Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The Boy Who Lived| Chapter 2 →

Synopsis edit

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

On his journey to work, Vernon Dursley encounters a series of peculiar occurrences: a cat on Privet Drive seemingly scrutinising a map, alongside individuals clad in vibrant robes meandering through the streets. Attempting to disregard these anomalies, Mr Dursley encounters even more oddly dressed people during his lunch break, overhearing snippets of conversation about the Potters and their son, Harry. Remarkably, one individual approaches Mr Dursley, suggesting he ought to rejoice in the disappearance of "You-Know-Who." These events remind Vernon of the Dursleys' discomfiting secret and their deliberate ignorance of the Potters' existence. Upon returning home, Mr Dursley is greeted by news reports of unexpected shooting stars and owls flying in daylight. Previously reticent to broach the subject of the Potters with his wife, Petunia, he eventually confirms that their nephew's name is indeed Harry. That night, Vernon Dursley experiences restless sleep.

In the late hours, an enigmatic figure, Albus Dumbledore, arrives at Privet Drive. Utilising a device known as a Put-Outer, he dims all the street lamps. Addressing the map-reading cat, who reveals herself to be Professor McGonagall, a witch, they converse about the recent celebrations causing a stir among the non-magical community, or "Muggles." Dumbledore divulges the tragic news of James and Lily Potter's murder by the dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, the previous night (October 31). Voldemort's attempt to kill their one-year-old son, Harry, somehow led to the dark lord's downfall. Voldemort, out of fear, is often referred to as "You-Know-Who." Dumbledore informs that Hagrid is en route to Privet Drive with Harry.

Shortly thereafter, the colossal Hagrid arrives aboard a flying motorbike, cradling a snugly bundled Harry. Dumbledore positions the infant on the doorstep of Number Four with a letter for Petunia Dursley. McGonagall expresses her concern over Harry's future with the Dursleys, fearing for a child of his renown. Following the placement of Harry, Hagrid remounts his motorbike, McGonagall reverts to her cat form, and Dumbledore restores the streetlights, with all three departing silently into the night.

Analysis edit

Harry Potter enters the story when he is brought to Britain's most seemingly normal family—the Dursleys. Not only are they "normal", but they are also relatively mundane, boring, and averse to anything even remotely out-of-the-ordinary in their dull, routine lives. However, there may be a particular reason for some of their behaviour. Readers only gradually become aware that a magical world populated by witches and wizards secretly co-exists alongside non-magical humans, known as "Muggles". The odd characters wandering the streets dressed in rather outlandish clothing are the first hint of this hidden society. Little is revealed about what happened recently, though it has spilt some noticeable activity into the Muggle world. The scar on baby Harry's forehead will be a lasting reminder that sinister events must have occurred, resulting in the infant being orphaned. Dumbledore's, McGonagall's, and Hagrid's actions lead us to believe that Harry is far more special than a mere orphan needing a home, though little is explained here. And while Professor Dumbledore does leave a letter with the infant, presumably explaining everything to the Dursleys, whatever information it contains is withheld, for now, from readers. We, like Harry, will gradually discover what has transpired and learn about this remarkable hidden world in small bits. However, this chapter's title, "The Boy Who Lived", in addition to baby Harry's scar, indicates he must have had some near-fatal experience. Judging by Vernon Dursley's behaviour, he may already know more about this hidden world than readers are initially led to believe.

The conversation between Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore in this chapter is designed to bring several points of information to the reader without explicitly stating them. One of the basic tenets of writing is "show, don't tell," which can make it difficult to illuminate the backstory necessary for understanding. In particular, we need to know of the existence of Voldemort and his downfall, and this is communicated to us by this conversation. We also need to know that there is a reason for Dumbledore's placing Harry with his relatives, and the dialogue is also tailored to inform us that there is a reason, but that it is not to be divulged just yet. Additionally, this conversation establishes the character of both McGonagall and Dumbledore and the relationship between them as director and trusted aide. The student could profit from studying this short interaction, and all it tells us.

Other commentators have noted that the author is very strong in what is called the "set-up and pay-off": creating a situation, then suddenly resolving it. Sometimes the set-up and pay-off are contained in a single chapter; other times, they span multiple chapters or even multiple books. This chapter is one example of a set-up (the list of strange things that occur near the Dursleys and the discovery that they are connected to the Dursley family) and pay-off (revelation of the reason for the events and the arrival of the infant Harry). Students are encouraged to examine the work for set-ups and pay-offs and determine how they enhance the "holding power" of the book and of the series as a whole. We will note that while the set-up and pay-off is a staple of writing for the film industry, the Harry Potter films are not as rich in this as the books; we believe this is because of the amount of material that must be elided from a novel to fit into two hours of film. Some of the less-important set-up events had to be dropped to keep the necessary story elements.

We will learn about the Wizarding world through Harry's eyes: in the entire series, there are only five chapters, including this one, that are written apart from his point of view. These chapters are at each book's beginning and provide us with information unknown to Harry. The other chapters are: Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. These are the only times readers are privy to information that Harry is not. Generally, we see events only when and how Harry experiences them.

Evidence indicates that Harry was born on 31 July 1980 and orphaned on 31 October 1981 — Halloween night — when he was one year and three months old. Critics point out a lack of "trick-or-treating" and similar festivities on Privet Drive that night, but it should be mentioned that we never actually see Privet Drive on the 31st; it is 1 November when Vernon Dursley leaves for work, and later that same night when Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid arrive.

Evidence also suggests that there is a day between when Harry's parents died and his arrival at Privet Drive; Harry is orphaned on 31 October 1981, and the story opens with Vernon Dursley leaving for work on the morning of 1 November. This has sparked speculation amongst readers; is there an accident of dates, or is the "missing day" a purposeful addition by the author? Many readers believed that the occurrences during that day would be important, possibly even pivotal, to events in the seventh book.

There is also a contradiction: 1 November 1981 was, in reality, a Sunday, and the book states that that day is a Tuesday. There are similar minor internal conflicts throughout the series. These errors or oversights do not detract from the sweep of the story, so while they may be mentioned, they are provided more as a curiosity than something for the readers to concern themselves with.

Readers should also note the TV news reports about flying owls being spotted during daylight. This is an early reference to the Wizarding World's owl postal system. Voldemort's death likely prompted a considerable flurry of wizard mail being carried by owls which Muggles noticed.

Questions edit

Study questions are meant to be left for each student to answer; please don't answer them here.

Review edit

  1. Why would the Dursleys consider being related to the Potters a "shameful secret"?
  2. Who are the robed people Mr. Dursley sees in the streets?
  3. What might a "Muggle" be?
  4. What exactly is the cat on Privet Drive?
  5. Who might "You-Know-Who" be? Why isn't this person referred to by a given name?

Further Study edit

  1. Why does Dumbledore believe the celebrations may be premature?
  2. How did Harry's parents die?
  3. Why is Harry left with the Dursleys rather than a Wizard family?
  4. Why does McGonagall seem concerned about Harry being raised by the Dursleys?

Greater Picture edit

Intermediate warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.

The framework echoed throughout the series is established here: the contrast between the magical Wizarding realm and the more mundane Muggle world. By contrasting these two worlds, Muggle and Magic, an ongoing theme is seen throughout the series - prejudice, suspicion, and intolerance of anything or anyone different from ourselves. Vernon and his wife, Petunia, represent the great divide between the magical and non-magical realms. Their constant fear, disdain, and hostility toward Harry's world shows how most Muggles would likely react if they knew wizards existed, though these two very different populations occasionally collide. And as will be seen shortly, these fears and prejudices also exist within wizard society. Albus Dumbledore is the antithesis of Vernon Dursley, and each man becomes the figurehead for his respective world. Whereas Dumbledore, a powerful Wizard, is eccentric, unpredictable, and colourful, the blustery Muggle, Vernon, is conventional, regimented, and bland.

The specific events resulting in Harry's being orphaned, rather than revealed in this chapter, are gradually uncovered throughout the series. They are included here by way of reference.

After partially hearing a prophecy connecting him to Harry Potter, a Dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, tipped off by an informer, located Harry's wizard parents, Lily and James Potter. Voldemort attacked the Potters' house in Godric's Hollow, a tiny village, killing James before Lily and Harry could escape. Lily was also killed, and her desperate pleas to spare her son's life were mercilessly ignored. Voldemort then cast a lethal curse at Harry that ricocheted off the toddler, fatally striking Voldemort instead.

During Harry's first year at Hogwarts, he encounters the disembodied Voldemort, who states that Harry's mother need not have died. Lily's sacrificial attempt to save Harry created an ancient and protective magic, causing the deadly curse to rebound off Harry onto Voldemort. This act formed an as-yet-unknown connection between attacker and victim and left a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on Harry's forehead. We will find out during the course of the books that this connection included a transfer of some of Voldemort's powers to Harry, such as the ability to speak Parseltongue, and additionally allowed Harry to feel Voldemort's emotions, know when Voldemort is close and, eventually, jump inside Voldemort's mind. The protection that Lily gave her son — which Albus Dumbledore later explains as her love for Harry — destroyed Voldemort's physical body and would have killed him completely had it not been for the Dark magic he previously used to splinter his soul into shards called Horcruxes. Voldemort's downfall renders Harry a celebrated figure in the Wizarding world, hailed as a hero and the only person known to have survived the Killing curse.

It is entirely possible that, due to the Fidelius charm that was meant to protect the Potters from Voldemort still being active, Hagrid would have been unable to find their house until one of those privy to the secret of the Potters' location arrived on the scene. We can safely assume that Sirius Black, one of James' closest friends, would have been one of them. Sirius does say in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that he "saw the bodies and the house's destruction", so he must have been let into the secret by Peter Pettigrew (who we will meet in the third book), probably at James Potter's direct request. It has been conjectured that Hagrid could not enter the house's remains to recover Harry, and it may have been Black who removed Harry from the wreckage and passed him to Hagrid to carry back to Little Whinging. Hagrid does say, however, in Chapter 4, that he took Harry from the debris, so we have to assume that either Hagrid was also privy to the secret, or else the Fidelius charm ends automatically when the secret it is designed to protect (in this case, James and Lily's whereabouts) is no longer operative. We could speculate as to which it is. Still, given that the house is apparently visible to all wizards by the seventh book, it is most likely that the charm expired either upon Lily's death, even though baby Harry was left alive, or upon the removal of Harry from the house.

There is no little bit of debate about the expression "house was almost destroyed" used in this chapter and the similar terms "destruction," "wreckage," "rubble," and "debris" used to describe the Potter house after the events of 31 October. We have since discovered that the destruction was confined to Harry's nursery, where Lily was killed, and Harry was sleeping. We will find out later that if they miss, curses cause destruction, but the Killing Curse does not affect objects, only people, and so does not leave wreckage if it hits its target. On the other two occasions when a killing curse rebounds, in the Forbidden Forest and the Great Hall during the series' final battle, there were no explosions or damage to anything outside Voldemort. It has been pointed out that these two cases were different; in the first, Voldemort did not actually get struck by the full force of the rebound, and in both cases, the wand Voldemort was using was not truly his own. Some weight is given to the theory that the destruction occurred when the spell rebounded by Voldemort's recollections of that event, where he remembers having to flee the "rubble" of the failed attack. Still, as his own spell had just killed him, it is possible that the rubble in question was purely in the remains of his own mind.

Before the seventh book's release, there was speculation that Voldemort's encounter with James could have damaged the house. Voldemort's memories of that event reveal that the "duel" with James did not damage anything in the place. Likewise, Voldemort's dispatching of Lily did not damage the house, so any damage that occurred must have been either when Voldemort tried to kill Harry or afterwards. Thus, following Voldemort's attack on Harry, a standing house (possibly with a large hole in the second story) and three dead bodies would remain. Added to this, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort regained his original wand, and we are led to conclude that someone had accompanied Voldemort, witnessed his downfall, recovered his wand (and perhaps concealed his body), and probably damaged the house. This may have been an act of revenge or frustration, but whoever did this left Harry unscathed, perhaps fearing that whatever felled Voldemort could also kill anyone attacking Harry. As it is Pettigrew who restores Voldemort's wand to him, it is a safe assumption that Pettigrew is the unknown third party. From Pettigrew's personality as revealed in later books, we can safely expect that, if he followed Voldemort into the house and found his corpse, he would be too scared to do anything except get out of there as quickly as possible, which would include blasting a hole through the wall to escape proximity to Harry. That Voldemort, in his memory of that night, as viewed in the seventh book, does not recall Pettigrew accompanying him is inconclusive. Voldemort generally pays little attention to his minions unless they have failed him or were merely in his way.

Hagrid, having seen the wreckage, and having taken Harry out of the house himself, indicates that Hagrid was trusted enough to be privy to the secret of the Potters' whereabouts. While this is never mentioned, Hagrid may be already "Keeper of the Keys and Grounds" at Hogwarts at that point. We will later discover that when Harry enters Hogwarts, Hagrid is about 60 years old; so, when James and Lily entered Hogwarts, he would have been about 40 and likely would have held that job already for several years — it is possible Dumbledore started him assisting the then incumbent in that position when he was expelled from Hogwarts, in his third year at age 14. Harry trusts Hagrid within the limits of his understanding of Hagrid's abilities; it is not a great stretch to believe that James trusted him as much.

In passing, it is mentioned that Dumbledore has a peculiar watch, which shows planets and a couple of hands, and retrieves some information from it, though the reader is never informed of what or how. It will turn out that, contrary to what a beginning reader might have suspected, this information is of no particular relevance to the plot, but to include such unimportant details from behind the surface is rather effective in bringing the reader into the story's atmosphere. (The famous "Cats of the Queen Beruthiel" of Tolkien fame come to mind.) Coincidentally, the description of this watch closely resembles the watch of Master Hora from Momo by Michael Ende (a novel which, coincidentally, features so-called "Grey Gentlemen" who suck meaningful life out of humankind, and a man referred to by his enemies as "the So-called", after which his name is implied but not said out of fear), so it may well be a nod by the author to her colleague. In Ende's book, this watch is used to inquire about the rare "star hours" (German expression for "great moments").

Also of note: The flying motorbike Hagrid arrives on actually belongs to Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, who was falsely implicated in and later imprisoned for the Potters', Peter Pettigrew's, and twelve Muggle bystanders' deaths. Though mentioned here, Sirius will remain no more than a name until his appearance in book 3.

Connections edit

One of the characteristics of this series of books that makes it interesting is the connections throughout the series; seemingly insignificant characters or objects appearing in one book that are then referred to in another. These indicate that the entire seven-book arc had been largely planned out before the pen first hit the paper. In the interests of highlighting these areas where connections are made throughout the story arc, many chapters will contain a Connections section like this one, in which those characters and items that connect from earlier books to later books or within the same book can be detailed.

This first chapter of the story, of course, sets up the entire story arc, with its mentions of the evil Voldemort, our hero Harry who survived his attack, his relatives, the Dursleys, and the Wizarding World. However, the following specific items, which reappear later in our story, should be specifically mentioned: