues to send letters, each time addressed to Harry’s most current location. Afraid that the letter sender has been watching them, and knows that Harry has been kept in a cupboard, they move Harry into Dudley’s second bedroom where he stores all of his broken and unwanted toys.
A cat and mouse chase begins with the letters and Vernon. All of this is pretty amusing as both parties are determined to win, no matter how ridiculous things get. Vernon camps out in front of the mail box so that Harry can’t get the letter before him. He tries to board up the mailbox but the letters just find other entrances to the house. Vernon brings them to a hotel out of town and the letters find them there. So he brings them to the most remote place he can find, a cabin on the top of a cliff out at sea. But the letter still arrives, addressed to Mr. H. Potter, The Floor, The Hut-on-the-Rock, The Sea. This time though the letter is hand delivered to him by Hagrid.
What has never really made sense to me is why the Dursleys are so averse to Harry finding out he is a wizard. If they hate him wouldn’t they want him to go away to boarding school? This way they only have to deal with him for a couple of months a year. They don’t have to spend money to keep him alive, or remember his existence. I can understand that they don’t like even knowing that he is one and off at magic school, but the lengths they go through to keep him doesn’t make sense.
Hagrid and Dumbledore though will not let them keep Harry from his destiny and Hagrid comes to completely change Harry’s life. He is a wizard and a famous one, even if he has never known. Harry fits the classic reluctant hero profile. As we will learn, Harry really isn’t anything special, but fate has decided that he is and there is nothing he can do about it.
- Mrs. Figg – the old lady neighbor that the Dursleys stick Harry with when they go out. She is later revealed to be a spy for Dumbledore. This seems like something that wasn’t planned because it doesn’t fully fit. If Mrs. Figg was planted by Dumbledore to keep an eye on Harry, wouldn’t he know that Harry didn’t have any idea that he was a wizard? That the Dursley’s treated him terribly? Is she not passing information on?
- Harry’s ability to talk to snakes. This is not a common skill at all but isn’t really brought up again until the next book.
- While reading Chapter 3, “The Letters from No One” I thought, why didn’t they just send a Howler? Then Harry would definitely hear it. I think the simplest answer is that Rowling hadn’t thought of them yet, and it would make it all a little too easy. It is much more fun this way.
- Harry’s dreams. He has dreams that are really more like memories/prophecies – the flying motorbike, the green flash of light, the cold, cruel laugh of Voldemort. Harry was only a year old when these things happened and thus he shouldn’t have any memories of it. But we will later find out that his scar is a connection to Voldemort and it is part of his curse that he has to relive these things.
- Hagrid tells Harry that he looks like his father but has his mother’s eyes, this will be said by every adult character in the series at some point.
- Hagrid mentions that he doesn’t think Voldemort had enough human left in him to die. This is something that Hagrid says as just kind of an insult but turns out to be true.
- He also says that some of Voldemort’s followers seem to come out of a trance after he vanished – this is the Imperious curse
- Hagrid is loyal to Dumbledore because he gave him a job after Hagrid got kicked out of school. We learn that Hagrid isn’t supposed to do magic because he never went past his third year at Hogwarts. Harry asks him why he got kicked by Hagrid evades the question.
J.K. Rowling injects a lot of humor into these books and the best moments are the ones that are often not really called attention to. She is very good at mentioning things that are happening in the background of the scene and just leaving it there. Some moments are more overt – such as all of Vernon’s ridiculous attempts to keep Harry’s letter away from him. But these are those smaller moments that stuck out to me:
- We learn that Harry has some sass in him. When Dudley asks him if he wants to practice getting heads flushed in toilets Harry responds, “the poor toilet’s never had anything as horrible as your head down it – it might get sick”. This sass of Harry’s is a thread throughout the series (specifically with the Dursleys) and a trait that I feel was very underplayed in the movies.
- An understated part of Chapter 4 is Hagrid just randomly pulling things out of his jacket. After he barges in he starts a fire and roasts sausages for him and Harry. He later pulls a live owl out of his pocket too.
- Harry is insulted initially when Hagrid yells at Vernon that Harry doesn’t know anything and Harry thinks he means in general and he is like I mean I’m not an idiot…. I can do math… a skill that is not valued at Hogwarts.
- Vernon insults Dumbledore to which Hagrid gets very angry about – he is very loyal to Dumbledore – and he gives Dudley a pig’s tail in retaliation.
For the purposes of building up Harry’s story these chapters are important for understanding what the first 11 years of his life were like. It will inform much of his character later on. But the pacing is a little slow. A common critique of the books in general is how much time is spent on the Dursley’s at the beginning of every book, which personally only really bothers me in this book. We get that the Dursleys suck and the much more interesting part of the book comes once Harry is at Hogwarts, but it takes a long time for him to get there. It takes like a third of this not very look book to get him to Hogwarts. Once he is there there is a lot more ground to cover and it moves much quicker. So much of this first book is just world building and the central mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone is not THAT important in the grand scheme of things. These chapters are important, but they are the ones I always just kind of want to get through so we can get to the meatier stuff. Though that is also how I feel about most of this book.
The most important part of these chapters, story-wise, is that Hagrid fleshes out a bit more of the Voldemort story than we got in the first chapter. But it is still vague and only the very basics. We still don’t know why exactly Voldemort went after the Potters or what happened to him. I don’t think we even really get much more information in this book because these are questions no one really knows the answer to. Each book we are given just a little more of the story until it is fully fleshed out in Books 6 and 7.