The novel opens with a description of the Dursley family of number four, Privet Drive. Vernon Dursley, an overweight man with a bushy mustache, works as the director of a drill-making firm, while his wife, Petunia, is thin and blonde and has a particular penchant for spying on the neighbors. Their son, Dudley, is grotesquely fat, even as a toddler, and is spoiled rotten by both parents. The Dursley family is perfectly content to live normal and uninteresting lives. In fact, their greatest fear is that someone will find out that one of their relatives is not completely normal and uninteresting: Petunia’s sister, Lily Potter, is decidedly “unDursleyish,” and, as a result, Petunia has not spoken to her in several years.
One morning, the Dursley family begins the day much as any other: Vernon gets dressed for work, while Petunia feeds Dudley and tells her husband about the latest gossip from the neighbors. Yet, as Vernon leaves for work, he notices something strange: a cat reading a map. When he takes a second look, however, the map has vanished, and the tabby cat is staring back at him. Convinced that he is imagining things, Vernon continues his drive to work. While stopped in traffic though, Vernon notices another strange thing: several people in the street wearing brightly-colored cloaks. Still, he decides to dismiss the odd occurrences and focus on the drill-making scheduled for the day.
When Vernon leaves for his lunch break, he is again irritated to notice numerous people wearing brightly-colored cloaks and milling together excitedly. As he passes by, he overhears some of them talking about “the Potters,” and, in a moment of terror, he wonders if they might be talking about his bizarre sister-in-law and her family. Although he tries not to worry about it – after all, “Potter” is a very common name – Vernon spends the rest of the day in a state of distraction until 5pm, when he can go home to talk to Petunia about the strange goings-on of the day. When he gets to his house, he is confronted by the same tabby cat as the morning, now sitting on his garden wall.
Petunia’s day has been completely normal, and Vernon wonders if he should even bother telling her about the strange whispers about “the Potters.” It must have just been a coincidence. But still, the television news report was full of strange occurrences: showers of shooting stars and hundreds of owls flying during the day. Vernon wonders if the mention of the Potters was a coincidence after all. As he uneasily falls asleep, Vernon concludes that, even if those strange people in the cloaks were talking about his sister-in-law and her family, it would hardly have any effect on his life.
A few minutes before midnight, a tall, thin man named Albus Dumbledore suddenly appears on the street corner of Privet Drive. Using a silver “Put-Outer,” Dumbledore swiftly puts out all of the street lamps until the street is completely dark and then notices the tabby cat, still keeping watch on the corner. The cat transforms into a severe-looking woman with square glasses who Dumbledore refers to as Professor McGonagall. Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall discuss the occurrences of the day and the rumored disappearance of You-Know-Who, also known as Voldemort, a dark wizard who has been in power in Britain for the past eleven years.
The subject turns to the Potter family, and Dumbledore informs Professor McGonagall that Lily and James Potter are both dead, murdered by Voldemort. Their infant son, Harry, however, somehow survived Voldemort’s killing curse and broke the dark wizard’s power. Dumbledore plans to leave Harry with the Dursleys; they are his only remaining relatives and will have to raise him until he is old enough to understand about the death of his parents and his magical abilities. Professor McGonagall vehemently protests Dumbledore’s decision, but Dumbledore explains that there is no one else. Moreover, by living with the Dursleys, Harry will be protected from his own fame as “the boy-who-lived.”
A few moments later, a giant named Hagrid drives out of the sky on a flying motorcycle and hands Dumbledore the bundle of blankets containing the infant Harry. Dumbledore gently leaves the baby on the Dursleys’ doorstep with a letter of explanation, and Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid leave the scene.
Rowling opens the book with a description of Vernon and Petunia Dursley, two characters who are very obviously not the protagonists of the book. Although Rowling does not describe the Dursleys in truly malevolent terms – as she will later with Voldemort – their closed-mindedness and insistence on appearing “normal” are all expressed as negative characteristics. The Durlseys’ view of Lily Potter and her family is also portrayed in particularly negative terms. Because Petunia believes that her sister is a “freak,” she chooses to deny the bonds of family, bonds that should be much stronger than any judgmental disapproval.
With Dumbledore’s entrance onto the scene, it becomes clear that the Dursley family will never be able to be as normal as they wish to be. By leaving Harry on their doorstep, the Dursleys are forced to coexist with the “abnormality” of the Potter family that they have always sought to avoid. Significantly, Dumbledore’s decision to leave Harry with them serves two purposes. Not only does it allow Harry to grow up without being haunted by his fame in the wizarding world, but it actually punishes the Dursleys for their intolerance. If the Durlseys had been more accepting of Lily Potter and her lifestyle, Dumbledore’s decision to leave Harry with them would not have been such a life-changing inconvenience.
Dumbledore’s presence in Little Whinging also introduces the readers to the magical world that Rowling describes in greater detail in later chapters. Dumbledore’s sudden appearance on the street, his mysterious ability to turn out all of the street lamps, and his references to the evil Voldemort and his killing curse – everything hints at the amazing world in which Harry truly belongs. Similarly, Professor McGonagall’s ability to transform into a cat and back reveals that the opportunities in this magical world are truly endless.
Yet, as Dumbledore clarifies, Harry is not yet prepared to deal with the wondrous magic of the wizarding world. Children with less traumatic backgrounds might be able to flourish from their infancy by staying in the wizarding world. Harry, on the other hand, has such a dark experience forming his first memories that he is far safer to himself if he grows up as a Muggle. In a sense, Harry must come of age before he can become a part of the magical world in which he is so important. And for Harry, this coming of age will occur in Chapter 2, with his eleventh birthday and invitation to Hogwarts.