Ten years have passed since Dumbledore has left Harry on the Dursleys' doorstep, yet the house seems to be exactly the same. The only major difference is that the photos of the infant Dudley on the mantelpiece have been replaced with pictures of Dudley as a fat, unpleasant-looking eleven-year-old; there is no evidence that Harry lives in the house as well.
Harry sleeps in the small cupboard underneath the stairs and is very small and skinny for his age, especially when compared to Dudley. He has a thin face, knobby knees, bright green eyes, and black hair that has a tendency to stick up all over the place. He also wears glasses (held together with scotch take from all the times that Dudley punched him on the nose) and has a thin scar on his forehead that is shaped like a bolt of lightning. The first question that Harry ever asked his aunt was how he had gotten the scar. She told him that he got it in the car crash that killed his parents and that he should not ask questions.
One morning, Harry is woken up early by his aunt’s shrill voice because it is Dudley’s birthday. Dudley receives thirty-seven expensive presents from his parents and relatives but threatens to throw a temper tantrum because he has one lesson present than the previous year. Vernon and Petunia head off Dudley’s hysterical outburst only by promising to buy him two additional presents during their birthday outing that day. The plan is to go to the zoo with Dudley’s best friend, Piers Polkiss, while Harry stays with Mrs. Figg, an elderly neighbor who always makes Harry look at photos of her cats. After Mrs. Figg unexpectedly calls to cancel, the Dursleys are forced to take Harry to the zoo as well.
Before they leave, Uncle Vernon takes Harry aside and threatens to lock him in his cupboard under the stairs if there is any “funny business” at the zoo. Harry promises to behave but he cannot be sure that nothing will happen: strange things seem to happen around Harry. Once, after Aunt Petunia had cut off all of Harry’s hair in a fit of impatience, Harry’s hair had miraculously grown back to its original length overnight. Another time, Harry was being chased by Dudley’s gang and suddenly found himself on the roof of the school kitchens.
Harry is having a great time at the zoo, until they visit the reptile house. Harry looks at a large boa constrictor encased in glass and feels sympathetic that the snake must suffer through annoying visits from people like Dudley and Piers. The snake winks at Harry, and the two begin a sort of mimed conversation about the snake’s breeding and background: the snake is from Brazil, but it has been bred in captivity. Noticing the snake’s bizarre behavior, Dudley runs over to the glass case, pushing Harry hard to floor in the process. Suddenly, the glass in front of the snake’s cage vanishes and the snake slithers out of the reptile house, playfully nipping at Dudley and Piers as it passes.
During the car ride home, Uncle Vernon blames Harry for the disappearance of the glass after Dudley reports that Harry was talking to the snake. He confines Harry to his cupboard for an indefinite amount of time. While Harry lay in his dark cupboard, he thinks about his lonely, miserable life. The only memory that he has of his life before the Dursleys is a blinding flash of green light and a burning pain on his forehead. He assumes that this must be a memory of the car crash that killed his parents, but he cannot figure out the source of the green light. Sometimes he dreams that a distant relative will come take him away, but it never happens; the Dursleys are his only family. Still, he gets the sense that he is not completely unknown: sometimes, strangely-dressed people come up to him in the street and seem to know who he is.
By the time Harry’s punishment ends, the summer holidays have started, and he spends most of his time out of the house in order to avoid Dudley’s gang. He is looking forward to September, when he will be going to the local public school, and Dudley will be going to Smeltings, Uncle Vernon’s old private school. For the first time, Harry will not have to go to the same school as Dudley and, as a result, might have a chance to make some friends for the first time.
One morning, Harry goes to get the mail and finds a letter addressed specifically to him: Mr. Harry Potter, The Cupboard under the Stairs. Before he can read the letter, though, Uncle Vernon snatches it from him and turns ghastly pale after reading the first line. Aunt Petunia is similarly astounded and wonders how “they” could have found out where Harry sleeps. That evening, Uncle Vernon tells Harry that the letter was addressed to him by mistake and orders him to move into Dudley’s second bedroom. Dudley complains vehemently, but Uncle Vernon is immovable and insists that Harry no longer sleep in the cupboard under the stairs.
The morning mail brings another letter for Harry, this time addressed: Mr. H. Potter, The Smallest Bedroom. Despite Harry’s best efforts to grab the letter, Uncle Vernon snatches it away and sends Harry back to his new bedroom. The next morning, Harry wakes up extra early, intending to get the mail before anyone else. Unfortunately, Uncle Vernon suspected that Harry might try something like that and decided to sleep in front of the front door. The morning mail brings three letters addressed to Harry, and Uncle Vernon immediately tears them into small pieces. He then nails up the mail slot, arguing, “if they can’t deliver them they’ll just give up.”
However, the letters continue to arrive, dozens at a time. Even on Sunday, when Uncle Vernon is able to relax (“no post on Sundays”), forty letters zoom down the chimney during breakfast. Determined to escape the letters, Uncle Vernon takes the family on an extended road trip. They stay at a gloomy hotel several cities away and, in the morning, the owner of the hotel informs them that she has a hundred letters addressed to “Mr. H. Potter, Room 17, Railview Hotel” behind the front desk. Uncle Vernon destroys the letters and then moves the family to a tiny little shack in the middle of nowhere, certain that it will be impossible to send letters there. The Dursleys stay in the shack overnight, and Harry stays awake, realizing that the next day is his eleventh birthday. At the stroke of midnight, there is a loud knock on the door.
During the next ten years, Harry begins to develop the same “abnormalities” that Aunt Petunia despised in Lily Potter. Yet, because he has no familiarity with the wizarding world, Harry’s unique abilities merely make him feel more isolated from those around him. If anything, instead of making him feel special, these strange occurrences – growing his hair back and flying up to the roof of the kitchen at school – make him feel doomed to loneliness and a life in the cupboard under the stairs.
Harry’s time with the Dursleys has not changed their perspective at all toward the Potter family. Although they tolerate Harry’s presence, they do not treat him as a family member and certainly do not give him any love. Significantly, love will become a crucial aspect of Harry’s life, yet only the love that he received from his parents during his infancy. It is also interesting that, though the Dursleys are fully aware of Harry’s abilities and magical background, they keep him completely ignorant of the fact, even telling him that his parents died in a car crash.
In some ways, this refusal to tell Harry about his magical past can seen as the Dursleys’ warped attempt to protect Harry. Rather than allow such “abnormality” to develop in him, the Durlseys try to smother his magical tendencies and make him the normal person that his parents never were. Perhaps Petunia is not able to deny the bond of family as much as she would like to, and Dumbledore was correct in assuming that Harry would enjoy a certain protection in their home.
At the same time, however, the Durlseys are also concerned with the way that Harry’s “abnormality” would reflect on them if anyone were ever to discover it. Their self-consciousness and insecurity causes them to take action to protect themselves from any wayward glance. Moreover, their refusal to tell Harry what is happening to him can be seen as cruel and unusual punishment: Harry’s loneliness and sense of isolation is compounded by concern and confusion over the strange occurrences that follow him.
The scene with the boa constrictor cements Harry’s knowledge that he is different from his aunt and uncle. In later books, Harry’s ability to talk to snakes will become an important factor, but for now, it merely reveals the extent of his uniqueness. Vernon and Petunia are equally aware of the significance of this event. By locking him his cupboard under the stairs until the summer holidays, they express their realization and frustration that their attempts to rid Harry of his magical abilities has, in fact, failed. With the arrival of the mysterious letters, Vernon and Petunia are reminded of this failure in a tangible way. Lily Potter received the same letter from Hogwarts when she was eleven, and Petunia knows that such a letter for Harry can only be the beginning of the end for their hopes of normalcy.