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The Tragedy of Petunia Dursley


The Tragedy of Petunia Dursley

I’ve just finished my third reading of OP. The Dursleys interest me in a way that I can’t fathom, but I feel the need to explain Petunia Dursley.

OP opens our minds and Harry’s to the idea that Petunia had had more contact with, and understanding of, the wizarding world then she had hitherto pretended. From the small glimpse we are given, I feel that a quite different Petunia emerges.

I think it probable that Petunia Evans was very jealous of her [younger] sister. Whilst Petunia was “horse-faced and bony” (CS1), Lily “had thick, dark red hair that fell to her shoulders, and startling green almond-shaped eyes” (OP28). Petunia, I suspect was always a conformist, and Lily, well Lily turned out to be a witch.

I’ve read suggestions that Petunia went to Hogwarts and was expelled; I think it’s unlikely. The way Petunia talked about Lily in PS5: “My dratted sister being what she was? …disappeared off to that – that – school – …I was the only one who saw her for what she was – a freak!” That really gives little wriggle room for suggesting that Petunia went to Hogwarts but wasn’t good enough.

I do think though that Petunia never felt good enough for her parents and in her knowledge that she could never be like Lily, she came to reject everything that Lily ever stood for. If Lily stood out in a crowd and could perform the unexplainable, then everything Petunia would have to do, would be normal, and explainable. However, somewhere along the lines, things must have gone badly wrong. She must have lost her parents at a relatively young age—or certainly when Lily was young as they appear to have been dead before Lily was murdered. Petunia’s reaction to Harry’s Dementor Kiss explanation in OP suggests an understanding of it far greater than overhearing a conversation twenty years previously. I would suggest that she has perhaps had more interaction with the wizarding world than she cares to acknowledge.

It is possible that Petunia’s rejection of Lily could be because they had lost their parents as a result of Lily’s position in the Wizarding World. Lily and James defied Voldemort three times before they were murdered. Lily’s parents might not have been so lucky. Petunia might therefore have lost the parents who she felt always favoured Lily because of Lily. Grounds for bitterness indeed.

I can imagine that Petunia would then shut herself off from and hate everything involving Lily. Her marriage to Vernon would cement her attachment to the world of mundaneness that she so craved. Anything that stood out was naturally anathema to Vernon, so a relationship with him would not only be the refuge that Petunia felt she needed, but it would also fuel the feelings of bitterness and estrangement towards Lily.

I think two things served to destroy Petunia’s refuge, the second being Harry’s arrival on her doorstep. Petunia took Harry “grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly” (OP37). However, this does not seem to be the action of an aunt acting only from her desire to save her nephew’s life or be seen to do the right thing. I think Dumbledore rules this out by his howler as “she might need reminding of the pact she had sealed by taking you. [He] suspected the Dementor attack might have awoken her to the dangers of having you as a surrogate son” (OP37). No, this pact means that Petunia gained something in return for taking Harry in, to counteract the first assault on her non-magical refuge.

If Petunia craved respectability and normality above all else, then I would suspect that the only thing important enough for her to take in her despised nephew, was to stop something that was a threat to that way of life. I believe that either Petunia or Dudley had shown some sign of magical power, and Petunia’s pact with Dumbledore was to prevent it from being taken any further.

I have chosen to think that it was Dudley who at a young age had shown some magical prowess; Petunia’s reaction to it was Dudley’s worst memory. What would be worse for Petunia than her own beloved son showing signs of the very thing that she despises most? Petunia dealt with this “problem” by smothering Dudley, in an effort to protect him from himself. Perhaps the pact with Dumbledore was to stop Dudley getting a Hogwarts letter. If Petunia then threw Harry out, Dumbledore would make Dudley aware of his magical inheritance. Thus, Petunia deals with Harry’s magical abilities by trying to squash them out, without success, but by pampering her son, she proves successful.

Petunia’s tragedy is of course, that by failing to cope with the abilities of her sister, nephew, or son, she has condemned herself to an existence where she can never relax, lest she be found out. She lives in a cocoon of bitterness and resentment against family that she can’t stand but from whom she cannot escape. Petunia’s tragedy is Harry’s tragedy and Dudley’s. Whilst it is possible to explain her behaviour, there can be no justification in the abuse which she meted out to Harry and that which she failed to prevent against him. Dudley is also a victim, although not one it’s possible to have much sympathy for, bully that he is.

Petunia’s tragedy is unlikely to stop at the end of OP, and I now wait to see how her relationship with Harry will develop. Can Petunia learn to accept Harry yet keep the props she has needed to maintain her small world? Would she lose Vernon and her aura of respectability that she has so craved? She has tough choices ahead, but for Harry’s sake and hers, I hope that they can come to accept each other.

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