Why Didn’t the Dursleys Turn Harry into an Obscurial?
With the release of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, the Potter fandom was introduced to the concept of an Obscurus, an unstable and volatile creature created when a young witch or wizard attempts to suppress his or her magic. We learn about the idea of an Obscurus through Credence Barebone and Ariana Dumbledore, who both respond to outside hostility toward magic by trying to control their own. This hostility toward magic, however, was also ever present in Harry Potter’s childhood. In fact, from the very first sentence of the series, we can tell that the Dursleys are the sort of people who will do everything in their power to try to “stamp [the magic] out of him” (SS 53). How, then, does Harry manage to avoid becoming an Obscurial?
Rowling gives us an answer on her website, where she says, “The Dursleys were too frightened of magic ever to acknowledge its existence to Harry. While Vernon and Petunia had a confused hope that if they were nasty enough to Harry his strange abilities might somehow evaporate, they never taught him to be ashamed or afraid of magic. Even when he was scolded for ‘making things happen’, he didn’t make any attempt to suppress his true nature, nor did he ever imagine that he had the power to do so.” I would like to unpack this explanation a bit more and offer some of my own additional theories.
Rowling says that Harry was partly protected by the fact that the Dursleys were afraid to tell him that he was a wizard. Not only did Harry have his magic hidden from him, but he was also too oblivious to figure it out for himself. Weird things happened to him sometimes, snakes escaped from the zoo, his hair grew back quickly, he jumped a bit higher than expected, but Harry never put the pieces together and guessed that he was the one making those things happen. Therefore, when the Dursleys punished him for his magic, he just viewed it as another unfair punishment for something unfortunate that had happened to him, rather than something he did personally. He didn’t think he had the power to change the weird things that occurred in his life, so he never attempted to do so.
One of the reasons Harry doesn’t realize that he has control over magic is that he is fairly mediocre at it. It may seem strange, but Harry is saved by the fact that he just isn’t that powerful of a wizard. We have seen powerful wizard children before, and they almost always develop control over their abilities and manage to use their magic even without a wand. Lily Potter can make flowers move in her hands. Tom Riddle hangs rabbits from the rafters. We don’t know much about Credence or Ariana as children, but we know that Credence is an incredibly powerful wizard to have survived so long as an Obscurial, and if Muggle boys saw Ariana doing magic, then she was probably experimenting with her powers at a young age as well. Harry as a child was just not powerful enough to control his magic, so the Dursleys were mainly able to overlook his fairly benign and undirected emotional outbursts.
The Dursleys may also have unintentionally saved Harry from becoming an Obscurial by being indiscriminately mean and unpleasant. Yes, Harry gets punished when he does magic, but he also gets punished for burning the bacon or asking a question. There’s pretty much nothing he could do that would get the Dursleys to like him, so even if he weren’t magical, he would still be given a hard time. He doesn’t connect magic with punishment strongly enough to have developed a strategy for suppressing his magic. He just knows that the Dursleys sometimes freak out more than usual about random things.
The Dursleys’ broad and sweeping mistreatment might have also helped Harry in other ways. By being so unkind to Harry, the Dursleys make it so that Harry has no desire to please them or to belong in their home. Harry is thrilled as soon as he learns that he is a wizard and is doubly pleased by the fact that the Dursleys hate and fear his magic. His magic makes him like his parents and sets him apart from the Dursleys, who have made him feel so unwelcome. This suggests that if Harry had known about his magic and learned to control it earlier, he would simply have used it as a point of pride in distinguishing himself from the Dursleys or as self-defense against unkind treatment. Ironically, if the Dursleys had been more caring toward Harry, he might have been more likely to try to suppress his magic in order to fit into their household.
All in all, Harry was mainly saved from being an Obscurial by the most unheroic qualities: cluelessness, mediocrity, and the indiscriminate unpleasantness of his family. However, these are qualities that Harry so often manages to use to his advantage, and part of what makes our hero so lovable!