Harry Potter is hiding in the flowerbed beneath the open living room window of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon’s home at Four Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. Harry is trying to overhear the evening news broadcast. The day’s headlines are announced, and Harry is immensely relieved to hear no news of mass destruction or anything else that might indicate the work of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. Suddenly, a thunderous crack rips through the neighborhood, and Harry leaps up so quickly that he smashes his head on the window, alerting his aunt and uncle to his hiding place in the garden. Harry is sure that the crack was someone either Apparating or Disapparating, and he leaves Privet Drive to investigate its source.
Harry wanders off to a local playground. He is upset that he has heard very little news from his best friends and schoolmates, Hermione and Ron. Harry takes a seat on the swings and watches as his cousin, Dudley, leading a gang of delinquents, slinks past. Harry knows Dudley is scared of Harry’s magical powers and suppresses the urge to taunt Dudley with his wand. After Dudley passes, Harry gets up and follows Dudley home. He approaches Dudley, and the two boys begin to argue. When they reach the alley off of Magnolia Crescent, the night becomes pitch black and very cold. Harry realizes that dementors are about to attack. After much struggle, Harry uses his wand to summon a Patronus stag, and the stag saves both boys. Mrs. Figg, Harry’s neighbor, comes running toward them, and Harry instinctively tries to hide his wand. Mrs. Figg begs him to keep his wand out, in case more dementors lurk nearby.
Mrs. Figg reveals herself as a Squib, which means she was born to magic parents but has no magic ability of her own. Mrs. Figg tells Harry that someone named Mundungus Fletcher had been ordered to follow him and keep him safe, but that Mundungus must have left his watch to buy more stolen cauldrons. Mrs. Figg warns Harry that Dumbledore will soon know he’s used his magic outside of Hogwarts. Suddenly, Harry hears another crack, and Mundungus appears. Mrs. Figg demands that Mundungus return to Hogwarts immediately and explain to Dumbledore why Harry needed to use his magic.
Harry and Dudley return to Privet Drive. As they ring the doorbell, Dudley vomits and falls over. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon answer the door and fuss over him, demanding to know exactly what happened. Dudley points to Harry, and as Harry begins to explain, an owl flies through an open window, dropping a letter that expels Harry from Hogwarts for improper use of magic and announces that someone will be arriving shortly to destroy his wand. A few moments later, another letter arrives, this time from Ron’s father, Arthur Weasley. The letter tells Harry that Dumbledore is attempting to sort the issue out with the Ministry of Magic and that Harry should not surrender his wand or leave the house.
Harry continues trying to explain the dementor attack to his aunt and uncle. To Harry’s surprise, Aunt Petunia confirms that dementors guard the prison at Azkaban, something she claims that she once heard Harry’s parents talking about. Another owl arrives, with a second letter from the Ministry of Magic. This letter states that Harry is allowed to retain his wand until a disciplinary hearing on August 12. Another owl arrives, this time carrying a letter from Harry’s godfather, Sirius. Sirius warns Harry not to leave the house. Aunt Petunia seems horrified by Harry’s announcement that Lord Voldemort has returned. Her concern is strange to Harry, since she has never acknowledged or expressed interest in the world of magic before. Uncle Vernon is upset by the threat of the dementors and Voldemort and orders Harry to leave his house immediately. A fifth owl arrives, carrying a carrying a special kind of letter known as a Howler, which literally howls its message to its recipient. The owl bypasses Harry and deposits the letter on Petunia’s head. The letter howls: “Remember my last, Petunia.” Petunia demands that Harry stay, despite Vernon’s wishes. Petunia refuses to tell Harry what the message means and insists that he not leave his room.
The opening chapters of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix explore the divide between the wizard world, where Harry is comfortable and respected, and the Muggle world, where he is either ignored or ostracized. As he has been for the past four summers, Harry is imprisoned inside the Dursleys’ house and strictly forbidden from using his magic or discussing wizard business. The microcosm of the Dursley house serves as our main touchstone for Muggle life—however unfortunate, the Dursleys are the only Muggles we meet, and we understand quickly why Harry is so anxious to escape Muggle life and return to Hogwarts. If the Dursleys are any indication, Muggles not only fear magic, they are revolted by it. More often than not, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon try to find some sort of alternate explanation for whatever bit of magic they have inadvertently witnessed. When the dementors attack Dudley in the alleyway, he is careful not to blame the dementors themselves, because to do so would be to admit that magic is real. Instead, he points his chubby finger directly at Harry. Clearly, everything that is important to Harry is a point of contention for his Muggle family, who are horrified and disgusted by his lifestyle. They refuse to acknowledge Harry’s power, even when it has direct and undeniable repercussions on their lives.
Harry is not in the best shape when the novel begins—he feels isolated among the unbearable Muggles, misses Hogwarts, and feels abandoned by his two best friends, Ron and Hermione—and his unhappiness leads him to act recklessly. Given Harry’s close and terrifying encounter with Lord Voldemort at the end of Book IV, Harry is right to be intensely concerned about the fate of his beloved Hogwarts, and the total lack of news from the Wizard world is excruciating for him. Harry’s prolonged aggravation culminates in the alleyway with Dudley, when he whips out his wand and comes terribly close to using his magic to torment him. Harry is barely able to contain his rage, and, were it not for the interruption of the dementors, he very well might have cast a spell on Dudley, earning himself instant expulsion from Hogwarts. In this sense, the dementors actually save Harry from his own evil desires.
Though the Wizard and Muggle worlds operate under very different sets of principles, these principles sometimes overlap, and the sharp delineation between those worlds is beginning to blur. Despite his concerns about Hogwarts and his Wizard pals, Harry hides in the flowerbed in order to hear news from the Muggle world. He is already concerned that Voldemort’s effort to regain power could penetrate the Muggle universe, having a dramatic and debilitating effect on everyday Muggle life. Aunt Petunia’s recognition of Voldemort and her obvious fear at the sound of his name, which mirrors the typical Wizard reaction, indicate that Voldemort’s evil may have already found its way into her life. Harry’s worlds are getting all mixed up, with dementors showing up in Surrey, Mrs. Figg turning out to be a Squib, Aunt Petunia knowing about the prison at Azkaban, and Uncle Vernon asking questions about the Ministry of Magic. The principles Harry thought were specific to each of his worlds turn out to cross over to the other world with unexpected ease.
Rowling uses these opening chapters to introduce a series of questions that she will proceed to answer in the thirty-six chapters that follow. We don’t yet know why Aunt Petunia received a Howler, presumably from Dumbledore, or why she knows about Azkaban and Lord Voldemort. Why haven’t Ron and Hermione been writing? Why hasn’t Harry heard from Dumbledore? What’s going on with Voldemort? Why were dementors sent to attack Harry in Little Whinging? Of all these questions, the last one is the most pressing, since the presence of the dementors in Little Whinging is curious on many levels. The dementors should never present themselves to Muggles, and, more important, they should never abandon their post guarding the prison at Azkaban, where they work under the direction and control of Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry of Magic. The fact that the dementors acted so fully out of character does not bode well for Harry and his friends.