The Worst Birthday
Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Worst Birthday
Harry has returned to the Dursleys for the summer holiday, and things are hardly going well. On Harry's birthday, Uncle Vernon berates and shouts at Harry during breakfast, triggered by Dudley commanding Harry to pass him the bacon. Harry retorts that Dudley forgot to say the magic word. Merely mentioning the word magic is enough to send Uncle Vernon into a towering rage.
Uncle Vernon launches into his plans for that evening, entertaining a prospective client, Mr. Mason. Harry's role is simple: he will remain in his room, making no noise, pretending not to be there.
While in the yard later that day, Harry, looking at the hedge, sees two large, green eyes staring back at him. Before he can investigate further, Dudley nastily reminds Harry it is his birthday and asks why all his "weird friends" have not bothered to send any cards or presents. In retaliation, Harry says he is trying to magically set the garden hedge on fire, though he privately remembers that underage wizards are forbidden to practice magic outside school. Dudley tattles to Aunt Petunia, and, as a punishment for mentioning magic, Harry must clean the house all day.
As will become the series' usual framework, the first chapter recaps the previous book, while the Dursleys, earlier called "the worst sort of Muggles" by Professor McGonagall, reinforce the contrast between Harry's magical world and his family's mundane Muggle household. Although Harry now has his own bedroom (Dudley's "spare" one) rather than sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs, his overall life has hardly improved. Here, we see how his enforced non-magical life causes him spiritual poverty and deprivation, as he endures the long weeks before he can return to school. He is still physically mistreated, being nearly starved while Dudley grows even fatter. The Dursleys, crueler than ever, make his life as miserable as they can away from Hogwarts, a place he not only loves, but one which represents a world where he is not only celebrated for his (unwanted) fame, but valued for his own self and individual talents. In the Wizarding world, he is among his own kind, and is not considered as a freak. However, once he returns to Privet Drive, his magical abilities again make him strange and abnormal to his family, and anything tying him to that world is forbidden or securely locked away. Even Hedwig must remain in her cage.
Harry has coped with his abusive treatment in various ways: by ignoring his family as they ignore him, and occasionally standing up for himself. A slight change in Harry's personality can be seen here, however. A year ago, his rebellions were limited to minor jabs at Dudley; he would never have deliberately provoked Vernon or Petunia, fearing reprisals. Now he deliberately taunts them. Harry's demeanor and self-confidence will continue to develop throughout the series, and his position within the household gradually changes as Harry becomes less passive-aggressive and more assertive in his self-defence. It is also gradually dawning on him that being a wizard makes him a powerful being that his family will eventually come to fear. Undermining all this right now is Harry's unhappy homelife being made even more glum when it seems his new-found Hogwarts friends have already abandoned him.
Another aspect of the Dursleys is exposed—they are scheming social climbers. Their ambitious plans for entertaining the Masons, as we, and Harry, see, are extremely sycophantic, and would irritate any person with even a near-average intelligence. One wonders how Vernon was ever able to earn a living, if this represents the quality of his sales pitch. This also indicates Vernon's shallow thought processes. Believing that he would like to be treated in such a condescending manner, he assumes Mr. Mason would prefer the same.
It is unknown yet who or what the green eyes belong to, but it is likely related to the Wizarding realm creeping into Harry's enforced Muggle confinement. Whether or not there is any imminent danger to Harry remains to be seen, though he is alert to that possibility.
- Have Dudley, Uncle Vernon, and Aunt Petunia changed from the previous year? If so, how?
- Why is Harry's even mentioning the word "magic" sufficient reason for him to be punished?
- Harry notices large, green eyes staring at him from the hedge. What or who might Harry think this could be?
- Why have Harry's friends not written and ignored his birthday?
- Now that Harry has completed his first year at Hogwarts, has his relationship with the Dursleys changed? If so, how? Explain how and why it might continue to change.
This chapter focuses on the Dursleys, Harry's family that he must live with each summer. We see how they remain stolidly pinned to the fabric of everyday Muggle life, and are slaves to the impression they can make on their neighbours and associates. As the series progresses, we will see some positive character growth and change in cousin Dudley, as he eventually realizes there may be some good in magic, and even in Harry. Vernon and Petunia will remain stubbornly convinced that magic is an abomination, although, over time, we will see that their distaste becomes overwhelmed by fear. Petunia's hatred of the Wizarding world is actually motivated by jealousy and rejection, as revealed in the last book. Vernon likely became Petunia's husband because he was the least magical person she could find.
- We learn much later why Harry had to return to the Dursleys every summer: the protection that had resulted from his mother dying for him would only remain in force as long as he had a home protected by his mother's blood, in this case Petunia. While this protection remains with Harry into the seventh book of the series, it is only in the fifth book that it is explained. And while the protection in question underpins the entire series, and is hinted at as early as the first chapter of the series, it is only in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that it is explicitly mentioned.