Raisin Gal (raisin_gal) wrote in hp_essays,
Raisin Gal
raisin_gal
hp_essays

Ode to Petunia Evans

The interesting thing about DH was how it broke my heart in a million wonderful ways, while failing to break it where I would have suspected it to be the whole point of the story to break it, in order to immerse me in the book's main storylines of tragedy. Such as the Dobby funeral and the Harry suicide... The former of which didn't move me one iota because I was too busy trying not to puke at the fact that the story had just a) killed the freed slave with his selfless rescue impulse bourn out of his inexplicably unconditional adoration of a member of the enslaving race, and b) started telling me incessantly that we're supposed to see the privileged-race beneficiary of this sacrifice digging a tiny grave hole with his own hands, without relying on a power shovel, to be this super-considerate, unimaginably noble, wonderful payment for the wretched creature's death [ETA]. And the latter of which, the Harry horcrux destruction, 1) had been speculated in numerous fanfics already, 2) didn't seem like such a horrible thing (despite the fact that it by rights should have been) if the boy's own mother was suddenly happily endorsing this course of action... And, above all else, that particular heartbreak 3) paled in comparison into nothingness, for me, who was in the middle of screaming at the utter wrongness of the string of facts that had just been revealed in the same scene -- i.e. how Snape had had to live his whole life and die in such misery, for mostly circumstantial reasons as opposed to any inexcusable, healthily-educated and well-informed choices on his part.

So that's the thing about DH. I still don't know if this makes the whole series an utter failure as a piece of literature (I would venture my humble opinion that it makes it an utter misfit for something to be sold as a series of books targeted for children, framed for them as a fantasy adventure with straightforward moral messages), or if it makes it a brilliantly innovative piece of postmodern, deconstructive fairytale, regardless of how any of these things in the tale ended up being the way they are... (Because who cares, really, whether the author of this story intended for it to be one thing or another? We all know she's just about the only fanatical adult fan of her creation that still believes, in this day and age, that its author would still be alive.) But the question of whether it's a good thing or a bad thing aside, I think that there's one thing that remains incontrovertible: the real drama of the Harry Potter story -- IMO virtually all of the real, fresh, mind-blowingly tragic and beautiful dramas of this story -- happened either completely off stage, or right at the corner of our peripheral vision.

Yet they happened. And we have all the clues necessary to reconstitute them into the downright operatic melodrama that they truly are.

Case in point: Aunt Petunia.

(...Well, case in point #1 would surely be Snape, but I think we've talked about him enough by now to keep him warm for a while, so let me skip right onto his Muggle counterpart.)

You know, I never ever really sympathized with her up until DH, from the very beginning of PS/SS. Because the narrative presents her as a petty, obnoxious gossip lady with a fixation on leading a picture-perfect "normal" middle-classed life, who strikes us as unlovable even before we're dropped into Harry's POV... Or, okay, let's quit making it the narrative's fault. Truth is, I never had enough imagination on me to put myself in this woman's shoes, until my shock at her childhood back story forced me to do so. But the facts are all there, so let's think back on how the universe looks from her perspective, shall we? What do we know went on in the HP world, as seen from Petunia's viewpoint?

1) First, she's a child and has a charming, lively baby sister. They play together often, even once they've started attending primary school. She loves her, or at least cares enough about her that her flying off of swings into the air genuinely frightens her.

2) And fly off swings she does; the sister has started showing strange supernatural abilities, which can't be really explained how she can do these things, even by the supernatural sister herself. She just can. And Petunia can't. She's somewhat jealous, and frightened about the unknown quality of this phenomenon... Quite understandably so. Apparently, so are their parents, who we're told has warned Lily against exploring it.

3) Then the explanation comes: Lily is gifted, and Petunia just isn't. She can't even be allowed to go to the magical school to try and see if she might develop this capacity in due course if she worked hard -- the headmaster gives her a "kind" but firm word on that matter, when she courageously asks him by employing (or so I imagine since how else could she have contacted him?) his own people's feed-your-missive-to-an-owl method of communication.

4) Meanwhile, a dirty-looking boy from a dingy, half-collapsed, working-class district in her neighborhood (and believe me, this demographic information matters to Petunia hugely) starts chatting Lily up, saying he shares this strange inexplicable power or hers, and Lily starts associating with him closely, ignoring her big sister's misgivings -- as well as, eventually, her presence. She forgets her and runs off with him to discuss (and, one could only guess, test out) these "magical powers" of theirs, leaving Petunia to covet their closeness from afar and worriedly trudge after them wherever they go, trying to keep an eye on them from behind bushes. What if this new grubby boy talks Lily into flying off something that's not too high for his magical abilities but is for hers? Who knows how these things work, anyway? Does he even know? And the strange boy -- with mismatched clothes, dirty hair, awkward social skills, and apparently, a dysfunctional family -- talks to Lily about Petunia extremely contemptuously.

5) So whatever. The feared time has come. Off to the boarding school in places unknown (and unseeable for people like Petunia) with the baby sister, with Shady Boy close in tow. Petunia is separated from her ten months of the year now, after having spent almost every day with her during their childhood... But tough deal. Such is life.

6) So she does what Dumbledore has told her to do: she finds a way to be at peace with her humble Muggle existence, and strives to happily live her own normal, mundane, non-magical life without complaining. While her sister comes home each summer to show their parents what amazing, unbelievable, magical things she can do with a "wand" that Tuney just doesn't have. Fine. She's real jealous but it's her sister, for God's sake. She still loves her and their parents who dote on her, at least enough that she doesn't run away from this home like Sirius does from his. After all, what's a younger sibling for if not for overachieving, satisfying your parents as you never could, and threatening your first-born credentials? I speak this from personal experience as a big sister; you feel sad, but you cope, because no matter how big the jealousy, it's always mixed in with a healthy dash of pride if that jealousy is for something that your flesh-and-blood sibling is capable of. Petunia can cope. She's got common sense. Too much of it, even, compared to her wacky sis and her wackier friends.

7) Fast-forward several years during which we have no idea what happened. All we know is: Lily has completed her other-worldly education and chosen a purebred man to marry from said alternate universe -- this much we know for sure that Petunia knew (since the Dursleys knew pre-Godric's Hollow that Lily's name now was Potter). And she is now fighting against a magician that calls himself the Dark Lord Voldemort (and whom all the other magical folks call, even more crazily, by the whispered name "You Know Who"), who wants to eradicate the world (a la Holocaust) of normal people like Petunia and her parents. Oh, and Lily has had a child with her wizard husband, not only a magical child but a fated one, which then causes the Evil Dark Lord to come after her family specifically. None of these things we can be sure whether Petunia was told or not. Lily herself might even not have been told the "specifically targeted child" part, for all we know... But you'd imagine a normal person would at least tell her parents and sibling what she and/or her husband does for a living, and both Lily's and James' occupation for as long as their lives lasted was "fighter, working for Dumbledore." So some of that information must have seeped through to the Evans family as well as the Dursleys... After all, what's there to hide? And when has Lily ever hid her exciting magical stuff from her mom and dad?

8) So we don't know exactly what Petunia's full picture of the situation was, but whatever she thinks is going on, matters are clearly out of her poor Muggle hands, and she can only tremble in the corner, teetering between jealousy for her baby sister's gloriously adventurous existence and fear for said baby sister's very own life, just praying that this all blows over soon, please God, so that she can go back to just being jealous and pretending that Lily is a freaky nutcase, whenever the precious princess deigns to visit her in her ordinary home...

9) Oh, and speaking of which, in the meantime, Petunia herself has done the most reasonable thing you could hope for her to do from her standpoint: she has found the most mundane, unimaginative, non-magical man she could possibly get her hands on, and gotten married to him to start an ordinary Muggle family. Right down to the white picket fence and two-point-five children... Or at least, they're getting there. A boy, for now. A non-mutant, normal Muggle boy.

10) So they send her sister and her husband a vase for a seasonal present. 'Cause that's what normal people do, dammit, and they're going to keep up a relationship with her sister, and try to keep it normal as best they can. Who knows what Lily and James gave the Dursleys in return. We can only hope it wasn't some home appliance that talked or shrieked and chased you around the kitchen when it got mad -- that would have been illegal, although maybe inserting a fully magical object in a Muggle household, as opposed to tinkering with Hitachi refrigerators, was not? (I have no idea...) And if they made the effort to buy something completely Muggle for their relatives, you can just bet they made their purchasing decision based on James' woeful ignorance of Muggle etiquette and Lily's displeasure and/or contempt at her sister's poor taste in vases.

11) But forget the vase, or any other attempts on Petunia's part to pretend the world is still spinning normally, because at some point or another her and Lily's mother and father both die. We don't know when this happened, or how, but we do know that it happened, because Petunia talks about her parents being alive to praise Lily's achievements while she was at Hogwarts, yet by the time Harry is orphaned he doesn't have a single living blood-relative aside from Petunia to be given over to. So something happened, between then and now. Something happened to both of Petunia's parents. Most probably having something to do with those Evil Magical Nazis of Lily's world, given what we already know of their modus operandi... And even if -- suspending our disbelief for a moment -- their deaths had had nothing to do with the Death Eaters, we can still well imagine their "natural" deaths would no doubt have seemed to Petunia like some even sicker, creepier method of surreptitiously killing off unsuspecting Muggles executed by the magical folks. I mean, these people are waging invisible war against each other, and the racial group specifically persecuted by Lily's enemies is people like Petunia and her parents. What else is she supposed to think when both of her parents die before they can even see their grandchildren's first birthdays?

12) So it's all extremely terrifying, and it's all completely out of Petunia's control. You'd imagine she's probably traumatized by her parents' deaths at least to some extent, and undoubtedly, understandably, blames Lily and her magical associations for why these tragedies happened. She has absolutely no idea how to defend herself or her family (including her newborn son) against any supernatural attack that might be imminent. Or not so imminent, or not at all imminent... Which is to remain a mystery for the eternity of foreseeable future. Nobody sees fit to tell her anything, and when they do she hardly understands what they're saying, so she's just completely in the dark as to what the hell is going on. I defy anybody to not go into deep-seated denial under her circumstances.

13) And then, of course, Lily dies. Petunia finds out that she has died, because the magical school's headmaster, who once brushed her off with "Sorry my dear, you're just not magical enough to come live and study with your lovely sister," has left the unmistakable son of Lily's, and a letter in the man's distinctive handwriting, on her humble Muggle-made doorstep. The son who is one-year-old, mind you, on a doorstep in Britain at the beginning of November. "You're this baby's blood-related Aunt," the letter goes, or something along those lines, "and so of course you must care for his survival, right? Okay, so here's the deal: Lily's dead, and she has done some magical charm thing on Harry that protects him -- or so we think -- and I have amplified this charm to work better on the condition that he lives with his blood relatives. Don't ask me why, I just thought that might be a good idea. Call it one of my more brilliant plans, which comes with the added bonus of a non-spared rod. Oh, and by the way, the Evil Dark Lord is after him specifically, so if you refuse to let us use this enhanced love charm he might well die. You don't want to do that to him, do you? Say yes! By saying yes and taking him in you will have activated my love magic thingy, and you will be the shield upon which Harry will rely for the rest of his life as a minor." Or whatever. I actually do not want to imagine what his actual rhetoric of persuasion might have been for Petunia, given what we know was the one he used on Snape at the height of his distress, to persuade him to keep following the man that had just failed to protect his beloved woman. But thank God, we aren't given details. The only thing we know is that he wrote her a letter, and she agreed to what it asked of her.

14) And yes, you didn't read me wrong just now, if you happen to be a (highly hypothetical) person who doesn't know anything about what happens in the HP story. He wrote her a letter. A letter! The sheer nerve of the man...

I mean, seriously.

First of all, the person he has dragged into his magical protection strategy, without her consent might I add (since by the time Harry is dropped off at the Dursleys' the charm enhancement is already done by Dumbledore, the choice of who gets to make it either work or not also already irrevocably made by him), happens to be the flesh-and-blood sister of the woman who has just died because she was fighting for him as his direct subordinate. (There are no indirect subordinates of his in the Order, because he doesn't trust anybody enough to let them be his middle-manager.) So she has died, and he's standing at this door. The least he can do is knock. Or deign to ring the Muggle doorbell. Whatever. And tell the bereaved sister face-to-face what on earth has happened. Who cares if it's the middle of the night (and why did he wait until it was the middle of the night anyway, when he could have asked Minerva, who had been sitting right there all day, to gently deliver the bad news to these poor people who were still un-blissfully ignorant?), or if he thinks Petunia doesn't love Lily enough to care about her passing (then why should she care about Harry's survival?), or whatever else excuse he might have made to himself for putting out all of the streetlights as soon as he got there. You just don't skulk in the dark and then leave babies on doorsteps and deliver the news of their parents' deaths to their sisters in bloody letters. You knock on a victim's relative's door. That's just basic human courtesy, never mind the whole requesting from said relative their crucial cooperation thing.

And second of all, where on earth is Lily's body? Godric's Hollow, that's where, and probably even still lying there at the scene of the crime at this point, if Sirius and Hagrid are the only ones to have been there since the attack (I'm not sure -- are they?) with each of them busy with a pressing business at hand. And if the Fidelius Charm is still holding (which, I have no idea how that broke later -- was there a way for Pettigrew to deactivate it, or was it something that wears off with time?) then Petunia, who is a powerless Muggle and most certainly has not had the time since last week to hear from Pettigrew where her sister's house is before he ratted it out to Voldemort, has no possible way of approaching that piece of property, never mind seeing in through the window to look at her sister's decomposing body. Come to think of it, even if the Fidelius has broken, I'm not sure that Petunia can translate what Lily has called "Godric's Hollow" into something you can find on a Muggle map, if she felt like she might want to go see it for herself... Which she may well not, but if I were her husband I would drag her there for the sake of her own sanity whether I believed in the whole story of her sister's death or not. Does Dumbledore or his people ever make sure Petunia sees her sister's remains and gets proper closure? One can only hope that they did, before they had their (probably) hugely ceremonious (and utterly reality-defying) funeral and erected that monument in her honor in the middle of that Muggle town -- which just looks like an irrelevant war memorial to Petunia's unprivileged eyes. But no matter how things might go on after this point, it's just plain wrong that Dumbledore doesn't even bother to ask Petunia if she wants to go see her sister's corpse and just thrusts the baby onto her without so much as a condolence bunch of flowers. You had the time to bring lemon drops with you to those Muggle doorsteps. For God's sakes, some flowers. And a simple knock. Who the hell do you think died yesterday because of your incompetence?

15) But anyway, so Petunia gets a choice: Take in the baby, the only thing that Lily has left behind on this earth, despite his obviously magical heritage and unmistakable potential of bringing onto her family all sorts of magic-world-related trouble as his mother has done? A baby that has needed to be specifically protected, with an enhanced version of some ancient magical charm that needs a fixed key ingredient (namely, her) to secure its effectiveness, because his life is predicted to be endangered all the way up to his coming-of-age? (We can guess that Harry's need for protection, at least, was revealed to Petunia in the letter, because of the way Dumbledore's howling reminder to her was phrased in OotP.) Or should she take the alternative: dump him off at the nearest orphanage she can find and curse her inability to Obliviate herself, hoping against hope that she won't someday get another surprise visit from the magic headmaster to blame the death of this innocent baby nephew of hers on her refusal to cooperate?

Which would you choose? I mean, a baby nephew's life is of course not to be trifled with, but the only thing telling her she's his only hope for survival is this "freak" of a man's (or so from her POV) psychotically inconsiderate letter. And she obviously loves her husband and her baby son -- adores him, even, to an extent that may even be considered less than strictly healthy by some. Which would you choose if this choice was yours to make? I would have to ashamedly but honestly answer that I have no idea.

But Petunia, Petunia chooses the former option. Even though Harry is living proof of the fact that she lost her sister to some strange alternate universe at 11 and never got her back again until she died at the tender age of 21. Even though his presence in her house reminds her every day of how all three members of her birth family -- who also happened to be her only remaining blood-relatives in the world -- were murdered with some supernatural power which Harry probably has, and will potentially attract others who also have it so that they will come chasing after him and those protecting him. I don't know if anybody, Wizarding or Muggle, in the entire HP universe, is more deserving of getting the Sword of Gryffindor than she is. Because Petunia's action is more chivalrous than anything we've ever seen any of the wizards do, seeing as she was putting not only her own life at risk (which is a comparatively easy thing to do for a good cause, and even easier if that good cause happens to be protecting your own child) but also the lives of her beloved husband and infant son, the only two remaining family that she has on this earth.

...Or was she in no position to deny Dumbledore's request to take in Harry the Ticking Bomb? I mean, the man can use supernatural force that she doesn't even understand, and somehow managed to appear at Petunia's current address after all these years, just as soon as he needed to be there. Who knows what he might be capable of if she refused and got Harry killed? Dumbledore's wording in explaining his enhanced Love Charm to Harry makes it sound like it needed to be consensually activated by Petunia's action of taking Harry in, but who knows what that manipulative codger might have done to worm through the technicalities of magical rules in a way that made her choice count as consensual when it was not really completely a consensual choice?

16) But either way, she goes ahead and takes Harry into her home. The very symbol of what went wrong with her birth family and doomed it into a bloody chaos where she was the sole survivor. She and her husband pretty clearly abuse him, if only ever psychologically rather than strictly physically, and there's no excuse for that kind of an abuse on a child, no matter the circumstances... But boy, what circumstances they have been ordered by a total stranger to live in. And eventually Harry starts to manifest his magical abilities, probably around age six judging from what we're told about normal Wizarding children, and there's nothing anybody in Petunia's family can do except pretend it doesn't exist and try to make him suppress it. Does Dumbledore come to them at that point to offer five-years-too-late counseling? No. Nobody we know of even deigns to tell them what to do with Harry's scary bursts of magic. Petunia must be petrified that this boy's demonstration of his magical powers, which sticks out like a bleeding thumb in the middle of her Muggle neighborhood, might alert whoever is after Harry to his identity.

But still she doesn't try to eject Harry, or to lock him away at home where nobody can find him without proper care or education (as Dumbledore and his mother both decided to do with their flesh-and-blood Ariana). And she keeps on treating him to her family's shelter and food. Even when his magic becomes undeniable, when Hogwarts, that ominous place whose owl call to Lily was where her family's whole bloody mess started, calls Harry to come join them, and Vernon starts misguidedly trying to run away from the owls with Harry in tow... She doesn't, even once, say, "You know what, honey? Let's leave the boy at home and let him have his owl mails while we escape. How does Australia sound? We could ask a man I know in Spinner's End to make us all forget that we have a nephew..." Even when Harry starts coming home each summer with fresh battle wounds, or starts talking about Lily's murderer's return, still Petunia doesn't ask him whether he might want to, let's say, live in a tent in their yard that she would be kind enough to furnish with anything he wants and the kitchen sink, just, please don't ever come within a radius of her and her family that would put them in the range of a crossfire. Right up until the point where Petunia's own son's life is actually directly threatened by two horrific prison-guard creatures that has come after Harry... And considering what we now know to have been her full extent of knowledge about their nature, it's small wonder Petunia was so afraid for Dudley when she heard what had happened. But Dumbledore howls at her to not back down, preaching to her that it's somehow her duty to keep protecting Harry, at the now-imminent, constant mortal risks to her and her direct family.

And this time we know for sure that he isn't pointing any threatening wands up to her throat, at least not in any overt ways, as far as we can see.

And do you know what Petunia does when this ungrateful preacher howls?

She agrees.

Petunia saved the world with her courageous will to give sacrifice as surely as Lily or Harry ever did with theirs, and her sacrifice was worlds more difficult to give than either of these magical people's. Because it went against the very grain of her basic human nature. Yet she gave it, tearfully but willfully. Build a damn memorial monument and throw a celebration party in her honor, Potter, then go kiss your bride at the lily-white alter. Your people owe that much to your human shield, at the very least.

And she deserves to be told conclusively that her torments are now officially over.


*


ETA: In this post I failed to discuss Petunia's abuse of Harry in any substantial way, as my focus was on uncovering the aspects of her character that weren't narratively put under the spotlight. Many commenting have voiced how they have a fundamental problem with seeing someone who abuses a child as a "hero," no matter what tragedy she may have come through. And I tend to agree, at least when it comes to realistic thoughts on actual human beings. Meanwhile, static_pixie has pointed out how Petunia's character is simply impossible to rationalize as a consistent portrayal of an actual human being. These fen's insights have allowed me to start thinking more about her character by shifting my focus this time onto her character-trait coherency, and what I've come up with is an out-there hypothesis of her as a nightmarishly misrepresented character. It can be read here on my journal if you would like:

Some whacked-out thoughts on Snape and Petunia

I would, however, warn you that it's kind of dark as insinuation goes.

Tags: characters:dumbledore family:albus, characters:dursley family:petunia, other topics:heroes
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  • The Lies and Crimes of Albus Dumbledore Pt 1

    By request here is my examination of Albus Dumbledore and some of his actions and possible motivations thereof. This essay is quite long so I have…

  • Hogwarts: an Evolution

    (Copyright - mellie-lyn) Hogwarts did not appear fully form out of the founders’ shared vision; it evolved slowly over the…

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