I have a confession to make: I have never reread the Harry Potter series.
I know, Harry, I’m sorry! If it’s any consolation, I’ve revisited the books individually on multiple occasions! But yes, I have to admit that I’ve only done just that; otherwise, I have not read the series in sequence from start to finish since the first time I read them all at around age nine.
However, like any good Seeker, I sought to correct this oversight last summer. I hoped to read all seven books over again as a buildup to the release of the “eighth story” in the series, being the script of the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Perhaps luckily for me, though, I ultimately wasn’t able to fully venture into this grand reread at the time–otherwise, I think I would have been so hyped up that my disappointment with the new installment would have been made even worse.
But this is supposed to be a generally optimistic blog, so I digress…
While I didn’t end up accomplishing my goal last year, my desire to reread Harry Potter also didn’t vanish under an Invisibility Cloak. Rather, I was led to a better (if not more involved) idea: I thought that I should start a series of posts about what is gained by rereading beloved childhood texts. After all, great series like Harry Potter, which are well-known for their rereadability, can offer us new lessons at all stages of life, not just in adolescence. In addition, I’d like to think that after ten years I’m a much different person than I was at nine years old, so by reading these books now, I can gain a fresh perspective on this invaluable group of stories.
Essentially, I now have a new set of goals in mind for my ongoing reread, outlined here:
- Reread the Harry Potter series from start to finish.
- Write a blog post for each book.
- Discuss original experiences involving each story, as well as new senses of clarity based on current age.
- Gain a new critical perspective on the series, namely by focusing on its virtues and nuances.
And with that said, let’s begin with some reflections about book one!
Speaking of Dumbledore…
I’ve likely revisited Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the most out of all of the books in the series (although it could be tied with the amount of times I’ve pored over the last couple-hundred pages in book seven). As a result, there weren’t as many “new” discoveries revealed on this particular readthrough as I anticipate with the coming books. However, there were still two prominent elements of book one that resonated with me more this time around than in times past.
The first of these elements is the brilliance of its opening chapter. The way in which Rowling gradually introduces the wizarding world to us through the eyes of the Dursleys is a remarkable choice, for their strict adherence to normalcy in the face of the otherwise abnormal calls the reader to desire the unexpected. In other words, because we initially follow a set of characters who are resistant to anything out of the ordinary, we in turn come to want just the opposite: that is, to see things out of the ordinary. Just look at the opening lines of the book for proof:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”–page 1
Doesn’t that make you want to read exactly about things that are strange and mysterious? I know it does for me! As a result of the reverse psychology inherent behind this line and all of the Dursley’s actions, each subsequent snippet of anything magical during the chapter–people dressed in ostentatious robes, influxes of owls in the sky, a particularly watchful cat–drives us forward, faster and faster all the way to the first written interaction between Professor McGonagall and Dumbledore.
The conversation that ensues between these two wizards is as brilliant as the first part of the chapter, for, from the standpoint of someone who has finished the series, one can realize just how much Dumbledore knows in this moment yet declines to divulge. One example of this behavior comes on page 10, when Dumbledore replies to Minerva’s question of whether Voldemort “really has gone” with a noncommittal, “it certainly seems so.” At first glance, Dumbledore is confirming the loss of the dark wizard, but in actuality his answer hints at the knowledge that Voldemort’s soul lives on. After all, Dumbledore shares that Voldemort may “seem” gone, but he also leaves room in that statement for the possibility of the Dark Lord’s return, a possibility that becomes more and more real right up to the big reveal of just what’s under Quirrell’s turban.
Dumbledore continues to give vague answers to Minerva’s questions throughout their conversation, further indicating that he is hiding more extensive knowledge. For instance, to McGonagall’s question of how Harry survived the attack, he replies, “We can only guess. We may never know.” Little do we as readers know, however, just how much guessing Dumbledore has already underwent about Harry’s survival. He likely knows about Lily’s sacrificial protection charm, seeing as he confirms her importance to Harry in the hospital wing at the end of the book. In addition, perhaps he even knows at this point that Harry himself has become a Horcrux. After all, later in the chapter, he laments that Harry will “have that scar forever,” cementing that he at least knows that it is the product of extremely dark magic.
Overall, J.K. Rowling certainly lives up to the promise of her opening line during the first chapter of The Sorcerer’s Stone. We see “strange” happenings occurring all over London through the resistant eyes of the Dursleys, and “mysterious” happenings through the secrecy surrounding Dumbledore’s complete knowledge in his conversation with Professor McGonagall. These occurrences all contribute, in turn, to the remarkability of the opening chapter as a whole, for it is incredibly effective in driving the reader’s curiosity forward through the rest of the book.
The Dursley Details
The second element of The Sorcerer’s Stone that particularly struck me during this readthrough was the cruelty of the Dursleys. When I was younger (and really all the way up until now), I always viewed the Dursleys as humorously vile, completely lacking in decency despite their own thoughts to the contrary. With that characterization came the overpowering urge to not take the actions of these characters seriously; instead, I would dismiss them as absurd, even unimportant, because it was a lot more fun to laugh at them for being so backward.
On some level, I see that the purpose of the Dursleys is largely as a comedic device. After all, it is the ultimate comeuppance to laugh at them when all they want is to be validated. But this dismissive attitude that I took towards them also trivialized their actions in my memory, so much so that when I went back and read the first few chapters of this book again, I was shocked by how genuinely frightening they were. In actuality, Harry lives in a dangerous climate of abuse under the Dursleys, and this fact cannot be overstated.
It’s a nearly romanticized phrase in the Harry Potter series: “the cupboard under the stairs.” However, Harry’s original living quarters are anything but romantic. In fact, I found that the cupboard can be seen as a symbol of Harry’s regular experiences of fear and confinement. For one, it is immediately introduced as a reason for Harry’s slight stature:
“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age…”–page 20
Besides being a place where Harry literally does not have the space to properly grow, the cupboard further marks Harry’s malnourishment when one considers that the Dursleys regularly lock him in there and refuse to feed him as punishment. This punishment becomes most evident after the fiasco at the zoo, during which Harry exhibits signs of magic that he otherwise cannot control or understand. His lack of control regarding the nature of his offense further reinforces the fear inherent in the following passage:
“[Vernon] was so angry he could hardly speak. He managed to say, “Go — cupboard — stay — no meals,” before he collapsed into a chair, and Aunt Petunia had to run and get him a large brandy.
Harry lay in his dark cupboard much later, wishing he had a watch. He didn’t know what time it was and he couldn’t be sure the Dursleys were asleep yet. Until they were, he couldn’t risk sneaking to the kitchen for some food.”–page 29
As the passage states, sneaking out of the cupboard and smuggling some food is too much of a risk for Harry while the Dursleys are awake. This is a quite terrifying notion, and after some further reflection, it becomes even more terrifying when one considers what further repercussions would ensue should Harry actually be caught outside of the cupboard in that moment. Overall, the severity of the Dursleys is made clear here, a next-level culmination of their casual insults and bickering.
This is not the only instance during which the Dursleys confine Harry for unjustifiable reasons, either. In fact, the frequency of punishments of this nature is implied through a bit of foreshadowing earlier in the second chapter. Before Harry even goes to the zoo and exhibits the most overt sign of his magic, he recalls prior instances of his involvement in curious and unexplainable events, and the swift punishments that ensued from his guardians. One example involves Mrs. Dursley, after she took a pair of kitchen scissors to Harry’s unruly hair and left him “almost bald except for his bangs, which she left to ‘hide that horrible scar.'” (24). After a night of worrying about school the following day, Harry awoke the next morning to find that his hair had already grown back. The anecdote ends with an almost chilling conclusion:
“He had been given a week in his cupboard for this, even though he had tried to explain that he couldn’t explain how it had grown back so quickly.“–page 25
Once again, despite his lack of control over his offense, Harry was subjected to exile in the cupboard, this time for a whole week. It’s disquieting how the cupboard becomes an indicator of so much cruelty, perhaps even more so when it is invoked as a threat. After all, before their trip to the zoo, Vernon pulls Harry aside and warns him that if there’s “any funny business, anything at all — …[he’ll] be in that cupboard from now until Christmas.” (24).
Later, it becomes clear that Harry’s life with the Dursleys is one of confinement in more ways than one. After all, he is often physically confined in his cupboard, but he is also confined by the lack of knowledge he has about who he is, who his parents are, and where he really comes from. In other words, since the Dursleys withhold all information about the wizarding world from him, they confine him mentally and emotionally. This form of confinement is reflected on page 30, when Harry dreams of being taken away by a family he doesn’t think he has:
“When he had been younger, Harry had dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take him away, but it had never happened; the Dursleys were his only family. Yet sometimes he thought (or maybe hoped) that strangers in the street seemed to know him.Very strange strangers they were, too. …The weirdest thing about all these people was the way they seemed to vanish the second Harry tried to get a closer look.“–page 30
This passage reinforces how important finding Hogwarts later becomes for Harry, since there he discovers that he was right all along, that the “family” he always suspected he might have is real, fulfilled by a number of members of the wizarding community. And yet, during his time with the Dursleys, it is troubling to read that he once had no way to see that hope; after narrowly escaping yet another instance of entrapment (Petunia wants to lock Harry in the car when they arrive at the zoo, but Vernon is too concerned about the car itself to leave him in there), Harry ultimately relates to the boa constrictor he visits, who lives a similarly tragic life of enclosure (23, 27).
In turn, the effect that these instances of confinement have on Harry’s character is striking. I normally remember Harry as an adventurous and outgoing boy, with a bit of a sassy streak. However, at the start of The Sorcerer’s Stone, he is very much the opposite; he tiptoes around the Dursleys, and does not stand up to them them for fear of their further abuses. In fact, one of Harry’s first lines of dialogue is a sudden recanting of protest:
“‘Well, get a move on, I want you to look after the bacon. And don’t you dare let it burn, I want everything perfect on Duddy’s birthday.’
‘What did you say?’ his aunt snapped through the door.
‘Nothing, nothing…'”–page 19
Harry divulges soon after the principal lesson he has learned after almost eleven years under the Dursley’s roof: “Don’t ask questions—that was the first rule for a quiet life…” (20). These reflections reveal an uncharacteristic sense of timidity within Harry, one that is thankfully broken once he leaves his abusive home environment to attend Hogwarts. After being sorted into Gryffindor, a sense of boldness seems to be unlocked within Harry–in other words, he grows into the boy that he is meant to be: curious, courageous, and heroic. In all, I’m excited to see how his newfound status as a young wizard further empowers him in the coming books.
The experience of rereading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone proved to be exciting and full of nostalgia, right from the start of the book. This positive experience is exemplified by the way in which Rowling deftly draws the reader into the wizarding world, by gradually introducing elements of strangeness and mystery in her first chapter. She also balances both humor and severity within the characters of the Dursleys, although I only picked up on the former as a child. During this reread, however, it became evident that “the cupboard under the stairs” can be read as a symbol of the physical, verbal, and emotional confinement that Harry experiences under his guardians, which is why, after a certain point, I feel that both the cupboard and the Dursleys themselves should not be trivialized as simply romantic or humorous elements of the larger story.
Overall, I’m excited to continue rereading the Harry Potter series, since after ten years I can discover different nuances in the books that may have initially gone over my younger head. A post discussing Chamber of Secrets is on the way!