Petunia: Puzzle, Poser, or Paradox?

by Monazza A. 

Have you noticed that every single character of JK Rowling has a well thought-out and well-determined background? That makes every character important in his/her own way. And that makes every character have a story, a history: a reason of their being what they are now. There’s a reason for their attitudes, moods, behaviors and personality.

Take Petunia Dursley. Or rather, Aunt Petunia. What do we know about her? What don’t we? Let’’s first see what we know about our dear Aunt Petunia:

She’’s Lily Potter’’s sister. She’’s Harry’’s only living blood relative. She’’s married to Vernon Dursley, and has a son named Dudley Dursley. She lives at Number 4, Privet Drive. She is blonde, has a horse-like, bony face, and pale eyes (very unlike her sister). She likes her house to be spotlessly clean. She hates the “w” and the “m” words. (wizard & magic) She (apparently) hates Harry. She loves spying on the neighbors and is very nosy.

Hmmm. So that’’s it. But what is it that we don’t know about her? Loads, I bet. We’’ve read numerous theories about Petunia. So, is there something more to her than meets the eye? What makes her so hostile to the “m” world and “you-know-whats?” I’’ve tried to delve into this puzzle.

1. The Evans were magical people

Descending from a long line of squibs would explain why the Evans were so happy when Lily got the letter. As we come to know after Petunia’s ‘outburst’ in PS/SS, “it was Lily this and Lily that…they were happy of having a witch in the family…” Now shouldn’t the couple have been happy when, finally, a member of their family turned out to be magical, got the Hogwarts letter, and became a witch, when they couldn’t even do a simple alohomora or incendio? But why would Petunia be angry?

2. Aunt Petunia is a squib.

Yes, maybe she is. And that could explain her anger and jealousy. Lily got the letter, Petunia did not. Lily was a witch, Petunia was not. Lily could make things fly, Petunia couldn’t. Lily became the parents’ favorite child. So Petunia grew resentful & jealous of her sister. And started hating “m”.

3. Very unlikely

How many times have we been told that Petunia least resembles her sister? Petunia has large, pale eyes, Lily had almond-shaped green; she is a blonde, Lily was a redhead. Is it really so that they were sisters? Or are we made to believe that? I’ve read numerous speculations about Lily and Petunia being stepsisters, Lily being an adopted child to muggles, Myrtle being their sister (I can’t fathom how that’s possible), the “flower connection” etc. We’ve been confirmed that Narcissa isn’t related to them.

4. A connection

There was a story, which I read about 4-5 years ago, relating to witches and wizards. It was called The Haunting; (author Nina Bawden, as far as I remember). The story revolved around a family, which occasionally had a “magician” (wizard or witch) born into them. Their grandmother was one, so was an uncle. This uncle suspected a young boy (the protagonist) of the family to be one such, and started pursuing him.

It was, however, the boy’s sister, Troy, who turned out to be the ‘magician’. Troy hated magic. All her life (i.e. till she confessed) she tried to “force out” the magic within her, by endlessly tidying up her room. There was notion that if you kept on tidying up your room, and always kept it spotlessly clean, you’ll force the magic out of yourself. Ahem.

“Very clean, aren’t they, these Muggles?”(OotP)

“Funny place, it’s a bit too clean, do you know what I mean? Bit unnatural.”(OotP)

“Harry saw Aunt Petunia wince slightly as specks of tea and drool flecked her clean floor.” (PoA)

Haven’t we been told that the kitchen was surgically clean, that Petunia hated mess and dirt, and that she told Harry to be careful not to spoil the clean floor before the Masons’ arrival?

5. Bad-luck-witch

Imagine this. Petunia got the letter. She went to Hogwarts, but got expelled for some reason, probably due to some breach of the Decree for Restriction of Underage Sorcery. Her wand was broken in half. Then Lily got the letter, and went on to become a qualified witch. And Petunia has resented the “m” word ever since.

So how does she stamp out the unfortunate ‘unnaturalness’? She tidies up. She doesn’t tell Vernon, severs off ties with Lily, and feels that she is perfectly normal—that is, until Harry shows up at her doorstep.

6. Aunt Petunia & the wizarding world

Petunia kept mum about everything. Harry wasn’t allowed to ask questions. The first outburst came 11 years later, when she showed how much she hated Lily and magic. “…I took her for what she really was—a freak!”

She also said that Lily “married that Potter boy, had Harry and got herself blown up.” Ok, so Dumbledore told her about the misfortunate accident in a letter. How long was the letter? How did he explain everything? What exactly did he write? Of course Petunia knew quite much about the wizarding world—how else would she have had understood what it meant to keep the Potters’ son safe with her? She knew about the wizarding world, from her sister, if not from her own knowing.

And, if she recognized the Howler as Dumbledore’s voice in OoTP (when even Harry couldn’t recognize it, having been with him for 4 years) then she must’ve been on talking terms with Dumbledore, too. Maybe he left her a short letter first, when leaving baby Harry, went to finish off the charm work, set up guards, and then gave her a more explanatory account of the circumstances and his planning, some days later, perhaps when Vernon was at his office? (Do we know what Petunia does during the day?)

7. “They guard the wizard prison Azkaban”

Hmmm. Do you really think she could remember that wee bit of information for more than 14 years? She was appalled with herself for letting out that fact.

And so she said jerkily, “I heard—that awful boy—telling her about them—years ago.” If she did hear him, when was it? Perhaps she had overheard them discussing some important matters of the Order? No, no, maybe James just told Lily conversationally, “Hey Lily! Do you know that things called dementors guard the prison Azkaban?” and Petunia heard it. But that would also mean that she was in touch with them. (Or eavesdropping?) And maybe she knew James in person.

8. Dudley’s dementors

JKR has said we’ll get to know about Dudley’s demons, and we’ve also speculated much in MuggleNet’s forum. Remember what Petunia said in OoTP, when Dudley said he had heard things inside his head?

“ What sort of things did you hear, popkin?” breathed Aunt Petunia, very white-faced and with tears in her eyes.

I’ve had this silly thought that perhaps what Dud heard has got something to do with Petunia. If Petunia knows about dementors then she must also know their characteristics—what they do, what they’re capable of. And if that’s the case, what is it that made Petunia “very white-faced”? Or am I just out of my mind and there’s nothing to it?

9. What Petunia knows

In CoS, Harry tried to frighten Dudley with a bogus spell (higgery jiggery…), and he could tell that Petunia knew that it wasn’t a real spell. (But nevertheless threw a pan at him from the kitchen window) Hmm. So Petunia knows the difference between a fake spell and real spell. She knows that you can turn teacups into rats. She also knows that the owls were bringing Harry the Daily Prophet in OoTP—“What are all those owls doing if they’re not bringing you news?”

And that’s not all. Petunia knows what it means to keep Harry with her. She is fully aware of the importance of keeping Harry alive, safe and sound. She knows (most probably, I guess) why Voldemort killed the Potters. And what Voldemort being back means:

“Back?” whispered Aunt Petunia.

Her large pale eyes were not narrowed in dislike or anger: They were wide and fearful.

She knows that her house is charmed. She remembered it when she heard Dumbledore’s Howler, and she explicitly told Harry not to leave the house.

10. Beyond OoTP

I was re-reading Ootp the other day, and found 2-3 apparently very disturbing sentences:

“….as he (Harry) lay among Aunt Petunia’s dying begonias…”

“…Petunia’s wilting salad..”

“…reduced to squatting among dying begonias so that he could hear about budgeriars…”

“Petunia’s dying begonias”?? Of course it means that the begonias (flowers) belonged to Petunia, if you read it by its literal meaning. But otherwise, doesn’t it read out as “Petunia’s dying=Petunia is dying”? Note that this meaning is implied in those three places.

“Wilting” means:

droop, wither, sag (‘wilting plants’)

feel weak, languish (‘people wilting in the heat’)

weaken, diminish, wane (‘their courage, determination wilted when they faced the enemy..’)

Does this imply that Petunia might die in the next books? No matter how horrid she is to Harry, I, for one, won’t want her dead.

Petunia is really a mystery character. Intriguing, as was her sister, but in a different way. What more secrets she holds, we may get to know in the next 2 books. Didn’t JKR say that someone from the Dursley’s would be developing magic late in life? And as we saw with Filch, a squib can try, learn and develop magic. Will it be Petunia?

Will Petunia treat Harry nicely this time, considering what he’s been through? Will they be able to have a heart-to-heart talk this summer? Will she, for once, act like his mother’s sister? Will she be more exposed to dangers from the wizarding world? Will she make it through the seven books? Only time will tell—and the next books. 🙂