The door opens, and Professor McGonagall leads the students through the enormous entrance hall lit with flaming torches. She welcomes the first years to Hogwarts, explaining that they will first be sorted into Houses. The four Houses are Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Each house has its own history, as well as its own dormitory and common rooms. “Triumphs will earn [students] House points, while any rule-breaking will lose House points. At the end of the year, the House with the most points is awarded the House Cup.”
The four “Houses” are aptly named because they represent an even closer-knit community than the Hogwarts community as a whole. The students in Harry’s house—namely Ron and Hermione—literally become like his family, as they share classes and living spaces. Thus, Houses provide an opportunity to feel an even deeper sense of belonging for Harry.
Ron and Harry worry about how they sort the students into Houses, exactly—wondering whether they might have to take a test. Professor McGonagall then leads them into the Great Hall, the sight of which causes Harry to think that he “had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place.” It is illuminated by thousands of floating candles; the tables are “laid with glittering golden plates and goblets”; and the ceiling is bewitched to look like the night sky.
Harry’s first real experience of being inside Hogwarts reminds readers how magical it is to find a place where one feels at home. As Harry implies here, what makes Hogwarts “strange” is also what makes it “splendid,” in contrast to the values that the Dursleys have tried to instill in him, which imply that strange is bad. Here, different becomes a positive value, and gains a magical quality.
McGonagall leads the students to the front of the hall and places a pointed wizard’s hat on a stool that is very tattered and dirty. The hat begins to sing a song about how it sorts the students when it is placed on their heads: Gryffindor is for “the brave at heart”; Hufflepuff is for those who are “just and loyal”; Ravenclaw is for “those of wit and learning”; Slytherins is for “cunning folk” who use “any means to achieve their ends.”
Rather than sort students arbitrarily, the hat ensures that students will share some qualities or values with the other students around them, providing them with an additional sense of belonging that stems from similar personalities.
Ron is relieved that they won’t have to do something like wrestle a troll, as Fred had told him, but Harry worries about having to be sorted in front of everyone. He doesn’t feel brave or quick-witted at the moment. As the first years begin to be sorted and the older students applaud when new students are sorted into their own House, Harry worries that he might not be chosen for any of the Houses.
Again, Harry’s continued insecurity about not belonging or being too different bares itself here. Although Harry clearly has found a community, he is still concerned that he may be too different from the other students, and that he will not fit in with anyone else.
The students are sorted in alphabetical order. When it is Hermione’s turn, she is placed into Gryffindor. Ron groans. Harry notes that sometimes the hat takes a while to choose a student’s House, as when Neville is placed into Gryffindor after a long time; sometimes it takes very little time, as when Draco is sorted into Slytherin before the hat is even fully on his head.
Ron’s groaning at Hermione’s placement acknowledges the fact that students are largely expected to become friends with students in their Houses. Unbeknownst to Ron, Hermione will in fact become a key friend to him.
At last, Harry is called, and his name sends whispers throughout the hall. The hat is placed on his head, and he can hear the sorting hat taking its time, murmuring that Harry is a difficult case. According to the hat, Harry has “plenty of courage,” “not a bad mind,” and “a nice thirst to prove [himself].” Harry thinks desperately, “Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.” The hat questions whether Harry is certain, as Slytherin could “help [him] on the way to greatness.” But acknowledging Harry’s desire, the hat finally announces, “Gryffindor!” Harry is so happy to have been chosen for Gryffindor and not put in Slytherin that he barely notices that he is getting “the loudest cheer yet.”
Harry’s thoughts as the Sorting Hat figures out where to put him are extremely revealing about his character. In requesting specifically not to be put into Slytherin, Harry actively works against any desire for greatness or power. His humility is further affirmed when he is so relieved to belong, that he doesn’t even notice the adoration that the other students show towards him.
Only a few people are left. Ron is the second-to-last student, and he has tuned “pale green” by the time he steps up to the hat. A second later, the hat proclaims “Gryffindor!” Ron is relieved; Harry cheers along with everyone else. Percy tells him, “Well done,” as he takes his seat at the Gryffindor table.
Just as Harry wants to belong in the magical world, so too does Ron wish to belong in the same community as his family, and so he is relieved to be sorted in the same House as his brothers and parents before him. It also gives him the opportunity to solidify his friendship with Harry, now that they are in the same House.
Dumbledore then stands to say a brief welcome and a “few words” (literally, “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”), and then sits back down while the students enjoy the feast. The dishes in front of them are now heaped with delicious food. Harry, who has never been able to eat as much as he wanted, digs into “a bit of everything.”
The opening magical feast that Hogwarts provides immediately gives Harry a much greater sense of belonging than the Dursleys ever did, as he is able to eat and drink as much as he wants.
Harry starts to get to know those around him. He has a polite conversation with a ghost, Nearly Headless Nick (who is so nicknamed because “someone had obviously tried to behead him, but not done it properly”). Another boy in Gryffindor, Seamus Finnigan, tells Harry that his dad is a Muggle and his mom is a witch. Neville says that his grandmother (a witch) raised him, but that they thought he was a Muggle until he was eight.
Not only does being in Gryffindor allow Harry to solidify his friendship with Ron, it provides him with other new friendships. And in hearing from Seamus and Neville, Harry sees that many of his peers have had different experiences growing up, not just him.
Harry looks up at the table where the teachers are. Hagrid is there; Professor McGonagall is talking to Professor Dumbledore. Professor Quirrell, whom Harry met in the Leaky Cauldron and who is now sporting a purple turban, is speaking to a professor with “greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin,” named Professor Snape. Snape looks back at Harry, and a “sharp, hot pain” darts across Harry’s scar. The sensation disappears instantly, but Harry gets the sense that the teacher already doesn’t like him. Percy explains that Snape is the Potions teacher, but that he’s always been “after Quirrell’s job.”
Snape’s dislike of Harry is due to a complicated backstory that will be revealed slowly over all seven novels, but the reason that Dumbledore gives at the end of this book is because of Snape’s dislike of Harry’s father, James. This antagonism is due largely to the fact that he considers James very arrogant, and assumes that Harry will be the same way, given his status as “the boy who lived”—even though Harry’s defining trait is really humility.
After dessert, Dumbledore stands once again to address the room. He notes a bit of housekeeping: the forest on the grounds is forbidden to students; students should not use magic in the halls between classes; Quidditch trials will be held in the second week of the term; and “the third floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.”
Dumbledore establishes early on that Hogwarts is a place of strict rules, which, due to the magical nature of the place, can sometimes have very serious consequences. But there rules really lay the groundwork for the fact that Harry, Ron, and Hermione will break nearly all of them when they feel it is necessary to do so.
After a rousing rendition of the school song, the students head back to their houses. First year Gryffindors follow Percy up to the towers, and Harry is amazed to see people in the portraits whispering and pointing. Peeves the poltergeist makes trouble for them as they try to climb the marble staircases. Finally, they arrive at the portrait of a very fat woman in a pink dress. Percy gives her a password, and the portrait swings open. The students climb through it into the dormitories.
Like the brick alley behind the Leaky Cauldron, or the barrier to platform nine and three-quarters, the portrait of the fat lady is another magical portal. In each instance, such portals separate those who have that special knowledge from those who do not, and Harry, for the first time, is privy to those secrets and therefore a sense of belonging.
Percy directs the girls to their dormitory and the boys to another. At the top of a spiral staircase in one of the towers, they find their beds and their trunks waiting for them. They change into their pajamas and climb into bed. That night, Harry has a bizarre dream: “He was wearing Professor Quirrell’s turban, which kept talking to him, telling him he must transfer to Slytherin.” In his dream, Harry “tried to pull it off but it tightened painfully.” Malfoy was there, too, watching him struggle and laughing, and then Malfoy morphs into Snape. Then “there was a burst of green light and Harry [wakes], sweating and shaking.” By morning, he’s forgotten all about the dream.
Even safe in bed after his first day, Harry is still concerned with fitting into this new world. Harry’s dream represents a culmination of all of the things that could possibly spoil his sense of security: being placed in Slytherin away from his new friend, Quirrell’s turban (which takes on great significance near the end of the novel), Malfoy, who makes him feel as though he doesn’t belong, and Snape, who will soon do the same. It also groups those characters who feel most associated with power and greed, clearly demarcating them as evil in Harry’s mind.