The Vanishing Glass
Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The Vanishing Glass
Almost ten years have passed since baby Harry, now nearly 11 years old, was left with the Dursleys. Harry has grown into a skinny boy with unruly black hair, and green eyes hidden behind round glasses. And he has a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. The Dursleys' living room is filled with Dudley's photographs, while there are none of Harry, who sleeps in a spidery cupboard under the staircase.
One morning, Aunt Petunia awakens Harry, ordering him to cook breakfast. Today is Dudley's birthday, and everything must be perfect. The kitchen table is loaded with presents. The overweight Dudley is a bully who enjoys punching Harry, though he is rarely able to catch him. Dudley enters the kitchen, and is about to throw a tantrum after counting one fewer present than last year. Petunia only narrowly averts the tantrum by quickly promising to buy Dudley two more presents that day, thereby bringing the total to 39.
The Dursleys are taking Dudley to the zoo for his birthday, but they learn that Mrs. Figg, their cat-obsessed neighbour who usually watches Harry, has broken her leg and is unavailable. They discuss what to do with their nephew, while Dudley wails that he does not want Harry to come along. However, Dudley's friend, Piers Polkiss, arrives and the Dursleys are left with no other option than to let Harry tag along. Uncle Vernon sternly warns Harry that if any "funny business" occurs he will be in the cupboard until Christmas. (Strange things seem to happen around Harry, and the Dursleys refuse to believe he did not cause them.)
Uncle Vernon becomes angry when Harry mentions dreaming about a flying motorcycle. The zoo goes well at first, and Harry even gets some ice cream. In the reptile house, Harry has a conversation with a large boa constrictor. When Dudley pushes Harry aside so he can see the snake's strange behaviour, the glass enclosing the snake exhibit vanishes. The snake slithers out, thanking Harry and saying that it will go to its natural environment in Brazil.
In the car, Dudley and Piers greatly exaggerate their snake encounter, claiming it attacked them. Back home, a furious Uncle Vernon sends Harry to his cupboard and is not allowed to have any meals for a week. As Harry lies inside, thinking, he remembers faint images of a flashing green light and pain in his forehead. He also recalls how occasionally, when he is out with the Dursleys, odd-looking people seem to recognize him.
It is immediately clear that Harry is unlike other boys, a fact not only known to Vernon and Petunia, but one they are uncomfortable with. The abusive Dursleys have treated him as little more than a slave, showing him no affection, or even the slightest respect. Despite this ill-treatment, however, Harry is neither timid nor bitter, and is generally cheerful and kind, unlike his cousin Dudley, who is being shaped into a cruel, egotistical bully by his parents' overindulgence, and whose name reflects his personality (a dud). Harry's early traits show the admirable attributes which are so vital to his destiny.
Harry's magical talents are seen burgeoning here, as he makes the glass partition at the zoo disappear and converses with the snake (the latter is explained more fully in this book's successor, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). The author has said that this uncontrolled magical ability is normal for wizard children who are still unable to control their powers. Like other Muggle-raised wizard children, Harry knows nothing about these talents, likely making their effect even more disturbing and potentially harmful to those around them. Strangely, however, Harry hardly seems frightened by these bizarre incidents, and only casually questions them. This suggests that he innately accepts magic, and perhaps has an unconscious awareness about his true wizard nature. His enforced isolation from the wizardly world and much of the muggle world also gives him little reference as to what is considered "normal", though this would probably change as he matured, eventually realizing he is quite different from other people.
Harry has also started experiencing residual memories about his parents' deaths, though he was told they were killed in a car crash. The flying motorcycle in his dream is obviously the one Hagrid used to transport him to the Dursleys, and the green flash he recalls, though as yet unexplained, is also likely linked to those events. Harry will almost certainly experience more memories about that fateful night as he matures.
- Why did Dudley pretend to cry?
- Why did Dudley stop his fake crying when his friend arrived?
- Why do the Dursleys take Harry with them to the zoo, rather than just leave him at home?
- What strange things tend to happen around Harry?
- What do the strange things happening around Harry reveal about his character? What does he think about it?
- Why can a snake talk to Harry?
- Why would strangers on the street seem to recognize Harry?
- Why does Harry dream about a flying motorbike? Why would this make Uncle Vernon angry?
The scene with the snake could foreshadow events in the next two chapters. Harry and the snake are both prisoners, cut off from the world they truly belong: Harry, stuck with the Dursleys, is isolated from the Wizarding world, just as the snake, captive in the zoo, is prevented from living in the Amazon jungle. Also, both having been raised away from their true homes, lack knowledge about their native worlds. Each in turn is released from their prison, and heads toward an unknown future, somehow believing that it must be better than what they are leaving behind.
We learn here about Harry's ability to speak to snakes, a fact that becomes important in future books. A wizard who is able to speak to snakes is called a Parselmouth, and the language itself is called Parseltongue. Being Muggle-raised, Harry does not know just how rare this ability is, and is dismayed to learn that it is linked with the descendants of Salazar Slytherin. It will be a plot point in two later books, also, that Harry is not conscious of whether he is speaking and hearing English or Parseltongue.
The speaking with snakes, and the disappearing glass, are only the latest manifestations of Harry's magical background; we have also, in this chapter, read about flying to a rooftop to avoid a beating from Dudley's gang, hair that grew back overnight, and a jumper (sweater) that shrunk impossibly when Aunt Petunia was trying to fit it onto Harry. While it seems that these early magical signs could be the trigger that puts Albus Dumbledore's great plan into action, we must recall that Harry is about to turn 11. It is when magical children turn that age that they are invited to attend Hogwarts, which they begin the September that follows their eleventh birthday. The author has stated that Hogwarts is the only Wizarding school in the United Kingdom, thus every magical child will receive the opportunity to attend when he or she reaches 11. Not all children do attend; some, like Marvolo Gaunt, who we will meet later in the series, likely would never have entrusted the established school system with their children. Others may attend a school in another country. Draco Malfoy, Harry's future nemesis, mentions that he almost went to Durmstrang, a school hidden somewhere in Eastern Europe, and a place Harry will likely wish Draco had attended.
As the story progresses, Harry's personal qualities, as well as his flaws, are continually seen as he matures into a young man. Whereas Harry develops into a well-rounded person, the Dursleys are always depicted as rather two-dimensional, uncaring, and unpleasant characters, whose faults are deliberately exaggerated in order to contrast Harry's good nature with the worst in human attributes.
Although Harry has no idea yet that he possesses magical powers, he is beginning to realize that he has some unusual abilities that other children lack. From later conversations Harry has with Muggle-born wizard children, it appears that their families were generally unaware the Wizarding world existed until their child was old enough to attend Hogwarts. The parents, who probably realized their child was somehow different, generally are quite shocked upon learning they have a magical offspring. It is unknown why Muggle parents are apparently never told about the magical world prior to their child's eleventh birthday. At least some Muggle-born magical children may show no overt magical ability until they are older, and therefore remain undetected by the Wizarding community. Harry, however, discovers that the Dursleys have always known that he is a wizard, and not only deliberately withheld this information, but attempted to suppress his magical ability. Harry also learns his parents were wizards and were murdered, rather than killed in a car crash as the Dursleys told him. Harry will discover even later that Aunt Petunia knows far more about the Wizarding world than she has ever let on, even to her husband.
Under the pretext of explaining why the Dursleys fear leaving Harry home alone, we learn how he previously used magic before knowing he was a wizard, basically in self-defence. This story is a contrast to the tale in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince of how the young boy, Tom Riddle (later known as Lord Voldemort), used his powers to terrorize other children prior to learning he was a wizard. This comparison between the two characters adds another layer to the good vs. evil theme.
Mrs. Figg, who like many characters in this series is introduced by name before being seen in person, is the Dursleys' odd neighbour who occasionally watches Harry. Although she appears to be an unlikeable person, she is actually tied to the wizard world (though she has no magical powers), and works for Professor Dumbledore, helping to guard Harry. She is also a member of the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore's secret organization that fights Voldemort. Another character, Aunt Marge, who is Vernon's sister, is also mentioned by name in this chapter. Unlike Mrs. Figg, she actually is very unpleasant, as will be seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where she has a small, but pivotal role in one chapter.
- Sirius Black's flying motorcycle, initially seen in the previous chapter, is very likely the motorcycle that Harry dreams about.
- The green flashes in Harry's dream likely also are the wand flashes of Voldemort killing Harry's mother and attempting to kill Harry.
- Harry's ability to talk to snakes will form a major plot point in the next book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It will also be key to Harry understanding an episode at the Gaunt shack in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and will be the technique used to open a locket in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry's being unaware of whether he is speaking English or Parseltongue will be key to an episode in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as well. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ron is able to use Harry's Parseltongue ability to open the Chamber of Secrets, repeating from memory what he once heard Harry speaking.
- Mrs. Figg will turn out to be tied to the Wizarding world, not only knowing about Harry's situation, but having the job of monitoring Harry's progress and reporting problems to Professor Dumbledore.