The snake’s escape brings on Harry’s longest punishment, ending as the summer holidays begin. Harry then spends as much time as possible out of the house, trying to avoid Dudley’s gang and thinking about the new school he will be attending in the fall. Dudley will be going to a different school, and this offers Harry a tiny ray of hope.
Even before Harry is informed of his magical abilities, the new school he is slated to attend still serves as an opportunity for Harry to find a place in which he feels he can belong, away from his cousin’s torment.
One day in July, Dudley parades around the living room in his new school uniform: maroon tailcoats, orange knickerbockers, a flat straw hat, and a walking cane. Harry tries to stifle his laughter as Vernon and Petunia beam with pride at their son. The next day, Harry finds Petunia dyeing Dudley’s old clothes gray for Harry’s uniform. Harry worries that he will look like he’s wearing “bits of old elephant skin” on his first day of school.
While Harry worries about being able to fit in with the other students in his new school, he clearly doesn’t care about fitting in with Dudley or the Dursleys. Thus, just as they feel that Harry is abnormal and doesn’t have a place in their world, Harry acknowledges that he doesn’t belong in their world and yearns to find a place of his own.
As the family sits down for breakfast, the mail arrives. Vernon sends Harry to get it, and Harry realizes with excitement and wonder that there is a letter for him, addressed to “the cupboard under the stairs.” Harry starts to open it, but Dudley shouts that Harry has a letter, and Vernon promptly snatches it away. He reads it, his face turning red. Petunia then reads it and nearly faints. They yell at the boys to get out, though Harry furiously protests that he deserves to read the letter, as it was addressed directly to him.
The letter excites Harry so much because it represents the possibility of someone who knows about him and who wants to communicate with him. Thus, the mere idea of the letter, even without knowing what its contents hold, makes him feel less isolated and unloved.
Vernon throws Harry and Dudley out into the hall and slams the door. Harry listens to his and Petunia’s conversation, as they worry how someone might know where Harry sleeps in their house. Petunia says they should write back, but Vernon argues that they should ignore the letter. He reminds her that when they took Harry in, they swore they would “stamp out that dangerous nonsense.”
Vernon and Petunia, in contrast to Harry’s excitement, treat the letter as a dangerous possibility. In referring to magic as “dangerous nonsense” that needs to be “stamp[ed] out,” Vernon underscores the value he and Petunia place on normality.
That evening, Harry again demands to see his letter. Instead, Vernon tells Harry that he’s getting too big for his cupboard, and he and Petunia want Harry to move into Dudley’s second bedroom, which Dudley has been using to store all of his toys. It takes Harry one trip to move everything he owns. Downstairs, he can hear Dudley bawling at the news. Harry sighs—he would rather be back in his cupboard with the letter than in a bedroom without it.
The inequity of Dudley and Harry’s possessions and rooms highlights a key difference in their character. Dudley, who has two bedrooms and an excessive amount of toys, is associated with greed. Harry, on the other hand, has a tiny space that can barely be called a bedroom and very few possessions, gesturing to the humility that will become so key to his character.
The next morning, another letter arrives for Harry, this time addressed to “the smallest bedroom.” Vernon wrestles the letter away from Harry once more. The morning after that, Harry tries to sneak downstairs early to wait on the corner for the postman, but Vernon is already guarding the door. When three letters arrive for Harry, Vernon tears them into pieces. He then nails up the mail slot.
The more Harry wants to communicate with whoever is sending the letters, the more Vernon tries to stop it. Like so many of the Dursleys’ decisions, attempting to fit Harry into their normal lives only serves to abuse him even further and make him feel cut off from the rest of the world.
Over the next three days, the letters continue to arrive—pushed under the door, inside the two dozen eggs that the milkman delivered, pelting out of the fireplace. After this final incident, Vernon declares that they’re all leaving for a trip. In the car five minutes later, Vernon drives wildly, as if trying to shake someone off their trail.
The letter delivery methods also grow more and more outlandish and odd, only infuriating Vernon even more because it starts to reveal the magical world from which they are being sent.
Vernon, Petunia, Harry, and Dudley arrive at a gloomy hotel outside of a big city, but the next morning, a hundred letters arrive at the hotel for Harry. They set out again. In the midst of this, Harry realizes that the next day is his eleventh birthday. His birthdays have never exactly been fun—last year, the Dursleys gave him a coat hanger and a pair of Vernon’s old socks. Eventually, Vernon finds a “miserable little shack” on a rock in the middle of the stormy ocean. The inside of the shack reeks of seaweed, and the wind whistles through the walls.
Harry’s memories of his last birthday makes the contrast between how the Dursleys treat Harry and how they treat Dudley all the more glaring. While Dudley gets massive amounts of presents and celebration, Harry barely gets gifts and even forgets that his own birthday is approaching. This time around, the Dursleys are actively trying to make Harry more miserable by preventing him from being contacted by other people.
Vernon is delighted, even as the storm grows stronger, thinking no one can deliver mail to this house in the middle of a storm. Vernon and Petunia claim the single bed in the shack, Petunia makes Dudley a bed on the sofa, and Harry curls up on the floor under the thinnest blanket. He watches Dudley’s wristwatch as his birthday ticks nearer. When midnight arrives, Harry hears the whole shack shake and someone outside, knocking to be let in.
Harry hits perhaps his lowest here, forced to sleep on the floor in the middle of a freezing shack on a rock in the middle of an ocean on his birthday—the culmination of the idea that the Dursleys would rather maintain the appearance of a normal life than show even the smallest form of love towards their nephew.