Now, I’m sure that my analysis of this books will evolve as I go through it, because as I stated in this post, I still have quite a lot to learn about story structure and analysis. However, I’m going to jump into it by focusing on three primary elements: characters, series, and plot structure. For plot structure I’ll be focusing a lot on pacing which is created by using what Plotcher calls “the three S’s” in her posts on Rowling’s use of the book architecture method. The three S’s are: suspense, surprise and shock. I would highly recommend reading the article to understand what each of them are, how they are created and why they are important to the story and pacing. I would also recommend reading this article on sustaining suspense in the Harry Potter Series, as well as this article on Rowling’s use of suspense through pacing. All of those articles are parts of series, which I recommend reading all the way through. In fact, as I stated in my previous post, I’ve read almost the entire blog and I think it is a must for anyone wanting to write better by studying Harry Potter to do the same. So, with that much said, let’s dive into chapter one.
The book starts off with a reintroduction to Harry and his world, an important part of the series success. Though of course any new reader should read Harry Potter from the beginning JK Rowling made sure that it was perfectly possible to pick up any book in the series and read it as a stand alone. She redescribes both Harry’s appearance and Privet drive in the first two paragraphs. JK Rowling doesn’t wait long to get the question and answer train rolling, starting in the second paragraph. Harry is hiding behind a hydrangea bush, but we don’t know why. And so the questions begin:
Q: “Why is Harry hiding in the bush?”
A: To listen to the news.
Q: “Why does he want to listen to the news?”
A: To find out what’s going on in the wizarding world. He’s concerned about the war.
It’s at this point that Mrs. Figg’s character is introduced in an innocuous way: she walks by and Harry feels relieved he doesn’t have to talk to her because she’s been annoying him lately. This is foreshadowing for the end of the chapter. Additionally, Mrs. Figg is a character that has been established as living in privet drive and being a small, mildly unpleasant part of Harry’s life since the first book. She is familiar and unimportant, and therefore full of potential, though we as readers don’t realize it yet.
As Harry hides in the bush, as soon as the question of why his is there and what the news contains is answered, Rowling immediately gives us something new to focus on: a sound goes off, frightening everyone.
Q: “Who made that sound? What was it? Is it magical, or mundane?”
This is a question presented with quite a lot of drama, which helps readers to understand that this question is potentially very important. Set up on page four of the novel, the question itself won’t actually be answered until the next chapter. Most importantly, it gives Rowling the opportunity later on down the line to develop an amazing chapter cliffhanger, but we’ll get to that later.
This noise is followed by a fight with the Dursley’s about magic. They suspect Harry of doing magic, which angers him especially in light of the fact that there is nothing more he desires than to be able to practice magic but can’t. The injustice of the situation results in a very firey argument, in which another key piece of information is revealed: Harry isn’t getting news from his friends, but the reader does not yet know why. This inspires a whole new set of questions to be answered later down the line. In the end, the argument gets too heated and Harry simply leaves, wandering the neighborhood in an attempt to escape his stressful home life.
As he walks he wonders to himself about the magical incident. Something that makes the Harry Potter books so effective is the fact that the suspense is constant, never letting up for even a paragraph because there are always a number of unanswered questions. And Rowling finds many ways to present these questions, in this case Harry thinks them very specifically to himself: “Why hadn’t they spoken to him, why hadn’t they made contact, where were they now?”
We also find out some key information, though we don’t know it’s important at this part. We find out that Harry is desperate for news in a visceral, emotional sense. He’s been reading the front page of the daily prophet and then throwing it away out of frustration, something that seems counter intuitive when compared to the fact he religiously watches the muggle news for even a hint of news. This is a good thing: Harry is fifteen. He isn’t supposed to be perfectly logical. He isn’t supposed to have all of the answers or information.
We get more questions: Why can’t Ron or Hermione tell Harry anything? Why have they seemingly abandoned him? What are they so busy with? What is happening, what are all those things they’re hinting at in their letters? It is undeniable that they are neglecting his needs in an important way, but Rowling keeps this within reason. They still send him chocolates, care for him deeply, and even show remorse for the fact they can’t say more.
We see Harry is deeply shaken by the situation with Cedric, understandably so. This also fuels his anger and his inability to deal with the current situation. He hasn’t been allowed to process the situation, especially because the wizarding world at large has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of his traumatic story.
We also see Sirius’ recklessness established in this chapter, which will be very important down the line. Harry is frustrated with Sirius’ advice because he knows Sirius himself wouldn’t follow it in the same situation.
When Harry gets into a fight with Dudley, we see the power dynamic between them changing. Dudley still has a great amount of power, for sure, but Harry has gained so much power and self confidence through his years at Hogwarts.He’s starting to turn into a true hero, growing up into the strong young man his deceased father was in the first war. This fight also demonstrates Harry’s internal struggle with Cedric’s death when Dudley starts to tease him about his nightmares.
The fight escalates to what seems like the point of no return: Harry has insulted Dudley’s pride and intelligence, and Dudley has insulted Cedric, Harry’s parents, and implied he lacks bravery, a laughable claim to readers but to the vulnerable Harry this hits too close to home. He is, after all, a young man, and there is nothing that will set a boy off like teasing them for not possessing traditionally masculine qualities. This fight is not actually de-escalated though, in fact it is preparing readers for what is about to come: a dementor attack that will serve as the inciting incident of the novel.
In just 16 pages, Rowling has reintroduced us to the world, reestablished all the characters, built upon their traits, employed tons of foreshadowing, given us information about what’s currently happening, installed dozens of questions in our minds while also escalating the action and tension of the story so we are prepared for the shock of the dementor attack. Now we have our big questions: Why are dementors on privet drive?
Before any of the questions inspired by this attack can be answered, Mrs. Figg shows up in the second to last paragraph, giving us the chapter cliff hangers that made me devour the series like a crack addict, staying up all night, not eating, not sleeping or moving until I’d finished:
“Don’t put that away!” She shrieked. “What if there are more around? Oh, I’m going to kill Mundungus Fletcher.”
This one line leaves us with more intriguing questions than some novelist create in an entire chapter. Who is Mundungus? How does Mrs. Figg know about magic? Who is she really? Why was she running toward Harry? How does she know what’s going on? And of course the question of the magical sound and the dementor are still in the front of our minds. It’s almost impossible to stop reading, so we push on to the next chapter…
Mrs. Figg: Mrs. Figg is presented as a completely unimportant character in the first four books, only to become very important in the first chapter of the 5th book. This showcases Rowling’s ability to plan ahead, and used already established characters for a new purpose, thereby increasing the richness of the story. Every character serves a purpose, even the minor ones, and are constantly pulled back into the story. She never creates a new character to serve a purpose when she already has one who will do the job.
Harry Potter: We find Harry at the beginning of the story very unhappy. He is in a clearly abusive and dysfunctional household, and it is starting to take a serious toll on him. He has the stress of the wizarding world on his shoulders and on top of that he has been completely separated from his true family: Sirius, Molly, Arthur, Ron and Hermonie to name a few. On top of that, he feel betrayed and abandoned by his mentor Dumbledore. He is afraid of the situation, but like any realistic fifteen year old boy this fear manifests itself into anger. He’s starting to lose trust in his chosen family because he’s been completely cut off from them and they are failing to take care of his emotional needs. He can easily handle his orphaned status in the safety of Hogwarts, but when his support system is gone he starts to fall apart. This situation is very important for the next few chapters.
Dudley Dursley: Dudley has never been a pleasant character, always the bad guy. This is further confirmed by his behavior: it seems as he’s grown up he’s simply turned into a worse bully. The tension between Dudley and Harry help add some action to the slow summers, and also display the character development of both of them. Dudley’s encounter with the dementors will serve his character development in the future, but even in this chapter it forces Harry to consider Dudley in a new light: as someone with fears and pains that Harry doesn’t, and likely never will, know. Despite the horrible argument that happens right before the attack with Dudley throwing some deeply unethical blows at Harry about his parents, Harry saves him demonstrating to Dudley what the readers already know: Harry’s sense of morality is unwavering, and in the end he will always do what is right within human reason.
Petunia Dursley: Petunia is still blind to her son’s faults, letting him act like a brat and not questioning his behavior. Even though we hate the favoritism she shows to her son, it is a strangely human flaw, to love someone too much. She is spoiling her child by giving into his every want, and she isn’t showing Harry close to enough love. Rowling manages to keep her unlikable while subtly increasing our ability to sympathize with her.
Vernon Dursley: Vernon could be classified as an even less sympathetic version of Petunia, if such a thing is possible. He is an embodiment of prejudice and discrimination, providing the other side of the coin for the thematic issues of racism the book tackles. Yes, the death eaters are evil for their hatred of muggles, but so is this family of muggles for their hatred of magic. Rowling uses their characters to step away from the black and white aspect of complicated issues, which is really where she found her place in history as one of the worlds greatest children’s authors. The Dursley’s are very important to this development of complexities. His fear of magic is continually reinforced through the story, especially in these beginning chapters.
Sirius Black: Both his importance to Harry and his impulsiveness is repeatedly established throughout the chapter. We also get a very good feel for Harry and Sirius’ relationship. They love each other deeply, but Sirius doesn’t quite know how to be a father figure and is learning as he goes along. Regardless, he desperately wants what is best for Harry and is trying to grow up for him, but his natural personality creates some issues.
Horcrux: Harry’s scar hurts, but he doesn’t want to tell anyone because he is afraid they’ll brush it off. We have no idea at this point how significant this foreshadowing will become. This fear and inability to recognize the importance of this connection to Voldemort will eventually result in Sirius’ death.
Privet Drive: Rowling always makes sure to come back to Privet Drive, and it’s importance to Harry. She reminds us in the description of a street that it was where Harry first saw Sirius, and we can all remember the legendary prologue of Harry being dropped off by Hagrid on Sirius’ motorcycle with Dumbledore and McGonagall. Privet Drive is probably one of the least important places in the book, which says a lot about the care Rowling took to make every place significant. Every book in the series piles on more significance to the previous ones, and this is really where the art of the series is found.
Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself: Hermoine’s famous line from the first book has become a theme. The Dursley’s won’t say the words magic, wand, or even talk about the reality of their situation in the same way the wizarding world won’t say Voldemort’s name. The more these themes are employed skillfully, the more depth they add to the story.
Additional note on structure: We are exposed to the inciting incident of the book in Chapter 1, which would be the dementor attack. For a better understanding of this type of structural theory I highly recommend checking out this article, which identifies all of the major pinch points and plot points in the fifth book, as well as explaining what exactly pinch points and plot points are.