Wednesday, March 6, 2013


First Paragraph:By the time Harry arrived in the kitchen, the three Dursleys were already seated around the table. None of them looked up as he entered or sat down. Uncle Vernon’s large red face was hidden behind the morning’s Daily Mail, and Aunt Petunia was cutting a grapefruit into quarters, her lips pursed over her horselike teeth.

It's Ninja Book Club time once again and this week we're discussing Chapter 3 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and only chapter 3. If it's chapter 4 you want, come back next week:) 

You may remember I didn't care for Chapter 2. The Harry Potter books are formulaic (so's this blog) and Chapter 2 was my least favorite part of the formula: catching the reader up on what happened in the previous books. Because this is a Harry Potter book, the reader knows we'll enjoy the reunion of Harry with his friends, then the start of the school year at Hogwarts, followed by a Christmas chapter, followed by the action-packed conclusion coincidentally coinciding with the end of term. 

You suppose the year after book 7, right around the end of spring and the start of summer, Harry and Ron were feeling tense? Maybe they called each other:

Ron: Allo, Harry! Know of any evil wizards trying to kill us?

Harry: Haven't heard of any, Ron. So far as I can tell, we're in the clear.

Ron: Oh. Good. Good. Still... It's kind of weird not fighting someone evil this time of year.

Harry: It is, isn't it? It's weird.

Ron: How's Ginny?

Harry: Fine. You want to talk to her?

Ron: No. Been nervous though, with you two growing so close. 

Harry: Why's that? Am I not good enough for your sister?

Ron: 'Course not, Harry! It's just you love her, and usually everyone you love dies. Also around this time of year.

There's something comforting in an established formula, though I think Book 7 sort of stretched credibility by dragging out the final story to a full year. Still, I think readers, especially younger readers, like the reassurance of an established routine, even in their fiction. And all stories have a formula, Rowling's is simply more pronounced.

In Chapter 3, we've reached the stage in Rowling's magical formula where we catch up with the Dursleys, always a treat. There are a lot of parents in the Harry Potter universe and it's interesting to see how Rowling contrasts them to share some of her own thoughts on parenting (in a story about an orphan). If the Weasleys are Rowling's ideal parents, then the Dursleys are Rowling's sharpest critique of parenting, though I find the later father/daughter relationship Luna Lovegood has to be the most interesting. 

In this fourth Harry Potter outing, Rowling is using the Dursleys to make a statement about childhood obesity and some of its root causes. A fitness trainer of mine swears allowing your children to be obese is tantamount to abuse. Rowling may or may not agree, but in Chapter 3 she shows us the Dursleys trying to do something positive for once:

However, at the bottom of the report there were a few well-chosen comments from the school nurse that not even Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia could explain away. No matter how much Aunt Petunia wailed that Dudley was big-boned, and that his poundage was really puppy fat, and that he was a growing boy who needed plenty of food, the fact remained that the school outfitters didn’t stock knickerbockers big enough for him anymore. The school nurse had seen what Aunt Petunia’s eyes — so sharp when it came to spotting fingerprints on her gleaming walls, and in observing the comings and goings of the neighbors — simply refused to see: that far from needing extra nourishment, Dudley had reached roughly the size and weight of a young killer whale.

To make Dudley feel better about it all, Aunt Petunia had insisted that the whole family follow the diet too. She now passed a grapefruit quarter to Harry. He noticed that it was a lot smaller than Dudley’s. Aunt Petunia seemed to feel that the best way to keep up Dudley’s morale was to make sure that he did, at least, get more to eat than Harry.

I love that Harry is being mistreated as a means to cheer Dudley. I also love that Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon are fully flushed out, three-dimensional characters, and it's episodes like these that really demonstrate how Rowling builds them as characters. The Dursleys are villains,  never doubt it. These are the same folks who locked Harry in a broom closet for years and tried to prevent him from going to magic school in the first place. They are obstacles and antagonists to the end.

But in scenes like the one above Rowling shows us another side to them. Yes, they are bad parents and have been since book one, which is why Dudley is a mess. But note how Aunt Petunia is trying to be a good mother. She cares about her boy and whatever harm she may do him, a parent who tries to look out for her child is never all bad. She is the tyranny of evil men. But she's trying, Ringo. She's trying real hard to be the shepherd (hope that Pulp Fiction reference isn't too out of date).

Even Uncle Vernon is playing along. Freshly established as a three dimensional character with his own motivations and ideas, Rowling is free to use Uncle Vernon as an obstacle for Harry as per usual. The Weasleys have sent an invitation to the Quidditch World Cup in an envelope so covered with stamps, it caused the postman to ring the doorbell and ask about it. Uncle Vernon, who is as obsessed as a serial killer with appearing normal, is furious:

“Normal for us,” said Harry, and before his uncle could stop him, he added, “you know, owl post. That’s what’s normal for wizards.” 

Uncle Vernon looked as outraged as if Harry had just uttered a disgusting swearword. Shaking with anger, he shot a nervous look through the window, as though expecting to see some of the neighbors with their ears pressed against the glass.

Uncle Vernon isn't going to let Harry go. Obviously, it would be cruel for Rowling to mention to her readers something as awesome as the Quidditch World Cup and then not have Harry go. No matter how this chapter ends, Harry's going. The Weasley's invitation is like a gun placed on the mantel in act one. It must go off by act three and Harry must go with The Weasleys. But note how Rowling gets us there:

...Harry wasn’t going to stand for this. Gone were the days when he had been forced to take every single one of the Dursleys’ stupid rules. He wasn’t following Dudley’s diet, and he wasn’t going to let Uncle Vernon stop him from going to the Quidditch World Cup, not if he could help it. Harry took a deep, steadying breath and then said, “Okay, I can’t see the World Cup. Can I go now, then? Only I’ve got a letter to Sirius I want to finish. You know — my godfather.” 

He had done it. He had said the magic words. Now he watched the purple recede blotchily from Uncle Vernon’s face, making it look like badly mixed black currant ice cream.

Having been threatened with Harry's known criminal godfather (not really), Uncle Vernon falls in line. This explains nicely why Harry is able to go The Quidditch World Cup while keeping Uncle Vernon's character consistent and it works well, but there are any number of ways Rowling could've got Harry around his Uncle without having Harry stand up for himself and overcome him directly. 

This scene is the reader's real re-introduction to Harry Potter as a character. Yes, Rowling told us ad naseum of his previous exploits in Chapter 2 and even had him look in a mirror to describe his appearance, but Harry is not a character for the reader to root for until this scene. Sure, the reader has probably grown to love Harry over the course of three previous novels, but Rowling still has to invest us again for this novel. 

Having Harry stand up to an adult, having him take a decided action toward his goal most younger readers would love to do themselves, makes him a hero. Harry is saving the cat in this chapter. 

It's a minor conflict, which is fitting for Chapter 3 as Rowling needs to save the big stuff for later. Harry can't fight Voldemort in Chapter 3, then fight Uncle Vernon in Chapter 4. It would be anticlimactic  But she needs to have Harry do something early to re-establish Harry as our hero in a way that having him sit and think about previous heroics will never accomplish. 

If you noticed something else in Chapter 3 you'd like to talk about, sound off in the comments below. Otherwise, meet me back here next week for a discussion of Chapter 4 and only Chapter 4 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Last Paragraph:Harry watched her out of sight, then crawled under his bed, wrenched up the loose floorboard, and pulled out a large chunk of birthday cake. He sat there on the floor eating it, savoring the happiness that was flooding through him. He had cake, and Dudley had nothing but grapefruit; it was a bright summer’s day, he would be leaving Privet Drive tomorrow, his scar felt perfectly normal again, and he was going to watch the Quidditch World Cup. It was hard, just now, to feel worried about anything — even Lord Voldemort.

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