"Daddy's gone mad, hasn't he?"
-- Dudley Dursley
Dudley gets his new uniform and a letter arrives for Harry which Uncle Vernon destroys, prompting a veritable deluge of letters over the next few days. Uncle Vernon then attempts to outrun the delivery of the letters and eventually takes his family to an abandoned hut on an island in the ocean.
Calendar and Dates
Harry stays with Mrs Figg when Petunia takes Dudley out to get his new Smeltings school uniform.
Harry's new school "uniform" is soaking in a vat of evil-smelling dye at Breakfast. However, the first letter arrives and everything begins to change in Harry's life. For starters, he's moved to Dudley's second bedroom.
Another letter arrives, but Vernon takes it. Harry resolves to get up early the next day and meet the postman.
Harry gets up at six and sneaks downstairs, only to discover Uncle Vernon waiting for him in the hall. More letters arrive.
Twelve letters arrive for Harry.
Twenty-four letters arrive inside of the eggs delivered by the milkman.
Uncle Vernon loses it when hundreds of letters come flying on through the fireplace; he packs up the family and drives around, eventually stopping for the night in Cokeworth.
Uncle Vernon drives around Britain looking for a good place to hide, settles on the hut on the rock.
Midnight: Hagrid knocks on the door of the hut on the rock.
Interesting facts and notes
The severe stress Vernon suffers at the onslaught of the Hogwarts letters via owl post probably has a lot to do with his extremely hostile reaction to the various owls who arrive at number four on the night of the Dementor attack four years later.
By the time he was let out of his cupboard again, the summer holidays had started...
Dudley's birthday, as we are about to discover, is 23 June, so the school summer term was almost over anyway. We don't know the exact date when Harry was released, however, since the next date reference we're given is for "One day in July..." in paragraph six.
One day in July...
This day is the 23rd. We know this because we learn in a few more sentences that the next day--the 24th--is when the first letter arrives from Hogwarts for Harry. Since July 31 is a Tuesday, as we'll learn at the end of this chapter, we can count back and determine that "One day in July" is actually Monday, 23 July, 1991. Harry stays with Mrs Figg.
There was a horrible smell in the kitchen the next morning when Harry went in for breakfast.
It is now Tuesday, 24 July, 1991.
...a postcard from Uncle Vernon's sister Marge, who was vacationing on the Isle of Wight...
The Isle of Wight is located off the southern coast of England. It became a popular holiday resort during the reign of Queen Victoria, who was particularly fond of her home there, Osbourne House.
Harry saw a purple wax seal bearing a coat of arms; a lion, an eagle, a badger, and a snake surrounding a large letter H.
This is the Hogwarts crest, of course. The animals represent the four houses: the lion for Gryffindor, the badger for Hufflepuff, the eagle for Ravenclaw, and the snake for Slytherin. The crest appears in the center of this illustration by Riikka Jäntti:
"Marge's ill," he informed Aunt Petunia. "Ate a funny whelk. --."
A whelk is a type of marine mollusc with a spiral shell, usually eaten with vinegar. The flesh is usually scooped out with a pin, so it’s not the sort of thing a sophisticated lady would eat. This indicates that Marge is rather common in her tastes.
His face went from red to green faster than a set of traffic lights. And it didn't stop there. Within seconds it was the grayish white of old porridge.
This is the first example of one of Rowling's little writing quirks: people's faces changing color to indicate emotion.
"Er - yes, Harry - about this cupboard. Your aunt and I have been thinking...you're really getting a bit big for it...we think it might be nice if you moved into Dudley's second bedroom."
This is the first time any of the Dursleys have been shown addressing Harry by name. The charitable view here would be that the Dursleys, realizing that somebody out there is keeping an eye on Harry, have decided to treat Harry a little better in their own interests. (This would seem to be supported by Harry's observation that Vernon seems to be trying to be nice to him at breakfast the next morning.) However, it seems likely that they were trying (foolishly) to prevent delivery of further Hogwarts letters by invalidating the address.
The month-old cine-camera...
This phrase gives us the information we need to pinpoint Dudley's birthdate.
The camera was given to Dudley on his birthday. That was, according to this phrase, a month ago. We can safely assume that this is not intended to be read as literally one month exactly, but approximately one month. We know from the number of days between this reference and Harry's birthday, which we know to be Tuesday, 31 July, that the day Harry is moved into Dudley's second bedroom is Tuesday, 24 July.
Making the assumption that months in Harry Potter's world have the same number of days as months in the real world, we can work back approximately one month to find which Saturdays will qualify. The closest match, off by only a day, is Saturday 23 June.
This deduction, while completely logical, is not quite canon.
Next morning at breakfast, everyone was rather quiet.
It's the next day, so now it's Wednesday, 25 July, 1991. Note once again that while this day and date is inescapably canon, it does not match the actual day of the week on which July 25 fell in 1991. The calendars in Harry's reality just don't match those in ours.
The repaired alarm clock rang at six o'clock the next morning
So now it's Thursday, 26 July.
"Oh, these people's minds work in strange ways, Petunia, they're not like you and me..."
This statement by Vernon Dursley is true on many levels. For example, a wizard sees nothing unusual about a tent that is small on the outside but holds the equivalent of an entire cottage inside.
...trying to knock in a nail with the piece of fruitcake Aunt Petunia had just given him.
Of course, this could have been the proverbial Christmas fruitcake that never gets thrown out, and really does seem to be hard enough to do this.
On Friday, no less than twelve letters arrived for Harry...On Saturday, things began to get out of hand...On Sunday morning...
The days go by and the number of letters gets larger and larger. This is Friday, 27 July, Saturday, 28 July, and Sunday, 29. It's interesting to speculate who was actually doing all these odd spells...inserting letters into empty eggs, forcing them through boarded up windows, and the like. Are the letters themselves bewitched to try to get past barriers? Was this the work of McGonagall, having a bit of fun thwarting Vernon Dursley's feeble attempts to deny that magic exists? Was Dumbledore orchestrating this whole circus?
"That does it," said Uncle Vernon, trying to speak calmly but pulling great tufts out of his mustache at the same time.
Here's another of Rowling's writing quirks. Uncle Vernon pulls hair out of his mustache when he's upset. This would be incredibly painful, actually, and even the hair of a bushy mustache isn't very long, offering little to grip. Makes a nice visual, however, no matter how unlikely it is. Of course, Vernon's face can also change colors. Maybe he's got a bit of magic in him after all.
...his father had hit him round the head for holding them up...
One of the few examples of actual physical abuse from the Dursleys. Dudley is having a very difficult week. So is Vernon, for that matter.
...while he tried to pack his television, VCR, and computer in his sports bag...
When this phrase was written in the mid-1990s, all of these items would have been ludicrously large to pack into a car for a trip. However, technology is changing and future readers will be visualizing portable DVD players, smart phones, and handheld computers and wondering why Uncle Vernon was having such a problem with this.
Railview Hotel, Cokeworth
What a dismal sounding place this is! The name suggests that it overlooks nothing more interesting than a railway line and that it's located in a town that produces steel. Cokeworth, we learn a decade later on Pottermore, is the town where Petunia and Lily Evans -- and Severus Snape -- grew up (Drsly).
If it was Monday -- and you could usually count on Dudley to know the days of the week, because of television -- then tomorrow, Tuesday, was Harry's eleventh birthday.
It's now Monday, July 30, 1991. In the "real" 1991, July 30 was a Tuesday, so Harry's reality is a day different from ours at this point. If only it were so easy.
The incompatibility of the calendar in the books and those of real life is a lot greater than this. We discover here that Harry's birthday falls on a Tuesday. In chapter one we learned that Harry was delivered to the Dursleys on a Tuesday as well. If we count the days on the calendar between that Tuesday--November 1 of the year that Harry was 1 year old--and the day that he turns 11, it simply can't be another Tuesday. The number of days is not correct.
Rowling is making no effort to match any real calendar here. She has verified that the year is correct, but is simply not paying attention to the days and dates. That won't stop us from blathering on about it, of course. We're fans. That's what we do.
Of course, his birthdays were never exactly fun - last year, the Dursleys had given him a coat hanger and a pair of Uncle Vernon's old socks.
But the socks come in handy starting in Harry's third year, when he uses them to muffle his Sneakoscope, and in his fourth year when he uses them as an emergency Christmas present for Dobby (who loves any socks).
Exceptional character moments
The first Hogwarts letter is used to emphasize how very alone Harry is - that he has no friends and no other relatives; he never even gets junk mail.
Under very severe stress, Vernon pulls out tufts of his own mustache.
From the state of the books in what was once his 'second bedroom', it seems that Dudley doesn't like to read.
"They also carried knobbly sticks, used for hitting each other while the teachers weren't looking. This was supposed to be good training for later life."
"...he didn't belong to the library, so he'd never even got rude notes asking for books back."
"Oh, these people's minds work in strange ways, Petunia, they're not like you and me..."
"By nightfall Dudley was howling. He'd never had such a bad day in his life. He was hungry, he'd missed five television programs he'd wanted to see, and he'd never gone so long without blowing up an alien on his computer."