*Disclaimer: The following is based on how the characters are depicted in the Harry Potter book series, not in the movies.
Of course, the natural follow up to Harry Potter Character Analysis #1: Dudley Dursley, would have to be the people who raised him, his doting parents, Petunia and Vernon. Petunia and Vernon, like their son, are central supporting characters throughout the Harry Potter series. The couple became the legal guardians to their nephew, Harry, when he was just a year old, following the murders of his own parents. Petunia, sister and only living relative to Harry’s mother, Lily, begrudgingly took her orphaned nephew into her home for reasons which, to the very end, are still murky at best. Though we never get more than a very cryptic memory of Petunia reading a note from Professor Dumbledore which said “Remember my last, Petunia,” we never get more elaboration that this as to why the Dursleys decided to keep Harry.
Throughout the series, it’s made brutally clear that the couple deeply resent their nephew’s very existence. As a result, they take drastic measure to see to it that he takes up as little space as possible. They don’t feed him much, and the food he is given is often stolen by the voracious Dudley. They always say or imply that he is in the way even when he is only doing the endless cleaning that Petunia has assigned him. The two nearly always refer to him as “boy” or “the boy” rather than saying his name. Even the space that Harry is given to sleep, the broom cupboard under the stairs, is an homage to just how little they think of Harry.
Petunia and Vernon are certainly different people, and the series does make sure to point out the differences in their behaviour. Petunia is neurotic and repressed while Vernon is arrogant and angry. But when it comes to Dudley and Harry, they are of one mind. They treat the boys with reverence and loathing, respectively. When I say reverence, I don’t use that word lightly, either. Petunia and Vernon act as if Dudley were a demigod. The boy can do no wrong, in their eyes, and they give him constant offerings in the form of food, clothing, trips, and toys, rendering him completely insufferable to nearly everyone else. Meanwhile, Harry, despite how little space he takes up and how much he does around the house, endures constant physical and verbal abuse from the entire family.
Harry’s abuse is a family pastime, one instituted by Petunia and Vernon which both Dudley, and Vernon’s particularly vicious sister, Harry’s Aunt Marge, relish in participating in. Dudley and Marge are chief examples of how systemic oppression of a group or in this case, an individual, makes that person even more vulnerable to abuses at the hands of others. Petunia and Vernon make it crystal clear that they don’t care about Harry, which make him the perfect victim for any of their friends or family who are seeking an easy target. It went without saying that as long as he was well enough to perform his chores, the Dursleys simply didn’t care what was said or done to him.
We don’t know what sort of environment Vernon and Marge were raised in. But the series paints them as very close, and very similarly cruel people. As for Petunia, memories of her and Lily’s childhoods make it clear that she had long been jealous of her sister, a jealousy that grew into fear and hatred for her powers, and was then transferred to her child, Harry. While Vernon’s abuse of Harry could be explained as a form of tribalism, with Harry being viewed as an interloper in his immediate family, Petunia’s loathing, one which she never managed to keep off her face, was surely borne of a loathing for her sister which she was never able to fully express. It’s quite possible that every time Petunia looked into Harry’s eyes, Lily’s eyes, she felt once more the pain of being the unspecial sibling, and this fueled her desire to make her son more special than him by comparison. More treasured, more loved. Through Harry and Dudley, Petunia was able to recreate her unsatisfying childhood and feel somewhat vindicated. It’s also possible that the guilt she felt for doing so, the reason why she was never quite able to meet Harry’s eyes, only made her hate him more.
It is naturally assumed that Vernon kept Harry in their home for Petunia’s sake, but why did she keep Harry? A sense of obligation? To punish him for his mother’s imagined wrongs? To give their son a playmate? Whatever her reasons, never getting a clear answer is one of the most disappointing aspects of the Harry Potter series, and one of the most ingenious plot devices. The senseless cruelty of the Dursleys is necessary in a series ripe with social commentary. Because oppression doesn’t have to make sense, or have an explanation, in order to be real. Oppressors don’t need anything but willingness and ability in order to ruin lives.
The fact that Petunia and Vernon were the quintessential nuclear couple is also vital to the plot because so often, we see villains as something more like Lord Voldemort: supremely evil beings on quests for power. But every day, happily-married, productive, employed, well-groomed, home-owning, child-rearing, law-abiding “normal” people can be oppressors as well. In fact, most oppressors are all of these things, which is why systemic oppressions like racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism (to name a few) are not eliminated, but only passed down from generation to generation. When the oppressor is a feared tyrant, there is hope of usurping both his power and his message. When the oppressor is a neighbour, family, friend, lover, or acquaintance, we only become more deeply entrenched in casual cruelty, more willing to ignore and therefore internalize toxic attitudes and behaviours, much like Dudley did.
Like his relationship with Dudley, Harry’s relationships with his aunt and uncle prepared him for a world were authority figures weren’t always right, kind, caring, or even all that smart. Challenging the narrative that all adults, regardless of who they are and what they are asking, should be obeyed is critical to both creating independent thinkers, and helping children end cyclical/generational abuse. The notion that children should be seen and not heard, and that because they are smaller and younger, children’s feelings don’t matter as much is certainly one that needs to be thrown in the trash, not recycled. Petunia and Vernon were Harry’s first exercise in defying authority, but they certainly wouldn’t be his last. If Dudley was the muggle counterpart to Draco Malfoy, then his parents were muggle counterparts to Dolores Umbridge and unscrumpulous Ministry of Magic officials, and various Death Eaters in positions of authority.
The comparatively mild threat presented in Petunia and Vernon, while not life-threatening, is far more relatable to readers because it mirrors so many of the hurdles that we face as children in a world where mother and father don’t always know best and sometimes, the people who are entrusted with nurturing you are the ones most dedicated to breaking you down. The world, like the Harry Potter series, is filled with people like Petunia and Vernon, and just as they continued to live without ever facing the consequences for how they abused their nephew, so it is that many oppressive people live and die without ever being punished for their crimes. Petunia and Vernon weren’t extraordinarily evil people. They were your every day monsters-next-door.