Ten years later, on Dudley’s birthday, Petunia raps on the door to Harry’s tiny room in the cupboard under the stairs. Harry has just woken up from a good dream: there had been a flying motorcycle in it. Petunia yells at him to get up and make bacon for Dudley.
The time jump demonstrates how Harry has moved from a loving home as a baby to a completely unloving one over the next ten years. The Dursleys demonstrate again and again in this chapter how family, if it does not provide love to children, can make a child feel isolated and vulnerable, as Harry does.
The kitchen table is strewn with Dudley’s birthday presents: a computer, a second television, a racing bike (though why he wants a bike is a mystery to Harry, because Dudley is very fat). Harry, by contrast, has always been small and skinny—and he looks even smaller and skinnier because he wears Dudley’s old clothes.
Here, Rowling makes an early association with desire and greed. Dudley’s greed for presents reflects on his bad character, and this association becomes a predecessor for Voldemort’s and Quirrell’s greed and desire for power later on.
Harry has black hair, bright green eyes, and round glasses feebly held together with tape because of all the times Dudley has punched him in the face. Harry also has a unique scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead, which, according to Petunia, is from the car crash in which Harry’s parents died.
Petunia and Vernon express their dislike for wizards and magic so much that they deny Harry the knowledge of who he is, who his parents were, and how they died—in essence denying him any sense of identity.
Harry is frying eggs when Dudley comes into the kitchen and counts his presents. Dudley is disappointed to see that he has only thirty-seven—one less than last year. He is about to throw a tantrum when Petunia tells him that they’ll buy him two more presents when they go out later in the day.
Dudley not only has greed (in terms of demanding things that he doesn’t need), but he also appears to be greedy simply for greed’s sake, making sure that he has a certain number of presents to ensure that he is getting more presents than he did on previous birthdays.
As Dudley opens his presents, the phone rings in the house. Their neighbor, Mrs. Figg, is calling to say that she can’t take Harry for the day while the rest of the family celebrate Dudley’s birthday. Petunia, Vernon, and Dudley are all furious. Dudley starts to cry, saying that Harry spoils everything. But then his best friend, Piers Polkiss arrives, and Dudley stops pretending to cry at once. It is then decided that Harry will go with the Dursleys to the zoo, because they don’t want to leave him alone at home. Before they leave, Vernon warns Harry that there would be no “funny business” or Harry would stay in his cupboard from then until Christmas.
Even without telling Harry that he has special abilities, Vernon and Petunia find ways to punish him for those abilities. This demonstrates the way that they are trying to fit him into their “normal” lives, rather than allowing him to come into his own. Additionally, they demonstrate the absolute anger they have towards Harry as a result, as Dudley cries that Harry will even be included in the trip. This again reinforces the image of the lack of love Harry receives at home.
Harry promises not to do anything, though he understands why Vernon doesn’t believe him: strange things often happen around Harry. Once, Petunia had cut his hair to be almost bald, but his hair had miraculously grown back the next day. Another time, Petunia had tried to force him into a “revolting” sweater of Dudley’s, but it had shrunk until it could only fit a puppet. And another time, he had been inexplicably found on the school roof after Dudley had been chasing him. He had been punished severely each time.
Despite how hard the Dursleys try to fit Harry into a normal mold, his magical abilities lead to odd events like the ones described here. The Dursley’s cruelty is particularly severe in these episodes, because they punish Harry for reasons that they withhold from him so that he won’t know about his magical abilities.
In the car, Vernon starts to complain about everything around him: Harry, work, the bank, and motorcycles. Harry mentions his dream about a flying motorcycle, which prompts Vernon to shout, “MOTORCYCLES DON’T FLY” in a rage. Harry wishes he hadn’t said anything: he knows that the Dursleys don’t like him talking about anything acting in a way that it shouldn’t, as if he might get “dangerous ideas.”
Even small things, like the mention of a flying motorcycle in a dream, is too abnormal for Vernon, and so again he punishes Harry, this time by shouting at him. Harry also hints at what is underpinning Vernon’s anger: Vernon and Petunia fear the power Harry might wield against them if he understood his magic.
At the zoo, Harry has the best morning he’s had in a long time. He walks around the zoo apart from the Dursleys, and is able to finish one of the desserts that Dudley doesn’t want when they eat in the restaurant. After lunch, they visit the reptile house. Vernon and Dudley try to get a python to move behind a glass tank, but it doesn’t budge. Dudley moves on, bored.
Harry’s description of the zoo visit only highlights the fact that Harry is often abused by his family, if visiting a zoo without them and eating a dessert that his cousin doesn’t want constitutes a very good morning.
Harry looks at the snake, which suddenly opens its eyes and winks. Harry thinks that he sees the snake roll its eyes at Vernon and Dudley. Harry tells the snake that it must be annoying, and the snake agrees. Harry asks the snake where it comes from, and the snake jabs its tail towards a sign saying it’s from Brazil but has been bred in the zoo.
Harry’s conversation with the snake emphasizes Harry’s isolation as well as the fact that his magic sets him apart from the others. Harry has become better friends with a snake in a single minute than he has with his cousin Dudley in the course of ten years.
At the sight of the snake moving, Dudley punches Harry in the ribs, knocking him out of the way. When Harry looks up, Dudley and his friend Piers leap back with howls of horror: the glass has vanished. The snake slides onto the floor, and Harry is certain he hears the snake thanking him as it slithers out of the reptile house. The group returns to the car and drives home. Back at the house, Vernon spits out the words, “Go—cupboard—stay—no meals.”
Even though Harry cannot explain what happened, and though he truly did nothing wrong, Vernon punishes him severely for the strange circumstances that unfold around him. It is worth noting that Harry’s ability to talk to snakes is a crucial detail in the second book in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
In his dark cupboard, Harry wonders what time it is, hoping that he can steal food when the Dursleys go to sleep. He had lived with them for ten miserable years, as long as he could remember. He can’t remember his parents or the car crash that killed them—only a strange green light.
Even though Harry’s parents loved him, the fact that he cannot remember them means that the Dursleys are the only family he has ever really known—and they make him feel completely unloved and abuse him.
When he was younger, Harry dreamed that some unknown relation would come and take him away. Sometimes he thought that strangers in the street recognized him (waving, bowing, or shaking his hand), but they always seemed to vanish whenever Harry tried to get a closer look at them. At school, though, Harry “[has] no one.” Everyone knows that Dudley hates him, and no one dares to disagree with Dudley and his formidable gang.
Here, Rowling emphasizes the isolation that Harry feels not only at home, but also at school, and how this profound isolation causes him to yearn for an alternate family that might rescue him. In the same passage, Rowling provides a glimmer of hope, hinting at the world in which Harry truly belongs.