Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
by J.K. Rowling
Chapter 2 - The Vanishing Glass
To begin with let me state that few things get to me in a book like reading about a child who is abused, lonely, or feels a failure. It causes a visceral reaction--either tears or anger, and often a combination of both.
Reading about how Harry is treated by the Dursleys is one of those things that always pisses me off a bit. I understand that this is a tried and true convention of children's stories (the clever child who is treated badly by stupid adults), particularly in several of Roald Dahl's books, but it still upsets me when I read it. I find it difficult to believe that no one ever noticed the obvious differences between how Dudley and Harry looked at school, despite coming from the exact same household.
After all, Dudley is a large, very well-fed boy who wears good clothes and is obviously doted on by his parents. Then there is Harry, a scrawny, small-for-his-age boy who only wears his larger cousins hand-offs. The two boys are in the same grade, with the same teacher(s), and no one's ever felt the need to investigate this?
Conversely, Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster for the premiere British Wizarding School, has established a squib spy, Mrs. Figg, to keep an eye on Harry for the past ten years. A spy who, at least once a year, watches after Harry when the Dursleys go out and about. You mean to tell me she never reported to Dumbledore the way the Dursleys were abusing Harry Potter, the Boy-who-lived?!
Of course, it is possible she did, and Dumbledore just ignored it. Dumbledore is very good at ignoring when his charges are being abused--but we'll get more into that in later chapters.
Ah well. Whatever fits the needs of the story.
In this chapter we catch back up with Harry and the Dursleys, ten years after the fateful night Harry was left on their doorstep. We learn that Harry is treated much like a house elf, certainly not like a ward of the family. Whenever Harry tries to learn about his parents, or anything at all, he's simply told Don't ask questions.
(Aside: I can't help but speculate that the reason Harry is an indifferent student through-out the series is rooted in this training he received during his early childhood. A frequent complaint I've heard from fans of the series is that Harry never thinks to ask anyone around him for information. Surely that stems from the fact that he got in trouble at home for asking questions. Likely, he also learned not to do too well at school, lest he outshine the golden boy Dudley.)
It is also Dudley's birthday, and they have to make sure he has more presents than last year (though he cannot even add together 37 and 2). Just before they're getting ready to leave for Dudley's birthday celebration, the Dursley's find out that Mrs. Figg, Squib-in-disguise, has broken her leg and won't be able to watch Harry for the day.
As Mr. and Mrs. Dursley discuss what to do with Harry, they can only come up with two other people that they're willing to even think about asking to watch over "the boy": Aunt Marge (who must move away sometime over the next book(s), to explain her visit in Prisoner of Azkaban), and Mrs. Dursley's friend Yvonne. The former "hates the boy," and the latter is "on vacation in Majorca."
I find it telling that the list of people they'll ask to watch over Harry only consists of 3 people. This leads me to believe that on some level they know that their treatment of Harry is wrong, and so they only let people who have either a) demonstrated and antipathy towards him or b) he has shown to dislike being with to to watch over the boy. Otherwise, other people will censure them for their treatment of Harry. Or, Harry might learn himself how badly he's treated.
Dudley begins to throw a tantrum about not wanting Harry to go with them to the zoo, but Piers Polkiss (Dudley's sidekick/minion) shows up before any arrangements can be made. Thus, Harry gets to go to the zoo for the first time in his life.
Then we get to hear the tales of Harry and his accidental magic--he causes his hair to grow out at will, he shrinks a hated sweater, and he Apparates to the top of his school building. Rather powerful demonstrations of magic, in my opinion, especially the last one.
Reading these descriptions makes me think about how Mr. and Mrs. Dursley must view all of this. They absolutely loathe anything out of the ordinary, and yet they have the "care" of a young wizard who can use magic--which they fear beyond all reason. Intellectually, I can understand their character motivations. But I still equally loathe them in return.
Harry has one of the best mornings of his life at the zoo--he even got to have a lemon ice pop and Dudley's leftover ice cream (leftover because they had to buy Dudley an even bigger ice cream, since the first wasn't large enough).
Of course, then comes the incident that inspires the chapter title. The group enters into the reptile house, where Dudley and Piers want to see the biggest, scariest snake. When they cannot provoke a reaction, they move on, while Harry stays behind to commiserate with the snake.
The snake then reacts in a way very different from any of the later snakes Harry uses Parseltongue on. It points at signs with its tail and nods his head in reaction to questions--communicating through body language rather than hissing in return.
When Dudley notices what's going on, he pushes Harry out of the way to see better. This causes Harry's accidental magic to banish the glass entrapping the snake, and pandemonium ensues. As the snake slithers away, Harry swears he could hear a voice saying "Thanksss, amigo," the first case of Harry actually hearing Parseltongue.
Harry almost gets by with it (though of course he has no idea he actually did cause it), until Piers points out that Harry had been talking to the snake just before everything happened.
Once Piers is no longer on the scene, Harry is confined in his cupboard (with the spiders!) and told he will not be eating. As Harry lies there, he dreams of one day escaping his dreary existence, of having people who care about him and being free.
Thankfully, Harry only has to wait a few more chapters to get his wish.