"You've forgotten the magic word."
-- Harry Potter
We are reminded of the happenings during Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, Uncle Vernon has a very important dinner guest coming, dinner plans are made, and Harry’s birthday is forgotten again.
Calendar and Dates
The action of this chapter takes place on 31 July, 1992. We know that July 31, 1991 was a Tuesday in Harry's world, so we can assume that the same date a year later would be a Wednesday. Oh, I know, assuming anything of this kind is really pointless, but it's fun.
Interesting facts and notes
The chapter title is interesting, since Harry later observes in PA2 that Marjorie Dursley's visit - beginning on his thirteenth birthday - is "the worst birthday present the Dursleys had ever given him, including that pair of Uncle Vernon's old socks.".
But here Harry is actually far more miserable than during Marge's visit - because he is doubting whether his best friends really care for him, thanks to their lack of communication over the summer. Only with Dobby's confession in the next chapter does he learn that things are not what they seem.
The first part of this chapter is the obligatory synopsis of the story thus far. Rowling does this in books three and four as well, but gives it up with book five.
Uncle Vernon exchanged dark glances with his wife, Petunia.
We learn much later in the series that by this point, Petunia has had some contact with Dumbledore, so Vernon's dark glance here might signify a bit more than meets the eye: that she has first-hand knowledge of owl post.
He missed...his classes (though perhaps not Snape, the Potions master)...
Oh, how things will have changed by the time Harry is fifteen. The appalling behavior of the Potions master over the years-- in the Shrieking Shack, to Hermione during the tooth-growing incident, to Harry in every class, etc.-- has taken its toll. By the fifth book, Harry loathes Snape with a passion.
At the age of one year old, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest Dark sorcerer of all time, Lord Voldemort, whose name most witches and wizards still feared to speak.
Upon re-reading, note that JKR is giving the reader every chance to pick up on Dobby's 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named' clue later on.
...exactly a year ago, Hogwarts had written to Harry...
Although this phrase makes it sound as if the Hogwarts letter comes to new students precisely on their eleventh birthday, this isn't the case. In fact, McGonagall's first letter arrived in Privet Drive almost a week before Harry's birthday the year before. Some fans have suggested that, since the letter arrived on Harry's birthday, it must do so for other children.
For example, Hermione wasn't admitted to Hogwarts until she was eleven, and since her birthday is on September 19, she had to wait almost an entire year to go to Hogwarts. (This might explain why she had enough time to read all her school textbooks in advance!) Perhaps letters always go out in the week preceding the child's birthday.
The Dursleys hadn't even remembered that today happened to be Harry's twelfth birthday.
That is, "today" is 31 July, 1992, determining the year from that given by CS8, "The Deathday Party". Consulting an actual 1992 calendar, this was a Friday. Of course, Rowling's version of 1992 might very well not match up exactly to the "real" version.
We learn later in this chapter that Dudley, at least, has remembered that it's Harry's birthday, but only to torment Harry for not having received any acknowledgement of the occasion by any friends from school.
It would be interesting to know how old Harry was before he himself learned when his birthday was.
"In the lounge ..."
Readers in the US might find this a bit strange, since they think of a "lounge" as being a public area of a restaurant or hotel where alcohol is served. Of course, the Dursleys don't operate a tavern out of their home. The lounge refers to the living room.
It is interesting that the Dursleys can't manage to be sociable and friendly on their own -- they have to fake it. But what can you expect from a man like Vernon, whose school taught their pupils to hit people with knobbly sticks?
... Mr and Mrs Mason ...
This rich builder has a most appropriate name. A mason is person who builds with stone or brick.
Countless times, Harry had been on the point of unlocking Hedwig's cage by magic...
Perhaps by using Alohomora? Although it never says so, it makes sense that Hermione would have taught this handy little charm to Ron and Harry. In the next chapter, however, we learn that Fred and George favor the tried and true Muggle skill of picking the lock. Among other things, it has the advantage of not triggering a warning owl post from Mafalda Hopkirk. There is a problem with this passage, however. Since Harry's wand is locked away in the cupboard under the stairs, how was he planning to do this magic anyway?
...but even now, weeks later, Harry kept waking in the night, drenched in cold sweat, wondering where Voldemort was now, remembering his livid face, his wide, mad eyes -
Nice touch of characterization. Even though Harry won that encounter, he's still having nightmares about it. Assuming that they're just nightmares, of course.
"Jiggery pokery!" said Harry in a fierce voice.
This not the Latin used in most spell incantations in the Wizarding world, it's English; the expression means 'deceitful or dishonest dealing; trickery' (NSOED).
As neither Dudley nor the hedge was in any way hurt, Aunt Petunia knew he hadn't really done magic, but he still had to duck as she aimed a heavy blow at his head with the soapy frying pan. Then she gave him work to do, with the promise that he wouldn't eat again until he'd finished.
This is one of the more physically abusive moments in the Dursley household, and noteworthy that it's Petunia on the inflicting end rather than her husband or her son. Generally Vernon swells up and looks intimidating, while Dudley of course has a taste for beating people up.
The subsequent list of outdoor chores that this work consisted of is rather impressive, and deliberately contrasted with Petunia's treatment of Dudley, who is looking on while lolling around eating ice cream. Another extreme contrast is then provided when (after describing Petunia's elaborate pudding and roast pork being cooked for dinner with the Masons), we learn what Harry's dinner consisted of: "two slices of bread and a lump of cheese", accompanied by Petunia nagging Harry to eat quickly.
Exceptional character moments
Harry is so homesick for Hogwarts that it's almost a physical pain, but he misses his best friends even more. Now that he's had a taste of friendship, he's conscious of feeling lonelier than ever before, and the lack of communication with his friends has him feeling very insecure.
The Dursleys' unequal treatment of Dudley and Harry - the 'pampered little prince' treatment versus that of 'a dog that had rolled in something smelly' is highlighted. Although Harry now sleeps in a bedroom rather than a cupboard, we're being put on notice that he's still not being cared for properly. He has to spend the evening of his birthday pretending not to exist, after a long day's punishment of fairly heavy chores on inadequate food.
The Dursleys have locked up all of Harry's school things in the cupboard under the stairs, and (worse) padlocked Hedwig's cage. In subsequent years, these restrictions will loosen gradually (and Harry will learn about lock-picking from the Weasley twins).
The Dursleys are completely unashamed in laying their plans to suck up to the Masons as potential clients of Grunnings.
Harry indulges in some serious yanking of Dudley's chain, mostly by threatening to work magic (since Dudley doesn't yet know about the age restriction on magic use). Harry's also got an impressive sarcastic streak.
"Do I look stupid?" snarled Uncle Vernon, a bit of fried egg dangling from his bushy mustache.
No cards, no presents, and he would be spending the evening pretending not to exist.
"I know what day it is," Dudley repeated, coming right up to him.
"Well done," said Harry. "So you've finally learned the days of the week."