J.K. Rowling does so many things so well, it feels a shame to assign Harry Potter to the category of commercial fiction. The Dursleys who plague Harry at the beginning are not so much stereotypes as demonic annelids of the Roald Dahl variety. They represent bourgeois timidity and conventionality, sure, and crude consumerism too, but like Boggis, Bunce, and Bean in The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge in James and the Giant Peach, their greater offense is an appetitive form of neglect.
You can almost feel the air stir under the exaction of their voracious sucking appetites–in Dudley’s case for food, but more palpably in Vernon and Petunia Dursley’s case, an appetite for the esteem of their peers. These sorts of villains are villainous because of the strength of their appetites, which render them unfit to love and care for children–they attend too much to themselves to attend to Harry–and their ‘appetitive neglect’ creates in Harry, and in literary forerunners like James Henry Trotter, an ache of homelessness that’s truly uncomfortable. Surely this nightmare, wherein desire precludes love, arises in part from a child’s suspicion that his own desires are so antisocial that he may be forced to relinquish his citizenship in the world and wander the loveless wastes like Grendel, crazed with hunger and self-hate, until Beowulf pulls off his arm.
On the other hand, the stress of leaving home for a child really does depend on his realization that other people who are not his parents don’t care for him in the same way. Other people have their own needs and their own problems. What can be even more troubling is that even inside his own home, a child is not always at home; while a child’s parents might care for him more than outsiders do, his parents are people too with their own needs and problems. And troubles may compromise an adult’s ability to tend to a child, which leaves the child to his own resources in a somewhat homeless, lonely condition.
In Harry Potter’s case, his parents are compromised totally–they’re dead–and there is nowhere he feels at home. Harry’s room in the cupboard under the stairs calls to mind the hilarious character Block in Franz Kafka’s The Trial–Block lives under the stairs of his attorney in a little closet!–and the sense of universal un-ease, of no place to hide or rest in Harry’s life partakes of Kafkaesque paranoia.
More than any other magic spell, Hogwarts casts one to ward off that Kafkaesque plague. It casts the spell of home away from home. It’s fantastically cozy, reachable only by a train whose platform is concealed by a secret passage, and then by crossing a moat. It has houses within it–Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin–each sealed up behind painted portraits whose subjects are their guardians. Though the figures wander away from their picture frames occasionally, they protect each house in a manner both secure and manageable to a child–with a password–and they’re irreproachably immortal, as are the ghosts appointed to each house like masters with infinite tenure. Hogwarts abounds with friends to sit with by the common room fire on a snowy day and to study with when exams approach. Harry has Hermione and the comfortingly populous Weasley clan, with so many older brothers to help look after Harry and Ron that there are one or two brothers to spare, and from the start Harry also has the friendship of Hagrid the friendly giant and Hogwarts groundskeeper. This romantic version of boarding school infrastructure is wonderfully redundant with parallel systems of attention and assistance: prefects, valets at the doors, watchful professors, deputy headmistresses, team captains, and Albus Dumbledore sitting high above all as the final backstop should all these redundant systems ever fail.
Rowling decorates Hogwarts unerringly to emphasize this coziness. She has a very strong sense of connotation and shows it in the fanciful names she chooses. There are none of those awful names that refer to no emotional address or to the wrong ones as in the work of Isaac Asimov, whose every character name sounds like an anagram that should be unscrambled to either ‘salivary gland’ or ‘dental mold.’ Rowling makes you at home in her fictional world by reference to the real, familiar one, and Hogwarts is a place that one doesn’t want to leave, where danger and exploration feel fun and never too threatening, where all is infused with an idealized mother’s love.