*Disclaimer: The following is based on how the characters are depicted in the Harry Potter book series, not in the movies.
Dudley Dursley, or as I like to call him, Baby Oppressor, is one of the primary supporting characters in the Harry Potter series. Dudley is Harry’s cousin and they were raised together from infancy. Although the series varies greatly from your typical fairy tale, it is a fairy tale nonetheless, and Harry’s cruel aunt and uncle, and callous cousin are the stuff that many a Brothers Grimm fable are made of. Much like those stories, where the mean, related peer is everything that our protagonist is not, J.K. Rowling stays on script.
Dudley is blond while Harry is brunette. He is fat while Harry is thin. He is unintelligent and blundering while Harry is quick and resourceful. He is entitled while Harry is humble. Dudley is pampered while Harry is used as an unpaid maid service. Dudley is selfish while Harry is considerate. The cousins are around the same height, and the similarities end there. From the very first chapter of the very first book, it’s made very clear that Dudley is an enormous source of stress and anxiety in Harry’s life.
While Harry is given almost nothing, his cousin is spoiled with the best of absolutely everything, and like many children both raised and favoured by oppressive people, sees absolutely nothing wrong with the way things are, so long as the huge imbalance in how he and his cousin are treated continues to be to his own benefit. Part of the reason why I call Dudley Baby Oppressor is that, like the children of slave owners, dignitaries, and royalty, his perceptions of right and wrong are utterly lacking. As a result, he not only emulates the behaviour of his abusive elders, he also grows to be a raging narcissist who (falsely) believes that the world revolves around him.
When it is revealed to the family that Harry is a wizard and has been chosen to attend Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Dudley has cause to fear Harry for the first time in their lives. For once, Harry has something that Dudley doesn’t have, something that his parents cannot buy for him. Because of Petunia and Dudley’s intense hatred of all things magical, a hatred which (like all of their character flaws) they passed on to their son, what initially started (in Dudley’s mind) as harmless teasing morphed into a casual cruelty tempered only by Dudley’s fear of Harry’s powers.
When Harry’s #OrphanBoyMagic kicks in, and his inherited abilities manifest into something more powerful than Dudley could even begin to comprehend, Dudley who has been given everything, including two living, doting parents, begrudges Harry this one thing and consistently seizes any and all opportunities to harass his cousin once it’s confirmed that Harry is banned from using magic outside of school.
More than being a petulant, violent, attention-seeking brat, Dudley is constantly (both verbally and non-verbally) egged on by his parents in his abuse of Harry. They make it clear that they would be perfectly fine with anything short of him taking Harry’s life. It’s actually deeply surprising, that his abuse of Harry wasn’t exponentially worse. In discussing Dudley, it cannot be stated enough that his behaviour is learned behaviour. Petunia and (as far as we know) Vernon were not raised to be malicious people, but it is with unrelenting maliciousness that they have treated their orphan nephew all of his life, and encouraged their son to do the same. Dudley’s earliest memories and family experiences included his parents treating Harry with dismissal at best and physical abuse at worst.
At the risk of sounding like I’m exonerating Dudley (which I assure you, I’m not): He simply doesn’t know any better. In Dudley’s world, treating Harry like garbage is completely normal, and it is a normal that he learned at his parents’ feet. Dudley is a glaring example of the damage that can be inflicted when children internalize toxic behaviours. Can Dudley do better? Absolutely! But throughout the series, he lacks the self-awareness and empathy to do so. Like nearly everyone raised to be an oppressor, he has no desire to change because he is very much aware that Harry’s oppression does not impact his life in anyway, and that often, Harry having almost nothing guarantees that he will continue to have more than enough.
Dudley’s relationship with Harry isn’t the only one ruined by his abrasive personality. We learn early on that Dudley has no friends; his selfishness doesn’t win him any points and unlike his cousin, he can’t bully schoolmates into spending time with him. He is a behavioural problem for his teachers, and the reader is told in no uncertain terms that his parents and Aunt Marge are the only people who genuinely like him.
In the future, Dudley’s “friendships” consist of him being the leader of a group of bullies who fear him and thus participate in his harassment of others in order to remain in his favour. Dudley knows nor cares anything about their lives; he doesn’t even bother to ask what his own cousin does when he’s away at school. Again, the world revolves around Dudley and anything outside of his sphere simply doesn’t matter. Even if Dudley actually wanted to do better, his parents’ coddling, enabling, and even promoting his very worst behaviours ensure that this will never happen. To reiterate: Dudley stood absolutely no chance of ever becoming a decent person while nurtured in the toxic environment which he called home.
We do get one glimmer of hope, however. When the family parts way for good, so that Harry’s muggle relations can go into hiding and remain safe from Voldemort and his followers, Dudley is upset to see the cousin, who was as close to a brother as he’d ever get, exit his life for good. We realize something about Dudley in that moment which is critical to understanding his character: Dudley does not hate Harry. Dudley is a bad person who was raised to be a bully, but the notion that Dudley hates Harry would only be valid if he treated some people well, and Harry horribly. As showcased throughout the series, Dudley is mean and crass with everyone, even his own parents; Harry wasn’t specifically targeted by Dudley. He was just unfortunate enough to be his cousin’s most dependable target. Unlike his parents, Dudley did not wish ill for Harry, or see him as some sort of burden or embarrassment. Dudley simply doesn’t know how to be loving, or even kind, to anyone who isn’t himself. While this doesn’t erase the years of torture he put Harry through, understanding that Dudley did, at the very least, see Harry as a vital part of their family helps readers begin to forgive him.
Throughout the series, Harry’s family is presented as the lesser evil in comparison to what he must face at school. In his cousin’s case, he is the lesser of Harry’s school rival Draco Malfoy, whom (like Dudley) is self-centered, cruel, and is routinely in the company of sycophantic followers masquerading as friends. In comparison to Draco, Dudley is harmless. A lifetime of his cousin’s antics help prepare Harry for his first critical meeting with Malfoy and helps him to make a choice which eventually saves his life many times over as the series progresses. I’m not about to promote the toxic proverb of “That which does not kill you makes you stronger”, though, because throughout the series, we glimpse how Dudley’s bullying has effectively worn on Harry’s self-esteem and trust in his own judgement. Dudley’s impact on Harry might have been less profound than an all-powerful wizard trying to kill him at boarding school, but it held a negative impact nonetheless.
When the Harry Potter series ends, we don’t know if Harry ever saw his cousin again. But it’s made very clear in their final moments at the Dursley’s home that if they did meet again, if they were to ever reconnect and embark on a healthy relationship after a lifetime of dysfunction, the burden would absolutely be on Dudley to do right and correct both he and his parents’ lifetime of wrongs to the boy whose only crime was being related to them.