Content warning for child abuse and self harm. Also any chapter featuring Dobby is probably going to involve discussion of slavery and possibly mental illness. But first can we just talk about this?
Where do you even start. I mean, this thing is clearly coded female – look at the lips (and the weird fur suggests eyelashes). It’s also wearing very fancy shoes and carrying an only slightly less fancy hat. What was the chapter artist reading when they did these? Because it certainly wasn’t the actual books.
Anyway. Post under the cut.
Chapter Two: Dobby’s Warning
The thing sitting on Harry’s bed joins the list of objects and entities in this universe to have wildly broken proportions; his eyes are ‘the size of tennis balls‘ which would absolutely not fit inside his skull. Though Mitchell did point out it would drastically impact the size of his brain, which would explain a lot. It also has a very long nose and ‘bat-like‘ ears, which is a description that always annoys me. Are his ears literally shaped like bats? That seems unlikely. And which species? There’s quite a lot of variation in shape and size. Yes, yes, I know, it refers to bat wings and mostly just means big. It’s still stupid.
As Harry’s staring at this alien and wondering what the hell it is, he hears Dudley downstairs offering to take the visitors’ coats. This despite the fact that he’s on a different floor of the house and behind a closed door; he’ll be able to hear fragments of what’s going on downstairs all evening but for some reason this will only work in reverse when very loud noises are involved.
The critter stands up and bows; it’s wearing an old pillowcase. Harry seems quite chill about this whole scenario, since although he’s clearly confused and we’re told he’s nervous he says hello to it. It greets him by name because of course it knows who he is, and by referring to itself in the third person we learn its name is Dobby and that it thinks it’s a great honour to meet a bewildered twelve year old boy.
Hedwig is still asleep, by the way, even though Harry’s sure Dobby’s high voice is going to carry downstairs. I’d also like to point out that it’s night time – yes, snowy owls are diurnal, but we’ve already been told she’s more active at night.
Harry wants to ask ‘what are you’ but thinks that’s rude, so settles for asking ‘who’ instead. Dobby explains that he’s a house elf – I’m not sure how he knew Harry didn’t know that. You can tell he’s got a direct line to the author, because he’s not answering the question Harry asked and instead making sure he supplies all the information the reader needs.
We’re going to be talking about house elves a lot. For now let’s just say that they’re a very messed up species but that Dobby in particular is completely fucked in the head.
Harry doesn’t know this yet, of course; he’s never heard of them before. Disappointingly the only reaction we see from him is his worry that his relatives are going to hear what’s going on and that Dobby’s going to get him into trouble. Even with an anti-magic upbringing, he must have heard of elves before and he should be expecting either something from Tolkien or one of Santa’s little helpers, not a gremlin wearing bed linen. He has no thoughts about what the hell a house elf is. Or even if it’s friendly – he just assumes that because it bowed and said he was awesome then it must be safe. His response to this introduction is to point out – quite accurately – that this isn’t a good time for him to have a house elf in his bedroom. Spoiler, there is never a good time to have a house elf in your bedroom, they are freaky little bastards.
“Aunt Petunia’s high, false laugh sounded from the living room.”
Why is this line here? Harry might conceivably have heard laughter if it was loud enough, but that doesn’t actually matter and there’s no reason for this sentence except to sneer at Petunia.
[I went off on a nitpicky tangent here during our discussion, because something about that sentence just drives me up the wall: that comma is doing so much work. We’re talking about Petunia’s (high, false) laugh, not Petunia’s high (false laugh). Note how the former implies Petunia’s laugh is always false, while in the latter ‘false laugh’ is just something she does sometimes. This is just yet another instance of demonising the Dursleys; I don’t know that I want to argue Rowling put in enough thought to do it deliberately, but it’s nonetheless in there.]
Dobby pouts at the implication that he’s in the way, even though as we’ll see shortly this should be his default assumption – he matches Harry in his wildly inconsistent behaviour that never matches his backstory – and Harry vaguely attempts to reassure him before asking what he’s actually doing here.
While Dobby’s vagueing it up – and continuing to speak in third person, which is only one of his many, many really irritating traits – Harry asks him to sit down, which triggers a wild emotional meltdown. The elf starts sobbing, very loudly, and Harry assumes he’s upset him and apologises – goodness, Harry, that was a reasonable decent reaction. Are you feeling all right? Through sobs Dobby explains that he’s not offended, he’s just never been asked to sit down by a wizard or treated as an equal, Harry must be such a saint. [Never mind that ‘sit down’ is often something you say to a dog or a young child when scolding them, so I’m not sure why Dobby immediately assumes this is a gesture of respect. ‘Have a seat’ might have been a bit better.]
For the record, this scene might be Harry’s best characterisation in the series. Aside from the bits I’ve already picked at, I really like him here. He hasn’t got a clue what’s going on and he’s not just limited to plot-required responses, he’s allowed to show actual confusion and to misunderstand things. He also finds Dobby’s constant fawning adoration and praise a little unnerving. Sadly this doesn’t last, but for this scene Harry acts like an actual human being. I think it helps that Dobby is on another plane of reality and is mostly supplying Harry’s side of the conversation from inside his own head.
Also, Dobby’s behaviour here makes no sense. He’s been a slave all his life, presumably from a long line of slaves. If it’s as unusual as he makes it out to be, being asked to sit down should make him suspicious, wondering what’s different, or paranoid that it’s not allowed. Instead he instantly accepts that it’s sincere and permitted and starts crying happily.
‘You can’t have met many decent wizards,’ said Harry, trying to cheer him up.
This triggers a different sort of meltdown: Dobby starts shrieking admonitions at himself, jumps up and starts slamming his head into the window. Did I mention that he’s completely fucked in the head? The noise wakes Hedwig to add to the general racket, and Harry has to work to get both of them to shut the hell up.
Dobby explains that he had to punish himself because he almost said something bad about the wizarding family he serves – house-elves are bound to serve one house and one family for ever.
Or at least until the end of the book.
Harry asks if they know Dobby’s here (he does not ask the much more obvious question ‘who are they’; already my praise is beginning to vanish) and Dobby says oh no, he’ll have to shut his ears in the oven door later for being here without permission and they mustn’t find out.
Harry’s response isn’t ‘why’ or ‘that’s awful’, but ‘won’t they notice?’ Harry, I just finished telling everyone that you’re acting like a human, please stop spoiling it. No, says Dobby, he doubts they will – he’s always punishing himself for something and they let him get on with it, or sometimes tell him to add to it.
Take note of this, folks. Dobby’s not being ordered to hurt himself. He’s just doing it. Because reasons. Once again I reiterate, fucked in the head. It’s bad enough in this book, but later in the series we’re going to meet other house elves and we’re going to learn that they don’t act anything like this (not even Kreacher, who was owned by far greater sadistic lunatics) and they all think Dobby’s really fucking weird. There’s never going to be any sort of explanation, either. Inbreeding, maybe.
[In fairness, people do sometimes internalise and participate in their own oppression. That might be along the lines of what Rowling was trying to write here, if we want to be charitable; the idea would be that Dobby and/or house elves generally have been abused for so long that they instinctively punish themselves without having to be told to do so any more. And ‘being told to add to it’ is, in a way, being ordered to punish himself. Though here I’m tempted to say it sounds more like they’re being sarcastic to him, frankly, in reaction to finding what he’s doing absurd: ‘oh, while you’re at it, jump out a window for me?’]
Also, the Malfoys wouldn’t treat their elf like that. We haven’t seen enough of them to know yet, but by the time you finish the series you realise that above all else they are a very practical family. Abusing Dobby wouldn’t gain them anything and would make him a less efficient slave, so they wouldn’t bother. Human slaves are abused to keep them downtrodden and unable to fight back; house elves cannot fight back unless freed so that’s not an issue.
I’d like to talk about self-harm, but I’m honestly not sure that’s what this is. Dobby’s not cutting himself or anything like that – once again it’s all very cartoony. He shuts his ears in doors, he irons his hands, he bangs his head on the wall and hits himself over the head with things. He’s a one-elf slapstick sketch. He doesn’t seem to get any sort of gratification from it, and he doesn’t seem to be doing it for attention, and he’s certainly not depressed. It’s just a thing he randomly does.
Apparently not understanding ‘bound to serve one house and one family for ever‘, Harry asks why Dobby doesn’t just leave. Um, because he’s a slave, Harry. I realise your education is somewhat lacking but you should at least be aware of the concept. Also, Rowling should know better. Many, many people throughout history have argued that the fact that a victim stays to endure abuse and/or slavery is proof that it wasn’t that bad.
Dobby just says that house elves have to be set free and that his family will never do it. We’re never told how this works, either. What’s to stop him from just not going back? He can clearly leave the house whenever he likes, he has magic of his own, and we’ll learn later that he can basically wipe the floor with a human wizard. There’s obviously some sort of compulsion magic, a geas or something, but that doesn’t fit into the Potterverse magic system.
[I think there’s actually some merit to Harry’s question, even if the answer is just ‘inexplicable magic bond’, because the way Dobby is written here it does seem like he could just up and leave. He’s (apparently) able to go wherever he likes, for instance, judging by his having shown up here on his own (if we go by the wiki, the Malfoys’ estate is in Wiltshire, roughly 75 miles from Surrey; that’s not a trivial distance). Of course we’ll later learn that elves can teleport and are forced to obey when summoned, but that’s not mentioned here. And I agree with Loten that ‘why don’t they just leave’ is a really problematic question to ask around issues of abuse and slavery, but sadly the mechanics of the system Rowling’s describing force it at times; I think it’s reasonable to interpret this as Harry asking about what form the enslavement takes.]
Eh, it’s a fair point, though in that case Harry ought to be asking ‘why can’t you leave’ rather than ‘why don’t you leave’.
Harry immediately plays Oppression Olympics, though refreshingly concedes that he’s not the most miserable person in the room; he follows up by asking if he can help. Good boy, Harry. Of course, this just triggers Dobby starting to howl again.
House elves are all supposed to be subservient and obedient, by the way. Yet Harry spends this entire scene begging Dobby to shut up and the elf completely ignores him.
Dobby spends a page fawning nauseatingly over Harry and babbling about how great and amazing he is. In a better book this would be satirical and clearly meant as a mockery of the wizarding world’s general fanboyism where Harry’s concerned, but here he is sadly completely sincere. To his credit Harry finds this very embarrassing and uncomfortable; evidently wild adoration is only acceptable from his own species.
The thing is, there’s absolutely no reason why the house elves would think Harry’s wonderful for defeating Voldemort. Why should they care? I mentioned this with the centaurs in the previous book. Other species were mostly completely unaffected. It would be like us being affected by the death of a particularly territorial squirrel. House elves in particular would have been far, far beneath Voldy’s notice and their situation would not have changed. They’re still slaves.
It’s also implied later that they generally serve old pureblood families, i.e. supporters of Voldemort. Kreacher has inherited his family’s view of things and despises Harry, at least for a while, but somehow none of the rest have and the entire species thinks he’s amazing for accidentally killing someone who did not affect them in the slightest.
We get a bit of Harry-angst, of course. He’s trying to tell Dobby that he’s not that great, really, he’s not even the best student in his year – Hermione is. And then he stops, because it hurts. A little later he says the name Voldemort, and when Dobby freaks out over it (again, why the hell would a house elf care) he apologises and says he knows lots of people don’t like it, like his friend Ron, and then stops again because that hurts too. If he hadn’t been such an emo shit in the previous chapter I’d like this. Though I am side-eyeing the fact that Ron is explicitly called his friend and Hermione is not.
Dobby gives no fucks about Harry’s friends and changes the subject to reveal that he somehow knows what happened in the previous book. I suppose it’s possible he managed to eavesdrop on Draco telling his parents about it, but Draco didn’t know everything to tell. Dobby also seems unsure of what he’s saying until Harry confirms it.
Finally we get to the point – Dobby’s come to warn Harry not to go back to Hogwarts, because he’ll be in danger. Harry’s response (after a pause for him to implausibly manage to hear cutlery scraping from downstairs) is confusion and whining that he’s so miserable here he has to go back. You are talking to a slave, Harry. He doesn’t give a fuck that you didn’t get a birthday card or that you were made to do chores for half a day because you deliberately triggered your cousin’s PTSD yet again.
Dobby tells him that there’s a plot to make bad things happen at Hogwarts that he’s known about for months.
Beg pardon? (Well, yes, this is a book, it does in theory have a plot…)
Okay, this sounds fair enough to a new reader, but once you know how the book ends it falls apart completely. There was no plot. Lucius was acting entirely on impulse, and his goal wasn’t to make bad things happen at Hogwarts; he just wanted Ginny to be found with an unspecified dark artifact so her father would be embarrassed because Arthur had pissed him off recently. As I’ve pointed out in fics, his only son is attending Hogwarts so why would he want anything dangerous to happen there? Yes, fine, Mudbloods and all that, but accidents can still happen. He didn’t even know what the diary was. And even if we retcon this out and say he did know what he was doing, how the fuck would Dobby know? Eavesdropping can only explain so much, especially when you’re dealing with Slytherins. Also, a plot implies multiple conspirators, and nobody else was involved.
This could imply that Quirrellmort somehow contacted Lucius and told him ‘yeah remember that super-important book I gave you? If this plan doesn’t work out, get it to Hogwarts and find a naive little girl to give it to’. Except that’s stupid and Lucius clearly doesn’t know what it is.
I do have an alternative theory, which we’ll discuss after this scene.
Harry returns to being smart and asks what’s going to happen and who’s plotting it. Cue Dobby smashing his head against the wall again. As a way to dodge giving answers it’s certainly effective – I wish Dumbledore had tried it a few times. So Harry starts playing Twenty Questions; why warn me? (Good question. Why doesn’t Dobby tell anyone else?) Must be about me – does this involve Voldemort?
‘Not – not He Who Must Not Be Named, sir.’
But Dobby’s eyes were wide and he seemed to be trying to give Harry a hint. Harry, however, was completely at sea.
I’m too lazy to check but I seem to recall that the end of the book tells us that the emphasis on the nickname was meant to refer to it being Tom Riddle, pre-Voldemort. That’s really stupid, and also there’s no way in hell that Harry was ever going to get that hint. Apart from anything else, he doesn’t know that Voldemort used to be someone else at this point. [And how does Dobby know about that anyway, to the point he can be dropping these hints at all?]
I like Harry’s response, though. “He hasn’t got a brother, has he?”
Followed by this:
“‘Well then, I can’t think who else would have a chance of making horrible things happen at Hogwarts,’ said Harry. ‘I mean, there’s Dumbledore…”
Yes, okay, Harry means Dumbledore would stop horrible things happening. But it’s much funnier to take this out of context.
Dobby concedes that Dumbles is indeed amazing and awesome and the sun shines out of his saintly wrinkled backside. But, “there are powers Dumbledore doesn’t … powers no decent wizard …”
This is interesting. It’s easy to assume this is foreshadowing the Horcruxes, except those hadn’t been thought of this early in the series. But it could potentially be referring to the Hallows. I can’t find the quote but I’m sure Rowling has said in interviews that the Hallows were originally going to show up much earlier, and that ‘the Deathly Hallows’ was going to be the title of an earlier book. [I seem to recall her having specifically said it was this book.] So it’s possible that in the first version of this book one of the Hallows was going to be used. Logically it would have to be the Resurrection Stone, because the other two wouldn’t be much use to Voldy before he reincarnates.
Taken in a vacuum without that knowledge, though, I just wonder what the hell Dobby is talking about and how he would know anyway.
Of course, rather than explain, he starts attacking himself with Harry’s lamp and making loud yelping noises. This finally triggers some sort of response from the rest of the house, and even though Harry’s bedroom is apparently close enough for him to hear people using cutlery, he still has plenty of time to hear Vernon coming up the stairs saying something about Dudley’s television (credit for quick thinking there) and get Dobby shut inside the wardrobe out of sight.
Naturally, Vernon is somewhat pissed, asking what the hell Harry is doing. Apparently the noise ruined the punchline of his Japanese golfer joke. Sadly we’re never told what the joke is. As it happens, I do know a joke about Japan and golf…
A man is on a business trip in Japan, and the evening before he’s due to meet with his client, he visits a prostitute. During sex, she cries out something in Japanese; afterwards he asks what it means, and she tells him it means ‘excellent, great, amazing’.
The next day he’s playing golf with his client, who gets a hole in one. Impressed, he repeats the words the prostitute told him. His client turns to him and says, ‘What do you mean, “wrong hole”?’
In fairness, I never said it was a good joke. I really do hope this was not the joke Vernon was trying to tell [certainly not at a business dinner! remember that’s what this was supposed to be?], but honestly the plausible alternative is something racist, and I hope he wasn’t doing that either. Anyway, he tells Harry to shut the fuck up and stomps off.
Harry lets Dobby out and whines that see, his life is just so hard, someone shouted at him and it was really mean! He has to go back to Hogwarts, he has friends there – well, probably.
“Friends who don’t even write to Harry Potter?” said Dobby slyly.
Even Harry spots that one, which makes me wonder why Dobby even said it. When challenged, the elf folds like a cheap suit and immediately confesses that he’s been intercepting Harry’s mail all summer, producing a pile of envelopes bearing Ron’s, Hermione’s and Hagrid’s writing.
Firstly, there’s no reason for Dobby to admit this. House elves can lie to anyone except their family. The fact that Dobby has the letters on him suggests that he always planned to do what he does now and attempt to use them to bribe Harry – he can have the letters if he promises not to go back to school – but that’s a really shitty plan and he still doesn’t have to admit he was the one responsible for intercepting them in the first place. All he has to do is smack his head against the wall if Harry asks who did it.
Secondly, how the hell is this even possible? Post owls only run on schedule inside Hogwarts. To do this, Dobby would have had to spend every minute of every day on guard outside the Dursley household intercepting owls. The owls themselves would take exception to this, and magic or no magic, a medium to large owl could seriously fuck up the skinny inbred cousin of E.T. here. He would also have to be intercepting the Muggle post just in case, particularly since we’ve no idea how Hermione writes to Harry when she doesn’t have access to an owl. In later books she uses Hedwig, who’s locked up right now. And even if we assume that this is possible, and even if we assume that the as-yet-unnamed Malfoys have multiple slave-elves, I think they just might notice his constant absence. [Slavery? What slavery?]
Harry refuses to take the bribe and demands his letters. Dobby looks sad and says he has no choice then, and runs for the door and out of it and down the stairs. So much for those amazing Seeker reflexes, Harry.
Our hero doesn’t catch up until they reach the kitchen, where Dobby is levitating Petunia’s pudding. I’m not sure whether to put Dobby on the spell count; I thought house elf magic was completely different to normal wizard magic, but the Ministry seem to think this was an ordinary Hover Charm. I suppose we’ll count this one, since it’s an actual spell, and anything that’s left as vague unexplained elf stuff (such as how the hell he got hold of Harry’s mail) won’t count.
Current spell count: Dobby, 1.
Harry begs Dobby not to do anything. Dobby demands that Harry promise not to go back to school, and Harry refuses. You know, why doesn’t Harry just lie? There are plenty of magic systems where breaking your sworn word damages your ability to do magic, but the Potterverse isn’t one of them. (And Harry has no ability to do magic anyway.) Tell the crazy house elf that sure, you won’t go back to Hogwarts. He won’t know you’re lying until you actually leave for the station on September first.
For the record, I’m generally in favour of honesty, but a promise exacted under duress should not count.
Anyway, this doesn’t occur to Harry, so Dobby says he has no choice and this is for Harry’s own good before throwing the pudding at him and vanishing with a loud noise. I’d forgotten this – in the movie, Dobby brings the pudding through into the dining room and drops it on the guests; we’re never told how the hell they explain that one. In this version, the noise draws everyone into the kitchen to see Harry (and most of the room) covered in pudding, which frankly ought to have made the dinner party a lot more interesting and enjoyable.
Vernon attempts, semi-successfully, to smooth the whole thing over. He introduces Harry as his ‘very disturbed‘ nephew (true), who was kept upstairs because meeting strangers upsets him, and he and Petunia take their guests back into the dining room with some ice cream while Harry starts cleaning the kitchen. Once again, credit for quick thinking there.
Harry doesn’t witness the next part. He’s still cleaning the kitchen when the meal is over and a large barn owl flies in through the window, drops a letter on Mrs Mason’s head and flies out again. Cue much screaming and flailing; Mrs Mason makes a run for it in hysterics, and her husband stays long enough to inform everyone that she has a phobia of birds before following suit.
Why did the owl do that? The letter, from the Ministry, is for Harry. It should have flown into the room where Harry actually was and delivered it directly to him. The way every single owl in this series does with every single letter except this one, because reasons. Also, let’s see – the Masons arrived at 7.30 and have had time to eat a three-course meal, with breaks for anecdotes and random dessert explosions, so I would guess it’s at least 10pm by this point. How late do Ministry employees stay at the office? We’re never told how they detect underage magic anyway, maybe this is automatically generated, but someone still has to attach it to the owl and tell it who to deliver to. Also, the owl apparently made it from London to Surrey in about fifteen minutes; I refuse to do the actual maths here but to drive that distance would take one to two hours depending on which parts of Surrey and London are involved, and owls aren’t particularly known for speed.
[Even if you wanted to try digging for an explanation… it could be plausible for the owl to deliver the letter to the child’s guardian instead of the child. That would probably be Petunia in this case, so you could still have the letter be dropped on the table and interrupt the dinner, but there is absolutely no reason it should be going anywhere near Mrs Mason. This is stupid.]
Also, all future owls will go directly to Harry as they’re supposed to do.
Why was it necessary for Mrs Mason to have a phobia of birds? I like owls and I would still freak out if one flew into a house and dropped something on me. The woman’s seen enough mad shit to be upset without it needing to be a phobia.
Incidentally, Dudley seems to have evaporated after taking the Masons’ coats in the first paragraph of the chapter. He’s not mentioned again.
Vernon has the presence of mind, despite his hugely important business deal having just run screaming into the night, to take Harry’s letter and read it. The Improper Use of Magic office know there was a Hover Charm used and want to remind Harry that a) he’s not allowed to do magic outside school and further offences may lead to his expulsion, and b) it’s a crime to do magic in front of Muggles.
Naturally, Vernon is extremely pissed off, both because Harry fucked up this deal and because Harry’s been pretending to be able to seriously harm them for the entire holiday thus far. The language used to describe Vernon here is interesting; he has a ‘demonic glint‘ and later a ‘mad gleam‘ in his eyes, he’s ‘hiss[ing] evilly‘ and laughs ‘like a maniac‘. So apparently he’s insane and evil now. Given his mental breakdown in the previous book, and given that as we discussed in the previous post what’s happened tonight could have very serious lifelong consequences, I feel this is a little tasteless. And no, seriously, I cannot stress this enough – being pissed off at Harry does not make you evil.
Anyway, the climax of the scene (in theory, at least; there’s no actual scene break, because what is editing) is Vernon declaring he’s going to lock Harry up and he’ll never go back to school.
Oh boy. We’ll talk about that later. Right now, it’s fun with conspiracy theories time! Has everyone brought their tin foil hats?
I mentioned earlier that we have an alternative theory to explain Dobby’s behaviour in this scene. His actions are not consistent and don’t match up to his supposed status, and at the same time some of what happens has clearly been planned – bringing the letters to offer as a bribe, sabotaging the dinner party.
So what happens if we assume it was all planned in advance?
Dobby’s batshit behaviour makes more sense as a way to manipulate Harry. It gets him to pity the elf (an achievement in itself given how selfish and self-absorbed our hero is), which makes him more sympathetic and more likely to listen. It also threatens him, because all the noise can alert his relatives at any moment (Dobby must know what the domestic situation is, because he’s been watching them closely enough to know about their dinner plans and to monitor their mail). This leaves Harry both more receptive to what Dobby’s saying and more eager to comply. And the sheer craziness of it will keep Harry off balance and stop him thinking too hard about what’s going on, because humans are a social species and we take our cues from one another; we don’t react well to unexpected or inappropriate signals and find them difficult to process.
After all, Dobby serves a Slytherin family.
And then we took it a step further, because he serves a Slytherin family – what if the Malfoys were in on it?
They have multiple reasons to want Harry out of Hogwarts, after all. It’ll piss off Dumbledore, it’ll make life easier for Draco (aside from his romantic pining, of course), and it’ll leave Harry uneducated and vulnerable. Without actually harming him, because the Malfoys are good at playing both sides and leaving themselves a way back if the wrong lot win.
[Let’s also note this makes a bit more sense of some of the weirder/more contradictory things Dobby’s done. This solves the problem with him travelling halfway across England and watching Harry constantly to intercept his mail, while somehow not being noticed by his supposedly demanding slave-master(s), because he’d have been ordered to do that!]
And think about how the book ends. The Malfoys’ involvement is never proved and they don’t get into trouble for it. Dobby is freed… and after a short while ends up inside Hogwarts. With the power to go anywhere, do pretty much anything, and eavesdrop on anyone. And with Harry considering him a friend.
Of course, this is nonsense. We know how it plays out in canon. But wouldn’t it be a wonderful idea to explore? Please, someone, find me a fanfic where Lucius and Dobby set this all up in advance. (No, I’m not going to write it myself.)
Fun though that little aside was, we have a chapter to finish. Sigh. Back with the far less interesting non-conspiracy plot, Harry is depressed and angsting again. Vernon has made good on his threat; he paid for bars to be installed on Harry’s bedroom window, the door is kept locked at all times except for bathroom breaks twice a day, and Harry gets fed through a cat flap installed on the bedroom door.
Once again, the setting is not strong enough to support a serious subject. This is abuse. Except it can’t happen like this in this setting. Let me just summarise the rest of the chapter very quickly, since very little happens, and then we’ll break it down and discuss it.
Harry angsts, vaguely. He doesn’t seem particularly frightened, or even mildly concerned. Nor is he thinking about ways to escape – ideas like making a run for it during a bathroom break, or trying to break down the door when he knows nobody is home, or screaming to passing neighbours, or breaking the window and Hedwig’s cage so she can leave through the bars to get help, don’t seem to have occurred to him.
He also does not consider using magic, because oh no he’ll be expelled. Apparently this is worse than being held captive (hey, remember when Hermione was mocked for prioritising expulsion over bodily harm?), and he also hasn’t realised that he’ll probably be expelled anyway if he doesn’t show up to school next term.
At one point Petunia gives him some cold vegetable soup through the flap. He drinks the broth and gives the vegetables to Hedwig, who is deeply unimpressed. Being a carnivore, she would be.
There’s some more angst. Harry decides he’s going to starve to death. This is annoying melodrama, because actual starving people don’t get regular meals every day; he’s going to be hungry, and possibly malnourished depending on what he’s being fed, but he’s a long way from actual starvation. I suppose in fairness a twelve year old who’s apparently dumb as a brick wouldn’t necessarily know that, but even so.
He has a stupid dream about being a zoo exhibit.
Ron shows up outside the window.
End of chapter.
Firstly, why the hell is Vernon doing this at all? Why does he want Harry locked up and unable to go back to Hogwarts? They hate Harry and want to get rid of him, not make sure they have to care for him every single day. And what’s the upper limit – is he planning to do this for the rest of his life? What’s the actual goal here? Yes, it’s punishing Harry, but it’s punishing the Dursleys as well.
Secondly, again I ask the question I asked in the previous post. Are the Dursleys scared of Harry, or are they not? At this point they still believe him fully capable of using magic against them (during his angst phase Harry specifically mentions the threat of him turning them into fruit bats, which implies that this is a thing he has threatened to do). His not being allowed to doesn’t matter – they have said he won’t be going back to school, so he has no reason to fear expulsion any more. They have quite literally left him with nothing to lose. They’re keeping him locked up and passing his food through a flap, but also letting him out to use the bathroom – is he a maximum-security prisoner or not?
Thirdly, is Petunia supporting this? She’s going along with it but we’ve no idea if she approves or not. What about Dudley, who I believe will not reappear until next book?
Fourthly, there are going to be consequences. The Dursleys know this. Last time they prevented Harry from contacting the wizarding world, Hagrid showed up and assaulted their son. They should be frantic to avoid that happening again – surely they must realise that when Harry doesn’t go back in September someone is going to show up and ask why, with violence that they cannot defend against.
Fifthly, there are going to be consequences in the Muggle world as well. They live in a developed area, there will be at least one neighbour who can see bars on Harry’s window. And what about the worker paid to install them? If the Dursleys had installed bars on every window, they could pretend it was to prevent burglaries (though even then they would need to leave at least one free as a fire escape) but anyone would be deeply suspicious of a household installing bars on the window of a child’s bedroom. Harry is also presumably registered as attending whatever Hogwarts’ Muggle cover story school is; once he’s expelled from that, for whatever reason, if he’s not registered with another school someone is going to come and ask why (there’s an inspection before you can register a child as homeschooled). There are issues with the UK Social Services program, but someone would notice something here.
Sixthly, where the fuck is Mrs Figg? Admittedly at this point we don’t know that she’s actually a plot-significant Squib posted there specifically to keep an eye on Harry. I suppose we could be charitable and assume Rowling hadn’t thought of that yet, but even without that, she’s a nosy old lady who lives near the Dursleys and likes Harry.
Seventhly, why didn’t the Dursleys get rid of Hedwig? I’ve already pointed out that it’s perfectly possible for Harry to break her cage and the window and send her for help, and even without that, they’re already worried her noise will alert the neighbours. I grant that they wouldn’t necessarily know what the hell to do with her, but Vernon knows where to buy guns and there’s lots of empty countryside in Surrey, or they could poison her.
Eighthly, the Dursleys now know the magical government is watching their house. Why aren’t they freaking out about this and trying very hard to avoid attracting attention?
I’m sure there are more reasons, but this is annoying me.
This is abuse, but once again it’s very over-exaggerated, cartoonish abuse. This is what entitled, privileged people who live in little bubbles think abuse is. You don’t need to put bars on the windows and install a cat flap to deprive a child of food or freedom. There are, comparatively rarely, cases where victims are kept literally imprisoned; it’s a separate thing, and often sexually motivated.
Not only is it impossible in this setting, for the reasons I listed above, but it’s also a weird writing choice. Particularly since after this book the status of the Dursleys as abusers pretty much disappears; in the next book it’s the visiting Aunt Marge who is the demon, insulting and belittling Harry and threatening him with her dog, while the Dursleys do nothing and Harry ends up being the aggressor and threatening them. In all future books they do nothing to him and allow him to go and visit friends or otherwise do as he pleases.
I assume that Rowling realised she’d left herself nowhere to go – you can’t escalate from this without bringing in really severe physical/sexual abuse, which she is not capable of writing and would not be appropriate for a children’s/young-adult book. You can’t really maintain this level of abuse either, Harry’s not going to come home and submit to being locked up every summer when he has a billion ways of avoiding it. Or maybe she just got bored.
But why include it at all? We already know Harry has a shitty life, it’s been beaten into us over the previous book and the last chapter. There’s no need to try to keep escalating; why does his life need to be getting ever more shitty when he’s already miserable? It’s not developing his character or contributing to the plot.
[Honestly, I think it’s to set the mood so Hogwarts looks better by comparison. We’ve talked about before – and will continue to talk about – what a horrible dystopian school Hogwarts actually is, but very few people seem to notice that; I find myself wondering now whether that’s because the Dursleys are there to contrast it (and give us some nice mood whiplash in the beginning of each book), and it so clearly serves as our PoV character’s escape. This is actually something I’ve seen a lot of fantasy series do, deriding the real world to make the fantasy look better by comparison.]
Literally nothing would change in the entire series if this whole section wasn’t here. If Harry just went to stay with Ron at the end of the holidays, it would make no difference. There are never any consequences for the Dursleys, and Harry is totally unchanged by the experience and will never give it another thought after the next few pages. If something does not affect either the characters or the plot, then it’s just filler and should not take up more than a couple of paragraphs in the book, and who the fuck uses child abuse as filler?
You could argue that Dobby’s introduction is vaguely important. But there are plenty of other ways to do that, and honestly why include it at all? Harry doesn’t need to know who’s messing with him at this point, and he can find out later easily enough. He’d look better at the end of the book for choosing to help a house-elf he doesn’t know, particularly one who’s been a dick to him.
This entire thing is both impossible and bad writing. Harry Potter, everyone.
Instead, I would have liked to see the Dursleys using this threat of expulsion to blackmail Harry into behaving himself.
Next time, annoying gingers and a lot more fail.
Current spell count: Dobby, 1.