Mr. and Mrs. Dursley live “perfectly normal” lives. Vernon Dursley is a large, “beefy” man who works at a drilling firm. Petunia Dursley is thin and blonde and tall. Mrs. Dursley has a sister, Lily Potter, whom she pretends doesn’t exist, because she and her husband are as “unDursleyish” as possible. Lily and her husband, James, have a small son who is about the same age as the Dursley’s toddler, Dudley, and the Dursleys don’t want their children mixing either.
Harry Potter’s story opens not with the world of magic and fantasy that will come to define him, but rather with the non-magic world in which he feels he doesn’t belong. Even without knowing about magic, readers get hints that Harry and his parents do not fit into the “perfectly normal” lives of the Dursleys.
One day, Vernon starts to notice some strange and mysterious things: an owl fluttering by their window; a cat reading a map; people in cloaks whispering excitedly together. Vernon grows furious, thinking that it must be some silly stunt. When Vernon arrives at work, he quickly forgets about the incidents.
After establishing the normalcy of the Dursleys’ lives, Rowling starts to introduce the magical elements of the story. She also establishes the Dursley’s intense dislike of anything abnormal, which ultimately fuels their mistreatment of Harry and his magical abilities.
When Vernon goes to a bakery on his lunch break, he passes another group of people wearing odd cloaks. He catches mention of “the Potters” and “their son Harry” and is flooded with fear. After work, Vernon accidentally runs right into a man in a velvet cloak. He apologizes, but the man hugs Vernon and tells him not to worry—nothing could upset him today because “You-Know-Who has gone at last,” and tells Vernon that even “Muggles” like himself should be celebrating. Vernon is stunned by the encounter and hurries home. On the street he again notices the cat that had been reading the map earlier.
Rowling gives hints at some of the circumstances surrounding Lily and James’s death, the defeat of Voldemort, and Harry’s immediate launch to fame. But because the passage is from Vernon’s perspective, his fear is ultimately revealed to be a reaction to anything even remotely odd or out of place.
Petunia, by contrast, has had a “nice, normal day.” Vernon tries to act as though his day has been normal, too. They watch the evening news: a reporter explains that there had been owl sightings all over the country, as well as odd weather like shooting stars. Vernon asks Petunia if she’s heard from Lily, wondering if the news might have anything to do with “her crowd,” but Petunia sharply denies that she has. Vernon and Petunia then go to bed.
The repetition of the word “normal” again sets up the Dursley’s hatred for anything different. The owl sightings and shooting stars, however, begin to introduce elements of magic and wonder to the story. These phenomena explain why Vernon and Petunia detest Lily, who was a part of that world.
Meanwhile, on the street in front of the house, a very old man with a long beard and long robes appears: Albus Dumbledore. Albus flicks open a cigarette lighter and clicks it, causing all of the nearby streetlamps to go out. He looks at the cat on the street, which transforms into a woman with a tight black bun and an emerald cloak: Professor McGonagall.
Dumbledore and McGonagall become the first true representatives of the wizarding world, as Rowling hints at the power of the possessing magical abilities—Dumbledore is able to darken a street, while McGonagall can transform effortlessly into a cat.
Dumbledore wonders why Professor McGonagall hasn’t been celebrating. She says that people have been too careless with their celebrating, so that even the Muggles have noticed that something strange is going on. McGonagall continues, talking about the rumors flying around concerning “You-Know-Who.” Dumbledore corrects her, saying that she should not be afraid to call him by his real name: Voldemort.
Even without fully understanding who Voldemort is, readers already know that people dread him so much as to call him by the euphemism “You-Know-Who,” thus immediately establishing the fear that his power inspires.
Professor McGonagall explains to Dumbledore that Lily and James Potter are dead, and that Voldemort tried to kill their son, Harry, as well, but he couldn’t. No one knows why, or how, but people are saying that somehow Voldemort’s power was broken when he tried to kill Harry. Dumbledore confirms the rumors; Professor McGonagall tears up at the news.
McGonagall’s story sets up one of the key themes of the book: the vitality of familial love. Although it is not explicitly stated until the end of the book, Lily’s love and the sacrifice of her life for Harry’s is what allowed Harry to break Voldemort’s power.
Dumbledore tells McGonagall that Harry will be entrusted into the care of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. McGonagall is appalled, saying she has been watching them all day, and that they couldn’t be less like wizards. And their son Dudley is horribly spoiled—all day, he’s been kicking his mother and screaming for sweets.
McGonagall confirms the idea that while the Dursleys think that the wizards do not belong in their world, so too do the wizards thinks that the Dursleys are abnormal and outsiders. Additionally, Rowling also hints at Dudley’s association with greed early on with the reference to his desire for sweets.
Dumbledore assures McGonagall that the Dursleys’ home is the best place for Harry, and he will leave a letter so that Vernon and Petunia can explain everything to Harry about what’s happened when he’s older. McGonagall wonders why Dumbledore would want Harry to grow up in the Muggle world rather than the wizarding world—there will probably be a “Harry Potter” day in the future, and everyone in the wizarding world will know his name. Dumbledore argues that this is why it’s important to raise him away from the wizarding world, so that he doesn’t have to deal with that kind of fame so young.
Dumbledore’s decision to leave Harry in the Muggle world introduces the value of humility in the story. Rather than immersing Harry in fame for the entirety of his young life, Dumbledore ensures that Harry has a childhood away from that fame, so that he does not develop an inflated ego and is able to maintain the humility that becomes so central to his character throughout the rest of the book.
At that moment, Hagrid, an enormous man with wild, bushy black hair and a beard, arrives on a flying motorcycle with a bundle in his arms—baby Harry. Harry has a tuft of jet-black hair and a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead from Voldemort’s curse. Hagrid gives a tearful goodbye to Harry, howling in sorrow over James and Lily’s deaths.
Hagrid already demonstrates his love for Harry, even as a baby. When, eleven years later, the Dursleys prove unable to provide Harry with love and deny him the knowledge that he is a wizard, Hagrid steps in to teach Harry, ultimately becoming a father figure for him and exhibiting that love.
Dumbledore then lays Harry gently on the Dursley’s doorstep and tucks a letter inside Harry’s blanket. Hagrid then gets back on his motorcycle, McGonagall reverts to cat form and slinks away, and Dumbledore returns the light to the streetlamps. He says a final “Good luck, Harry,” and then vanishes into the dark. Harry continues to sleep, grasping the letter. He doesn’t know how famous he is, how special he is, or how people all over the country are meeting in secret at that very moment, raising their glasses to Harry Potter, “the boy who lived.”
Harry’s fame and extraordinariness among wizards, as well as the tender care he receives from Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid, forms a stark contrast with how Harry’s life shapes up, as detailed in the following chapter.