Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter/Characters/Petunia Dursley

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Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter - Character
Petunia Dursley
Gender Female
Hair color Blonde
Eye color Unknown
Related Family Vernon (husband), Dudley (son), Lily Potter (sister), Harry Potter (nephew)
Loyalty Dursley family, Muggles

Overview[edit]

Petunia Dursley, née Evans, is Harry Potter's aunt (she is his mother's sister). She and her husband Vernon Dursley reluctantly took Harry in as a baby, while they had their own son, Dudley. Petunia dislikes Harry's magical abilities and wishes to "stamp it out of him," and partly as a result of this, relations between her and Harry have never been good.

Role in the Books[edit]

Beginner warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.

Philosopher's Stone[edit]

Vernon Dursley kisses his wife, Petunia, goodbye as he leaves for work. Several unnerving things happen during the day, but while he is tempted to call Petunia, he does not, instead waiting until he is back home before asking casually about her sister's family, the Potters, and what they had named their son. Petunia says the son was named Harry, a nasty, lower-class sort of name.

Discussing the Dursley family, Minerva McGonagall questions Albus Dumbledore's decision to place the infant Harry with the Dursleys, saying that they are "the worst kind of Muggles." She reports that she had seen their child hitting Petunia, demanding candy. Dumbledore says he is aware that Harry would have a home in any Wizarding household, but that he has his reasons for putting Harry there.

We are told that it is Petunia Dursley who finds the infant Harry on the Dursley doorstep. Apparently, it is also Petunia who handles most of the "odd things" happening around Harry: when his hair will not remain cut the way she wants it, she cuts it short, only to have it grow back overnight; she is trying to force a hideous sweater over Harry's head when it mysteriously shrinks to the point that it will not even fit over his hand; and she receives the school reports about odd things happening there, such as Harry climbing on the roof.

In the events surrounding Dudley's eleventh birthday and the subsequent appearance of Harry's first Hogwarts letter, Vernon is the center of the action, while Petunia largely backs Vernon up. While Petunia does receive the phone call from Mrs. Figg saying that she won't be able to look after Harry, and then comforts Dudley in his dismay at having to have Harry along, she thereafter remains largely in the background as Vernon drives them to the zoo, buys treats for Dudley, retrieves Dudley from the snake enclosure, and punishes Harry for this odd event by locking him back in his cupboard under the stairs. And when Harry's Hogwarts letter arrives, it is Vernon who takes it from him and opens it. While Vernon and Petunia do discuss what to do about this letter, it is Vernon who decides that they will simply not answer it. When more letters arrive, Vernon intercepts and destroys them. It is Vernon who, in the end, decides that they must leave the house to escape the letters. Dudley asks Petunia at this point if "Daddy has gone mad"; Petunia does not seem to be able to answer.

When the family finally settles in the hut on the island, Petunia still has not had much role in things. When Hagrid arrives, he tells Harry that his mother, Lily, Petunia's sister, was an extremely good witch. Petunia, apparently pushed beyond her endurance, bursts out that Lily was a freak, coming home with pockets full of frog spawn, and that she was doted on by her parents. Only Petunia saw what she really was. Petunia's malevolence is only stopped when she mentions that Harry's parents had gotten themselves blown up. Harry interjects that Petunia had told him that his parents had been killed in a car crash, which prompts Hagrid to respond angrily that no car crash could have done anything to James and Lily Potter. The conversation then is carried by Vernon and Hagrid until Vernon insults Dumbledore. Enraged, Hagrid gives Dudley a pig's tail, and the Dursleys retreat in confusion, leaving Harry and Hagrid the front room.

When Vernon takes Harry to Kings Cross Station to board the train a month later, Dudley and Petunia are in the car; Vernon has only consented to take Harry to London because they need to go to a specialist to get Dudley's tail removed before school starts. During the trip, she says nothing; but we see her laughing at Harry as the car drives away, leaving Harry to hunt for Platform Nine and Three Quarters.

Petunia is at King's Cross Station when Harry returns from school, but says nothing, simply watching as Vernon verbally collects Harry and directs him towards the exit.

Chamber of Secrets[edit]

Harry is not surprised when nobody in the house remembers that it is his birthday. Vernon has important visitors arriving that night, and Petunia and Dudley are called upon to rehearse their lines. Harry is hard-put to avoid laughing at the excesses that they are planning, but Petunia is overcome instead by what she sees as Dudley's brilliance.

Later, when Harry is in the garden, Dudley taunts him about having received no mail from his "weird friends at that school". Harry, angered, says he was thinking about how to set the hedge on fire, and starts mumbling nonsense words. Panicking, Dudley calls for his mother; Petunia swings at Harry's head with a soapy frying pan, but misses. As punishment for daring to use magic, Petunia gives Harry a long sequence of tasks to help her cleaning up the house for Vernon's visitors, then sends him up to his room after a very sketchy dinner.

When Harry is locked into his room, Petunia does periodically bring him meals which she pushes through a cat-flap in his door. Neither Harry nor Hedwig finds cold vegetable soup particularly appealing, but that being all they have, they make do.

Petunia again is present when Harry returns from school, but says nothing, leaving the conversation to Vernon.

Prisoner of Azkaban[edit]

Petunia and Vernon are listening to the new kitchen TV when the newscaster talks about a murderer who has escaped from prison, one Sirius Black. Apparently at the mention of a reward for information, Petunia looks out the kitchen window, as if expecting an escaped convict to be hiding in their back yard.

For the rest of Harry's time there, however, she is quite overshadowed by Vernon's sister, Marge, who visits for a week starting on Harry's birthday.

Goblet of Fire[edit]

Dudley's school nurse has seen what Petunia, so quick to see a fingerprint on her walls or what the neighbours are doing, could not see: that Dudley is not just fat, but massively obese. Petunia has, under prompting, put him on a diet, and so he would not feel alone, has put the rest of the family on a diet as well.

Mr. Weasley has managed to get tickets to the Quidditch World Cup and agrees to pick Harry up and take him to The Burrow. While they are waiting for the Weasley family to arrive, Petunia is compulsively straightening cushions in the sitting room. Mr. Weasley arrives through the boarded up fireplace, rather explosively, with Ron, Fred and George, and Petunia tries to hide behind Vernon. When Dudley eats one of the Twins' accidentally-on-purpose dropped Ton-Tongue Toffees, it makes his tongue become several feet long; we see Petunia struggling with it, trying to get it out of his mouth. During the ensuing mayhem, Harry departs at Mr. Weasley's orders; it seems that Petunia is largely having hysterics at this point.

Petunia is not present at Kings' Cross Station when Harry returns from school.

Order of the Phoenix[edit]

Petunia opens the door to a clearly ill Dudley (he vomits all over the mat) being supported by Harry. Once inside, Dudley accuses Harry of using magic on him. Harry replies that while he had his wand out and had threatened Dudley with it, he had not used it against Dudley. After much arguing back and forth, complete with arrivals of owls threatening Harry with imprisonment and expulsion from Hogwarts, Uncle Vernon demands to know what these Dementors are that Harry was supposedly protecting Dudley from. Petunia tells him that they are the guards from the Wizard prison, Azkaban. Suddenly realizing what she has said, she claps her hand over her mouth, then explains that she had heard "that awful boy" talking about them with her sister, Lily. This proves too much for Vernon, who now orders Harry out of the house. Another owl arrives, this one with a Howler addressed to Petunia. Harry, knowing what Howlers will do if left alone, recommends that she open it; she does, and an awful voice says, "Remember my last, Petunia!" before the letter dissolves into flames.

Still in shock, Petunia now says that Harry will have to stay with them. Over Vernon's protests, and with her voice strengthening as her self-assurance returns, she says that throwing Harry out will look very bad to the neighbours. Vernon, giving in, sends Harry to his room.

Harry remains in his room until Vernon receives notification that he may be the winner of the Best-Kept Suburban Lawn Competition. The Dursleys go off to the competition venue, and Harry departs Privet Drive for Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place with the Advance Guard.

In Harry's conversation with Dumbledore after the battle at the Ministry, we learn that the Howler which had changed Petunia's mind so that she overruled Vernon about throwing Harry out was, in fact, sent by Dumbledore. We also learn the reason Harry has been forced to stay with the Dursleys: Lily dying to save Harry from Voldemort had created a powerful protective charm, but it could only be maintained while Harry had a place that he could call home that was shielded by Lily's blood – in this case, Petunia, Lily's sister.

When Harry returns to London on the Hogwarts Express, the Dursleys are there waiting for him. A group of wizards, led by Alastor Moody, confronts them, saying that they expect to hear regularly from Harry, and that they expect Harry to be treated well. While most of the conversation is directed at Vernon, Harry does notice that Petunia seems most distressed, not by the appearance of this flock of wizards, but rather by Tonks' hair, which is its usual shocking pink color.

Half-Blood Prince[edit]

Dumbledore tells Harry that he will be arriving to take Harry to The Burrow only a fortnight after school ends. Harry only half believes him, and has not told the Dursleys, so Dumbledore's arrival at 11PM comes as a shock to them. At his arrival, Petunia comes out of the kitchen where she has been giving all the surfaces their nightly wipedown, wearing a house-dress and rubber gloves. Dumbledore propels a couch into the three Dursleys, forcing them to sit down, then suggesting drinks, summons several glasses of mead, which he sends across the room to the Dursleys. Vernon, Petunia, and Dudley ignore the glasses of mead, which become more insistent as the conversation goes on. Harry notes that one of the glasses is bouncing repeatedly off Vernon's head, spilling its contents in its insistence to be noticed; another must be acting similarly with Petunia. Dumbledore tells Vernon and Petunia that he had expected that they would treat Harry as one of their own children, and was very disappointed that they had not; however, he was pleased that Harry had not been as badly treated as the child sitting between them. Both Petunia and Vernon look around, appearing to think that Dumbledore was referring to someone other than Dudley. Dumbledore also says that, while Harry will be visiting again briefly, he will not stay long over the next summer break, as the charm that protects him will end when he reaches his majority, at seventeen.

When Dumbledore summons Kreacher in an attempt to determine whether the house at Grimmauld Place has passed to Harry, as Sirius had intended, Harry sees Petunia's look of revulsion, and thinks that nothing as dirty as Kreacher had likely ever been in her house.

Petunia says very little during this visit of Dumbledore's, and Harry does not return to Privet Drive in this book.

Deathly Hallows[edit]

We see Petunia only briefly at the beginning of this book; as she and Vernon are preparing to leave for a place of safety, Dudley says that he does not believe that Harry is a waste of space. Petunia seems aware that this is effusive compliments from Dudley, but her only response is a nod of the head to Harry as she leaves the house.

In Severus Snape's memories, we see the young Petunia and her sister Lily, before Lily goes to Hogwarts. We see Petunia's fear when Lily demonstrates that she can make a flower open and close, and we see Petunia's distrust of the young Snape. We also see that Petunia eavesdrops on Lily and Severus talking about the Wizarding world, particularly about the Dementors and Azkaban Prison. On the platform where Lily is about to board the Hogwarts Express, we also learn that Petunia had sent a letter to Hogwarts asking to be accepted into the school, and had received a refusal.

Strengths[edit]

It's shown that Petunia is a very neat person and likes everything else neat and tidy, also.

Although she is not fully aware of it, Petunia projects Lily's protection of Harry due to their blood relation.

Weaknesses[edit]

Petunia's desire that things be neat and clean borders on obsession. It appears that before she goes to bed at night she has to scrub down the kitchen completely; in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince we see her with her nightdress and housecoat, wearing rubber gloves and clearly in the middle of her bedtime wipe-down of all the kitchen surfaces. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, we learn also that she expects to take all day cleaning up the house for the Masons, dinner guests and potential clients of Vernon Dursley.

Relationships with Other Characters[edit]

She is Lily Potter's older sister, and thinks that her sister is a "freak". She has the same opinion of her nephew, Harry Potter. She married Vernon Dursley, and had a son, Dudley Dursley.

We are told that she spends large parts of each day snooping on the neighbours, and of course we see that she models her behaviour based on what the neighbours would think. Any relationships with other characters, including "batty old Mrs. Figg", are going to be coloured by a need to keep up appearances. Relationships with Wizards, such as Albus Dumbledore, will be primarily tinged with fear; she fears and distrusts the magic that, by her lights, took her sister away from her.

Petunia's relationships with her family are somewhat varied, though apparently uniformly shallow. Toward Harry, we see that Petunia makes no accommodation to Harry's needs, rather seeing him as unpaid domestic help; in the first three books, we see her setting him tasks like making breakfast, weeding the gardens, scrubbing pans, and similar work. We have seen that Vernon often restricts Harry to his room for days at a time; Petunia assists in this by preparing food, barely enough to sustain Harry's life, and pushing it through a cat-flap installed in Harry's bedroom door, at intervals. Petunia never shows Harry the slightest bit of affection. As Harry matures and becomes more powerful as a wizard, Petunia's feelings towards him shift, becoming less aloof and more fearful.

Petunia acts completely differently towards her son, Dudley, showering him with gifts and making nearly infinite allowances for his desires. It is hard to know how much of this is from affection, and how much is from fear; it seems Dudley is quite capable of hitting Petunia and does so when provoked.

It is hard to determine Petunia's actual feelings, if any, towards her husband, Vernon. It does seem that she discourages intimacy. One gets the feeling almost that Petunia has gotten married because that is what people do, rather than out of any particular affection for the man she is married to.

Analysis[edit]

Petunia seems to be inordinately interested in what other people are doing, and thus, is extremely concerned with what other people think of her. Having accepted Harry into her house, reluctantly, we see that her rationale for keeping him there as he grows is that people would wonder what had gone wrong were he suddenly to disappear. Nearly everything that Petunia does is done to look good in the eyes of the neighbours, with the possible exceptions of her private treatment of Harry and her treatment of Dudley. We see this in particular at the start of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where Harry is almost thrown out of the house before Petunia rationalizes the instructions she has received in terms of what the neighbours would think, and again at the end of that same book where she seems dismayed in particular by the unconventionality of Tonks' hair colour.

Petunia's stated reason for the Dursleys' treatment of Harry is to "stamp that (magic) stuff out of him", to make him normal so that he can take his place in "normal" society. However, her parsimonious treatment of Harry, giving him Dudley's cast-off and horribly oversized clothes, and her attempts to cut his hair, rather undercut his chances at ever being accepted into normal society. Petunia obviously feels that providing a roof for Harry should be enough, and that he should be grateful for that, and for any scraps the family deigns to send his way.

One thing which should be mentioned is the Howler delivered to Petunia at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. While we do eventually learn that this came from Dumbledore, we never hear any more about the circumstances. The fact that Dumbledore says "Remember my last [letter], Petunia," has been seen as proof that there has been ongoing correspondence between them, as if there had only been the one letter that had been left with Harry, the Howler would instead have said something like "Remember my letter". It is confirmed that Dumbledore had written to Petunia earlier — we find out in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that Dumbledore had rejected her application to attend Hogwarts — but we are uncertain whether that and the letter left with Harry are the only two times Dumbledore has written to her, or whether there has been a trickle of correspondence over the years. Given the shock with which the Dursleys received Harry's first Hogwarts letter, one must suspect that there was little, if any, correspondence over the years, so the "last" to which Dumbledore referred in the Howler was most likely the letter that he had left with the infant Harry some fourteen years earlier. It is a safe assumption that Dumbledore had, in that letter, informed Petunia of the threat facing Harry should Voldemort return, and why Petunia was Harry's best hope of survival. Presumably, Petunia did not inform Vernon of the full details; if he knew them, Petunia would likely have mentioned them rather than talking about what the neighbours would think.

Questions[edit]

Study questions are meant to be left for each student to answer; please don't answer them here.

  1. How much does Petunia actually know about the wizarding world?

Greater Picture[edit]

Intermediate warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.

One of the things that most clearly defines Petunia, as we see in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, is her fear and distrust of things magical, which has been a large part of the reason Harry has been kept ignorant of his ancestry. While she is joined in this distrust by her husband Vernon, one must wonder, having completed the series, how much of this on Petunia's part is jealousy. Yes, Lily's magical ability had frightened her, and she had serious doubts about young Severus, who was evidently of a lower social class. Yet she had, as it turns out, written to Dumbledore pleading for admission to Hogwarts and been refused. It is likely that a large part of her jealousy was sour grapes: "the magical world has refused me, so I will refuse it." Harry, as part of the magical world, was similarly refused any part of Petunia's concern; it was likely only by telling herself that she could stamp the magic out of Harry, that she could countenance having him in her house at all.