Read With Me: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Chapter 1: The Boy Who Lived
I can’t pretend that I haven’t read this whole series multiple times. To try to come at the books as a new person, unaware of what lies ahead would be foolish and completely disingenuous. I think that in a way, it would also lose some depth. I assume that you have read Harry Potter before and that you’re looking for a new way to read it, or new things to see in the text. These are my observations, so if you disagree feel free to let me know what I’ve missed. I wrote a brief description of the series Here.
The first chapter of this book, is seventeen pages. At times, the sentences are clunky and the descriptions are stiff, but as one progresses through the chapter, it is amazing what is actually said.
It has been said that J.K. Rowling rewrote this first chapter countless times (I’ve seen some report around fifteen times) and I can understand why. The first chapter, like all first chapters exists to set up everything that will come after it. One must establish characters, introduce a standard or normative setting, foreshadow plot, and hook the reader. The first seventeen pages of this novel give the reader so much information, it’s almost hard to take it all in.
Establishing the World
J.K. Rowling sets up the normal world. Mr. And Mrs Dursley live at a normal address, normal occupations, a typical lifestyle. We see that Mrs. Dursley is a stay at home mom raising a son and watching her neighbours. Mr. Dursley comes off as a bit domineering. Their son is a brat. They are average people who live boring lives.
Immediately, we are also told that this normal world runs parallel to something completely different. There are owls flying around during the daylight, a cat reads a map, people in cloaks roam the streets. We learn the word ‘Muggle’ for the first time.
We can begin to see the parallelism of the world. Unlike in stories where a character leaves one world and enters another, Rowling tells the reader that her worlds run parallel. What happens in the muggle world also happens to some degree in this other world. People and events move seamlessly between both of these worlds. We can see this idea play out later in Prisoner of Azkaban when Sirius Black makes the news and in more detail in The Half Blood Prince with the “other minister”.
Rowling sets the beginning of a structure that will span all seven books. References to what happens in this first chapter come back again and again as the series plays out.
J.K. Rowling introduces some of the most important players to this story within these seventeen pages. We meet the Dursley’s and while we have heavy amounts of description, we are already interested in them. By the end of the first page, we are already aware that they have a secret. What is it? We’ll have to turn the page to find out.
We are also introduced to Professor McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore. The fact that Dumbledore calls her Professor gives us a reason to believe that a school. What is interesting is that the Dursley’s are often described in a very concrete way: Mrs. Dursley likes to watch her neighbors, Mr. Dursley works a drill company, and Dudley kicks his mother. In contrast, we learn about magical people rather indirectly. It is as if Rowling adds a second layer of mystery on top of her characters by having them referred to by others.
We do not meet Professor McGonagall upfront. Instead we meet her has a cat. It is easy to think that she must have cat like features, and in a way, we learn that she does. She’s an intellectual, astute, serious, and what Dumbledore calls stiff. We can see that she’s dedicated to her duties by watching her sit on a wall all day. She cares deeply, her concern over whether Hagrid is trustworthy is also clear. We see her as questioning, cautious, caring, and by the book. We start to see her as a bit strict and more practical than emotional as she chastises Hagrid‘s wailing tears.
The Potter‘s are also refered to indirectly. We learn about them from the eyes of Vernon Dursley who receives his information from his wife. They are very different from the Dursley’s. Vernon refers to them as “their lot” as if to say, not one of us. As a result, it’s unsurprising that by the time Harry arrives at 4 Privet Drive, we can already feel sorry for him. We already care because we can see the type of people Petunia and Vernon are.
You-Know- Who makes his entrance in this chapter too. We learn his name and what type of things he did. We feel safer knowing of his defeat and confused by the fact it took only a little boy who did it. We learn about Dumbledore from what McGonagall says about You-Know-Who. Dumbledore says that Voldemort has powers he will never use. McGonagall replies, “Only because you’re too – well – noble to use them.” We see the beginning of a foil here. Dumbledore vs Voldemort. Whose philosophy will hold out? Surely there is something deeper under the surface.
We hear Sirius Black’s name even though he doesn’t appear for a while. At this point we cannot know his significance. Who is this throw away character and why do we care that he leant his motorcycle to Hagrid? What does it matter? I am sure that many of us forgot about Sirius until Prisoner of Azkaban appeared in our hands. Even then, I bet some us forgot.
We also see the beginning of Hagrid’s love for Harry. This is where the relationship starts. Dumbledore tasks Hagrid with the boy’s life. A special love grows as Hagrid transports Harry over Bristol. Hagrid is willing to protect the boy with his life. We see a similar flight play out in the Deathly Hallows.
We can’t forget to mention Dedalus Diggle, the Put-Outer, the reliance on owls, and the ability to become an animagus all make an apperance here.
A Dash of Plot Technique
One of the things that J.K. Rowling does well is redirecting attention away from what is happening. We get bits and pieces of redirection in this chapter. She introduces magical phenomena in muggle terms instead of what they are: magic. We see news broadcasts about owls and shooting stars. Because we relate to the normalcy J.K. Rowling describes, we can only believe her. We took act like Vernon Dursley who questions whether he saw that cat reading a sign. Cats don’t read signs. But in this world they do.
It isn’t until the reveal when Dumbledore arrives that we begin to realise it isn’t what we thought. J.K Rowling tells us one thing, but what happens underneath is the true story. From now on, we will pay closer attention to what is not said. We will have to look for subtle clues and try to figure out answers ourselves. This is only the beginning of the detective fantasy novel. We got a reveal here, but that was only a test. Our detective skills will be tested.
This chapter does a lot in such a short time. It invites us to a whole new world and lets us know we need to start thinking. There are clues scattered throughout the work and we can piece them together. This chapter introduces us to our characters. It encourages us to root for our hero, Harry even if we don’t know why yet. It gives us a mystery to solve and we’re going to go out and solve it.