Ten years have passed. Harry is now almost eleven and living in wretchedness in a cupboard under the stairs in the Dursley house. He is tormented by the Dursleys’ son, Dudley, a spoiled and whiny boy. Harry is awakened one morning by his aunt, Petunia, telling him to tend to the bacon immediately, because it is Dudley’s birthday and everything must be perfect. Dudley gets upset because he has only thirty-seven presents, one fewer than the previous year. When a neighbor calls to say she will not be able to watch Harry for the day, Dudley begins to cry, as he is upset that Harry will have to be brought along on Dudley’s birthday trip to the zoo. At the zoo, the Dursleys spoil Dudley and his friend Piers, neglecting Harry as usual. In the reptile house, Harry pays close attention to a boa constrictor and is astonished when he is able to have a conversation with it. Noticing what Harry is doing, Piers calls over Mr. Dursley and Dudley, who pushes Harry aside to get a better look at the snake. At this moment, the glass front of the snake’s tank vanishes and the boa constrictor slithers out onto the floor. Dudley and Piers claim that the snake attacked them. The Dursleys are in shock. At home, Harry is punished for the snake incident, being sent to his cupboard without any food, though he feels he had nothing to do with what happened.


Character names in Harry Potter are carefully chosen not to be lifelike but rather to color our understanding of the various characters’ social ranks and personalities. This technique, which the nineteenth-century English author Charles Dickens used prolifically in such novels as Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, is closer to caricature than to realism and gives each character a larger-than-life, mythical feel. Harry Potter, for instance, is an ordinary and unpretentious name, though there are associations of creativity and usefulness in his last name: a potter makes pottery, which has a practical function. By contrast, the Dursleys, who brim with self-importance and snobbery, are named after a town in Gloucestershire once important in the medieval wool trade: their name suggests an old-fashioned class-conscious life that may have outlived its grandeur.

Read an in-depth analysis of Harry Potter.

The Dursleys’ first names have similar upper-class connotations. The names Dudley, Petunia, and Vernon all contrast sharply with the more working-class name Harry. Dudley Dursley’s name reflects the silliness of the character who bears it, not only in its stuttering quality (“Du-Du”), but also in the “dud” hidden in it. Dudley, we learn, is indeed a dud, and his name highlights the contrast between Harry’s vitality and Dudley’s absurdity. Furthermore, just as the Dursleys seem to be cartoonish versions of provincial English snobs, they are also cartoonish in their villainy. They are not just subtly bad toward Harry (as a real family might be) but outlandishly and unbelievably wicked in making him live in a cupboard under the stairs. Similarly, giving a boy thirty-seven birthday presents is not realistic, but in Rowling’s fairy-tale world, we accept this exaggeration. The caricatured aspect of the characters thus helps us read the story as a myth.

Read more about the value of Harry’s humility as a theme, especially in relation to the neglect and cruelty he experiences with the Dursleys.

Rowling exposes us to quite a bit of overt witchcraft in the first two chapters, such as Professor McGonagall’s transformation into a cat. But Harry cannot identify magic when he sees it—even when it is his own magic, such as when he releases a boa constrictor at the zoo upon his enemies without being aware that he is doing it. He wonders how it happens and is mystified by it, but he never dreams it is magic. Harry’s gradual understanding of this magic, proceeding from total ignorance to awareness to full mastery, is crucial to the story’s development.