Family Ties in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix—Part 4: The Evanses and the Dursleys

See Part 1–The Magical World, Part 2—Institutions and Groups, and Part 3—The Trio for this series’ introduction and context.

The Evanses

To understand the Dursley family dynamic, we need to look back and examine Petunia and Lily’s Evans’ family.

According to The Prince’s Tale (Chapter 23, DH), Petunia and her younger sister Lily had a normal sibling relationship until Lily’s magical future came between them. Petunia was protective toward Lily, fearing exposure of her sister’s frightening special abilities could be dangerous. But suddenly, with a revelation from “that awful boy” Severus Snape, these abilities gave Lily a bright future Petunia couldn’t share. In addition, now Severus was Lily’s best friend and confidante instead of big sister Petunia. Naturally Petunia was hurt and jealous.

Petunia so longed to be magical too that she wrote a desperate letter begging to be allowed to go to Hogwarts. When she received a kindly letter from the headmaster telling her this was impossible, Petunia was crushed and then humiliated when Lily and Severus read the letter.

The Evans parents apparently didn’t handle any of this well. Petunia says to Harry in the island shack, “My mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!” (SS 53) With Lily getting so much enthusiastic approval, Petunia felt left out and insignificant; this fractured the family, bred resentment, and drove a permanent wedge between sisters.

Channeling her disappointment into hostility, Petunia’s defensive posture was to disdain the magical world and loathe her sister as “a freak” and “weirdo” (SS 53; DH 669). Further, on Platform 9 ¾, while their parents “were looking around with wholehearted enjoyment, drinking in the scene,” Petunia told Lily that “it’s good you’re being separated from normal people. It’s for our safety” (DH 669).

Petunia became obsessed with “normal.” She married young, choosing an older, unimaginative man with equally narrow views who also prized the ordinary. Vernon Dursley buttressed Petunia’s prejudices, making her feel secure and building up her fragile sense of self. In their child Dudley Petunia now had a child who would adore her as her sister once had.

After a childhood of feeling “second best,” Petunia feathered her nest with normalcy and created a new narrative about herself. Never again would she allow anything abnormal or disgusting to have the upper hand; even every speck of dirt in her home was obsessively scrubbed away (HBP 46). Perfection and control made her suburban utopia feel safe and nothing would be allowed to mar it.

Then Harry arrived, a constant reminder of what she thought she’d left behind. She tells him on the island, “I knew you’d be just the same, just as strange, just as—as—abnormal and then, if you please, [Lily] went and got herself blown up and we got landed with you!” (SS 53, emphasis in text).

Petunia was saddled with magical Lily all over again. But this time things would be different.

The Dursleys

The Dursleys are the first intact blood family we meet, but intact doesn’t mean healthy. In many ways they mirror the wizarding Malfoys. Both couples are obsessed with material wealth, status, appearance, and normalcy (which for the Malfoys is wizarding blood purity and for the Dursleys human purity). The Dursleys and Malfoys deem themselves superior to those they consider “other,” are bullies and cowards who blame others for their failings, are cruel to children other than their own, and inculcate their children with these values. (The Dursleys and the Blacks also share commonality in rejecting children who challenge the family narrative.)

Instead of learning from it, Petunia carries on the Evans family’s favoritism dynamic. But she turns it around with a vengeance–the “normal” child is favored instead of the magical one.

Without earning it, Dudley is deemed gold, and without deserving it Harry is deemed lead. Dudley has self-esteem thrust upon him through valueless praise and Harry is continually denied it through shaming; neither has opportunity to earn it in a healthy way. But, surprisingly, the children exhibit the same coping mechanisms. Each finds family through whom they can achieve genuine merit outside the home—Dudley through his gang and Harry through the wizarding world. Dudley needs to feel power over others and achieves it by earning his place as top thug, perpetrating evil; Harry needs to feel power over circumstances and achieves it by accruing information that enables him to defeat evil. Dudley’s transformation to a better human being comes from being forced to question his parents’ narrative about himself and Harry after the dementor attack. Harry’s transformation comes in some part from continually proving wrong the Dursley narrative about himself and his parents.

The Dursleys suffocate the children, fawning over Dudley and constantly looming over (while paradoxically ostracizing) Harry. The children, opportunist and survivor respectively, suffer harm in different ways. Instead of meeting these boys’ needs, Vernon and Petunia meet their own needs, and as a result, neither child respects them. This couple is deliberately clueless as to their destriuctive parenting skills and the damage they do to the family, in the name of family.

Unlike most families who tell stories about their relatives and foster a child’s memory of deceased parents, Petunia refuses Harry any memory of Lily and James apart from the lie that they died in a car accident. Harry grows up in complete ignorance about his parents and is never even taken to visit their grave. He’s made to suffer for the “sins” of his parents and those sins are never forgiven.

As OotP opens, Harry sticks to home with the blood family he hasn’t chosen, listening to Vernon and Petunia disparage him and praise the ever-absent Dudley’s social skills, unaware that Dudley is deceiving them as he preys on innocents with his chosen gang family. After the Ministry rescue fiasco, Dumbledore points out that the Dursleys’ abusive treatment, while dreadful, had prevented Harry from growing up as a “pampered prince” like Dudley, spoiled for his destiny and unfit to save the magical world (837; HBP 55).

Dudley’s favored position as son and Harry’s as unwanted intruder is encapsulated in Vernon’s accusation to Harry after the dementor attack (all emphases mine): “What have you done to my son?” (26). Vernon throws Harry out of the house to protect his family (39); he’s eager for Harry, the enemy, to be murdered or sentenced to death. This delineation is further explored in HBP when Dumbledore points out that the Dursleys have mistreated both boys, and especially Dudley. Indifferent to the charge regarding one child (they know and don’t care), Vernon and Petunia are insulted and outraged to be perceived as harmful to the other. Petunia is only “oddly flushed” (with embarassment? Anger?) at Dumbledore’s blunt request to allow Harry a merely legally-defined “home” [HPB 55-56]). A legally-defined home is all they’ve ever offered him.

The tables turn in DH, when Harry is the family adult in charge and the Dursleys are the frightened children. It’s a mark of his tremendous growth that he doesn’t exploit that circumstance.

The Dursleys are painted in broad satirical strokes, but their dysfunction and disturbing behaviors are employed in many households in which the family hearth is a battlefield where the dominant narrative must win.

Their family is a deplorable role model for healthy family life.

About Deborah Chan/Arabella

Deborah Chan, previously “Arabella Figg” I read the first three Harry Potter books in 1999 to see what the fuss was about and was hooked. After participating at HogwartsProfessor.com for several years, and then here at the pub, I joined the Blogengamot in 2009. I enjoy discussing and writing about the books I love, and particularly enjoy looking into characters' psychological and emotional motivations. My husband Rick and I live in Spokane, WA, where I’m a columnist for our newspaper, The Spokesman-Review. Our cat Casey Rose is my gravatar. Butterbeers all around!

8 thoughts on “Family Ties in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix—Part 4: The Evanses and the Dursleys

  1. What a well thought out and deep post. I feel I now know the motivation and rational these families used to act the way they did. It all makes so much more sense. Thank you, Arabella, for putting all of the evidence together to make it all clear.

  2. I love the comparison of the Dursleys to the Malfoys! Can’t believe I never thought of it, but it’s such a perfect parallel. Strict definition of normalcy, firm exclusion of everything “different”, pampering of the only son and casual training of him as a bully. With Harry as the prime target for both Dudley and Draco, of course.

    The reconciliation between Dudley and Harry was one of the nicest surprises of book 7, I thought. There’s a truce between Draco and Harry, too, but I get the sense that it’s a bit colder, perhaps because natural competition between Harry and Draco persists where it is dissolved between Harry and Dudley.

    Great thoughts on Petunia. She’s an interesting case–a pathetic figure, almost a tragic one; in the end, she runs afoul of Dumbledore’s truism that “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

    It’s particularly sad because she had the opportunity for true heroism, even without the magic her sister possessed. (Hey, I’d have been jealous, too. Miserably.) Lily died young; Petunia could have been the mother Harry looked up to and loved, a willing rather than a reluctant agent in the battle against Voldemort. By keeping Lily and James real and present to Harry, she would have made him her own, and she could easily have won the sort of high honor that no Muggles in the story (unless I’m forgetting someone) actually earned.

    It could’ve been a different set of books.

    Shoot, now I want to write counter-canon fan fiction. Which I never, ever even dream of doing. 😛

  3. This is wonderful and very moving, Arabella. I also missed the parallels between the Dursleys and the Malfoys, even though JKR gave me a big hint when she compares Dudley and Draco in SS!

    It occurs to me that Harry’s ‘family life’ also mirrors Dobby and Kreacher’s miserable lives with the Malfoys and Blacks. While various Weasleys grumble about being treated like house elves, Harry really is treated that way by the Dursleys. He’s expected to scrub the kitchen, spread manure on the agapanthus (no wonder they were thriving!), all the while staying as invisible as possible, like a good house elf. Kreacher has his pitiful nest near the boiler, much like Harry’s cupboard under the stairs. The Dursley’s make Harry wear ragged grey hand-me downs, and while he does get socks from them, they are hideous old socks that Vernon once wore. Harry is a captive (sometimes literally) of the Durselys and even when he understands why he needs to go back, he still feels like a prisoner. No wonder Harry instinctively empathizes with Dobby!

    Arabella, what do you think about Aunt Margery? She seems even more abusive than Vernon (“I won’t have this namby-pamby, wishy-washy nonsense about not hitting people who deserve it”). Do you think she provides some clues to Vernon’s family history?

  4. Another fantastic post, Arabella!! The Dursley/Malfoy parallel is pretty exact down the line.

    Ohhh, Mary Ellen, you’ve put in mind another intriguing parallel: Aunt Margery and Mrs. Black. They are both verbally vicious, violent, demeaning, etc.

    There is likely some kind of matriarchy in the Dursley line, which perhaps is why Vernon is always trying to prove himself to be “the big man who can provide.” Though Vernon seems like the dominant and imposing figure (traits that he tries to cultivate in Dudley), he can be put in his place by Petunia on the rare occasion when she puts her foot down. One case is after Petunia gets the howler, and she is most adament that Harry must stay–Vernon does not really challenge her on that. Petunia and Vernon are of such one mind that it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that Petunia is more passive than she is.

  5. Mrs. Black really is vile and actually makes Aunt Margery look good — after all, Aunt Marge loved her Rippy-poo and made all those lovely fry-ups to share with her bulldog babies.

    Isn’t it interesting that the only grandparents who appear alive (or at least undead) in HP are Mrs Black and Augusta Longbottom? Both are powerful matriarchs, But even though Augusta is overbearing and damages Neville’s self-esteem, she stood firmly on the side of goodness and love.

  6. Thank you so much for the good feedback and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get back to this.

    Yes, Moe, it’s so important to understand what makes someone tick. We’re all carrying down legacies.

    That was a good tie in, Jenna, of Harry being victims of both Dudley and Draco, children of the doppelgänger families. And I like how you brought in Dumbledore’s choice maxim.

    In an earlier draft I wrote of a second service Petunia did to the wizarding world –by taking Harry in she ensured a savior. And you jogged this thought, too: Petunia did have the capacity for magic–love being the most powerful magic there is. Instead she squandered her potential under bitter hatred, a tragic choice.

    If you write counter-canon fanfic, I’ll read it!

    Mary Ellen, again you’ve contributed a great point–comparing Harry to Dobby and Kreacher. In light of that you’d think our Cinderfella would have been a towering SPEW activist, but he “obviously ” failed to perceive the similarities.

    And from you and cbiondi: I had in one draft that Petunia is also cowed by Aunt Marge. Aunt Marge and Vernon were clearly raised to think well of themselves; both are arrogant and smug, and they think everyone needs to be like them. Those who aren’t should get the business end of a nice fat stick. But their Dursley family dynamic being matriarchal, with Vernon needing to prove himself…I hadn’t considered that and it’s intriguing, because Marge is clearly dominant over Vernon. And he doesn’t argue with Petunia over keeping Harry after the Howler. She’s just revealed she knows far more than she’s previously said; perhaps he’s deferring to her greater knowledge of such things, maybe even out of fear.

    Actually, Augusta is the only grandparent we meet, Mary Ellen. Mrs. Black is Sirius’ mother. Both are powerful matriarchs, but I’d put my knuts on Augusta any day!

    Thanks again, everyone, for such insightful contributions.

  7. Combing through thousands of pages to paint the characters with utmost accuracy is no small feat, Arabella! And you’ve gone so much farther, you’ve illuminated the nuances easily lost in the story line.

    Once explained, I realize anew why these stories, “kids” stories no less, captivate me. It’s like savoring the flavor and mouth feel of something delicious, there’s just so much to taste, and in this case to relate to. Who hasn’t felt the sting of jealousy or been tempted to let other people’s lives define their own identity?

    Thanks for taking me on a tour back through the books. You are an expert guide!

  8. Thank you, Leanne, for such a lovely comment.

    Yes, instead of seeing that all people, magical or not, have gifts and limitations, and using her talents to pursue her dreams, Petunia defined herself by what she wasn’t and punished her sister and nephew for what they were. Classic scapegoating.

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