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Before Hogwarts: the Dursleys

1 Dursleys = society

 

The first encounter with Harry takes place in opposition with the Dursleys. The very first pages of the text emphasise the following qualities about the Dursleys and in general the Muggle world:

 

In the first two pages of the book, the Dursleys are presented as boring (lower) middle-class England, defined by commercial activities like selling drills and interactions like gossip. This is the world of society, a world which is unfavourably distinguished from the "strange or mysterious" (ch. 1) magic world.

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2 Harry as nature and individuality

This might give the impression that the basic opposition in Harry Potter is between magic and society. However, the first serious magical incident described in the book between the Muggle and the magic world is the incident with snake, one in which magic may be involved, but also one in which nature - and individuality - features prominently:

 

the snake jerked its head towards uncle Vernon and Dudley, then raised its eyes to the ceiling. It gave Harry a look that said quite plainly: ‘I get that all the time.’ ‘I know,’ Harry murmured through the glass […] ‘Where do you come from, anyway?’ Harry asked. […] Boa Constrictor, Brazil. […] The specimen was bred in the zoo. ‘Oh, I see – so you’ve never been to Brazil?’ […] What came next happened so fast no one saw how it happened – one second, Piers and Dudley were leaning right up close to the glass, the next, they had leapt back with howls of horror. […] the glass front of the boa constrictor’s tank had vanished. […] As the snake slid swiftly past him,, Harry could have sworn a low hissing voice said, ‘Brazil, here I come…Thanksss, amigo.’ (ch. 2)

 

Why has J. K. Rowling created the incident with the snake? Two facts stand out (look at emphasis in blue),

  • Harry is associated with a snake, theoretically a wild animal
  • This snake shares with Harry the experience of being
        [1] imprisoned from birth
      • [2] controlled by the Dursleys, who are represented as society.

Such an association and shared experience is not fortuitious: Harry is likened to nature (the snake) and opposed to society (the Dursleys), and the defining fact of society is that it is oppressive, while nature is identified with freedom (Brazil). What Harry gives the snake, and needs himself, is a wild natural habitat.

Curiously, this is what Harry gets during his journey from London (society) to Hogwarts (magic): "the neat fields are gone, and woods, twisting rivers and dark green hills appear" (ch. 6). Harry leaves the order of society - "neat fields" - for something natural rather than metapyhsical - "woods", "rivers", "green hills". In fact, the magic world he enters is, in being magical, also more primitive than the normal world, and in that sense more natural. Instead of telephones, we have owls, instead of apothecaries, alchemists (ch. 5).

Before Hogwarts, the characterisation of Harry thus depends heavily on an association with the natural dimension (wild, primitive nature) and the individual dimension (freedom), and an opposition with society (the Dursleys).

Click HERE to see what happens inside Hogwarts.

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daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann