Dursley-centric chapters are often great fun, and the first chapter of CoS (filled as it is with absurdity and slapstic) is no exception.
When Harry uses a common cliche (“You’ve forgotten the magic word”),
Dudley gasped and fell off his chair with a crash that shook the whole kitchen; Mrs. Dursley gave a small scream and clapped her hands to her mouth; Mr. Dursley jumped to his feet, veins throbbing in his temples.
For all this reaction, Harry may as well have arrived in black gloves wearing a mask and wielding a butcher’s knife!
But the absurdity doesn’t stop there!
“I meant ‘please’!” said Harry quickly. “I didn’t mean – ”
“WHAT HAVE I TOLD YOU, thundered his uncle, spraying spit over the table, “ABOUT SAYING THE ‘M’ WORD IN OUR HOUSE?”
The “M” word? Siriusly?
Do the Dursleys have no sense of proportion? (well, the answer to that question should be obvious, shouldn’t it?).
“HOW DARE YOU THREATEN DUDLEY!” roared Uncle Vernon, pounding the table with his fist.”
OUCH! In the HP world, magic is not inherently threatening, but after the “pig’s tail” incident from Harry’s last birthday, any suggestion of magic may certainly seem like a threat.
Finally, Uncle Vernon screams:
“I WARNED YOU! I WILL NOT TOLERATE MENTION OF YOUR ABNORMALITY UNDER THIS ROOF!”
And this is the real issue, isn’t it? The Dursleys, as we saw in our previous re-read post, pride themselves on their normality – so much so that shortly after Petunia accepted Vernon’s proposal of marriage, she realized that she needed to confront the issue of her sister’s “abnormality”:
She confessed the truth during a tear-stained date, in Vernon’s dark car as they sat overlooking the chip shop where Vernon had just bought them a post-cinema snack. Vernon, as Petunia had expected, was deeply shocked; however, he told Petunia solemnly that he would never hold it against her that she had a freak for a sister, and Petunia threw herself upon him in such violent gratitude that he dropped his battered sausage.
Absurd as the Dursley reaction to the “M” word is, it is quintessentially Dursley-esque!
When Vernon sits down, he is “breathing like a winded rhinocerous” – one of several amusing similes found in this chapter. What’s a simile, you might ask? In a simile, the author compares one thing to another by using “as” or “like.”
JKR seems to prefer “like”:
Not only does Vernon breathe “like a winded rhinocerous,” but the Dursleys treat Harry “like a bomb that might go off at any moment” and “like a dog that had rolled in something smelly.”
And it’s all because, for Harry, “magic” is more than just a word. It is part of who he is.
In the first chapter of CoS, JKR repeats for the audience the requisite background information – reminding us of Harry’s experience during the previous year at Hogwarts and the fact that Uncle Vernon has padlocked his school books and supplies in the cupboard under the stairs. In fact, Vernon has even padlocked Hedwig’s cage – leading to the chapter’s initial confrontation (in which Uncle Vernon asks if he looks stupid – all while “a bit of fried egg dangl[es] from his bushy mustache!).
But probably the most significant point that JKR emphasizes is Harry’s scar. Harry, she reminds us,
…wore rounded glasses, and on his forehead was a thin, lightning-shaped scar.
It was this scar that made Harry so particularly unusual, even for a wizard.
At one year of age, as we all know, Harry survived an attack by Voldemort. He had
…escaped with his lightning scar, and somehow – nobody understood why – Voldemort’s powers had been destroyed the instant he had failed to kill Harry.
And then, when Harry goes to Hogwarts, he learns that
he and his scar were famous
… because he is the only person who ever survived a killing curse – and he survived the Avada Kedavra from its most proficient practitioner.
When I first read the the early chapters of PS/SS, Harry’s scar seemed somewhat cosmetic – a distinguishing mark that really looked cool – though it was clearly foreshadowing something of significance.
What I like here in the first chapter of CoS is that JKR reminds us of Harry’s scar several times, just to remind us that it distinguishes him from other Wizards. And later – as the books continue – she builds on what Harry experiences via the scar (first, pain in proximity to Voldermort, then later an ability to see into Voldemort’s mind). She puts all the clues she needs in even these early books so that when the big reveal about the scar comes in “The Prince’s Tale,” we should not be surprised.
But of course, I was – given that (unlike the pre-DH fandom), I had only about three days between discovering in HBP that Voldemort sought to split his soul and reading the endgame in Deathly Hallows. I had to do a double-take, a triple-take, a quadruple-take when I came across that passage in TPT.
No matter what I experienced though. Nobody can say that JKR did not give the reader fair warning! She told us – again and again and again – the significance of the scar, just as she does here.
So… what are some things that have jumped out at you in reading through the first part of the first chapter of CoS?