Fun fact for those of our readers who don’t know: the American editions have chapter illustrations. Really, really bad ones. I didn’t include Chapter One because it was just baby Harry wrapped in his blankie, but the worst and funniest images will be displayed and captioned for your entertainment. Thanks to The Leaky Gallery for all the chapter art images in this spork.
Chapter Two: The Vanishing Glass
These very tiny presents do not make up for the fact that I have no legs, that I
have the weirdest haircut in history and a deformed nose, or the fact that the narrative
compares me to different animals and inanimate objects multiple times per chapter.
It’s now Dudley’s eleventh birthday, and Harry wakes up in his room – which is actually a cupboard under the stairs – to his aunt banging on the door and ordering him (in a shrill and screeching voice, naturally) to get up and not to spoil the day. We’re told that nothing has changed except the age of Dudley in the photographs on display:
“Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-coloured bobble hats.”
New theory: Dudley is Hagrid!Kirby’s son. Anyway, now the photos are of a large boy, and there aren’t any photos of Harry.
He goes into the kitchen to make sure the breakfast doesn’t burn as instructed, and all Dudley’s presents are piled up on the table (including the bicycle, which is a neat trick. Maybe they should have left that one on the floor). Harry doesn’t know why Dudley wanted a bicycle since he’s so fat and hates exercise, just as all fat people everywhere since the dawn of time do. But Dudley does like hitting Harry, except Harry’s way too fast to be caught most of the time. Harry is small and skinny for his age, and Dudley is apparently four times as large as he is: no really, Dudley must be Hagrid’s son.
Anyway, Harry only has Dudley’s old clothes to wear, and the frames of his glasses are held together with tape because Dudley punches him in the face so often despite apparently never being able to catch him. I wonder what the frames are made of that’s apparently more fragile than the glass lenses? Also, glasses just fall off when you get punched in the face, as both of us can attest from personal experience. Harry also has very messy hair despite getting a lot of haircuts, and the famous lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Hey folks, when did you last see a bolt of lightning that was actually shaped like that?
Dudley is described as large with a thick, fat head, just in case you hadn’t got the message yet that he is in fact fat; he’s also blond and blue-eyed, which is all we really needed to know from a description. Harry goes on to mentally call him a pig in a wig just before putting a plate of bacon in front of him, which is a little disturbing when you think about it.
While everyone is having breakfast Dudley counts his presents, and threatens to throw a tantrum when he discovers there’s one fewer than he got last year until Petunia promises to buy him two more presents today. Dudley was much more advanced last chapter, but now apparently can’t add two to something, since he struggles to work out how many that would be. Damnit, Rowling. Even if he was actually stupid or badly educated, or had learning difficulties, that would not be a reason to make fun of him, but if he can count to thirty seven then he can count to thirty nine and you’re just being idiotic.
Petunia takes a phone call from their neighbour Mrs Figg, crazy cat lady stereotype extraordinaire, who has broken her leg. For some reason this leaves her incapable of babysitting Harry, who is very pleased about this. He’s apparently treated horribly at home yet still manages to hate and look down on a nice old lady who doesn’t shut him in a cupboard. And who has cats! Unless they’ve been traumatised somehow in cat-related incidents or have allergies, any ten year old should be happy to spend a day playing with kitties away from their nasty relatives. (Harry apparently dislikes the smell, which is fair enough I suppose, but he seems to prioritise that over getting away from what the narrative insists we read as horrible maltreatment.)
The Dursleys discuss alternative choices for where to leave Harry while they take Dudley and a friend to the zoo for the day. These include Vernon’s sister Marge – they’re desperate to get rid of Harry but still won’t palm him off on her because she hates him. Is she a danger to him? We’re not meant to believe that the Dursleys would worry about this. This also implies that they don’t hate him since they draw this distinction. (The other way to read this is that they’re concerned for Marge, either because they don’t want to upset her by forcing her to spend time with a child she hates, or because they think she’ll refuse to take him.)
Harry suggests they just leave him home alone. No, Harry, you’re ten years old and this isn’t a terrible Disney movie. Petunia rejects this since she doesn’t want to “come back and find the house in ruins”. This is easy enough to read as typical parental hyperbole – I’ve heard many a parent, including my own, engage in similar rhetoric – but in context, it almost has to be a reference to Lily and James’ house in the previous chapter; I wonder if that was intentional? They also consider leaving him in the car when they get to the zoo, and Vernon says no since the car is new and he doesn’t want Harry in it unsupervised. Both adults seem convinced there’s a risk of property damage should they leave Harry alone. What’s happened in the last ten years to make them think this?
Dudley throws a tantrum complete with fake crying because he doesn’t want Harry to come. He’s constantly portrayed as this over-exaggerated caricature of a very spoiled child. Readers should bear this in mind, since Harry will soon be meeting another blond-haired light-eyed boy who behaves like a spoiled brat. I assume this is Rowling secretly passing judgement on the parenting skills of someone in her social circle.
Why would Dudley want to go to the zoo anyway? A theme park seems more in character, or throwing a huge party for his friends. The narrative even says multiple times later that he and his friend Piers are bored there. Most English zoos don’t have other attractions, beyond maybe a kiddy playground. We’re told that usually these birthday trips are to adventure parks, hamburger bars or the cinema. Our hypothesis is that Rowling had the reptile house scene in mind from the start, and therefore had to find a way to get them to a zoo. There really isn’t any Watsonian explanation for why they’d choose to go there.
Anyway, they take Harry with them to the zoo, and Vernon warns him to avoid any funny business. We learn that strange things often happen around Harry, and are then given a laundry list of them:
Because haircuts seem to make no difference, Petunia once “cut his hair so short he was almost bald except for his fringe, which she left ‘to hide that horrible scar’.” His hair grew back overnight. How can you do magic in your sleep? I’m pretty sure that’s impossible. Just as well, or every future witch or wizard would set the bed on fire when they had nightmares, and I dread to think what would happen to an adolescent having a sexual dream.
On another occasion Petunia was trying to force Harry into an old jumper of Dudley’s, and it kept shrinking as she did so until it was about the size of a glove. “Aunt Petunia had decided it must have shrunk in the wash”. Harry really does think his relatives are complete morons. He has also managed to levitate onto the school roof when running away from Dudley, which he dismisses as a gust of wind catching him at the right moment. Yes, Harry, it’s definitely the Dursleys who are stupid and not you. Obviously. He’s punished for most of these weird incidents by being sent to his cupboard.
En route Vernon is complaining about things, including some passing motorbikes. Harry mentions that he had a dream about a flying motorbike, and his uncle freaks out, nearly crashes the car and screams at him that motorbikes can’t fly. Why is Vernon triggered by Harry mentioning a flying motorbike? That happened when he was asleep and shouldn’t mean anything to him. (Possibly he was in fact awake and saw the motorbike, and dear old Dumbledore wiped his memory leaving only a sense of trauma?) And how does Harry remember? We find out in this chapter that he apparently remembers the ‘car crash’ that killed his parents and gave him his scar, or at least remembers a flash of green light and a pain in his forehead, and later in the series we learn he remembers a great deal more than that. I remind you all that he was around a year old.
[Mitchell adds: judging by the “prequel” Rowling released at one point, James and Sirius apparently enjoyed tormenting Muggle police officers using said motorcycle. I find myself speculating as to whether they could have engaged in similar shenanigans on other occasions when Vernon was present; depending on what happened, that could have been sufficiently traumatic to give him PTSD with a trigger like this. Obviously, this speculation is not, strictly speaking, canon-compliant – if we take into account Pottermore, Vernon only met James once – but I find it rather compelling nonetheless.]
They wander around the zoo. Dudley and Piers get chocolate ice creams and Harry gets a lemon ice lolly (which is explicitly stated to have been chosen because it was the cheapest thing on offer, and the narrator helpfully tells us they only bought it because the vendor asked what Harry wanted before they could get him away. We wonder why that would make the slightest difference to the Dursleys, because there is no way an ice cream vendor would file a child abuse complaint over being told the third child ‘does not want’ an ice cream). He compares Dudley to a gorilla because it’s been three whole pages since he insulted his cousin’s weight. Despite this, he’s enjoying the trip. After lunch Dudley has a tantrum because his knickerbocker glory isn’t big enough, so Vernon buys him another one and Harry eats the first one. For those who don’t know (Mitchell didn’t), a knickerbocker glory is an ice cream sundae served in a tall glass with cream and mixed fruit; interestingly they didn’t change this in the US version even though they changed “ice lolly” to “ice pop” in the preceding paragraph.
After lunch they go to the reptile house, and I begin the first of what will be a lot of animal-related rants throughout this series. Reptile houses are not “cool and dark”. They’re hot. Because reptiles are cold-blooded, so reptile vivariums have to be heated. There’s no reason for it to be particularly dark either, but that would depend on what reptiles they actually have in there.
“Dudley quickly found the largest snake in the place. It could have wrapped its body twice around Uncle Vernon’s car and crushed it into a dustbin”.
The longest snake in the world is the reticulated python, which can in theory get up to 20 feet long but very rarely does, particularly in captivity, and certainly doesn’t have anywhere near the muscle mass to crush anything more dramatic than pig bones. I’ll accept that there’s no reason most people would know this, but it still annoys me. There are plenty of more accurate ways to describe just how scarily big snakes can get, and there’s no excuse for authors not doing their research. Did I mention there will be lots of animal-fail rants?
Harry strikes up a one-sided conversation with a boa constrictor, as you do, about how annoying zoo visitors are and about the snake being captive bred but the species coming from Brazil. Boa constrictors are actually found all over Central and South America and on various islands, but okay, maybe these ones respect border control and stay in Brazil.
Now, snake eyes are always open. And they can’t wink. They do not have eyelids. Nor can they roll their eyes, nod, “snap playfully” at people, use their tails to point to signs – that they can apparently read – or any of the other things that this one does over the next two pages. Is this the source of the this-snake-is-Nagini theory? I thought that was based on the two snakes in the films looking vaguely similar, but actually this snake isn’t acting like an animal at all.
Piers spots that hey, Harry’s talking to a really weird snake, and he and Dudley rush over to see it. Dudley punches Harry out of the way – I’m going to pretend that said “pushes” since that makes more sense – and Harry falls over; this causes the glass on the boa constrictor vivarium to vanish.
Continuing not to act like a snake, the boa notices this immediately and understands it means it can escape, and uncoils and climbs out extremely quickly before anyone can do anything. Everyone panics and runs around screaming, the snake thanks Harry and gets the hell out of there. Yes, this snake talks. We won’t find out the significance of this for another book, but yeah, Potterverse snakes have their own language. Except… no they don’t, because snakes are deaf. They feel vibrations, they see heat signatures and movement, they catch scents on their tongues. They can’t hear jack shit; they have no external ears.
The keepers seem to be incompetent and we’re not told that they manage to catch the snake again, so presumably it escapes somehow. It then starves to death slowly since it was captive bred and never needed to develop its hunting instincts, or possibly freezes to death depending on just how many months are between Dudley’s birthday and Harry’s. Our Hero.
Once everyone gets home Vernon has a mini breakdown, collapsing into a chair and stammering at Harry to get to his cupboard without eating, while Petunia rushes for brandy. I’m not convinced Vernon should have been driving if he was that shaken up, personally. Harry gets to his cupboard and starts angsting about his life, reminding us that he’s lived with the Dursleys for ten years since his parents died. Thank you, Harry, we were only told this at the beginning of this chapter and might have forgotten. His aunt and uncle never talk about his parents and he’s not allowed to ask questions about them.
Harry has always dreamed of someone coming to take him away. Yes, thank you, Rowling, I think we’d all guessed that was going to happen, you don’t need to be quite so heavy-handed. He goes on to tell us that sometimes very odd people wearing funny clothes seem to know him and will come up to him in the street and bow or wave or shake his hand before mysteriously disappearing. There are quite a few things wrong with this.
Firstly, how are people recognising him? He was one year old. Nobody had seen him aside from his parents and their social circle. Even if Dumbles has mentioned the scar to everyone… nobody should be noticing the forehead of a random ten year old boy, especially if his fringe covers it as well as we’re meant to believe. Has Dumbles also told everyone where he is so they can go look for him? Or has he only told the select few who show up to say hi, and trusted that they wouldn’t tell the newspaper or something? There should be crowds trying to find him, like those odd people searching for Elvis or Bigfoot, if he’s famous enough to be recognisable.
The question of Harry’s fame is going to get very, very annoying. He’s always exactly as famous as he needs to be for the plot to work. Sometimes literally everyone will recognise him at a single glance, sometimes nobody will have a clue who he is. Sometimes he’ll be hero-worshipped, sometimes everyone will hate him. The thing is, he shouldn’t be famous at all. All he did was not die. I don’t believe anyone could think a baby actively defeated Voldemort, so most people should be assuming it was a coincidence or a rumour. It’s also been ten years and the wizarding world as a whole will be repeatedly demonstrated to have the attention span of a mayfly on speed. There’s no reason why anyone would still care enough to recognise him, or feel much beyond mild curiosity.
On at least one occasion Petunia hastily drags him away from the funnily-dressed old man who acts overly familiar, and asks Harry if he knows him. (Good guardian Petunia knows the stranger danger rules!)
Also, Harry should be freaked out that every so often random strangers in funny clothes walk up and say hello and then vanish. He should be wondering why, or how they know him, or since he can never see them for long he should be wondering whether most of them even exist at all and maybe he’s seeing ghosts or something.
In any case, Harry goes on to tell us that he has no friends because everyone at school knows Dudley and his gang don’t like him and nobody dares disagree with Dudley, and that’s the end of the chapter. It ends in a really, really weird place. Also how does Dudley control the school? He’s described to us as so fat he can barely walk, incredibly stupid, spoiled and whiny, but somehow he leads a fearsome gang of bullies nobody dares to oppose?
One of the common issues dividing fandom is the question of whether Harry was abused or not. Let’s look at what we learn of his upbringing in this chapter.
- He sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs. Okay, that’s quite bad, but it’s big enough to have a bed in it, which is not my definition of a cupboard. Also I can’t speak for all children, but being sent to my room? Best punishment ever, all my stuff was in there. I’d have happily been confined to my room for days.
- Harry has glasses he wears constantly for short sight; these are therefore prescription and therefore expensive. The Dursleys care enough to spend quite a lot of money on something he doesn’t technically need to survive. They also send him to the barbers for haircuts a lot and Petunia only cuts it herself once.
- They make Harry do some of the cooking – on this one occasion, after Petunia has already started it – but he gets to eat eggs and bacon alongside them, it’s not as if he’s then banished to a corner with a bowl of gruel.
- They supposedly only bought him an ice cream at the zoo because the lady asked what he wanted after they’d bought some for the other two; they could have just said he doesn’t want anything and walked away. A cheap lolly is better than nothing. They gave him some of Dudley’s ice cream too when it would have been far more in character for Dudley to have eaten both.
- Harry is a healthier weight than Dudley’s friend Piers, judging by word choice. Harry’s just skinny whereas Piers is scrawny, which seems a more likely description for someone who’s been kept in a cupboard. Not even unhealthily skinny, just skinny for his age, which a lot of boys are.
- He shows no sign of jealousy or envy; he lists all these expensive presents Dudley got and uses them as an excuse to further insult his cousin, he’s not bothered that he’s missing out.
- He’s not scared of the Dursleys and talks back to them as sarcastically as a dim ten year old can manage. He’s also not particularly eager to escape from them by spending the day with Mrs Figg.
- Wearing another child’s second hand clothes is not cruelty. Loten inherited a lot of her brother’s things and a couple of her cousins inherited some of hers. When kids are outgrowing stuff very quickly there’s no point buying new any more than necessary. You buy new things for the bigger kid so the smaller kid can share it. This is normal.
- They try to find Harry a non-hateful babysitter when they go places. If they were that worried about the house, they could have just locked him in his cupboard, or dumped him with the relative who hates him.
- There is never any mention of physical threats or punishments. Nor any insults/emotional abuse beyond telling him his scar is ugly and that he needs a haircut. Yes, Vernon says ‘no meals’ when they get home; he’s also clearly having a panic attack at the time and there’s no reason to assume he actually meant it when he can barely speak and needs a restorative brandy because he’s collapsed.
There are other things mentioned later and in other books, but right now we’re only concerned with what we’ve been told so far.
In conclusion, we are meant to see Harry as abused. Based on the evidence we have so far, he’s not. He’s certainly treated very unfairly compared to Dudley, and while this is definitely bad of the Dursleys it’s also natural and understandable given that they didn’t want him and seem scared of what might happen. Harry himself doesn’t seem to care in the slightest and still manages to look down on Dudley and sneer at him. The unfair treatment is more a judgement on Dudley than trauma for Harry. It might well have screwed up a different child later in life, but as we’ll see throughout the series, Harry continues to give no fucks. The Dursleys aren’t nice people but they’re also not rabid child-beating monsters.
Of course, there is the possibility of emotional abuse; a case could definitely be made for that. I don’t think it’s the worst kind necessarily, but they do play obvious favourites, it’s implied they neglect him where possible, and they gaslight him about his personal experiences where magic is involved. Despite that, Harry comes across as weirdly unaffected by it all, which makes it hard to read him as emotionally abused. We are told later about the possibility of some self esteem problems, but Harry never actually displays these in the text, and the only behavioural issue he does show that could have been caused by his upbringing is later revealed to be a plot coupon that had nothing to do with the Dursleys.
Having him be a poor little victim in the first place ruins some of the escapism, in my opinion. Plenty of readers will want to get away from their boring lives. Mercifully few of them will be reading to distract themselves from lives of abuse, one hopes. It’s harder for most readers to identify with Harry when he’s being painted as Oliver Twist.
[Mitchell adds: though I wonder whether some of it could just hook children by being an exaggeration of the inherent unfairness of childhood. Children’s lives are, of necessity, almost completely out of their control (and often subject to arbitrary rules set over them by adults), and I don’t think it’s too uncommon for them to at least somewhat resent that. Maybe some children read this chapter as an exaggerated caricature of the way the world in general treats them, and therefore see Harry’s escape from this life as some kind of allegory?]
To fix this chapter:
Eh. There’s nothing to fix story-wise, this is just setting the scene of how dreadful Harry-Sue’s life is and how amazing it will be when he leaves. At this point it’s unclear whether talking to snakes is foreshadowing or just something Rowling thought was neat at the time and later decided to turn into a significant plot point; foreshadowing or not, I would set this chapter somewhere other than a zoo because I know far more about snakes than Rowling does and wouldn’t fuck up writing about them. (Loten has a zoology degree and has actually been working in a reptile house for the last six months.) In the list of weird shit that happens to Harry, just mention that he saw a grass snake in the garden once that he could have sworn said hello to him – this would later prove to be telepathy, not a spoken language. Otherwise it’s fine as far as the plot goes. Harry = shitty life. Check.
Characterisation-wise, this is just broken and I don’t think it can be salvaged. Taking out the not-really-abuse would spoil the kind of Roald Dahl-esque tone that Rowling was trying to set, but it’s all so inconsistent and incoherent…
I think I would have just cut this chapter by at least half and added it to Chapter Three. All we learn of any use here is that Harry’s relatives aren’t very nice to him, that Harry doesn’t know what really happened to his parents, and that weird things sometimes happen to or around him. The rest is just filler that unnecessarily delays the start of the plot.