We got a pretty good impression of the sort of person Vernon Dursley was right from the beginning of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer's Stone. He worked at a drilling company. He had a big moustache. He hated anything remotely out of the ordinary. This, of course, was unfortunate, considering he would soon have a baby wizard planted on his doorstep. Skip forward eleven years, and it transpired that Vernon didn’t handle that situation very well at all – with his unwanted nephew, Harry, confined to a cupboard under the stairs, and always on the end of a torrent of abuse from his uncle, while his cousin Dudley was lauded with praise for being a puerile bully.
So, what’s the argument for Vernon, the patriarch of the family, for being the most despicable Dursley over his wife, Petunia? Well, while neither member of the couple will be winning any Humanitarian awards any time soon, there’s something about the small-mindedness of Vernon, and the utter stubbornness to accept anything remotely otherworldly, that continues to frustrate generations of readers.
Vernon’s behaviour will always be unforgiveable – just look at the way he always barked at Harry given any opportunity, threatened him or belittled him. In fact, he always reached the apex of his short fuse the second poor Harry tried to speak to him about anything. Even Harry commenting about a dream he had about a flying motorbike is met with a ‘MOTORBIKES DON’T FLY’ tirade from Vernon.
Most of Vernon’s anger towards Harry certainly comes from a place of fear, in particular, his fear of magic. Vernon’s attitude to his wife’s magical family members is one of utmost ignorance, which manifests, most of the time, into either rage or simply completely ignoring the fact they ever existed. But Vernon’s fear for the unknown cannot excuse his cruelty, or indeed his constant encouragement of his son Dudley’s brattish, bad behaviour.
Even if Vernon didn’t have a wizard for a nephew, the way he encouraged Dudley was a red flag that Vernon doesn’t have any understanding of kind-heartedness or compassion. Dudley’s greed was awarded with more material benefits. Dudley bullying people at school was commended by Vernon, who often encouraged violence, talking about it as if it was a good thing.
Throughout the books as a whole, we get snippets of Vernon’s worrying ideologies. We see him making snide comments about the news or just generally complaining about the world around him in an ignorant manner. Vernon’s coping mechanism does just seem to be locking away anything he doesn’t like or find some way to simply get rid of it, in an overtly masculine way, while Petunia usually just watched on approvingly. It’s never strictly said, but Harry being locked in a cupboard definitely sounded like Vernon’s original idea.
The fact that Vernon is so definitively set in his ways, whereas with Petunia, we sometimes see tiny flashes of emotion, shows that Vernon is the most despicable, the definition of shaking hands with a fist, a man utterly afraid of anything different. And if you need any further convincing Vernon is the most awful – just look at his sister, Marge, who is arguably even worse.
Petunia Dursley, or Petunia Evans was much worse than her husband Vernon, for one categorically, undeniable reason… She knew.
Growing up with Lily Potter, Petunia experienced what it was like to live with someone with magical powers they didn’t understand. And we saw, much later on in the series, that Lily and ‘Tuney’, as her sister called her, were very close up until Lily went to Hogwarts and Petunia was left behind. Petunia knew what it was like for a witch to grow up with Muggles, away from the magical world to which they belonged. But instead, she chose to keep Lily’s wizard son in the dark, even keeping up the pretence once his Hogwarts letters started to arrive.
The hypocrisy of Petunia – the Muggle child who wrote to Professor Dumbledore begging for a place at Hogwarts – hiding that same letter from her nephew sheds a light on a very dark and jealous part of her character. A jealousy and anger that she still could not overcome to protect and comfort her dead sister’s child.
As Harry grew up and entered the wizarding world, we realised that Petunia had always known more than she had let on, and in turn, that highlighted how bad her treatment of Harry really was. Cupboard under the stairs and constant bullying aside, Petunia allowed Harry to leave the house after he blew up Aunt Marge. And she did this having read Dumbledore’s letter explaining that Harry was protected as long as he called number 4, Privet Drive home. She allowed a thirteen-year-old boy, whose parents she knew were killed by Lord Voldemort, to run away from home in the middle of the night.
And in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Harry and Dudley were attacked by Dementors, Petunia revealed that she knew they guarded the wizard prison. But at the news that there were two of them floating around Little Whinging, and that Lord Voldemort –the wizard who murdered Harry’s parents – was back, Petunia still did not jump to Harry’s defence; she didn’t even comfort him. We don’t know whether Petunia would have stopped Vernon from throwing Harry out of the house, but she certainly didn’t raise any objections until she received Dumbledore’s Howler. And even then, did she really act out of care for Harry? Or was it fear of Dumbledore that drove her decision?
Aunt Petunia’s treatment of Harry would have been horrendous, even without her knowledge of the wizarding world. But her coldness, her indifference, and her lack of care for him was made so much worse by the fact that, unlike Vernon, she understood exactly what she was keeping from him. She knew about magic, about Hogwarts and how much of Harry’s wizarding life he was unable to share with the only family he had left.
And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you that Petunia was the worse Dursley, there was that moment when Harry left Privet Drive for good and she knew he was off to fight Lord Voldemort. Dudley put old prejudices aside, but Petunia couldn’t even bring herself to hug her sister’s only son goodbye.
So, there you have it. Salient points made on both sides, we’re sure you will agree. But who is your least favourite Dursley, or the one you think is the most despicable? Let us know your thoughts (if you’re old enough) on our Wizarding World Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
And remember, to refresh yourself on Chapter Two of Harry Potter and the Philosophers/Sorcerer’s Stone, you can watch Noma Dumezweni regale us with the beginnings of the Dursleys right here!