Unraveling Petunia Dursley
Although she’s just a supporting character in the Harry Potter series, I think Petunia Dursley (née Evans) is one of the most complex characters.
It’s not until Harry finds out he’s a wizard that we learn just how much Petunia despises her sister and the burden of Harry.
Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that – that school – and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she was – a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!” (SS, ch. 4)
It’s actually pretty surprising to me that we don’t hear of feelings like Petunia’s more often when there’s a Muggle-born witch or wizard in a family. I cannot fathom what it would be like to have just one sibling and to suddenly seem completely untalented and useless just because you don’t have magical powers like they do. In a family accepting of the wizarding world like the Evans, Lily was praised. And Petunia was left to be jealous of the attention Lily was getting.
Ron spent years being jealous of Harry, but he put his feelings aside daily. As the youngest of six boys, with Fred and George just his elders, it’s safe to assume that Ron did not often get the attention he deserved. Now, I’m not ragging on Molly Weasley because – let’s be real – she’s the true heroine of the series (sorry, Hermione). My point is just that Ron was often overlooked with no real break from it. At least Lily was gone, what, like ten months out of the year, and Petunia would have her parents to herself at those times. Yet Petunia harbored this bitterness and anger toward Lily even after Lily died. Ron loved and supported Harry, so it’s hard to empathize with Petunia with his example hanging around.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we learn even more about the cause of Petunia’s feelings toward Lily.
‘You didn’t think it was such a freak’s school when you wrote to the Headmaster and begged him to take you.’
Petunia turned scarlet.
‘Beg? I didn’t beg!’
‘I saw his reply. It was very kind.’” (DH, ch. 33)
Petunia Evans – a prideful woman in adulthood – wrote to Albus Dumbledore as a child, asking to be accepted to Hogwarts. She wanted to be as special, talented, and magical as her little sister. When Dumbledore explained, however, that it would not be possible, we see the complete 180 in Petunia’s character. She had once loved Lily, admired her magical abilities. Now she despised her and wanted nothing to do with magic.
At that point, she was with Vernon – a hater of all things abnormal, thank you very much. On WizardingWorld.com, we learn that “once married, Petunia grew ever more like Vernon.” Later in life, “Petunia had some latent feelings of guilt about the way she had cut Lily (whom she knew, in her secret heart, had always loved her) out of her life, but these were buried under considerable jealousy and bitterness.” Even when she felt that regret, she had to continue the charade because her pride mattered more to her than the health or happiness of her sister’s son.
Petunia made a lot of terrible choices in life, and she didn’t even get any sort of character redemption in the end (rightfully so). Something inside me, however, wants to understand her more. It’s hard not to feel bad for her – her life overtaken by Harry, her fear of Dark magic (which was just about all the magic she ever heard about), and her never-ending concern with her image. She lived a dreadful life and had a heart full of resentment, something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I’m not saying that she necessarily deserves our sympathy, but her actions (at times) are understandable. Unfortunately, she made most of her own misery.
Just like Harry, Petunia lost her family. Her parents were dead. She removed herself from her sister’s life, and Lily had died before Petunia could change her mind. She clung to Vernon and Dudley, the people whom she could count on, because they were all she had. She was a nasty woman who didn’t have a life outside of gossip and judgment. She was severe and cruel, and Harry did not deserve to be treated as he was.
In my opinion, had Petunia gone to Hogwarts, she would be placed into Slytherin, not because she was evil (because we all know that’s not an actual Slytherin characteristic) but because she did what it took to survive and protect her family (Harry excluded). Petunia was looking out for herself and for the people who mattered to her, so she acted defensively. I’m not justifying her actions, but if you really reach, you can start to see Petunia’s perspective. She built a very high wall, and unlike platform nine and three-quarters, this one couldn’t be penetrated.