Rereading Harry Potter as an adult certainly changes my perspective on many different scenes and characters. Like most people, I hated Petunia and Vernon Dursley—the two of them are horrible, abusive bigots who deserve all the derision fans levy at them—and I still hate them to this day. And, like most people, I also used to hate Dudley just as much. As an adult, though, my hate for him has turned into pity. When we are first introduced to Dudley, he’s an awful bully of a character. Dudley is a spoiled little brat with a huge sense of entitlement, and the way he treats Harry is awful. However, like Cinderella’s stepsisters, he is an abuse victim and his treatment at the hands of others, both his parents and wizarding kind, should also be condemned.
Like any good parent, Petunia and Vernon don’t want Dudley to go without and they certainly try to give him the childhood that they wished they’d had. In the process of doing that, however, they fail to teach Dudley the essential life lessons that he needs. Instead, they spoil him rotten. Dudley learns very early on that he can get whatever he wants when he wants it, and he lacks any sense of gratitude. During his eleventh birthday, he throws a fit because he only got thirty-seven presents, when the year before he had thirty-eight. In order to calm him down, his parents promise to buy him two more presents, giving into his behavior and demands. What’s worse, Vernon even praises Dudley’s actions and says, “Little tyke wants his money’s worth, just like his father. ‘Atta boy, Dudley!”
As the books continue, the Dursleys also teach Dudley to look down on other people for being different, and that includes Harry, his own cousin. Vernon Dursley hates wizarding kind due to a bad dinner he had with James Potter, where James boasted about his racing broom and showed off. We don’t know what else happened at the dinner other than that it left Lily in tears. Petunia hates wizards out of a sense of jealousy. She wanted to be a witch like her sister and go to school to learn magic, and when that didn’t happen, she took to calling her sister a freak and dealt with her emotions by othering wizards. Snape nearly crushing her with a tree branch probably only made matters worse. In the end, after Lily’s acceptance into Hogwarts, it’s entirely possible that Petunia spent the rest of their childhood being emotionally abusive toward her, and in the chapter “The Boy Who Lived”, we even get a sense during a conversation between Vernon and Petunia that Petunia’s hatred for the Potters is the main driving force for both their actions.
Raising your child to be a bigot is horrible, and the Dursleys don’t just teach Dudley to hate wizards; they teach him to hate anyone who happens to be different as being lesser. It would be one horrible thing if they had raised Dudley by himself, but they don’t. They raise him next to Harry and encourage an unhealthy relationship between the two, which is even more insidious.
Last month, Lady Geek Girl wrote a post about Cinderella where she posited that the stepsisters were also abuse victims due to how spoiled they were and how Lady Tremaine pit them against each other and Cinderella. I wholeheartedly agree, and I believe that this applies to Dudley and Harry as well. Harry most certainly does not deserve the abuse his aunt and uncle put him through, and I will talk more about that later in another post. Unfortunately, Harry is also used as a prop in Dudley’s grooming. It’s through actively treating Harry worse than Dudley—not getting him proper gifts, thinking it’s okay to leave him in a car for hours, yelling at him for having dreams, and allowing dogs to attack him, among other things—that they teach Dudley that he should also be mean to other people, because other people deserve it for not being him.
During a 2000 interview, J. K. Rowling told us:
“I like torturing them. You should keep an eye on Dudley. It’s probably too late for Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. I feel sorry for Dudley. I might joke about him, but I feel truly sorry for him because I see him as just as abused as Harry. Though, in possibly a less obvious way. What they are doing to him is inept, really. I think children recognize that. Poor Dudley. He’s not being prepared for the world at all, in any reasonable or compassionate way, so I feel sorry for him. But there’s something funny about him, also. The pig’s tail was irresistible.”
Dudley is a character that I also feel sorry for, but unlike J. K. Rowling, I found no humor in his situation, and I thought the pig’s tail was just as awful as everything else. When it comes to characters like Dudley, it’s important to show an audience that bullies can be punished and that there can be justice in the world for their victims. The pig’s tail, however, was not that moment. It was just as abusive and hateful as the Dursleys’ treatment of Harry. Hagrid didn’t give Dudley a tail in order to punish Dudley for being a bully—Hagrid couldn’t have even known what went on between the two of them. He did it because Vernon insulted Dumbledore, and Dudley made a good victim. Furthermore, Hagrid had no intention of removing the tail at all, and we even find out that he had tried to turn Dudley fully into a pig but messed up the spell instead. What the hell would have happened if Hagrid had succeeded? It is most certainly not a wizard’s job to teach Dudley to be a better person, but it takes zero effort to avoid being an asshole and not transfiguring an eleven-year-old child’s body. The Dursleys end up needing to get the tail surgically removed, and for that, thank God they’re rich assholes who live in a country with government insurance and not poor assholes struggling to get by. Otherwise, Dudley would have been stuck paying for a mistake that wasn’t his.
When we see bullies get their comeuppance, it needs to be for something they did, not for something someone else did. This doesn’t happen until the fifth book, where we see Dudley and his group of friends make fun of Harry’s PTSD over Cedric’s death—which is a clear lack of empathy and sympathy that never should have been encouraged in a child. It goes to show that the Dursleys’ hatred for wizards has been so ingrained in Dudley that another person in pain becomes a laughing matter for their son to take joy in. The Dursleys have taught Dudley that other people exist for his amusement, which strips other people of their humanity and personhood. It’s not until shortly afterward, when Dudley is attacked by a Dementor and saved by Harry, that he truly starts to change as a person.
During a 2007 interview, J. K. Rowling was asked what Dudley saw during the attack, and she responded:
“My feeling is that he saw himself, exactly for what he was, and for a boy that spoiled, it would be terrifying. So he was jolted out of it. Dementor attacks aren’t usually good for people, but this one was.”
The last book shows us that Dudley and Harry leave off on some good terms, and I think it’s wonderful that Harry ends up with a family member who actually cares for and loves him—but Dudley, like Harry, is going to have to come to terms with the abuse his own parents put him through. We last see Dudley when he was seventeen—two years after the attack—and that is not enough time to fully comprehend the abuse and reconciling that that abuse comes from people who love him. I was immensely happy with Dudley’s change in character after this attack, and I agree that being shown exactly what he was ended up benefiting Dudley, since he took that experience and decided to grow as a person from it. At the same time, though, this was a rude wake-up call he never should have needed in the first place, because his parents should have done a better job raising him.
I think it’s very clear reading the books that we are supposed to come away from the series understanding that Dudley was abused and victimized—Dumbledore flat out tells us so during the sixth book—and Dudley’s reconciliation with Harry is certainly an important moment. But there is no follow-up to that moment, and as a result, Dudley’s characterization suffers and whatever message was intended gets lost. Dudley goes from being a bully, to being attacked, to spontaneously accepting Harry as an important and good part of his life, but the development in between is something we never get to see, and therefore his character never progresses from anything more than a joke. This could have been solved simply by seeing more of his character. I also don’t believe for one second that the Dementor attack and the two years following were anywhere near enough time for Dudley to deconstruct all the bigoted ideals he grew up with. It would have been nice to see more from Dudley in the last book—he could have helped the trio out and learned more about the wizarding world. Like many people, I was also disappointed that Dudley didn’t get to drop his own children off on the Hogwarts Express during the epilogue.
Dudley is a character that I can easily relate to, because like Dudley, I was also raised in an environment that taught me to hate other people for being different, and now at the age of twenty-seven, I’m still struggling to deconstruct everything and better myself. I find Dudley an important character because it’s through him that we see yet another kind of abuse victim. We in the audience can understand that the only person responsible for making Dudley a better person is Dudley, but that is a responsibility that shouldn’t have been thrown at him in the first place.