Harry Potter is hiding in the flowerbed beneath the open
living room window of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon’s home at
Four Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. Harry is trying to overhear
the evening news broadcast. The day’s headlines are announced, and Harry
is immensely relieved to hear no news of mass destruction or anything
else that might indicate the work of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort.
Suddenly, a thunderous crack rips through the neighborhood,
and Harry leaps up so quickly that he smashes his head on the window,
alerting his aunt and uncle to his hiding place in the garden. Harry
is sure that the crack was someone either Apparating or Disapparating,
and he leaves Privet Drive to investigate its source.
Harry wanders off to a local playground. He is upset that
he has heard very little news from his best friends and schoolmates,
Hermione and Ron. Harry takes a seat on the swings and watches as
his cousin, Dudley, leading a gang of delinquents, slinks past.
Harry knows Dudley is scared of Harry’s magical powers and suppresses the
urge to taunt Dudley with his wand. After Dudley passes, Harry gets
up and follows Dudley home. He approaches Dudley, and the two boys
begin to argue. When they reach the alley off of Magnolia Crescent,
the night becomes pitch black and very cold. Harry realizes that
dementors are about to attack. After much struggle, Harry uses his
wand to summon a Patronus stag, and the stag saves both boys. Mrs.
Figg, Harry’s neighbor, comes running toward them, and Harry instinctively
tries to hide his wand. Mrs. Figg begs him to keep his wand out,
in case more dementors lurk nearby.
Mrs. Figg reveals herself as a Squib, which means she
was born to magic parents but has no magic ability of her
own. Mrs. Figg tells Harry that someone named Mundungus Fletcher
had been ordered to follow him and keep him safe, but that Mundungus
must have left his watch to buy more stolen cauldrons. Mrs. Figg
warns Harry that Dumbledore will soon know he’s used his magic outside
of Hogwarts. Suddenly, Harry hears another crack, and Mundungus
appears. Mrs. Figg demands that Mundungus return to Hogwarts immediately
and explain to Dumbledore why Harry needed to use his magic.
Harry and Dudley return to Privet Drive. As they ring
the doorbell, Dudley vomits and falls over. Aunt Petunia and Uncle
Vernon answer the door and fuss over him, demanding to know exactly what
happened. Dudley points to Harry, and as Harry begins to explain,
an owl flies through an open window, dropping a letter that expels
Harry from Hogwarts for improper use of magic and announces that
someone will be arriving shortly to destroy his wand. A few moments
later, another letter arrives, this time from Ron’s father, Arthur
Weasley. The letter tells Harry that Dumbledore is attempting to
sort the issue out with the Ministry of Magic and that Harry should
not surrender his wand or leave the house.
Harry continues trying to explain the dementor attack
to his aunt and uncle. To Harry’s surprise, Aunt Petunia confirms
that dementors guard the prison at Azkaban, something she claims
that she once heard Harry’s parents talking about. Another owl arrives,
with a second letter from the Ministry of Magic. This letter states
that Harry is allowed to retain his wand until a disciplinary hearing
on August 12. Another owl arrives, this time
carrying a letter from Harry’s godfather, Sirius. Sirius warns Harry
not to leave the house. Aunt Petunia seems horrified by Harry’s
announcement that Lord Voldemort has returned. Her concern is strange
to Harry, since she has never acknowledged or expressed interest
in the world of magic before. Uncle Vernon is upset by the threat
of the dementors and Voldemort and orders Harry to leave his house
immediately. A fifth owl arrives, carrying a carrying a special
kind of letter known as a Howler, which literally howls its message
to its recipient. The owl bypasses Harry and deposits the letter
on Petunia’s head. The letter howls: “Remember my last, Petunia.”
Petunia demands that Harry stay, despite Vernon’s wishes. Petunia
refuses to tell Harry what the message means and insists that he
not leave his room.
The opening chapters of Harry Potter and the Order
of the Phoenix explore the divide between the wizard world,
where Harry is comfortable and respected, and the Muggle world,
where he is either ignored or ostracized. As he has been for the
past four summers, Harry is imprisoned inside the Dursleys’ house
and strictly forbidden from using his magic or discussing wizard
business. The microcosm of the Dursley house serves as our main
touchstone for Muggle life—however unfortunate, the Dursleys are
the only Muggles we meet, and we understand quickly why Harry is
so anxious to escape Muggle life and return to Hogwarts. If the
Dursleys are any indication, Muggles not only fear magic, they are
revolted by it. More often than not, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon
try to find some sort of alternate explanation for whatever bit
of magic they have inadvertently witnessed. When the dementors attack
Dudley in the alleyway, he is careful not to blame the dementors
themselves, because to do so would be to admit that magic is real.
Instead, he points his chubby finger directly at Harry. Clearly,
everything that is important to Harry is a point of contention for
his Muggle family, who are horrified and disgusted by his lifestyle.
They refuse to acknowledge Harry’s power, even when it has direct
and undeniable repercussions on their lives.
Harry is not in the best shape when the novel begins—he
feels isolated among the unbearable Muggles, misses Hogwarts, and
feels abandoned by his two best friends, Ron and Hermione—and his unhappiness
leads him to act recklessly. Given Harry’s close and terrifying
encounter with Lord Voldemort at the end of Book IV, Harry is right
to be intensely concerned about the fate of his beloved Hogwarts,
and the total lack of news from the Wizard world is excruciating
for him. Harry’s prolonged aggravation culminates in the alleyway
with Dudley, when he whips out his wand and comes terribly close
to using his magic to torment him. Harry is barely able to contain
his rage, and, were it not for the interruption of the dementors,
he very well might have cast a spell on Dudley, earning himself instant
expulsion from Hogwarts. In this sense, the dementors actually save
Harry from his own evil desires.
Though the Wizard and Muggle worlds operate under very
different sets of principles, these principles sometimes overlap,
and the sharp delineation between those worlds is beginning to blur.
Despite his concerns about Hogwarts and his Wizard pals, Harry hides
in the flowerbed in order to hear news from the Muggle world. He
is already concerned that Voldemort’s effort to regain
power could penetrate the Muggle universe, having a dramatic and
debilitating effect on everyday Muggle life. Aunt Petunia’s recognition
of Voldemort and her obvious fear at the sound of his name, which
mirrors the typical Wizard reaction, indicate that Voldemort’s evil
may have already found its way into her life. Harry’s worlds are
getting all mixed up, with dementors showing up in Surrey, Mrs.
Figg turning out to be a Squib, Aunt Petunia knowing about the prison
at Azkaban, and Uncle Vernon asking questions about the Ministry
of Magic. The principles Harry thought were specific to each of
his worlds turn out to cross over to the other world with unexpected
Rowling uses these opening chapters to introduce a series
of questions that she will proceed to answer in the thirty-six chapters that
follow. We don’t yet know why Aunt Petunia received a Howler, presumably
from Dumbledore, or why she knows about Azkaban and Lord Voldemort.
Why haven’t Ron and Hermione been writing? Why hasn’t Harry heard
from Dumbledore? What’s going on with Voldemort? Why were dementors
sent to attack Harry in Little Whinging? Of all these questions,
the last one is the most pressing, since the presence of the dementors
in Little Whinging is curious on many levels. The dementors should
never present themselves to Muggles, and, more important, they should
never abandon their post guarding the prison at Azkaban, where they work
under the direction and control of Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry
of Magic. The fact that the dementors acted so fully out of character
does not bode well for Harry and his friends.