The Boy Who Lived (in the cupboard under the stairs)

10 years on from Harry’s arrival, Privet Drive has “hardly changed at all,” and neither has the Dursleys’ living room. Besides cousin Dudley’s growing-up pictures, the place stays stuck in time, held in stasis – with no evidence, either, of Harry’s presence.

An 11th Birthday

Chapter 2, “The Vanishing Glass,” opens on Prince Dudley’s 11th birthday. In the British Wizarding World, 11 is one of the most special birthdays. It’s wand age – the age when a child can begin training at Hogwarts.

For the spoiled Muggle bully, though, 11 is just another birthday, a day when he can boss around his parents, receive an obscene stream of expensive gifts (a racing bike? a video camera? 16 video games? – for an 11-year-old?!?!!), and engage in his favorite sport: Punching-Bag Cousin.

A Grim Fairy Tale?

And how about the cousin? Harry lives in a cupboard under the stairs, amid spiders, wearing Dudley’s baggy hand-me-downs, even being awakened ahead of the rest of the house to slave away in the kitchen.

Is it just me, or does Harry’s plight sound like something out of the Brothers Grimm? …..

[Cinderella’s step sisters] took her pretty clothes away from her, put an old grey bedgown on her, and gave her wooden shoes. “Just look at the proud princess, how decked out she is!” they cried, and laughed, and led her into the kitchen. There she had to do hard work from morning till night, get up before daybreak, carry water, light fires, cook and wash. Besides this, the sisters did her every imaginable injury – they mocked her and emptied her peas and lentils into the ashes, so that she was forced to sit and pick them out again. In the evening when she had worked till she was weary she had no bed to go to, but had to sleep by the hearth in the cinders. And on that account she always looked dusty and dirty, they called her Cinderella.
– From Cinderella, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Pantheon Books, p. 121 –

Unlike Cinderella, Harry’s abuse comes at the hands of relatives by blood. He’s not literally a step-child. But like Cinderella, he is deprived of decent clothes, mocked, compelled to do the dirty work, forced to live in a place not fit for humans, and talked about as if he’s not there. And this is a child who, in the Wizarding World, is considered something of a Prince – a child famous for surviving Voldemort’s Killing Curse!

In the Introduction to the Muggle edition of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Rowling writes:

In Muggle fairy tales, magic tends to lie at the root of the hero’s or heroine’s troubles…. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, on the other hand, we meet heroes and heroines who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do.

Cinderella is an exception among Muggle fairy tales. She is saved by magic… or perhaps by grace. The magic comes from praying everyday under the hazel tree planted on her mother’s grave.

Harry, too, will eventually be saved from the Dursleys by magic – only to be thrown into a mounting War among Wizards. He was left on the Dursleys’ doorstep with a letter and a “Good luck, Harry.” But at this point, it looks like his luck ran out the night his parents (according to the Dursleys’ lie) died in a car crash.

Parallels and Foreshadowings (Smaller Font for the Spoiler-Sensitive!)

  • Living in a cupboard under the stairs and all makes Harry sound a bit like a house elf for Muggles, doesn’t it?
  • Fearlessness around spiders will later come in handy when he confronts Aragog and his acromantula brood in the Forbidden Forest.
  • Memories of his own baggy hand-me-downs will help him find compassion for Severus Snape when he dips into the Pensieve in “The Prince’s Tale.”
  • And speaking of stairs, Jess (“The Last Muggle”) wrote a fairly amusing post on Harry being trapped under the stairs towards the end of HBP.

Reactions and Comments?
Let’s get this party started!

  • Are there other Fairy Tales that come to mind when you see how Harry is mistreated by his Muggle relatives?
  • How do you feel when you read about this mistreatment?
  • Given the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy and the protective magic, could anything have been done by the Wizarding World to stop the abuse?
  • What is the Arabella Figg’s role, living a couple of blocks away?
  • Is there anything else you feel like commenting on?

Next time, from Chapter 2:

I Won’t Blow Up the House!‘ … in which we discuss Harry’s wandless magic, his Parseltongue capabilities, and his dreams.

9 responses to “The Boy Who Lived (in the cupboard under the stairs)

  1. I always found the Dursleys’ treatment of Harry, especially as shown in the first few books, a bit over the top, out of line with what I see as more realistically drawn aspects of the story. Could the Wizard World have helped? Yes, absolutely. They could have reported the Dursleys to the appropriate Muggle authorities charged with the protection of children. (It is in fact surprising to me that no one at the elementary school both Harry and Dudley attended, did). Given that Harry appears not to have suffered some of the luridly awful things that, sadly, do happen to children, I think it would have been a safe bet that he would not have been taken away from Petunia (and thus, there would be no loss of the “blood protection”), but the outside attention would certainly have affected the status-conscious, conformist Dursleys.

    • Hi arithmancer!

      I hadn’t even thought of the Wizarding World reporting the abuse to the Muggle authorities. I suppose Arabella Figg could have done that, especially since she was a Squib passing as a Muggle, and lived only a couple of blocks away.

      But I wonder what their grounds were for doing nothing. Were they concerned that maybe Harry (and the blood protection) would be removed? Were they just wanting Harry to learn to fend for himself – test his strength and endurance?

      • I suppose one could try to come up with a within-book explanation for the Order’s lack of action. But as a reader my own feeling was that Rowling succumbed to the fun of writing the Dursleys as just a bit over the top. (And in a way that might not jar her child audience as much as it jars the grownups). If Harry had started out in a corner of Dudley’s second bedroom in cast-offs that almost fit, without being locked in his room for weeks on end with inadequate nutrition, etc…then it would work for me. Neither the Order nor the Muggle authorities can make the Dursleys love Harry, they can only prevent them from engaging in obvious abuse. So I tend to read those sections as having just a bit of poetic license.

      • Well, the Dursleys are a bit of a caricature (i.e. over the top). But as I pointed out in my post, I think the precedent is set to some extent by fairy tales.

        But yes, I think she was focusing on the child audience. It is very uncomfortable for adults to read the abuse and realize this isn’t happening in some Medieval fairy tale. This is supposed to be happening in late-20th-century England. But the child may be reading it through the lens of fairy tale and caricature and not be as discomfited as adults are.

  2. Weird. I read this almost as a fairy tale from the beginning, so I wasn’t the least surprised at how they were treated. And there are plenty of other children’s books with similar situations. Absurdity in story telling is hardly a vice!

  3. Pingback: From the Hut on the Rock to the Leaky Cauldron « Expecto Patronum

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