Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Insights from Petunia Dursley

by Stephanie Black

(I'll post the ritual Harry Potter spoiler warning, but I'm guessing it's not necessary.)

It’s unusual for me to read a book start-to-finish more than once. If I really like a book, I may pick it up a zillion times, re-reading passages here and there in random fashion, but re-reading an entire book is a rarity for me. But I’m currently re-reading the Harry Potter books—I’m on Book 4—and am thoroughly enjoying them. Re-reading them makes me admire JK Rowling all the more. Her storytelling ability, the delightful way she uses language, the incredible creativity, the characters—ah, the characters. Rowling is a genius at creating complex, fascinating, believable characters.

Rowling skillfully creates backgrounds for her characters that make their current actions credible. Take Petunia Dursley, for instance. Petunia is cold and cruel toward Harry in an almost fairy-tale-ish way. But when Hagrid shows up to take Harry off to school, Rowling begins to deepen Petunia’s character. We start to see that her antipathy toward Harry grew out of her acute jealousy of her sister’s magical powers. Later we learn that it was Petunia’s taking of baby Harry into her home--no matter how much she didn't want to do so—that sealed the protective magic that kept Harry safe from Voldemort and his followers during his childhood. She doesn’t love Harry, but she had enough loyalty to her sister Lily that she was willing to protect Lily's son. In Book 7, in flashback Pensieve scenes, we see Lily and Petunia together as children and the picture of Petunia grows clearer. Petunia wanted desperately to be like Lily, so much so that she even wrote Dumbledore and asked to be admitted to Hogwarts. Her jealousy and feelings of inadequacy found vent in her rejection and hatred of anything magical—even as a child, she was calling Lily a freak. She hated the wizarding world because she wanted to be a part of it and wasn’t.

In Book 7, when it comes time for Harry and the Dursleys to part, permanently, what would Petunia do? Would she finally show some affection to Harry? Say something loving? Express concern for Harry, knowing the danger he’s in? The warm and fuzzy side of me would have liked Petunia to finally overcome her bitterness and do something kind, but would that have been realistic? Rowling handles the scene masterfully. Dudley and Uncle Vernon have already left and Petunia goes to walk out the door. Rowling describes the moment like this on page 42 of Book 7:

“She stopped and looked back. For a moment Harry had the strangest feeling that she wanted to say something to him: She gave him an odd, tremulous look and seemed to teeter on the edge of speech, but then, with a little jerk of her head, she bustled out of the room after her husband and son.”

I love this. It just speaks volumes about Petunia. There are a thousand unspoken words in that “odd, tremulous look.” What is she thinking? Will she have the courage to say it? She’s on the fence here. But with the “little jerk of her head” she makes her decision. She has a final chance to reach out to Harry--and she doesn't. Petunia has grown as a character and her wall of bitterness is a bit cracked and chipped, but it’s still there.

Petunia never becomes a likeable character, but she becomes a somewhat sympathetic one. We can simultaneously dislike her for the way she treated Harry (and the sickening way she spoiled Dudley), yet understand her pain and her jealousy. Rowling is an expert at creating complex characters—Snape, perhaps, being the quintessential example. The Harry Potter books are terrific textbooks on characterization. What have you as a writer learned about characterization from Harry Potter?


At 9/13/2007 1:31 PM, Blogger Anne Bradshaw said...

I so often "teeter on the edge of speech." What a great way of putting it. Actually, I teeter on the edge of lots of things. Sometimes this is good, but more often than not it's bad, and, like Petunia, I miss out.

Careful observation of others. What really makes them tick. And finding fresh ways of writing it. All these I've learned about characterization from JKR, who sits so well inside each character's head that her own personality is lost, and she becomes the new person.

At 9/13/2007 3:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Rowling's characters are believable because they aren't perfect. Everyone messes up.

At 9/13/2007 7:20 PM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

What do you mean characterization? JK Rowling basically writing a historical account of true events. Right? Right????

At 9/14/2007 12:41 AM, Blogger The Mean Aunt said...

Well put, EvilHRLady. I mean she gives actual dates for the events and they are in the past. It must be true!


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