This chapter is profoundly sad. It’s also almost comically exaggerated, which kind of distracts from the heaviness of what’s actually happening, and I’m not sure if that was a choice since it’s a children’s book or just the way JKR wrote back then, but either way it’s a strange reading experience.
For ten years, ten of his most formative years, Harry was forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. Full of spiders and not much else. He was used as a punching bag by Dudley and all his gross friends. He was used as a verbal punching bag by Mr. Dursley. He was used as a servant by Mrs. Dursley. He was spoken about as if he wasn’t actually there, and never, as far as I remember, addressed with his actual name. He had nothing of his own, only hand-me-downs from Dudley. He was almost never allowed out of the house, except to go to school or shopping with Mrs. Dursley, he never got to go on trips, he never got to celebrate his birthday. He was locked in his cupboard for days on end for the slightest things.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine going from this, the only life you remember, to being famous, beloved, and magical? How terrifying and disorienting that must have been. How undeserving he must have felt.
Even in this chapter, before he knows anything about himself or his world, Harry is so excited to be able to go along to the zoo with the Dursleys. He hates them and they hate him, he must know that they aren’t going to actually let him enjoy himself, and he’s still grateful to go, to be given a cheap lemon popsicle and to be allowed to finish Dudley’s unwanted leftovers and to not have to stay with Mrs. Figg. If he’d only known who she really was. This seems like luxury to him, like as much as he can hope for.
The glimpses he’s given of the people who know who he is and appreciate him are also sad. Like, “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.” Break my heart, Harry. They do know you. Just wait, so much good is coming your way. I mean, also a lot of bad, but … a place to belong and people who want you. And magic!
The seeds of some of the series’ core elements are planted in this chapter–Harry being able to communicate with snakes, the bits of memory he has of the night his parents died, even a little of his saving people complex. Or, well, saving things complex. Without even knowing he can do magic, he still manages to free the snake and send it on its way to its homeland. I don’t know what JKR’s writing process was like, how much of the series she had planned out before she started writing, but it’s really interesting to see how early these things were introduced, and how casually. They hardly seem important at this point except insofar as they further Harry’s abuse and sense of alienation, but they build and build throughout the series. I love it.
I enjoyed this chapter a lot more than the first one, and, more surprisingly, I’m finding Harry much more sympathetic than I ever did before. I don’t know if it’s a result of being older and more able to recognize and appreciate nuance, or if it’s just that I haven’t gotten to the later books when he’s much more angsty and unkind to his friends, but I want to give him a hug and assure him that Hagrid is coming. And I want to have a stern talk with Dumbledore and ask if there was truly no other way to protect Harry the way he needed to be protected, because honestly. This is just cruel and unnecessary and surely he knows what’s happening. I really believe that so much could have been avoided or at least minimized if Harry had had a more stable, less abusive upbringing and if he had been allowed to know things about his family. True things, not that they died in a car crash and were freaks.