"Brazil, here I come ... Thanksss, amigo"
-- the boa constrictor, on the way out the door
We are given glances at what Harry’s life has been like for the past ten years. The Dursleys celebrate Dudley’s eleventh birthday with a trip to the zoo. The day goes awry when Harry inadvertently performs magic and releases a boa constrictor from its enclosure.
Calendar and Dates
The entire action of this chapter takes place on Dudley's eleventh birthday, which is Saturday, 23 June, 1991.
Interesting facts and notes
The zoo they visit is not in London (since it is stated in PS5 that Harry had never been to London before). The zoo they most likely went to is Chessington World Of Adventure theme park in Surrey which is home to a family of gorillas and also has a reptile house. Of course, Chessington is also a theme park and it seems odd that this fact wasn't mentioned and that if Dudley were bored after a morning of looking at the animals his mother and father didn't take him on the rides instead. There are other zoos in the Surrey area, but none of these have both a reptile house and gorillas. So Chessington is must be.
Harry does "wandless" magic here, the same sort of magic that he does to Aunt Marge in PA2. This is magic that comes from strong emotion and is unfocused and random in nature. He's also doing "non-verbal" spellcasting, which he won't learn how to do at Hogwarts until his sixth year.
Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-coloured bobble hats
According to JKR, this description "would also apply to the pictures of my early years" (JKR).
Detail from illustration by Jim Kay for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Illustrated Edition
He rolled onto his back and tried to remember the dream he had been having. It had been a good one. There had been a flying motorcycle in it. He had a funny feeling he'd had the same dream before.
Harry's dreams are often portents of things to come or visions of things happening elsewhere. Here his dream recalls his travels with Hagrid after his parents' deaths, riding on Sirius Black's flying motorcycle. His dream of Voldemort murdering Frank Bryce wakes him up in GF2. In that case, he was watching events as they actually happened.
Harry was used to spiders, because the cupboard under the stairs was full of them...
Good thing, too. A year and a half from now he's going to be facing a gigantic spider in the form of the acromantula named Aragog in the depths of the Forest.
Uncle Vernon chuckled. "Little tyke wants his money's worth, just like his father. 'Atta boy, Dudley!" He ruffled Dudley's hair.
In the last chapter we noted that Uncle Vernon is being castigated for being a prejudiced, boorish, boring idiot, not simply for being a Muggle. Here we see another example of his folly, as he encourages his son to be just as boorish and awful as he is.
...Harry and Uncle Vernon watched Dudley unwrap the racing bike, a cine-camera...
The cine-camera (U.S.: video camera) is important, because it provides us with the clue to when Dudley's birthday falls, as we shall see in PS3.
Every year, Harry was left behind with Mrs. Figg, a mad old lady who lived two streets away. Harry hated it there.
Arabella Figg, as Harry learns a few years from now, is a Squib and a member of the Order of the Phoenix, and isn't nearly as bad as she has to pretend to be (OP2). Perhaps, back when in 1981, she was stationed there a couple of streets away from Privet Drive to help guard Harry as he grew up, although there is no canon which specifically states this. It's possible that she just happened to live there all along.
The whole house smelled of cabbage
Interestingly enough, some potions are described as having the smell of cabbage, Polyjuice Potion being a particularly intriguing example. In GF7, Harry camped in a tent which was loaned to the Weasleys by an old warlock named Perkins (Arthur's colleague in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office). The tent smelled to Harry just like Mrs. Figg's house.
Tibbles, Snowy, Mr. Paws, and Tufty
Mrs. Figg's cats. As it turns out, she broke her leg tripping over one of these cats, and she was a bit cooler toward them than usual afterwards. It is certainly possible that these four are really Kneazles and that they are around to keep an eye on the Dursleys' house unobtrusively. Once Dumbledore recalled the Order of the Phoenix four years later, Mr. Tibbles was definitely serving in that capacity.
"We could phone Marge," Uncle Vernon suggested.
"Don't be silly, Vernon, she hates the boy."
Good old Aunt Marge, Uncle Vernon's sister, does indeed hate Harry. We meet her in PA2, walking in with a bulldog under her arm. According to PA2,Marge last came for a visit for Dudley's birthday "the year before Harry started at Hogwarts", and her bulldog, Ripper, chased Harry up a tree. During Harry's first Occlumency lesson years later, this was clarified to indicate that Dudley's previous birthday - the year before the summer Harry started Hogwarts, back when Harry was nine - was the year in question (OP24). Since a present from Aunt Marge is specially mentioned among those lying on the table at breakfast, she must have sent it rather than bringing it personally this year.
"And come back and find the house in ruins?" she snarled.
Aunt Petunia is no doubt remembering the death of Harry's parents in Godric's Hollow, ten years before, although Harry doesn't realize this. It would seem that she blames Harry for the fact that the house was destroyed, or possibly she simply blames magic in general. A little while later, Uncle Vernon suggests that Harry can't be trusted to remain alone in the new car, presumably because he'd harm it in some way.
How does Aunt Petunia know the details of Lily's death? Undoubtedly she learned this in correspondence with Dumbledore, which we learn in OP has been going on for some time.
Piers was a scrawny boy with a face like a rat. He was usually the one who held people's arms behind their backs while Dudley hit them.
Piers Polkiss is a Muggle version of Peter Pettigrew: a small tag-along kid who follows whomever seems to have power. Rowling uses the same alliteration in the names. He is even described as looking like a rat.
Once, Aunt Petunia, tired of Harry coming back from the barbers looking as though he hadn't been at all, had taken a pair of kitchen scissors and cut his hair so short he was almost bald except for his bangs, which she left "to hide that horrible scar."
Next morning, however, he had gotten up to find his hair exactly as it had been before Aunt Petunia had sheared it off.
This could have been a Hair-Thickening Charm, cast unconsciously by Harry in his worry about facing school the next day.
...the smaller it seemed to become, until finally it might have fitted a hand puppet, but certainly wouldn't fit Harry.
On the other hand, he'd gotten into terrible trouble for being found on the roof of the school kitchens. Dudley's gang had been chasing him as usual when, as much to Harry's surprise as anyone else's, there he was sitting on the chimney.
This one's interesting, since it could have been one of two spells. Since Harry was on the ground one minute and the chimney the next, it sounds as though he must have Apparated, something he can't even get a license to do until he's 17. On the other hand, he thinks the wind might have caught him in mid-jump, so perhaps he only levitated himself.
Harry's experiences with Apparition lessons during his sixth year appear to settle the question in favour of Levitation (see HBP18). Apparition is a very uncomfortable process if you're not used to the sensation.
Dudley and Harry each get a treat at the zoo
Dudley gets a Knickerbocker Glory, a layered ice cream dessert in a tall conical glass bowl. Think of it as a very large, very elaborate strawberry sundae. Harry gets a lemon ice (a simple popsicle to Americans).
The snake suddenly opened its beady eyes.
JKR, of course, has lulled the reader into a false sense of security. We understand that Harry's been doing magic, so his experience with the snake looks like just another amusing bit - nothing more. He, and we, won't learn how very unusual it is to be a Parselmouth until after his next encounter with a serpent, at the Duelling Club in his second year.
...the glass front of the boa constrictor's tank had vanished.
Harry won't learn how to consciously perform Vanishing Spells on animals until his fifth year at Hogwarts, although McGonagall may have started earlier on inanimate objects like the glass here.
When he had been younger, Harry had dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take him away, but it had never happened; the Dursleys were his only family.
In a way, his dream is to come true beyond his wildest hopes on his eleventh birthday, and could be considered to foretell the future; see analysis for more on Harry's dreams. The fact that he has no other close blood relatives on Lily's side sealed Harry's fate as the Dursleys' ward, although he's not to learn the real reasons behind that decision for another 5 years.
A tiny man in a violet top hat had bowed to him once while out shopping...
This was Dedalus Diggle; Harry will be properly introduced to him in the Leaky Cauldron a little later on.
A wild-looking old woman dressed all in green had waved merrily at him once on a bus.
Since we can identify Diggle, it's fun to try to do the same with the other magical folk Harry encounters at this point in his life. It seems probable that when Harry goes out, he and his Aunt are shadowed by members of the Order, so we'll look to their ranks for possible matches.
"Dressed all in green" sounds like Emmeline Vance of the Order of the Phoenix, who favors an emerald shawl, but she looks stately, not wild.
A bald man in a very long purple coat had actually shaken his hand in the street the other day and then walked away without a word.
This might have been Kingsley Shacklebolt, although we don't know enough about how Kingsley dresses or what this particular bald man looked like to tell for sure.
Exceptional character moments
We learn that the one form of exercise Dudley likes is to punch people, something that will help him defeat his weight problem later on.
The Dursleys have punished Harry by locking him in his cupboard in the dark more than once: for the hair-thickening incident, the school roof incident, and the boa constrictor, to name three. The way they treat him is at best neglect: they almost never call him by his name, talk about him as though he weren't a person with feelings, and on and on.
About the one virtue they possess in that area - and a very minor, negative sort of virtue it is - is that they didn't try to pretend they loved him while treating him that way; he's not been messed up by being told he's loved when he knows he's not.
Harry has no 'proper family', as he himself puts it later, and has no friends because nobody cares enough about him to brave Dudley's gang. He's had to deal with his own problems all his life, because he had nobody else he could trust.
Aunt Petunia often said that Dudley looked like a baby angel--Harry often said that Dudley looked like a pig in a wig.
Dudley thought for a moment. It looked like hard work.
Dudley began to cry loudly. In fact, he wasn't really crying--it had been years since he'd really cried--but he knew that if he screwed up his face and wailed, his mother would give him anything he wanted.