When an author creates characters that provoke rampant and sometimes heated discussion over motivations and histories, I’d warrant that the author has officially hit a Senior Echelon. When there is a magical, fantasy element to said fictional world, and the author has left things unsaid, then the theorists come out in droves, and the possibilities are exponential. Within today’s blogospherical domination of information and spouted opinion, a reader with a question can search on just about any small tidbit and find scores of written op ed. Take Petunia Dursley, for instance.
Exactly. If you haven’t read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you don’t know Diddykins (reference intended) about Aunt Petunia. And if you have only seen the movies, you know merely the one-dimensional caricature of this character. Fiona Shaw‘s sharp portrayal of Petunia in the movies notwithstanding, vital clues are conspicuously missing about who she is and what she knows. However, not a single one of these books-only clues provide outright explanation for Petunia’s behavior, and to what extent magic —whether conjured or simply extant— has to do with her actions, as opposed to her being any other resentful, repressed, repugnant human character. Like other top-notch fiction authors, J.K. Rowling is far too good of a storyteller to give it all away. Instead, she weaves in just enough information to bust wide open the assumption of who Petunia is, but does not provide nearly enough for readers to conclusively label her.
If you plan to read the books but haven’t, by Merlin’s Beard, stop here—there are spoilers moving forward.
If you have read the books, you likely know the burning question and the inevitable subsequent bigger questions surrounding Petunia Dursley. First, what was the underlying message in the howler addressed to her and received in Chapter 2 of The Order of the Phoenix? It contained all of four words:
“Remember my last, Petunia.“
There was undeniably more to the message, though its read-between-the-lines meaning was known only to sender and recipient, and Rowling doesn’t elucidate within her narrative. It takes both Harry and readers by complete surprise. But Petunia herself is not surprised; she knows instantly who sent it and what it means. And whatever the meaning, she accepts it with painful, and immediate defeat.
While there is much speculation about this magical missive, a few things are known. We learn only a few paragraphs before that Petunia knows more about the magical world than she had ever let on, and we learn by the end of this book that it was Dumbledore who sent her the emphatic warning. Furthermore, Herself (J.K. Rowling) confirmed via interview that a) the “last” refers to the last letter Dumbledore wrote to Petunia — the one when he left Harry on her doorstep, and b) stated rather clearly that there was more to Petunia than we yet knew. It is two tomes and several years later (for those who read the books in real time) before we learn that the howler is actually Dumbledore’s third (that we know of) letter to Petunia.
Do a search for “Petunia Howler last” and it will yield seemingly disproportionately significant search results. What did Dumbledore mean? Was Petunia a witch? How did she know where the Dementors work? etc, etc. Not surprisingly, the commentaries from 2003 are very different from those written after the release of Book Seven. Regardless, the discussion inevitably leads to a bigger question for which Rowling has never adequately answered: Why does Petunia keep providing a home for Harry?
Witness the genius of Rowling’s overarching plotting across seven books and dozens of characters and the torrent of devotion that aforementioned search yields. The discussion is extensive, seemingly out of proportion to the fact that while Petunia is by rights an important character, the part is comparatively small. It is interesting, however, that the great bulk of the discussion centers around Petunia’s feelings. Many believe, apparently, that Petunia provides Harry a roof out of love. I disagree.
It is easy enough to ascertain why Petunia takes baby Harry in — she has to. Find your sister’s orphaned toddler on your doorstep with a note from an acknowledged authority figure stating that his life is in danger and you are his only hope for survival… Your feelings of hatred and resentment for the child’s mother notwithstanding, there is little choice — especially for someone who cares quite significantly about what the neighbors think.
What is less clear is why over the ensuing 15+ years she continues to provide him a home when she is abjectly horrid to him, either directly, through neglect, or in never once rising to his defense against her even more odious husband who clearly would oust him if druthers be had. However repressed she might be, and whatever wasn’t said at the end of Chapter Three in The Deathly Hallows as Petunia exits stage left, it’s not enough to reach any conclusion that involves feelings of love. Argue with me six ways ’til Sunday on this, I don’t buy it. There is no shred of evidence anywhere in any of the seven books to indicate that Petunia loved her nephew, even subconsciously.
I have a different, much more magical theory that hinges neither upon materteral love nor depth of character. For as awkwardly wrenching as that as-touching-as-Petunia-could-be line was in the deleted scenes from the seventh movie, it was invented for the screen; it never appeared in the book. She does not keep Harry because she loves him or out of any possible active or archived remnant of love for her sister (highly unlikely, for anything resembling even a remnant of sororial love was squelched in the scene at King’s Cross we see in Snape’s memories). Petunia’s motivation for keeping Harry is entirely self-serving. And the irony is that she keeps Harry because of the very thing she despises and resents more than anything in her world: magic. For to Petunia, magic stood in stark antithesis to the one thing that she had succeeded in controlling about her life: her orderly and utterly normal home.
And yet Petunia finds herself in the wrenching position of needing the protective magic that shielded Harry for herself, her husband, and her son. This magic that had power so long as he had a home with her, his only living blood-relative. What Harry says to Vernon in the final hour of this protective magic that binds them together — this must have been clearly explained in the initial letter from Dumbledore to Petunia when Harry was left on their doorstep:
Once I’m seventeen, the protective charm that keeps me safe will break, and that exposes you as well as me. The Order is sure Voldemort will target you, whether to torture you to try and find out where I am, or because he thinks by holding you hostage I’d come and try to rescue you. (Rowling, J.K. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”)
Somehow, in the hours that followed her sister’s murder and the subsequent arrival of the resented nephew, Petunia was made aware that she and her normal-to-the-bone family were now in mortal peril, and the only thing that would save her would be for her to shelter this magical boy and accept all the magic that would come with him. Whether it was clear to her at the outset that her nephew would be a daily corporal reminder of her biggest failures is irrelevant. But over the years her nephew would have had to become an agonizing representation of these failures: her failure to compare to her sister in her parents’ eyes, her failure to “save” Lily by convincing her not to practice magic, and —likely cutting deeper to the bone than anything else— her own humiliating failure to appeal to Dumbledore in the matter of her own acceptance to Hogwarts, and then being exposed in the attempt.
It was Petunia’s very real understanding of the threat on her family that bolstered her override of her husband’s expulsion of her nephew following the Dementor attack in Little Whinging. Dumbledore’s howler was merely a smoking reminder that she herself had much to lose. For as it was Lily’s sacrifice that saved Harry’s life, it was the shelter under Lily’s blood (by way of Petunia) that kept Harry protected through his seventeenth birthday. However, this did not provide any protection to Petunia (as Lily certainly did not die to save Petunia’s life), except by way of binding aunt to nephew through her provision of a home during Harry’s minority. Because of the magical threat and the magical protection, Petunia had no choice but to keep Harry. Not to do so was to expose her precious son and normal husband to the worst of the magical world — a world which she could outwardly deny with every breath, but know with certainty of its positioned threat. That it also would have exposed her nephew had no bearing.
Petunia Dursley’s motivation was self-preservational. And it was born from her lonely terror of the looming certainty of the darkest magic ever to have threatened a mother and wife. Remove this magic from the story, however, and nothing drives her to keep Harry in her home past the few hours to decide where else to place him.
And another thought, because even though I just proved my point… Petunia’s relationship with Harry, compared to Snape’s… And further revelations of her actions.
Hate is not so different from love in terms of passion-driven actions. Petunia was not indifferent to Harry; she hated him. Thus, Petunia’s continued “caring” for Harry could be viewed (in addition to it being self-preservational, see above, QED) as a dutiful extension of her complicated negative emotions towards her sister (portrayed through all eight movies by Geraldine Somerville, right). But such a conclusion has virtually no corroborating evidence.
Nevertheless, such actions might seem similar to Snape’s “caring” for Harry insofar as neither action actually has anything to do with Harry himself, except by extention. In fact, Harry himself corporally represents Snape’s nemesis (Harry’s father), a humiliating thorn that were it not for Harry’s existence would subside to dormancy, just as Petunia may have been able to compartmentalize her agony over twice losing her sister to magic had Harry not been a constant reminder of that incredibly painful loss. Each adult may have been able to better cope with his or her respective grief had Harry not been around. (Though Petunia does seem to thrive on being negative, therefore continuing to despise Harry allowed Petunia to continue to actively hate her sister, and therefore avoid the aforementioned coping.)
Harry just being Harry makes Snape’s lip curl; it is neither an act nor an exaggeration. And Harry just being Harry makes Petunia recoil as if he were kitchen grime. Yet Petunia nixes her husband’s expulsion of Harry because she understands that keeping Harry is what will continue to save her family from a truly horrible fate, and Snape risks everything to continue to protect Harry —and is in Harry’s later words, “the bravest man I ever knew”— because of his undying love for Lily (which changed him on a fundamental level, as evidenced by his patronus), and his utterly wrenching guilt for his self-perceived role in her death. Yet for each of these antagonists, Harry is almost incidental. Neither adult loves this child, yet while each provides protection at great personal cost, it is for wholly selfish reasons.
I am solidly Team Snape. I forgive him everything (whether this is due to select revelations in Chapter 33 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or a result of my very real crush on Alan Rickman in a black wig, I am not objective enough to speculate). But though Snape’s protection is no more a result of love for Harry than Petunia’s, and each is driven by self-serving reasons and devotions for people other than Harry, her motivation is entirely dependent upon maintaining a spell that would protect her family. Snape’s motivation has little concern for his own well-being, and is driven to protect the son of the love of his life. That this boy is threatened by a wizard is not material to Snape’s actions, and the relationship of these characters could be transferred into any other story and onto other non-magical characters in a non-magical setting.
Snape’s motivation is ultimately the human frailty of devotion-once-removed of an unrequited and tragic love coming at him from one side, and that of being a great man’s loyal lieutenant in an impossibly dangerous, lose-lose position pummeling him from the other. And with this driving his trajectory, he becomes a martyed anti-hero, aiding Lily’s son for Lily, not for the boy, and with complete disregard for himself — and doing so steadfastly until the end, even afterwards if you consider the information imparted through the pensieve.
But Petunia… she is merely afraid, bitter, mean, selfish, and self-serving. She is never redeemed. Nor should she be.