Aunt Marge's Big Mistake
Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Aunt Marge's Big Mistake
At breakfast the next morning, Harry is hardly surprised when nobody wishes him a Happy Birthday. Everyone is watching the new kitchen TV, which had been installed because Dudley was complaining about the long walk from the living room TV to the fridge. The TV newscaster is reporting on an escaped prisoner, Sirius Black, saying he is armed and dangerous; Aunt Petunia immediately goes to the window to see if he might be outside. Uncle Vernon prepares to leave for the train station to collect Aunt Marge, Vernon's sister and Harry's least favorite relative. Marge's past visits have left Harry with extremely unpleasant memories, and he is horrified to learn that she is staying for a whole week. Uncle Vernon warns Harry to keep a civil tongue and that there will not be any funny stuff (presumably meaning magic). He also tells Harry that Marge believes he attends St. Brutus's Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys, and that he is expected to stick to that story. As Uncle Vernon is leaving, Harry corners him with a counter proposal: if he behaves as they ask during Marge's visit, Uncle Vernon will sign his Hogsmeade permission slip. Vernon, reminded about how easy it would be for Harry to slip up and say something about his magical connections, and how little he has to lose by doing so, angrily agrees, and storms off to the station as Harry, resigned to acting like a Muggle for the week, reluctantly puts away all his magical stuff and sends Hedwig and Errol to Ron for the week.
The visit begins poorly, with Marge giving Dudley a big hug and a kiss and £20, while treating Harry as a porter. Throughout the week, Marge repeatedly insults Harry, at one point commenting about how problems in the parents usually appear in the offspring. When her wine glass suddenly shatters, she passes it off as her having such strong hands, not suspecting that it could have been Harry who caused it to break. Her insults made Harry angry enough to have done it, but even he is unsure whether he did. Over dinner on her last day, Aunt Marge goes into an inebriated diatribe about Harry's "good-for-nothing parents". This time, Harry's anger causes her to start swelling, eventually inflating like a balloon and bobbing around on the ceiling. Harry knows he is probably in trouble for twice violating the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Under-Age Sorcery, an action that could result in having his wand snapped in two and/or being expelled from Hogwarts. Harry hurriedly packs his belongings, and dragging his trunk behind him, flees into the night.
It would have seemed that no one in the Muggle world could be more unpleasant to Harry than Vernon, Petunia or Dudley; but Aunt Marge is equally, if not more, hateful. Whereas the other Dursleys generally express their dislike of Harry through indifference, rarely even mentioning his family, Marge is prone to deliberate and ruthless insults towards them. Her derogatory comment, "If there is something wrong with the bitch, there'll be something wrong with the pup," is clearly an aspersion at Harry by targeting his mother's character, but it could also be a thinly veiled insult against Aunt Petunia, who Marge may consider inferior and tainted by her blood relationship to Harry and his parents. Her animosity excludes Dudley, despite his blood connection to Harry and Petunia. Marge dotes on her young nephew.
Harry's interactions, both with Vernon and Marge, show how he has matured and has become more assertive. There has been a slight power shift in the household. Harry, fully aware that this has happened, now bargains with Vernon to attain what he wants. With Marge, Harry is able to restrain himself, barely, for almost the full week, only losing his temper when she insults his parents. It is noteworthy that we see Vernon attempting to defuse the situation, knowing Harry is being pushed to his limits, and fearing what might happen should those limits be exceeded. This illustrates their relationship's changing dynamic; even one year earlier, Vernon would never have worried about Harry in a similar situation, firmly believing in his own ascendancy.
While Harry has become more sophisticated and adept at manipulating and interacting with people, Uncle Vernon has grown fearful, perhaps realizing that as his nephew nears legal age, he could possibly retaliate against the family with magic. Knowing that Vernon worries that Aunt Marge, who already considers Harry inferior, might learn he is a wizard, Harry exploits the situation to barter with his uncle, offering good behavior and agreeing to act like a Muggle in exchange for having his Hogsmeade permission slip signed. However, when Harry is unable to contain his anger with the obnoxious Marge, he loses this opportunity. Although his uncontrolled reaction has lost him his chance to visit Hogsmeade, it also shows how powerful Harry's magical abilities have become. Without realizing it, Harry has demonstrated "wandless magic" several times, a nearly impossible feat for most wizards. While Harry is unsure if he shattered Aunt Marge's wine glass, it is certain that both his inflating her, and the cupboard unlocking when he retrieves his trunk, are magic, and as Harry's wand is locked in the cupboard, Harry is performing magic without its assistance.
Despite the changed relationship between Harry and Uncle Vernon, Harry is still a child, and his reactions are childish. Having gotten into trouble in Vernon's house, and presuming he violated wizard law, Harry's impulse is to run away. He has no clear idea where to go, or what he will do when he gets there; he simply decides that he must become a fugitive, believing he can gather his money from Gringotts and go into hiding. For one as famous as Harry, this is clearly wishful thinking at its worst; Harry could never remain hidden. It also never occurs to him that there are many, including Dumbledore, McGonagall, and the Weasleys, who would come to his defence. This actually is an interesting contrast to Harry's behaviour in his first year, where, knowing that he was headed into possibly mortal danger, Harry pressed ahead anyway. It likely would prove interesting to examine this event, and Harry's earlier excursion Through the Trap Door, to see how Harry's character is motivated in each case.
On a lesser note, it is interesting to see the planning that must have gone into this chapter. At the end of the chapter, Harry reclaims his trunk from under the stairs and runs. Somehow, the author must prearrange that all of Harry's Hogwarts stuff will be in that trunk, and that Hedwig will be gone; Harry will not have time to dash madly about the house to collect his text books, assignments, and owl on the way out the door. The permission slip, in itself, might not be enough to force Harry to send Hedwig away and pack up his magical materials, but combine that with Marge, strike the deal that we see in this chapter, and it can all be arranged in a way that seems organic rather than contrived. This is especially important as it seems, at the end of this chapter, that Harry may feel he can never return to the Dursley home.
- Why does Harry run away? Was he right to?
- How does Harry plan to have Uncle Vernon sign his Hogsmeade permission slip? What does this say about how Harry's character has changed?
- Why does Aunt Petunia look outside the window? Are her fears reasonable?
- How is Harry able to perform magic unintentionally and without a wand? What does this indicate about him?
- How has Harry's relationship with his aunt and uncle changed? What accounts for this change and how will affect his relationship with them in the future?
- Even if Harry had not accidentally inflated Aunt Marge, would Uncle Vernon have signed Harry's permission slip? Give reasons both for and against this.
- Why does Aunt Marge insult Harry's dead parents?
- Why would Uncle Vernon attempt to intervene when Marge insults Harry?
- Were Marge's insults also intended for someone else? If so, who and why?
It will be revealed that Sirius Black is actually a fugitive wizard considered dangerous to both wizards and Muggles. It therefore becomes necessary to warn Muggles about him. Though the Wizarding world is kept secret and separate from Muggles, there are key Muggle contacts who work with wizard officials. Just how Muggles are alerted is shown in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Aunt Petunia nervously peering out the window after the TV newscast may be for a very specific reason, rather than a general panicked reaction to a fugitive on the loose. Petunia is far more knowledgeable about the Wizarding world than Harry, or we, ever imagined. Dumbledore had likely briefed her regarding the circumstances surrounding her sister Lily's death; the letter that had been left with Harry in the first chapter of the first book likely went into some detail. Perhaps recognizing Sirius Black's name and knowing that Black is connected to Harry and also to the Potters' murders, she now fears for Vernon and Dudley's safety, as well as her own, though she is probably less concerned about Harry's wellbeing. It may also be that she was an uncomfortable must-be-invited guest at Lily's wedding; given that she knows Harry's name in Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, she must have some contact with the Potters at least. If so, likely she knew that Sirius was a close friend of Lily's, best friend of James', and best man; if Dumbledore did not brief her, recognizing the name might have startled her even more. We have no guide as to how she feels about Aunt Marge.
- Aunt Marge was mentioned in passing as one of the people who might be persuaded to care for Harry while the rest of the family celebrated Dudley's birthday. She will reappear, briefly, when Harry is undergoing his abortive occlumency lessons with Professor Snape in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; Snape will retrieve some memories of Harry's mistreatment at Marge's hands, and will ask about them.