In one of my many Harry Potter related conversations with Bayana, we wandered onto the topic of Petunia and her complicated relationship with Harry. This got me thinking about how in many ways Harry’s relationships with some of the most influential people in his childhood was inextricably tied to their affinity for his mother Lily.
This conflict is best illustrated in two characters, Petunia Dursley and Severus Snape. Both Professor Snape and Petunia knew Lily for most of her life. Petunia being her older sister and Severus, her best friend and neighbor. However, both Snape and Petunia have very complicated relationships with Lily. Petunia and Lily seemed to be close loving sisters until Lily received her Hogwarts letter:
This sets off a departure from their once close and familial relationship to a fraught relationship backed in part because of Petunia’s bitterness and jealousy of her sister being set apart from her.
As Lily was being marked as special and different, and being celebrated for it by her family, Petunia felt the kind of jealousy that can only be so strong because of the strength of the love at the core of it. I believe this is why when she wakes up to Harry’s one-year-old self on her doorstep she feels compelled to care for him, despite her strident denial of her sister’s existence until that point. It’s her love for her sister that she takes him in, but her lingering resentment towards her magic that prevents her from showing Harry real care and love. As Harry grows up and shows similar signs of the magic that Lily showed in their youth. This reinforces those bitter feelings of a young Petunia being left out as Lily was set apart for her abilities. Petunia allows the hurt of young Petunia to color the decisions and actions of an adult Mrs. Dursley.
This is not in any way a justification of her actions towards Harry, especially the abuse, it’s just an examination of her motivations. This inability to reconcile and move past the emotions of youth shows up repeatedly in the Harry Potter series, sometimes with disastrous consequences (for example, Sirius Black). This is also a reoccurring issue in life, in general, I believe. Everyone can be tempted to regress to younger versions of themselves depending on the situation. I think that Petunia suffers from this more than any other character in the series save Severus.
Severus’ relationship with Harry Potter is not nearly as complicated as people like to think in my opinion. In reality, Severus fell in love with an idea of Lily Evans who may have never existed. While Lily retains this larger than life presence in Severus’ heart and memory, it’s difficult to believe that the Lily who Snape loved could be the same Lily who grew up to fall in love with James Potter, a person so fiercely despised by Snape.
Yes, Snape spied on the Death Eaters and passed vital information to Dumbledore while misleading Voldemort and risking, ultimately losing his life. This is brave, no doubt, but does it excuse his actions towards Harry during the majority of their acquaintance? I don’t think there was a need for Snape to develop a close loving relationship with Harry, as Professor Lupin or Hagrid did, but there are numerous examples of his hostile behavior – bordering on abuse – to Harry (and Neville!). If his ultimate job is to protect Harry from Voldemort, his biggest failure came from being unable to put aside his disdain for Harry, which is actually disdain for James, and teach him Occlumency.
His inability to set aside his feelings of hate for Harry led directly to the death of Sirius Black. A failure that I, personally will never forgive him for. This regressive behavior also shows that his love for Lily is not pure and altruistic as the fandom would have you believe. It’s self-serving and actually disregards who Lily actually was. To truly love Lily and devote yourself to the defeat of her murderer, Snape needed to do more than protect Harry from physical threats, which he did. He needed to ensure that Harry grew up with all of the tools needed to be a functional and happy person, which Lily undoubtedly would have wanted for her son,
Harry is a uniquely kind and honest person, so he was able to overcome this treatment to remain the hero of our story. However, his mother’s life and death irrevocably damaged the people who played major roles in his life. We may never know what exactly it was about Lily that had such a drastic effect on people, but maybe if we dream hard enough, JK will give us that Marauders series the fandom wants so desperately. Until then, we remain puzzled by Lily and the relationships she had during her short life and fascinated by Harry’s ability to overcome it all.
[This post is written as a part of our Harry Potter Week. Make sure to check out our new projects, including our #WizardTeam podcast and the Hogwarts BSU project]