We’re back for the first time in the Harry Potter Reread! Two whole installments, ma! (I should probably stop getting so excited—we’ve got a ways to go….)
Today we’re taking a look at Chapter Two of The Philosopher’s Stone, The Vanishing Glass. The Snakey Snake Chapter. Just picture me making lots of embarrassing hissing sounds, which is probably how I will torture my coworkers as I’m writing this.
Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.
Chapter Two—The Vanishing Glass
It’s been nearly ten years since the first chapter, and young Harry Potter is close to eleven years old. His room is a cupboard under the stairs of Number 4 Privet Drive and he’s not permitted to ask questions of his relatives about basically anything. It’s his cousin Dudley’s birthday, and Harry is directed to cook the family’s breakfast and then meant to spend the day with a woman named Mrs. Figg while the Dursleys take Dudley to the zoo and give him everything he could possibly want in the world. Harry is never permitted to accompany the family on Dudley’s birthday celebrations.
Mrs. Figg has a broken leg this year, so Harry gets the chance to participate in the festivities for the first time. He enjoys the zoo very much, but everything goes south when they visit the reptile house. A large boa constrictor refuses to dance for Dudley, even when Uncle Vernon taps at its cage. Once the boy has wandered off, it speaks to Harry, tells him that it gets bugged a lot by visitors. The snake is a native species to Brazil, but was bred in zoo captivity.
When Dudley’s friend notices that the boa is moving, he shouts for Dudley and the two of them shove Harry out of the way to stare at it. Suddenly, the glass vanishes from the snake’s tank and it slithers away, hissing a thank you to Harry. We learn that strange happenings like that occur around Harry often, particularly when something incredibly embarrassing or dangerous is about to happen to him. The Dursleys are horrified and send Harry back to the cupboard where he is to stay without meals for the foreseeable future.
Harry reflects that night on how he is persona non grata in the Dursley’s sphere, but odd-looking strangers occasionally approach him with bows and handshakes and the like. He never gets a clear look at any of these people, who seem to disappear instantly. At school he is ignored and/or belittled for his glasses, hand-me-down clothes, and being the primary target of Dudley and his gang.
This is where we get to a very Dahl-like place in the narrative. Lots of vibes in a Matilda/James and the Giant Peach direction with how poorly Harry is treated, and the fairy tale-like aspects of his plight. Lost parents, nasty relatives, overblown punishments for crimes that aren’t remotely criminal. Living like a peasant in the middle of plenty. All the characters you are meant to dislike are described as unflattering animals; Aunt Petunia is horselike, Vernon and Dudley are beefy and piggish, Dudley’s friend Piers Polkiss is a rat. (This does absolutely extend into the “ugly/fat people are awful or evil” trope that is used frequently in fiction, even moreso in children’s literature. Which is more unsettling when you consider that you are programming children very early to believe that un-gorgeous folks are probably terrible.)
All of this is used to comic effect, which was something that Dahl excelled at—making horrid situations slightly absurd and utterly whimsical, thereby making them more palatable. And if every book in the Harry Potter series was written with the same inflection, these chapters would feel the same on a reread. But since the books age up with the reader, and the tone of later installments forces us to look at this setup more seriously… it’s also incredibly unfunny.
There was some talk in the comments for the last chapter about how frightening it must have been for Petunia to take on Harry, endangering her own family so soon after the death of her sister. (Lily was Petunia’s only living blood relative outside of Harry at this point—the Evans parents were already buried, though Rowling has never said what took them.) And there is some truth to that, I’m sure; we know for certain that Petunia’s issue with the wizarding world is about feeling neglected in her own family. Petunia was jealous that Lily had magic abilities because their parents were clearly very keen on it. But that doesn’t mean she hated her only sibling, no matter how badly they were estranged. We know that she crumpled up Lily’s letter to her announcing Harry’s birth, but we also know that the next Christmas, Petunia sent her sister a vase (according to a letter Lily wrote to Sirius).
So Petunia was… trying perhaps. In her own way. And she did choose to take Harry in and keep him under her roof, which not a small decision for anyone to make. There were selfish motivations at play there as well, though; the letter that Dumbledore left her in Harry’s swaddling explained that as long as he was in her care as a minor, his presence offered her family magical protection. Seeing as her sister was just murdered by a dark wizard, that probably looked pretty good. So there are complicated motivations all around here, but we can agree that knowing Lily had been murdered was not happy news to Petunia, and that it was good she offered Harry a home rather than dropping him off at an orphanage. (Wonder if Dumbledore had a contingency plan for that?)
That doesn’t change the fact that everything about Harry’s situation at the Dursleys is straight up child abuse.
Harry lives in a cramped cupboard under a staircase, and would have remained there had he not ended up going to Hogwarts. He does most of the household chores, cooks at least some of the family meals, and is never permitted to ask questions about his parents. In effect, he is a child slave who is lucky enough to be allowed to go to school. When he is “bad,” he has food withheld as punishment. (We can assume this has happened more than once because Harry waiting for the family to go to bed so he can sneak food from the kitchen is clearly not a new idea to him.) His cousin is physically abusive toward him, and it’s likely that Vernon is too: you might remember later on in this book, Harry is worried that Professor McGonagall is asking for a wooden cane to beat him with when she calls Oliver Wood out of Professor Quirrell’s class. Why would he think of that? The most logical answer is—probably because he’s been hit with one before.
What’s distressing is that the reader is clearly getting to Harry at a point where all of these things are normal to him by now—he knows how to navigate the household, how to shove his head down, how to try and keep himself out of trouble. We are missing those points when Harry was younger, less likely to censor himself, more willing to wonder at his surroundings. A time when little Harry had no filter, and didn’t realize that asking questions would get him smacked down and sent to his not-a-room. We learn that when he did ask about the origin of the scar on his forehead, he got a callous; “In the car crash when your parents died. And don’t ask questions.” Because Merlin forbid anyone tiptoe a little around the death of a mother and father to their own orphaned child. And what happened when Harry asked about his own birthday, about why they never celebrated it like they did Dudley’s? How do you imagine the Dursleys reacted to that?
We can glean still more of this isolation from the narration, from odd little asides that don’t really add up:
Aunt Petunia often said that Dudley looked like a baby angel — Harry often said that Dudley looked like a pig in a wig.
Often said to who, Harry? YOU HAVE NO FRIENDS. Kid probably spends most of the day talking to himself. Because anyone he could talk to either wants him to shut up, or isn’t interested.
It’s also fascinating to recognize those lingering aspects of Lord Voldemort that are, for the last time in Harry’s life, not bothering him whatsoever. I had completely forgotten that tiny Harry actually likes his scar, thinks of it as his favorite personal feature. And his chat with the snake just proves how anything can be demonized when associated with the wrong person. Later books make this big deal about Harry being a parselmouth because Slytherin was into it and so was Tom Riddle. And what does Harry use this great and terrible power for? To bond with a boa constrictor over annoying people at the zoo.
Harry has a lot in common with that snake, really. Living in captivity with people who constantly tap on the glass and yell at him to do this and that. It’s not his natural habitat either, living among muggles.
Learning about how Harry’s powers try to manifest under the Dursley’s care is admittedly hilarious. The image of Petunia trying to pull Dudley’s old sweater over Harry’s head and it shrinking and shrinking with every tug is excellent. As is Harry’s kid-logic about how these things must actually be happening: trying to jump behind trash cans to avoid Dudley’s gang, ending up on the roof, and assuming “that the wind must have caught him in mid-jump.” Because magic doesn’t seem so impossible when you’re a child. You can come up with an explanation for anything, no matter how far-fetched.
We get a peek at a few characters who we’ll see again as well! The man in the top hat who bows to Harry is Dedalus Diggle, and Mrs. Figg is later revealed to be the squib Arabella Figg. It’s not surprising that Harry is less than fond of their visits, but she must get a kick out of pretending to be such a whacko old lady. I’m blanking on the other two Harry recalls. Also, he dreams of Sirius’ motorbike. Part of me desperately wants to believe that the flight with Hagrid wasn’t his first trip on that thing.
And what’s next, you ask? Oh, just that letter we’ve all been waiting for…
That’s it for this week—for chapter three or four, I plan to go into more detail about the Dursleys before Harry. (There is some great info via Pottermore on that period.) So prepare for Vernon Dursley-James Potter smackdowns!