by J.K. Rowling
Chapter 3 - The Letters from No One
In this chapter we learn that Harry's punishment went on for so long that by the time he was let loose again, the Summer Holidays had already started. This depressed Harry to a small degree because it meant he had no surcease from Dudley and his gang's torments. He was greatly looking forward to the following September, because for the first time he and Dudley would be attending different schools from one another--Dudley to Smeltings (Mr. Dursely's old school) and Harry to the public school, Stonewall High.
In this chapter we also have our first indication for Harry's snarky side, when Dudley tries to tease Harry about going to Stonewall High:
"They stuff people's heads down the toilet the first day at Stonewall," [Dudley] told Harry. "Want to come upstairs and practice?"Which, of course, is just a preview of the sarcasm Harry will unleash on Dudley in Order of the Phoenix.
"No, thanks," said Harry. "The poor toilet's never had anything as horrible as your head down it -- it might be sick." Then he ran, before Dudley could work out what he'd said.
The abuse of Harry continues as we move on in the chapter. After the big deal the Dursleys made of going and buying Dudley his Smeltings uniform, the next morning Harry wakes up to find Aunt Petunia dyeing old rags of Dudley's for Harry's uniform at Stonewall High. Also, we see Uncle Vernon encouraging Dudley to do violence towards Harry:
"Get the mail, Dudley," said Uncle Vernon from behind his paper.Thankfully, Harry had a great, happy surprise waiting for him when he goes to fetch the mail--he's received his first Hogwart's letter! Though, of course, Harry has no clue that that's what he has in his hands.
"Make Harry get it."
"Get the mail, Harry."
"Make Dudley get it."
"Poke him with your Smelting stick, Dudley."
Harry dodged the Smelting stick and went to get the mail.
When Vernon and Petunia realize what it is, the send they two boys from the room and discuss the implications of the letter--most importantly to them, the fact that the sender knows that Harry lives in the cupboard, and possibly of other abuses that he has suffered.
After reminding themselves that they vowed to "stamp out that dangerous nonsense" when they took Harry in, the proceed to move Harry from under the stairs to Dudley's second bedroom, "just in case."
The next morning, Rowling lets us know that
Dudley was in shock. He'd screamed, whacked his father with his Smeltings' stick, been sick on purpose, kicked his mother, and thrown his tortoise through the greenhouse roof, and he still didn't have his room back."It's the first time in Dudley's entire life that he couldn't throw a tantrum to get what he wanted. If nothing else, the Dursley's fear of magic encouraged a bit of better parenting for both boys, if only for a moment.
Of course, Harry received another set of letters that day, this time showing that the sender knows Harry is no longer under the stairs, but in the "smallest bedroom," which encourages further fear on the part of the Dursley's.
The following day, Harry tries to sneak down early and wait for the letters, only to discover that Uncle Vernon had slept in front of the door to prevent exactly that. Vernon stays home from work that day and nailed up the mail slot, thinking that would prevent any more letters from arriving.
As expected, that fails.
What follows is three days of increasing insanity on the part of Vernon, as everything he tries to prevent the arrival of the letters fail. It truly is insanity, and even Dudley, dim-witted as he is, recognizes it as such.
After they end up in a small shack in the middle of the sea, Harry realizes that the following day is his eleventh birthday. As the count down to midnight occurs in his head, someone shows up and bangs on the door.
When I was reading the end of this, I could not help but be reminded of another British book about a little boy with magic, written by Susan Cooper in the 1970's called The Dark is Rising. In that book, the protagonist Will Stanton also has a frightening night just before his eleventh birthday, and on his birthday discovers that he has magical abilities.
I've tried doing a bit of cursory research, in hopes I might come across some significance in regards to eleventh birthdays in folklore or the occult, but haven't come across anything. It just struck me as odd, and being a silly American, I thought perchance it had some meaning that a British reader might catch. Perhaps it really is just centered around the way their school system is set up.
Any way, this chapter does a good job of building up the suspense--making the reader wonder just what is so wildly different about Harry, and why the Dursleys act as they do when the letters arrive. Thankfully, the wait isn't long--for the next chapter explains much.