The Letters From No One
Chapter 3 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The Letters From No One
Harry is finally released from the cupboard after being punished for the boa constrictor episode. The summer holiday has started and Dudley and his friends harass Harry daily, enjoying their favorite sport, "Harry Hunting". Dudley has been accepted to Uncle Vernon's old public school (US: private school), Smeltings, whereas Harry will be going to a local comprehensive (US:public school), Stonewall High.
In July, Petunia takes Dudley shopping for his school apparel. The next morning Harry finds his aunt dyeing Dudley's old clothes grey, to make Harry a "school uniform". As everyone sits down for breakfast, the mail arrives. Harry and Dudley have a short argument over who must retrieve the mail. Harry loses. Picking up the mail, Harry sees a letter addressed to him:
- Mr. H. Potter
- The Cupboard under the Stairs
- 4 Privet Drive
- Little Whinging
Harry has never received a letter before and is unsure who sent it. The envelope is a thick, heavy, yellow parchment with a strange wax seal on the back. Uncle Vernon snatches the letter from Harry as he tries to read it. Vernon is shocked by the letter's content and immediately sends Dudley and Harry from the kitchen so he and Petunia can discuss it. Dudley and Harry listen to the conversation through the keyhole and the gap under the door, and overhear them decide to ignore the letter.
Uncle Vernon moves Harry into Dudley's second bedroom, but day after day, more letters arrive for Harry, now addressed to him in, "The Smallest Bedroom", despite Vernon's attempts to block them. Vernon refuses to allow Harry to have the letters. On Sunday, when Uncle Vernon is certain no post will be delivered, letters begin streaming from the fireplace. Deciding enough is enough, Vernon packs everyone into the car, and drives all day to a run-down hotel on some small town's outskirts. The next day "about a hundred letters" arrive at the hotel addressed to Harry. Next, Uncle Vernon finds a rickety old shack on a rocky island off the coast, accessible only by boat. As they settle in for the night, Harry stares at Dudley's watch, counting down the minutes to midnight and his eleventh birthday. A storm is raging, but Harry thinks he hears something else outside the shack. Just as he counts the final second to his birthday a huge BOOM shakes the shack. Something is pounding on the door.
Harry is astounded to receive a letter formally addressed to him. Having been treated as a non-entity his entire life, this is among the few times he has been singled out as an individual, though he is unable to fathom who could have sent it or why. He becomes even more determined to learn the letter's contents and its sender's identity. Harry has little idea that unknown persons have already determined that he will indeed receive his letter, whatever it takes and despite the Dursleys' feeble attempts to prevent it. When the letters begin arriving non-stop and en masse, Harry, even with his limited worldly knowledge, must suspect that this is hardly a normal occurrence, though he is certainly unable to explain just what is happening. By now, he, and we, suspect that there is some extraordinary magical means underway here, though it is still unknown just what that is.
Uncle Vernon’s panicked attempts to block, then outrun, the letters are not only futile, but analogous to those who ignore facts and deny reality. Avoiding unpleasant truths, and the belief that refusing to admit something must therefore mean it is untrue, is a common human weakness. While this can provide some immediate, though short-term comfort, like the letters bursting from the fireplace, the truth tends to return and strike you full force in the face. Unfortunately, this is a lesson Vernon Dursley resists learning, as determined denial and brutish ignorance are key components to his character. As the Dursleys frantically attempt to hide, an enjoyably tense, moody atmosphere builds, almost as if Harry's true identity and destiny are rushing toward him, no matter how hard and far the Dursleys try outrunning it. In an almost Gothic-type setting, on a remote island, in the dark night, and amid a raging storm, the tension mounts until "BOOM!" it slams into the door—the truth finally catching the Dursleys; nothing in their lives, or Harry's, will ever be the same again.
As mentioned in Chapter 1, there are a few places in the series where days and dates do not line up. We have already seen that this book covers events largely in 1991 and 1992. The Dursleys leave Privet Drive for the hotel on Sunday, leave the hotel and drive to the island on Monday (Dudley complains because he is missing The Great Humberto on TV), and so Harry's birthday falls on Tuesday. However, July 31, 1991 is a Wednesday. This trivial error does not truly affect the story in any way, and is included here more as a curiosity than as something for the scholar to concern himself with.
- Why does Uncle Dursley move Harry out of the cupboard and into Dudley's smaller bedroom? What might Dudley think about this?
- Why do the Dursleys leave town? Does Vernon really believe this will help?
- How could the letters' sender know where Harry's room/place is at any given moment?
- Why do the Dursleys refuse to let Harry read his letter? Do they know who is sending the letters and why? If so, how would they know?
- Who might be sending these letters? Why?
- Who or what could be pounding on the island hut's door?
Readers can see how far the Dursleys will go to appear normal to their neighbors and avoid drawing attention to themselves, although their actions are anything but normal. Their obsessive need to maintain this facade is why they often hide Harry in his room, including when they are entertaining guests early in the next book, and it is also the reason they never carry out their threat to throw him out of their house after the dramatic events at the beginning of Harry's fifth year.
The Dursleys' trait of attempting to eliminate unpleasant truths by ignoring or denying them, which we see in this chapter, is not, it should be noted, restricted to Muggles. We will see the same behaviour in the Wizarding world throughout Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the Ministry of Magic will use the same technique to try to refute the return of Voldemort.
It is interesting to note that Vernon's actions during this chapter and the next are a reasonable depiction of someone suffering a stress-related nervous breakdown. Vernon has spent ten years trying to suppress the knowledge that Harry is a wizard, and now sees that effort crashing down around him as the letters from the Wizard world start appearing. And here, we see the author's sense of humour showing, as she has Vernon using a piece of fruitcake as a hammer, and has letters appear inside eggshells.