Punished for the boa constrictor incident, Harry is locked in his cupboard until summer. When finally free, he spends most of the time outside his house to escape the torments of Dudley’s cohorts. Harry is excited by the prospect of starting a new school in the fall, far away from Dudley for the first time in his life. One day, Uncle Vernon tells Harry to fetch the mail. Harry notices a letter bearing a coat of arms that is addressed to him in “The Cupboard under the Stairs.” Uncle Vernon grabs the envelope from him and shows it to his wife. Both are shocked. They force Dudley and Harry to leave the kitchen in order to discuss what to do. The next day, Uncle Vernon visits Harry in the cupboard. He refuses to discuss the letter, but he tells Harry to move into Dudley’s second room, previously used to store Dudley’s toys.
The next day, another letter comes for Harry, this time addressed to him in “The Smallest Bedroom.” Uncle Vernon becomes alarmed. Harry tries to get the letter, but Uncle Vernon keeps it from him. The following morning, Harry wakes up early to try to get the mail before anyone gets up, but he is thwarted by Uncle Vernon, who has slept near the mail slot waiting for the letters. Though Uncle Vernon nails the mail slot shut, twelve letters come for Harry the next day, slipped under the door or through the cracks. Soon letters flood the house, entering in impossible ways. Uncle Vernon continues to prevent Harry from reading any of them. Enraged, Uncle Vernon decides to take everyone away from the house, but at the hotel where they stay, a hundred letters are delivered for Harry. Uncle Vernon decides on even greater isolation. On a dark, stormy night, he takes the family out to an island with only one shack on it. Inside, Vernon bolts the door. At midnight, as it becomes Harry’s birthday, there is a loud thump at the door.
Harry’s importance is becoming undeniable. While the disappearance of the snake tank’s glass at the zoo might be passed off as a fluke, the letters that flood the Dursley home clearly point to some supernatural occurrence. While no one can be sure of Harry’s role in the boa constrictor incident, the deluge of letters addressed to Harry shows indisputably that he has some link to magic. Though our sense of Harry’s importance is growing, this importance remains unexplained. Rowling cleverly shows us the letters flooding in without initially letting us know what they say (the Dursley parents know, but we and Harry do not). It is far more effective that we do not know: whatever the letters say, the fact that so many of them arrive is reason enough to be awestruck, and they are more mysterious unopened.
Harry is simply impressed that the letters are addressed to him at all. Having lived in obscurity and neglect under the stairs, he has not been recognized as a person for ten years. Now the address to “Mr. H. Potter, The Cupboard under the Stairs” finally gives him a social identity. That they are addressed to “Mr. H. Potter,” rather than simply to “Harry,” reinforces the idea that Harry is gaining an adult identity.
The Dursleys’ nighttime retreat to the deserted island heightens the suspense of the letters’ significance. Rowling uses many of the elements of gothic literature, a genre of fiction that establishes an uneasy mood through the use of remote, desolate settings, supernatural or macabre events, and violence, to shroud this scene in an atmosphere of mystery and terror. The dark night, the terrible weather, and the desolate island build up the scene’s tension until there is a climactic thump on the door at the stroke of midnight. With this thumping, we know that the Dursleys cannot possibly hide any longer from the supernatural forces at work.