• Gregory Loselle

Sympathy for the Dursleys

The environment into which Harry is delivered at the end of the first chapter is described at the start of the second:

The sun rose on the same tidy front gardens and lit up the brass number four on the Dursleys’ front door; it crept into their living room, which was almost exactly the same as it had been on the night when Mr. Dursley had seen that fateful news report about the owls. Only the photographs on the mantel-piece really showed how much time had passed. Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets — but Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby, and now the photographs showed a large blond boy riding his first bicycle, on a carousel at the fair, playing a computer game with his father, being hugged and kissed by his mother.

It's not that Little Whinging is devoid of all interest. Its denizens are vividly described, as needed, in almost nasty detail. For instance:

Every year, Harry was left behind with Mrs. Figg, a mad old lady who lived two streets away. Harry hated it there. The whole house smelled of cabbage and Mrs. Figg made him look at photographs of all the cats she’d ever owned.

But these garden-variety oddities, exaggerated for comic effect, are fully in context here for descriptive interest. The opening of the books is sprightly and generally charming, if predictable, and the description of the Dursleys, aside from some low-blow criticisms we're all more likely to make of others than ourselves--even when we most deserve them--is entertaining. The very first sentence ("Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much") introduces us to this theme and, like a Buster Keaton routine, sets up a catalogue of almost slapstick assaults on the prickly dignity of one of "the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense."

Cue the marvelous. In short order--and during an otherwise commonplace day--

  • a cat is seen, or imagined, to be reading a map and, later, a street sign

  • a lot of strangely-dressed people are observed in public

  • owls are seen flying in broad daylight

  • an inexplicably happy older man in a violet cloak hugs Vernon Dursley

  • more owls are reported on the evening news, as is a meteor-shower

The scene could be compared to the opening chapter of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where the color yellow is observed groggily, and repeated to comic effect, by the protagonist, Arthur Dent.

But the Durleys, taken on their own merits, and invested with some sympathy, are understandable, if not likable, characters. If we make the tempting critical mistake of treating them as if they were actual human beings, we could note that receiving one's wounded infant nephew on the porch in the morning with the paper, accompanied by an account (which we do not see and the contents of which can only be inferred) of his parents' catastrophic murder at the hands of an evil sorcerer, is not the stuff to fuel complacent acceptance of a world in which infant nephews are delivered unexpectedly--even negligently--with a note describing a family tragedy about which one cannot believably speak. Perhaps one rational response to such an event is to consciously become "the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious."

The exceptions would seem to prove the rule: the outlandish elements in the scene of Harry's arrival and the subsequent chapters that describe his life on Privet Drive are meant to interest us principally for their wonders. Against this staid environment, nothing even slightly unusual could help but stand out. So the Dursley's small-minded focus on the unexceptionable is understandable and, for narrative purposes, frankly necessary: what other kind of obsession should be given to the muggle parents of a wizard as yet unaware of his powers? We need them--Harry needs them--to be as undistinguished as tasteful wallpaper. But, in one significant way, also necessary to the action, they are not. The Dursleys, we find out almost immediately, are thoroughly and characteristically cruel to Harry.

While their crimes are many--making a child sleep in a closet under the stairs when a bedroom is free, above? intentionally underfeeding Harry?--the perpetually-stoked hostility and cartoony villainy of the Dursleys' actions often reads like a parody of Dickens. While Harry, when we first meet him as a character--and not as a plot device wrapped in a blanket--awakens under the stairs, the first willful act of abuse we witness is before breakfast on Dudley's birthday, when Harry is awakened roughly and is made to cook for his cousin. (This is not an occasion of great suffering, true, and Harry's sleeping arrangements, notwithstanding a host of spiders, are described as a bed in a cupboard large enough that he can nevertheless comfortably dress himself in it.) But the tone of the Dursley's treatment of Harry is denial: they simply, relentlessly, try not to acknowledge his presence; they refuse to include him in their family, they avoid speaking to him and, more or less, arrange to keep him out of sight.

So, Chez Dursley is a house of suffering, but when the sufferings are so ostentatiously applied, and have gone for years on in full view of the neighborhood (was no school counselor ever tipped off to Harry's condition? just asking the question renders the situation absurd), it would seem that we are meant to encounter them as a darkly comic device. We are in the realm of fable, here: characters are evil because they need to be--because we need them to be--and guilt is outside the fictional requirements of the tale, for the moment. And we needn't worry, the text seems to imply. Though he will experience a few more long summers with the Dursleys, Harry's privations, for the most part, are coming to an end.

The Dursleys are not real characters, however, just mannikins Rowling arranges as foils for Harry. Only through their consistent mean-spiritedness can Harry shine, for he is, at first, a decidedly passive character. Not once do we see Harry actually act on the manifest unfairness of his circumstances on Privet Drive. The sufferings of the child Harry are meant, it seems, to be both unbelievable and trivially petty--because the trivially petty is trivial, after all, and since the intent is to focus not on the injustice with which the Dursleys treat him, but on the compensatory wonders of the magical world into which he escapes from Privet Drive.

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©2019 by Gregory Loselle

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