“You should keep an eye on Dudley. It’s probably too late for Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. I feel sorry for Dudley. I might joke about him, but I feel truly sorry for him because I see him as just as abused as Harry. Though, in probably a less obvious way. What they are doing to him is inept, really. I think children recognize that. Poor Dudley. He's not being prepared for the world at all, in any reasonable or compassionate way, so I feel sorry for him."
–J.K. Rowling, November 2000
A slight spasm crossed Uncle Vernon’s large purple face. The mustache bristled. Harry thought he knew what was going on behind the mustache: a furious battle as two of Uncle Vernon’s most fundamental instincts came into conflict. Allowing Harry to go would make Harry happy, something Uncle Vernon had struggled against for thirteen years. On the other hand, allowing Harry to disappear to the Weasleys’ for the rest of the summer would get rid of him two weeks earlier than anyone could have hoped, and Uncle Vernon hated having Harry in the house.
--Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
“You did not do as I asked. You have never treated Harry as a son. He has known nothing but neglect and often cruelty at your hands. The best that can be said is that he has at least escaped the appalling damage you have inflicted upon the unfortunate boy sitting between you.”
Both Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon looked around instinctively, as though expecting to see someone other than Dudley squeezed between them.
--Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
To the fandom at large:
Not to put too fine a point on it, but…
If you think the Dursleys did not abuse Harry, or that he somehow deserved it… please, never have children. You know what—just stay away from children entirely. I’m not even remotely kidding.
JKR may have glossed over the issue of child abuse in her work, to the extent that it’s kind of uncomfortable in hindsight (at least for this child-abuse survivor), especially considering how dark the books ultimately got, but that’s—sadly—a common fantasy trope, even in urban fantasy like the Harry Potter series.
All things considered, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Harry turned out as well-adjusted as he did. He ultimately became a well-rounded human being—sure, he had flaws and foibles, but what person doesn’t? Harry may have his moments where he does or says slightly less than admirable things—though I have yet to meet a character in the Potterverse, or even an actual person, who hasn’t—but overall he’s a pretty good kid. (And in war, one often has to do questionable things—it’s a fact of life.)
And all in spite of the Dursleys’ upbringing.
The fact that Harry came out of the Dursleys’ upbringing with his ability to form emotional connections intact (though he strikes me as the sort of person who may have a large number of admirers but very few real friends) is, again, miraculous. Harry is damn lucky in a lot of ways—in real life, it’s unlikely the Dursleys would have stopped where they did!
It doesn’t help that the Dursleys seemed determined to make sure that Harry never returned to the wizarding world—or, if he did, that he’d be an emotional wreck. Either way, it seems like they wanted to sabotage his entire future.
But, fortunately, by the time we see him at almost eleven years old, Harry seems to have decided that he’s not going to let the Dursleys win—he seems to have made a conscious choice not to let it get to him.
There may be a way of explaining the glossing over of the abuse issue, and I admit it may be kind of a stretch, but here goes…
Whether she’s entirely aware of it or not, JKR seems to have drawn influences from pretty much every corner of British popular culture, whether she’s entirely aware of it or not. She’s clearly influenced by C.S. Lewis, whom she has called “simply a genius” (her centaurs are more like the variety seen in Chronicles of Narnia—more Chiron than Nessus); Chocolate Frogs and Cockroach Clusters are a fairly blatant Monty Python shout-out; the idea of a room or vehicle bigger on the inside than the outside shows shades of Doctor Who; she has described Wart from T.H. White’s The Sword and the Stone—the future King Arthur—as “Harry’s spiritual ancestor”; and on a basic level many of the kids Harry meets would not be all that out of place in a regular boarding-school story, nor would the kid-detective tendencies of the Trio in the first three books.
However, her clearest influence seems to be Roald Dahl.
Roald Dahl, in case you’re unaware of him (and that’s extremely unlikely), was a British novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. If you haven’t read his books, it’s likely you’ve at least heard of the ones made into movies. Some of his better-known works include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG.
Born to Norwegian parents, he served in the British Royal Air Force during the Second World War, in which he became a flying ace and intelligence agent. He rose to prominence during the 1940s with works for both children and adults, and became one of the world’s bestselling authors. His short stories are known for their unexpected endings, and his children’s books for unsentimental, often very dark humor.
Dahl seems to have been fond of black comedy, and his books contain copious amounts of Nightmare Fuel. The fact that his target audience still reads his books suggests that many kids actually enjoy being scared out of their wits—adults often don’t give kids enough credit for how brave, intelligent, and discerning they can be; Dahl clearly did not think his readers were morons.
That being said, however… well, not to put too fine a point on it, Dahl seems to have used his writing to beat on everything he hated and feared about his fellow man—and by the looks of it, he hated and feared quite a bit. The majority of his works in the genre feature adults menacing innocent young children more or less just because they can—sometimes they’re traditional bogeymen, but more often they’re just irredeemably vile, stupid adults. Just how stupid and irredeemable is spelled out in loving detail. This could go a long way toward explaining his appeal among young children.
It doesn’t hurt, however, that Dahl’s heroes tend to be pretty much average kids, though often with strange personality quirks—they’re the heroes of the piece mainly because they can recognize the nastiness around them, then refuse to give in to it. They also tend to succeed by virtue of their goodness, intelligence, and/or resourcefulness (Dahl didn’t seem to deal in shades of gray). Also, kids in his works are not immortal—they can be hurt or killed (or even eaten), though these are mostly off-screen and mainly unimportant secondary characters. He doesn’t always have happy endings—more often than not they’re “pretty good, all things considered” endings (take the ending of The Witches, for example—the protagonist, a boy who was turned into a mouse by one of the titular witches, has reconciled himself to the fact that a mouse’s average lifespan means he likely only has a few years left; he is actually glad of this, since it means he’s unlikely to outlive his beloved grandmother, and they can spend the time they have left going after the remaining witches to make sure no child ever has to go through what he has again). That kind of thing—closer to the way real life tends to work out—was probably refreshing for kids.
Dahl seems to have been working out a lot of childhood issues in his work—reading his autobiography, Boy, turns most of his children’s novels into romans à clef. It wavers between issues he never seems to have gotten over (analogues to his childhood tormentors keep showing up, as do being accused of cheating and corporal punishment) and wish-fulfillment (for example, Matilda developing magical powers and besting the evil authority figure). He also seems to have been marked by good things in his life—he spun a whole magic candy factory out of one tiny sweetshop.
But I digress.
Harry comes across—at least at first—as pretty much a typical Dahlian hero. Aside from the abusive guardians (and absent parents, both Dahlian tropes), the narrative describes him as fairly ordinary-looking (though not enough so for his relatives), and he seems to have realized how nasty his relatives are (just how nasty is described in loving detail) fairly early in life, and then refused to give in or allow them to turn him into what they wanted him to be.
Like Dahl’s heroes, Harry tends to get by mostly through resourcefulness and being generally a good person (though he has his flaws)—and with a little help from his friends. There are certainly sadistic adults in the Potterverse—Snape comes across like this (or at least toward Harry and Neville), and Umbridge and the Carrows definitely qualify (Umbridge is practically an Expy of Miss Trunchbull). Though JKR’s witches are not necessarily evil, the Weasleys resemble the Buckets (in that they’re a large, poor family sharing a house, but are good people—the one thing they have plenty of is love), Fred and George Weasley could easily end up working for Willy Wonka (a cut chapter from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory even mentions a candy that will allow students to fake sick, comparable to the twins’ Skiving Snackboxes), Butterbeer may be a reference to mentions of “buttergin with tonic” as being a popular drink among the Oompa-Loompas (which itself is an obvious pun on “butterscotch”), and she has a Big Friendly Half-Giant in the character of Hagrid (the house-elves talk like Dahl’s giants in BFG).
JKR has more obvious shades of gray in her writing—and she doesn’t seem to hold with Dahl’s belief that Humans Are Bastards—but there are similarities. JKR also seems to enjoy occasional bits of off-color humor—though arguably this is the kind of thing that tends to appeal to children anyway.
JKR has not acknowledged Dahl as an influence (she’s said she doesn’t think they’re that similar save for the “quirky details” and humor, that she thinks his characters are “more cartoonlike”, and that her work is “not absolutely black and white” as Dahl’s tends to be), but she’s stated in at least one interview that she considers it a compliment to have her work compared to his.
She seems to have taken more than a few Dahlian tropes for her own use—though it’s arguable that, in some cases, she missed the points Dahl was trying to make. This may go a long way toward explaining the glossing over of the abuse issue.
That being said, let’s get back to the Dursleys.
Our first impression of the Dursleys is… not a positive one. We find out in the first chapter of PS—first few paragraphs, even—that they are very concerned with appearances, that they are rather obsessed with being “normal”—even with being more “normal” than their “boring, law-abiding” neighbors (Though her gossip-mongering reeks of schadenfreude, perhaps Petunia felt the need to spy on the neighbors so she could assure herself that their lives were no more interesting than hers. Who knows?). Also, they seem to hate Petunia’s sister and her husband to the point where they pretend Petunia was an only child (“they normally pretended she didn’t have a sister”), and don’t even want their young son “mixing” with their nephew—the impression one gets is that they fear he’ll somehow be contaminated or something. This tells you right away that there’s something very weird going on here.
Granted, before we hear what kind of people the Potters are—or were[i]—you might think there was a logical reason for this kind of dislike, even if the apparent fear that their son would somehow be dirtied by contact with his cousin, even while both are only toddlers, reeks of bigotry. But considering what we later learn about the Potters, it doesn’t paint a very positive picture of the Dursleys.
Not only are they boring—even aggressively boring, which sounds like a contradiction in terms but still perfectly describes the Dursleys—they’re also bigots who will even cast out family if they don’t fit the Dursley definition of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Vernon even seems to take it as a personal insult whenever he notices someone or something out of the ordinary in his presence (“Mr. Dursley was enraged to see that a couple of them weren't young at all; why, that man had to be older than he was, and wearing an emerald-green cloak! The nerve of him!”).
The Dursleys’ lives seem to revolve around routine—the house is described as hardly changing in the nine years and nine months (nine-and-three-quarters—heh) since Harry’s arrival (“Only the photographs on the mantelpiece really showed how much time had passed”), and the family routine doesn’t seem to change much either.
By all appearances, Vernon always does the same thing pretty much every day. He seems to be one of those people you could set your watch by—and not in a good way, either; he’s utterly predictable, to the point where you could probably have a conversation with him in your head that wouldn’t be too different from the real thing.
The Dursleys aren’t criticized simply because they’re Muggles, but because of their prejudiced, self-superior attitudes toward life (they’re like the Malfoys and the elder Tom Riddle that way). It’s even pointed out in GF:
"It isn't funny!" Mr Weasley shouted. "That sort of behaviour seriously undermines wizard-Muggle relations! I spend half my life campaigning against the mistreatment of Muggles, and my own sons–”
"We didn't give it to him because he was a Muggle!" said Fred indignantly.
"No, we gave it to him because he's a great bullying git," said George. "Isn't he, Harry?"
This is true—again, the criticism of the Dursleys does not come from them being “inferior” Muggles, but from the attitude they have toward life and the people around them.
They thrive on tedium, think it’s just wonderful that their child is a spoiled brat before he’s even two years old (I doubt McGonagall is exaggerating when she describes Dudley, at sixteen months old, “kicking his mother all the way up the street, screaming for sweets”—she doesn’t seem prone to hyperbole), have no sense of humor worth discussing, and seem fully convinced of their superiority to pretty much every other person on the planet.
They are madly prestige-oriented, superficial to a frankly disturbing degree—naming a kid “Dudley” in this day and age, aside from being a playground death sentence that would probably turn a kid into a bully all by itself (kids have a tendency to overcompensate that way—and his mother’s cutesy nicknames probably don’t help), reeks of pretentiousness (Petunia dismisses “Harry” as a “[n]asty, common name”)—and almost pathologically obsessed with presenting a certain image to the world at large… while seeing nothing wrong with delighting in whenever someone else’s perfect image cracks or breaks.
In short, they're hypocrites.
They live in a cookie-cutter house in a community that only a Home-Owners’ Association would love—surrounded by identical houses with identical yards and identical privet hedges—row upon row of executive houses for executive people—the very picture of conformity. I imagine that the only thing that would make the Dursleys happier is if the neighborhood was made up of cookie-cutter people as well.
The fact that the Dursleys live on “Privet Drive” could be said to tell us something about them as well. As street names go, it’s common, normal, and even boring—which probably appeals to the Dursleys a great deal. In England, a privet is a very common shrub planted as hedges in suburbia—they are often used to shield houses from view (it could be said to indicate the person living there is hiding something). Those with privet hedges (we know the Dursleys have such a hedge, since Dobby watches Harry from his hiding spot inside it in CS) are said to conform to the suburban identity, and privets are often characterized as boring and unimaginative. “Privet” even means “prohibition.” In some parts of the world, it’s even considered a weed!
The symbolism is obvious—the Dursleys definitely “hedge” Harry in for the better part of ten years and “prohibit” him from even being a “normal” kid. And like a weed, they’re actively keeping him from achieving his full potential (and, once he’s been “transplanted” into a better environment—like, say, Hogwarts or the Burrow—he thrives). More on that later.
The name “Little Whinging”, meanwhile, as JKR herself puts it, sounds “appropriately parochial and sniffy.” Indeed, it paints the picture of a small town—in what I’ve heard called the “Stockbroker Belt” of Great Britain—filled mostly with people grumbling about how they want more in life, but are apparently not doing any work to try and obtain it; they’re more content to kvetch than actually do anything.
Rowling’s characters tend to be highly archetypical, and the Dursleys are no exception—they are, let’s face it, pretty much walking, talking stereotypes. JKR seems to be playing their attitudes toward life—and, sadly, toward Harry—for laughs, utilizing British cultural tropes for that purpose. The use of such cultural tropes means she only has to talk a little about the Dursleys and her audience’s imaginations fill in the rest.
There’s nothing wrong with stereotypes and archetypes in fiction—their use is common, going back to the earliest stories humans told. There is nothing new under the sun—every known archetype has its roots in older ones.
Take American fiction, for example—if you tell someone a character is a “cheerleader” or a “jock” or a “goth” or a “redneck” or a “nerd”, just about everyone has at least some idea what you’re talking about and fills in the blanks from their own memories or experiences (or, in far too many cases, prejudices). It saves time, especially in visual media like movies or television, which has a relatively limited amount of time in which to tell a story. Most British readers probably got the basics of what kind of people the Dursleys were right away—and quite a few American readers as well.
There can be problems, however, as these stereotypes are not always accurate and can be misapplied. We see this in the fandom use of American cultural tropes to try and explain or rationalize circumstances in what is at its core a British series—for example, Ginny and Harry being painted as a “cheerleader”/”jock” couple (despite both of them being Quidditch players, with Ginny being the one to play professionally while Harry basically becomes a cop—with neither as the sole breadwinner) with Harry bashed because he didn’t follow the movie formula and choose Hermione, and Ginny bashed for… well, for not being Hermione; Hermione as either “geeky girl” who “deserves” the love of The Popular Boy She Pines Over From Afar (usually either Harry or Draco) or a goddess (pretty much only because she’s the most prominent female character, whom the wankier fanfic and meta writers turn into their avatar); the ‘80s-movie dichotomy of “Gryffindor jocks” versus “Slytherin nerds”; Snape as “abused woobie” or “strict but fair teacher” (look, fandom—a crappy childhood where you were tormented by bullies doesn’t give you license to be an even worse bully yourself—the man was supposed to be a professional educator and yet never once actually acted like one in the canon); the Marauders as the sort of inexplicably popular douchebags that don’t really exist outside of movies or television (the impression I got is that Snape gave as good as he got most of the time—remember Sectumsempra?—and doesn’t “popularity” mean people like you?); and Slytherins as “picked-on woobies” or “cool kids” depending on the writer (because Harry has to be wrong about Draco and his crowd—it’s not like they started it or anything—wait…).
It has to be said, however, that stereotypes have to start somewhere. Sadly, people like the Dursleys do indeed exist—and not just in Britain, either. Suffice it to say I’ve known a lot of Dursleys in my time.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the Dursleys are messed up in the head. To say they’re dysfunctional is like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground—technically accurate, but also a massive understatement.
Petunia keeps her house almost surgically clean, drafting Harry into what must have been an endless round of chores, making Harry cook and clean and—apparently—do most if not all of the work. The house doesn’t smell right to Tonks, who describes it as “too clean” by half. Petunia apparently manages to keep the house pristine even when Harry is away at school for almost ten months out of the year—she can clearly handle the job of declaring war on any dust mote or speck that dares settle on her furniture or walls all by herself. Clearly she has little else to do. So why does she make Harry do so much of it?
And for that matter, why is she so concerned with keeping the house so clean? Is it because she remembered that she once wanted to attend Hogwarts before her jealousy and spite led her to dismiss all magical people—indeed, seemingly everyone different from her preconceived notions of what “normal” people should be—as “freaks”, and considers herself contaminated because she had one for a sister and once again has to share a house with one? Is she afraid of being thought anything less than perfectly normal? We may never know. Suffice it to say that the woman is messed up in the head. A psychiatrist could make a career out of figuring her out.
JKR’s Pottermore info helps fill in some blanks. After she was , “forever embittered by the fact that her parents seemed to value her witch sister more than they valued her,” she left her old home in Cokeworth forever and headed to London in the hopes of reinventing and redefining herself. After a typing course led to an office job, she met the “extremely unmagical, opinionated, and materialistic” Vernon Dursley. Described as “deliciously normal” with “a perfectly correct car”, and desiring “to do completely ordinary things” and sufficiently intolerant of anything that didn’t fit his definition of “normal” that he “was apt to despise even people who wore brown shoes with black suits”, she apparently fell in love more with the sheer fact that he was as utterly unlike Lily or the wizarding world as she wanted to be than the man himself. Petunia so loathed her sister that she feared even having Lily as a bridesmaid would lead to Petunia herself being overshadowed. She and Vernon did not attend James and Lily’s wedding, and the very last piece of correspondence she received from Lily and James was fifteen months before their deaths==the announcement of Harry's birth. After one contemptuous look, Petunia threw it away.
While Petunia is complicated, Vernon… isn’t. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about him was that he promised he wouldn’t hold Lily’s “abnormality” against Petunia. He’s a bully, plain and simple, and he clearly delights in throwing his weight around, in shoving around everyone smaller than he is—we can see as much in the PS account of Vernon’s day at work the day after Voldemort’s defeat (“He yelled at five different people. He made several important telephone calls and shouted a bit more. He was in a very good mood until lunchtime…”). And he seems to enjoy the idea of raising Dudley to be as much of an utter bullying git as he is (“Uncle Vernon chuckled. ‘Little tyke wants his money's worth, just like his father. 'Atta boy, Dudley!’ He ruffled Dudley's hair.”).
Forgive the amateur psychoanalysis, but the way the Dursleys treat Dudley as compared to Harry suggests—to me, at least—some serious psychological issues. Petunia goes out of her way to make Harry feel unwanted, at least in part by openly indulging Dudley’s every whim, giving him pretty much anything he wants, and making Harry watch. Though they may grumble about Harry being a financial burden, this is clearly not the case (while they wouldn't get payments from the government as such for looking after Harry—they are what the British government calls “Kinship Carers”—they would, however, receive benefits just like they do for Dudley, not to mention that under NHS the only money they’d have to pay for things like visits to the dentist or optometrist is in taxes). Nor is it the case that they just don’t want to spend the money on him. Hell, Dudley’s even gotten into the act of depriving Harry—he seems to outright enjoy it.
The admonition “Don’t ask questions”—“the first rule for a quiet life with the Dursleys”—has always bothered me, since the first time I read PS back in ‘01. Harry’s a kid—you might as well tell water not to be wet or fire not to burn as tell a kid not to ask questions—it’s what they do; how they learn. The fact that they eem to have gone out of their way to drum this into him goes a long way toward explaining why Harry has so few questions about anything in the magical world, to include his parents—he’s surprisingly incurious for a kid that age. (Wonder if any of his pre-Hogwarts teachers noticed.)
It shows what kind of people the Dursleys are—if they were decent parents, they’d be encouraging Harry’s curiosity and imagination—and Dudley’s, for that matter—rather than doing their utmost to squash both. Vernon even has something approaching a conniption fit after Harry merely casually mentions dreaming about a flying motorcycle in PS (“Uncle Vernon nearly crashed into the car in front. He turned right around in his seat and yelled at Harry, his face like a gigantic beet with a mustache: ‘MOTORCYCLES DON’T FLY!’”), and it’s stated in the narrative that they keep Harry away from anything and everything that might get him thinking along non-“normal” lines (“If there was one thing the Dursleys hated even more than his asking questions, it was his talking about anything acting in a way it shouldn’t, no matter if it was in a dream or even a cartoon—they seemed to think he might get dangerous ideas.”). But then the Dursleys are presented as not approving of imagination anyway, which is a part of why they’re portrayed so negatively.
The impression I get is that the Dursleys, from the beginning, were just plain going out of their way to leave Harry emotionally damaged. When we first meet Harry at age ten, he is unloved, neglected, housed in a closet under the stairs (the place, it should be noted, where you store things you want out of the way most of the time), openly discouraged from engaging either his imagination or his curiosity, dressed no better than a street beggar, and has no friends outside willing (or, more likely, able) to help or intervene.
From the beginning, it’s obvious that Harry is not treated well. What kind of parents—what kind of people—shove a baby who never did anything to them into a broom closet? I just can’t wrap my mind around it. Petunia kept Harry in with the cleaning supplies—and seemed to treat him accordingly. One can’t help but wonder if, up until they had to start sending him to school, they only brought Harry out when there were chores to perform.
There’s a lot about Harry’s childhood that we may never know. How did he learn to walk and talk without the encouragement Dudley surely got (or even survive the first couple years with the Dursleys, a time when a baby will literally die without human contact—was that Lily’s protection at work)? Maybe the Dursleys—realizing that they were unlikely to be able to get rid of him without someone noticing and asking questions—encouraged him to walk and talk and maybe even read as soon as possible so they could get some use out of him. How old was he when they first made him do chores to “earn his keep”? I wonder how long it took him to realize that asking the Dursleys for anything was only asking for trouble. I honestly wonder how he managed not to cry watching Dudley open mountains of presents on birthdays and Christmases and eat all the sweets he wanted while Harry existed on whatever was left over. Possibly they even made a point of arranging it so Harry had to watch—no doubt Dudley was insufferable for a few days afterwards, showing off his new toys.
*sigh* Poor Harry.
Did the Dursleys treat Harry the way they did to try and repress his magic? After all, Vernon talks about Harry’s magic being “nothing a good beating wouldn’t cure” and how they swore they’d “stamp out that dangerous nonsense” when they took him in. At first I wasn’t sure, since the impression I got from canon was that an unhappy child would be more prone to accidental-magic attacks, not less.
But a while back, I realized there was more to it. The Dursleys seemed content to make Harry believe he was nothing special, in the hopes that he would never question that assertion. They seemed to want to “stamp out” not just Harry’s magic, but any sense of wonder and imagination in the poor kid—to make him as dull and boring as they were. And I can’t help but think they got at least some pleasure out of it. That, I think, is what they were trying for—to make Harry so boring and “normal” that even if the magical world came looking for him, he’d either ignore them or actively avoid them. And if he ever did figure out he was magical—which was only a matter of time—they wanted the very idea to terrify and disgust him. Just like it would for them.
Granted, it’s also possible that Vernon and Petunia thought that treating Harry badly enough really would drive the magic out of him—indeed, JKR asserts during one of the Pottermore info snippets that this was the case—but one wonders what they were planning to do with him—or to him—if they’d succeeded. You can’t treat a kid horribly for the formative years and suddenly try to make nice with him without the kid realizing something’s up! Then again, maybe they didn’t think that far ahead.
The Dursleys’ problems with magic seem to be founded at least partly in Petunia’s rivalry with and jealousy of her sister—after Petunia found out she couldn’t go to Hogwarts, she decided that it was better to be “normal” than a “freak”, mainly out of bitterness and resentment—but it couldn’t have helped matters when Vernon came into the picture. Petunia seems to be committing Revenge By Proxy, punishing Lily through Harry for being their parents’ pride and joy, for being bright and popular, and everything Petunia could never be—including magical. Conversely, she seems to be giving Dudley all the attention she felt she deserved, by virtue of not being a “freak”, of being “normal”—as well as everything she felt Lily had kept from her. Honestly, you could write a dissertation on this woman.
Vernon, again, is less complex. While admittedly his first encounter with a wizard did not get things off to the best start, his prejudices were already in place (that and he was ready to judge James by his job and what car he drove—James’ only mistake was showing his amusement). Vernon’s hatred of what he considers “abnormal” likewise seems to stem from jealousy and spite, based in one fact: Vernon likes feeling powerful. He likes being powerful. He likes being top dog and being able to boss others around—nothing makes him happier. And so he cannot stand the thought that there are people in the world with abilities he will never have, with talents he cannot even begin to wrap his mind around… talents that give them an edge over “normal” people. Harry exists as an eternal reminder of the fact that there is an entire world lurking just below the surface of Muggle society that he will never be able to participate in or understand—or, in some cases, even see, never mind gain an advantage in.
In short, it's envy. I also can’t help wondering if treating Harry so badly—if having power over Harry—makes Vernon feel better about his lack of power outside of his tiny little corner of the world, about his lack of real talent or real intelligence. At least when it comes to Harry, he has some degree of control—he seems to not want to be rid of Harry even for the summer because he hates the thought of losing that control. Again, he’s a bully.
Hell, just about everyone who really, truly hates Harry seems to be motivated—to one degree or another—by envy (Voldemort is, of course, the exception). Snape refuses to let go of his jealousy and hatred of James Potter—after all, in the end, James got Lily and Snape didn’t—and takes it out on Harry (despite apparently knowing damn well that losing Lily was his own damn fault, not James’, and definitely not Harry’s); Draco refuses to get over Harry spurning him on the Hogwarts Express, and apparently decided that if he couldn’t enjoy Harry’s fame, neither could Harry; and the Dursleys take out their own issues with James and Lily Potter—and the magical world in general—on Harry.
Harry is basically the Dursleys’ whipping boy—they take their frustrations with the world and their own lives out on him.
Harry’s saving grace is that he seems to see through it—except for Aunt Marge (an outright bigot; she’s just more honest and outspoken about it than Vernon is), very few of the other people in Harry’s life seem to look at him that way, even pre-Hogwarts. Maybe his teachers were kind to him; maybe he had friends—if briefly. There’s no way to know for sure, but I like to think that there was at least someone at Harry’s school who cared about him and wanted him to succeed.
The Power the Dark Lord Knows Not is the ability to love—this means varying kinds of love. It means philia, storge, and agape, not eros. Harry, unlike Voldemort, knows, understands, and wants all of them.
This last is the important part. Unlike Voldemort, Harry wants to be loved.
And he seems to be familiar enough with love—if only by seeing it in others—that he actively seeks it out, whether he’s consciously aware of it or not. He also emerges from the Dursleys’ “care” with an enormous amount of empathy for others. We can see this as early as the python in Chapter 2 of PS—he clearly empathizes with that snake.
Considering the way the Dursleys treated him, the wizarding world is lucky indeed that Harry was able to love.
I personally get a bit miffed (okay, more than just a bit) when fanfic authors have to insert physical and/or sexual abuse into Harry’s upbringing—I’ve seen stuff that could have been taken right out of A Child Called ‘It’—and even worse than that!
It could be done well, with some degree of subtlety—and there are fics where it is portrayed at least realistically—but mostly it’s the kind of stuff that would make a Lifetime Movie of the Week producer wince and say “Can you dial that down a bit?” Seriously, quite a bit of it’s nothing short of Nightmare Fuel. Some of the worst Abusive!Dursleys fic makes Dotheboys Hall look like Sunnybrook Farm, not to put too fine a point on it. These writers say it’s for realism—too much television, I think, as only the worst stuff gets really publicized—but (with some exceptions) it tends to amount to “canon’s not angsty enough for me!”
I’m willing to grant that there are some fics where adding on physical and/or sexual abuse is done well—or at least plausibly and believably—but for the most part it’s just cheap angst.
It’s also a sign of a disturbing tendency I see in fandom—some of the worst fanon clichés tend to be excuses to change Harry’s personality so that he loses all those traits the author doesn’t like (everything that makes Harry… well, Harry). This tends to happen a lot in Abusive!Dursleys fic—that and/or the writers have *Insert Out-of-Nowhere Love Interest Here* come and rescue Harry and heal him with their WUV. Granted, it’s not always for purposes of hurt/comfort, but either way it ends up being seriously out-of-character.
It bugs the ever-loving crap out of me.
Never mind that if there was any kind of canon basis to these fics, Harry would have zapped Vernon or Petunia with accidental magic like he did when Vernon tried to strangle him in OP (“he had barely staggered upright when two large purple hands reached through the open window and closed tightly around his throat”)—or something similar to what happened to Marge. The Accidental Magic Reversal Squad would have shown up, as in PA, since Harry would have set off the Trace, and it would have all come out. Case closed (or possibly not, depending on your view of Dumbledore and/or the Ministry).
But that never happens—you’d hardly know Harry was a wizard at all in these kinds of fics. Instead, Harry becomes a wimp, unable to even unconsciously defend himself, mainly for the sake of the aforementioned cheap angst. That or said accidental magic somehow fails to save him for the sake of plot.
Here’s my main problem with adding on physical and/or sexual abuse.
In canon, Harry is essentially unloved from Halloween 1981 up until Hagrid comes to rescue him on his eleventh birthday. Nine years and nine months. Isn’t that angsty enough? Isn’t that heartbreaking enough? Doesn’t that make you want to… hurt the Dursleys as it is?
Yes, there are moments of physical abuse, or at least the potential for it—Petunia in CS (“he still had to duck as she aimed a heavy blow at his head with the soapy frying pan.”), and Vernon coming within one accidental-magic attack of killing Harry in OP come to mind—but for the most part the Dursleys stuck to neglect and psychological abuse.
And that, really, is enough to seriously screw someone up. More than enough, really. Trust me on this. I used to want to be a social worker, so I've done the research (and have myself been the recipient of psychological abuse).
The way the Dursleys treated Harry, I'm sure Dumbledore was relieved to see he didn't have another Tom Riddle on his hands.
First off, the Dursleys went out of their way to keep Harry from having any reason to connect with his parents. And coupled with the fact that they seem to only grudgingly acknowledge him as a relative, this in itself would be extremely damaging to a kid—they don’t give him any sort of parental figure or role model to look up to or emulate (certainly he’s not going to want to emulate them). The Dursleys also completely gloss over the fact that Harry’s parents sacrificed themselves to save him—which they surely knew from the letter Dumbledore left—instead telling him that his parents were nothing special, that it was a car crash that killed them and left Harry with that scar, and that Harry is fortunate the Dursleys didn’t leave him at an orphanage (one gets the impression that they bring this up often). Marge (who is noted as outright hating Harry, and seems to take an almost sadistic glee in making sure Harry is in earshot every time she goes off on a rant about the Potters, clearly hoping for a reaction so she or the Dursleys can punish him for it) even manages to infer that it was the Potters' fault!
This, I think, is part of why Hagrid reacts so incredulously when he hears about what Harry’s been told for as long as Harry can remember—James and Lily are heroes to the wizarding world at large. The cemetery at Godric’s Hollow—as we see in DH—is dominated by a memorial to the Potters, and their old house is almost a shrine (to be fair, it’s mainly because no one but Wormtail could still find it thanks to the Fidelius). The idea that they died in something as mundane as a car crash—and that, again, Harry has been told this for as long as he can remember—completely overlooks the fact that James and Lily Potter were good, decent people (though, yes, with some shortcomings, but those don’t outweigh their virtues) who dearly loved their son, and that they had died because they were fighting for the safety of the whole frakking country, wizard and Muggle alike—including the Dursleys. (And yes, I know that James and Lily didn’t go down fighting as we’d always hoped they had, but that was only because they were sure they were safe at home and hadn’t counted on Riddle coming to visit.)
And that’s another thing—the Dursleys are so determined to make sure Harry had no knowledge of his parents except that they didn’t measure up to the Dursley standard of “normality” that they make sure Harry doesn’t even know his parents’ names until Hagrid tells him. When he’s eleven. He doesn’t even know what they look like (except for that oft-repeated line about how he looks like his dad but with his mother’s eyes) until he gets that photo album—when he’s nearly twelve, for crying out loud. The Dursleys go to rather extreme lengths to withhold information from Harry about his parents, trying to paint as negative a picture as possible, mainly for the purpose of hurting the poor kid and denying him a connection to his own past. This is just wrong—cruel and unnecessary, and clearly done out of spite on Petunia’s part (it’s unlikely that Vernon has any knowledge of the Potters save for Petunia’s biased accounts of her minor brushes with magic, so she bears most if not all of the blame on that front).
The Dursleys go out of their way to make Harry look and feel like he is not part of the family. It is pointed out in the narrative of PS that “the room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too.” I could kinda-sorta-maybe understand the lack of pictures of Harry if he was staying only for a few days, but nine years and nine months? Only an active effort to keep Harry out of sight could lead to something like that. And though Dudley has enough stuff for two or three kids, the rest of the house doesn’t seem to show any indication that another boy lives there either. Harry fantasizes about some unknown family member coming to take him away from the Dursleys for several years.
The Dursleys give Harry nothing and Dudley everything, despite the fact that they could clearly provide enough for both. They could afford to split the difference and give Harry and Dudley a decent, modest upbringing, yet they splurge on Dudley. One sometimes wonders if the indulging-Dudley part isn’t at least partly for the purpose of rubbing Harry’s status as unloved and unwanted in his face.
The upstairs has two bedrooms, yet the Dursleys give Dudley both—one of them for just his extra toys (Dudley even whines about how he “needs” the extra room after his parents move Harry in, then has an immense tantrum when they don’t give in, even throwing his pet tortoise through the greenhouse roof!).
Dudley has thirty-seven birthday presents waiting for him—it’s even noted in the narrative that the table is “almost hidden beneath all Dudley’s birthday presents”—when he comes downstairs on his eleventh birthday. Thirty-seven presents! And Dudley still complains—he’s on the verge of a temper-tantrum, which has probably happened before, as Harry is afraid he’ll turn the table over—because it’s “less than last year”! Never mind the fact that for all Dudley knows, his parents spent just as much or more as the previous year, just buying more expensive gifts (this is all but outright stated in the movie). No, he has to act like a total brat about it. And he only calms down because Petunia promises him two more presents. They don’t even bother to discipline the kid; instead they stop Dudley’s tantrums by bribing him.
The really sad thing about all this is that Dudley is clearly aware of this and regularly takes advantage of it—the narrative notes that he hasn’t really cried in years, “but he knew that if he screwed up his face and wailed, his mother would give him anything he wanted.” He has Vernon and Petunia all figured out, and they don't realize it (or worse, they don't care—selfishness and manipulation almost seem to be virtues in Vernon's book, as noted above).
Said presents aren’t exactly cheap—they include a racing bike (definitely a head-scratcher; even Harry wonders why Dudley, who “was very fat and hated exercise” would want one, but considering Vernon’s influence, maybe it was so he could lord it over all the kids who didn’t have one), a video camera (I’m assuming that since this is 1991, according to the canon timeline—JKR was writing PS as early as 1990—it’s one of the big old ones that used VHS cassette tapes—practically TV cameras—and those were expensive back in the day; hardly the kind of thing you’d give to an eleven-year-old), a remote-control airplane (broken within a month, along with the aforementioned video camera), sixteen new computer games (yes, most people have computers now, but having a computer, never mind one that could handle the newer games, was kind of a big deal in those days), a gold wristwatch (who gets their kid a gold wristwatch at eleven?), and a television (which he later puts his foot through after his favorite television program is canceled—and his parents replace it)! And did I mention that according to the canon timeline, this is all in 1991?! For the benefit of those of you twenty and below, we didn’t have the same kind of cheap consumer electronics back then. Electronics were a great deal less common and thus a whole lot more expensive back then (and built to last—my mom bought the original family television in 1982, and it lasted almost thirty years before giving up the ghost)! On top of all that, they take him out for the day every year.
Harry, meanwhile, apparently got a coat hanger and a pair of old socks for his tenth birthday and was probably left with a babysitter.
Isn’t that enough to want to do terrible things to these people?
Harry even has to watch all this—not only does he have to cook breakfast with all those presents on the kitchen table (and Dudley likely crowing about how they were all for him whenever his parents were out of earshot), he has to watch Dudley open said presents and eat birthday cake (apparently Harry isn’t allowed sweets; when the snack cart pulls around on the Express, Harry has apparently been hoping to order a Mars Bar, and I get the impression that it would have been a real treat for him), then clean up afterward, while his own birthday is usually ignored completely. The Dursleys almost certainly know when Harry’s birthday is—not only must they have had to fill out forms dealing with Harry at various times (not just for school, but also NHS for those glasses), Dudley makes a point of saying “I know what day this is” and rubbing Harry’s nose in the fact that he’s not even getting cards from his “friends at that freak place” in CS, never mind acknowledgement from his only remaining family. Harry gets his first Christmas presents (or at least the first presents that don’t send the “we never wanted you and we never will” message loud and clear) when he’s eleven, and his first birthday card in PA—when he’s thirteen, for crying out loud.
Harry is a bright kid—no matter what Snape thinks—so he probably doesn’t need to be told at this point that his relatives dislike him (At least the Dursleys didn’t pretend to care about him—which might have screwed him up pretty badly in completely different ways).
The Dursleys can clearly afford really expensive presents for Dudley (his breaking them almost at once is apparently no big deal), so it’s not like they couldn’t afford to treat two children equally well, rather than spoiling one past the point of parody and maltreating the other to the point where Social Services should have come for both kids years ago. If Vernon, who is apparently in a managerial position, makes enough money for that kind of spending on birthday presents and regular trips, not to mention indulging Dudley’s every whim and sending him to a probably rather expensive prep school (not to mention those boxing lessons), wouldn’t that mean he could afford to raise two children with a semblance of decency? Couldn’t they find some middle ground?
The Dursleys also seem intent on depriving Harry of simple childhood pleasures wherever possible—again, they almost seem to enjoy it. They only take him with them to the zoo because his usual babysitter is unavailable (note to Harry-bashers—yes, okay, Harry wasn’t exactly fond of Mrs. Figg, but he wasn’t happy that she was injured; he was happy that he got to go out somewhere for the first time he could remember), and it’s implied that he stays with said babysitter when the Dursleys are on holiday as well. Not to mention that Vernon threatens to keep Harry in the cupboard “from now until Christmas” if anything happens during the outing to the zoo (it may be hyperbole, but as it is, Harry hardly sees daylight outside of school until summer).
And Mrs. Figg even explains her treatment of Harry in OP: “I’m sorry I gave you such a miserable time, Harry, but the Dursleys would never have let you come if they’d thought you enjoyed it. It wasn’t easy, you know…” That in itself says something—they’re so eager to keep Harry from being happy that they’ll gladly look for a babysitter who’s more likely to keep Harry unhappy.
The Dursleys only treat Harry with a modicum of decency when they know other people are watching (and there’s usually an ulterior motive—they give Harry Dudley’s second bedroom in the hopes of invalidating the address on the first letter); even then they give him the minimum amount they can get away with (“The Dursleys bought Dudley and Piers large chocolate ice creams at the entrance and then, because the smiling lady in the van had asked Harry what he wanted before they could hurry him away, they bought him a cheap lemon ice lolly”), likely complaining all the while—their demeanor if not their words telling Harry that they don’t think he even deserves that much. Again, Marge is just more honest about it. Even when he gets to experience little childhood pleasures like a trip to the zoo, the Dursleys manage to make it hurtful. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if when they first moved Harry into the cupboard, Petunia didn’t make sure to whine about the wasted space within earshot on a regular basis, to make sure Harry knew his very existence was resented.
They talk about Harry as if he’s an object, almost never calling him by his name and treating him as if he isn’t even a person with feelings. Also, apparently all they got out of Dumbledore’s letter was the frankly idiotic idea that if they leave Harry alone for a second the house will explode (surely Dumbledore would have explained everything, but anything to hate on Harry…).
I realized a while back that Harry’s impression of the Dursleys—namely that they seem torn between wanting to be rid of him and wanting to keep him around in order to make him as miserable as possible (as noted in the GF quote at the beginning of this post)—seems to be correct. One would think that they would jump at the thought of having him out of the house for all but nine weeks out of the year, and yet they’re willing to keep him with them so long as he doesn’t go to Hogwarts. They try to keep him away from Hogwarts in CS to the point of putting bars on his windows after finding out he can’t just magic himself away, and try to stop him from escaping when Ron and the twins come to rescue him. They even have the chutzpah to forbid Harry from communicating with his friends in the magical world, then complain about Hedwig hooting because she’s bored (and Vernon yells at Harry for daring to give out his phone number to wizards, even though that would allow him to communicate “normally”—it wasn’t Harry’s fault that Ron didn’t quite get how a telephone worked—how would you assume cross-country communication worked if you knew nothing about electronic communication?). Every summer—up until fourth year, anyway—they even try and prevent Harry from getting his summer homework done, mainly because it doesn’t hurt them if Harry gets kicked out of Hogwarts.
They insist on continuing to withhold the truth from him even when it becomes obvious that the masquerade not just won’t last much longer, but can’t last much longer. Vernon’s plan to try to elude those Hogwarts letters (the trip to the house on the rick made because the Dursleys were falling back on the old superstition about witches being unable to cross water) was like closing the gate after the horse had not only left the stable, but won the Triple Crown. Again, Harry is a bright kid; he definitely knew by then that something was up. And they would’ve had to go home to that letter-stuffed house eventually… did Vernon even still have a job after all that?
Even in DH, when it’s unlikely that Harry and the Dursleys will ever see each other again, Vernon continues to claim Harry’s motives for trying to get them out of the house are impure (he’s trying to save their ungrateful lives, remember), and Petunia continues to hide information from Harry about why she hates Lily—and thus him—so damn much; he has to find that out from a dying Snape. Even before DH, it was obvious she knew at least something about the wizarding world (though she gleaned what she did know from spying on Lily and Snape).
I think that’s another reason for Hagrid’s outrage that Harry was never told about his parents—the Dursleys were trying to keep knowledge of not just Harry’s parents but his entire heritage from him. Dumbledore almost certainly left detailed instructions about how to explain the magical world to Harry—Hagrid takes it as a given that Harry will “know all about Hogwarts”—but apparently Dumbledore didn’t count on the Dursleys being complete and utter bigots.
Note that Vernon seems to think little of Lily and James’ sacrifice, despite the fact that Dumbledore’s letter almost certainly explained it—if anything, he seems to think that getting murdered served them right because they dared be less than “normal”. And all Petunia seems to get out of it is that Lily “got herself blown up” and the impression that Harry might somehow blow up the house if left on his own for more than a minute.
How is that mystical protection based on love supposed to work again?
ETA: I posted this right before I went to bed and didn't get around to checking on it until just a few minutes ago. I was under the impression it would take a while for the mods to get around to it. Okay? Okay.
[i] The picture we get of the Potters is, admittedly, sketchy—it would probably be an interesting story, were JKR ever inclined to tell it. As it is, the picture we do have is usually either vague or colored by various biases. The only time we see them directly is through memories—and those can be biased as well. We see James at his worst in Snape’s memories, but never really at his best. Yes, James was a bit of a jerk when he was a teenager, but he got over it, was willing to change his ways for the sake of the woman he loved (unlike someone else I could mention), and was willing to die if it might give his wife and son time to get away. If Sirius and Remus’ pictures of James and Lily are not objective, neither are Snape’s.