In the third chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The Letters from No One,” Harry Potter –‘the boy who lived’ but who was mistreated by his guardians and kept in a small dark cupboard under the stairs– is prevented from receiving mail that is addressed to him. During this chapter, Harry’s ill-advised guardians on Privet Drive are bent on concurrently dehumanizing and dewizardizing him. They are ashamed to be associated with a “half-blood” and they consider him dangerous, even though their fear is based, not in reality but, in prejudice. At one point during the third chapter, Vernon Dursley, fearing he and his wife are being spied on and watched, tells her, “I’m not having one in the house… Didn’t we swear when we took him in we’d stamp out that dangerous nonsense.” Note Rowling’s pun in the phrase “stamp out” – in reference to Vernon’s attempts to prevent Harry from receiving a letter in the mail. The pun isn’t merely playful; a moral parable can be found within it, as well. Vernon, unaware of the irony of his own glaring hypocrisy, announces that he wishes to “stamp out” “nonsense,” which he calls “dangerous.” Patriarchal ignorance and hypocrisy abound in this moment in the text.
From the Dursleys’ perspective, being a witch or wizard, even one of Muggle ancestry, translates to bearing a permanent mark of shame: of having a kind of illness or defect and of having a second-class status because of it. This second class status justifies, in their eyes, treating Harry like a prisoner. Affected by stigma and by ignorance, Harry’s guardians are not his guardians nor his advocates – they are his overseers and his victimizers. Terrified of what might happen if he were to learn about his wizard status and both fearing and hating him for his difference, which is symbolically marked on his forehead with a scar, the Dursleys take great pains to keep Harry confined and to prevent him from developing self-awareness and agency.
They try to prevent him from receiving mail. This is how we, as readers, know that Harry is not being treated fairly and that his rights as a sentient being -a human and a wizard- are being violated. If Harry were being treated with dignity, he would have been able to receive mail, like any other person, but Harry, in this chapter, is treated as if he is No One. And so it is with sweeping moral irony that Rowling titles her third chapter “The Letters from No One.” It is No One who comes to verify Harry’s Someone-ness, his wizardness (his unique, non-conforming disABLED humanity). Contrary to the Dursleys’ wishes to make Harry believe that no one cares for him and that he is “no one,” Harry is, indeed, someone – someone important. And the “No One” who is trying to send him a letter in the mail is, in fact, someone important, too. “No One” is actually Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Professor Minerva is named after the Roman virgin goddess of wisdom and wisely-strategized warfare; this goddess, known as Athena in Greek mythological stories, is armor-clad and known for shape-shifting, and is usually portrayed in art, in addition to wielding a shield of the head of Medusa, with her sacred creature (her patronus) – an owl: The owl of Minerva.
In “The Letters from No One,” Harry, the boy kept in the cupboard under the stairs, is delivered a letter. Astonished at this, for “no one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him,” Harry holds the parchment of the letter addressed to him in his hands, in what is a significant and momentous moment in his life, only to have it “jerked sharply” away from him.
“That’s mine!” [he says, “trying to snatch it back”]
“Who’d be writing to you? [Dursley]
Vernon Dursley confiscates the letter and takes it from Harry, but at this point Harry is enraged for now he knows that something is wrong. His moral compass is now alerted, for he knows a letter has been sent to him by someone who cares for him enough to send it, and he is empowered with the feeling that he is someone, not no one, and that someone cares for him enough to write him a letter. This knowing is enough to give him, perhaps for the first time, a sense that he matters in the world. A life transformed and empowered, all because of a single letter. A single letter sent in the mail exposes the moral depravity of Harry’s situation – one that he felt but was powerless over until he saw the letter.
“Who’s writing to me?” [Harry]
“No one. It was addressed to you by mistake… I have burned it” [Uncle Vernon]
The symbolic act of burning the letter, of trying to cover up and destroy part of Harry’s history and identity, is a profound one.
But the letter cannot be destroyed by Dursley. Dursley’s efforts to destroy the letter -to destroy the truth- fail. Instead, the letter multiplies. Every effort that Dursley makes to stop the mail from getting to Harry is met with more and more attempts to break the barriers he puts up between Harry and the letter– surmounting in thirty or forty letters “pelting out of the fireplace like bullets.” Dursley takes the family captive and leaves town with them in an attempt to escape the letter, but ultimately all of his attempts to prevent the letter from reaching Harry are doomed to fail.
The chapter ends with someone outside, “knocking to come in,” and the next chapter ushers in Vernon’s defeat – Harry’s letter is delivered to him by his advocate and friend, Hagrid, the keeper of the keys, and he is finally delivered the truth: that he is someone, someone who matters.
Harry, upon learning that he is a wizard, also learns that many muggles hate and fear wizards and witches – his aunt tells him, “I knew you’d be just the same, just as strange, just as — as — abnormal.” While Harry grew up feeling this treatment from those around him, he did not know or understand why. Fortunately, the letter gives him the information he needs to understand who he is and to put the prejudice of those around him into context. Harry can begin to develop an empowered sense of self, and it is the letter that signals this.
It is upon the delivery of the letter that we also learn that mail – letters, newspapers, and parcels – are delivered to and from witches and wizards by owls. In the claws of owls and on the wings of wisdom, letters and parcels are carried. Messages in bottles, literally or proverbially, are given wings. For Harry, the delivery of mail signifies that he matters and that he is connected to others in the world by fellowship. At another point in the book, mail is kept from Harry – causing him to feel isolated and unloved. Both of these moments in the novel offer a significant lesson on the importance of communication. The free flow of communication can humanize, or wizardize, a person – communication takes us beyond survival and gives us the dignity of knowing that we matter.
Literacy, in the form of letter-writing, is one way that we develop self-knowledge and connection with others in the world. Without it, we can become isolated and can be “kept in the cupboard under the stairs.” Those who have been committed into psychiatric institutions against their will, held and drugged their against their will, for days, weeks, or months, know too well what it means to be “kept in the cupboard under the stairs.” For an individual who is confined involuntarily in a psychiatric hospital, especially during the holidays, it is easy to lose faith in humanity or to be bogged down by shame for being different, but being different can be empowering, and this message is one that needs to be delivered to psychiatric institutions across the world. The mental health system, like the Dursleys, often strips people of their human rights to make decisions over their own bodies, tries to “stamp out” those it deems “dangerous” by keeping them them confined and controlled, and treats those with cognitive differences as if they are “No One.”
During the month of December, now and henceforth, Madwomen in the Attic will write and send holiday cards and letters (from “No One”) to individuals who are voluntarily and involuntarily being held in psychiatric institutions. The December Letters Project will happen each December, and we encourage letter-writers from across the globe to participate and to carry out the December Letters Project with us – in your own local communities. At our local meeting in December here in Western New York, we will write secular holiday cards with messages of hope, healing, and encouragement to our friends in psychiatric institutions.
We invite all who care about those who will find themselves spending their holidays in psychiatric institutions to send out holiday greetings (cards, notes, art, and letters) to patients in psychiatric confines this winter. Any card or picture or letter sent in the spirit of kindness to a person experiencing psychiatric confinement will mean so much. Your letter of encouragement and solidarity might be the letter that humanizes a patient in an otherwise traumatizing and dehumanizing situation. Your letter might be the one that makes someone who is being treated like no one remember that they are someone, someone very special.
Be an owl and help a friend.
There are a number of ways to be an owl (to participate in the December Letters Project). You can help by:
Attending our December meeting to make cards, letters, and other greetings together that will be sent out to area psychiatric hospitals and mental health facilities.
Having a December Letter-writing meeting in your local community.
Writing one or more greeting cards independently and sending them to local psychiatric facilities (we recommend contacting the facility in advance for details on how and where to send the letters).
Donating materials (such as cards, colorful paper, decorative stickers and stationary decorations, glue, envelops, letter-paper, pens, and stamps) to MITA for its December Letters meeting.
If you know someone in particular who has experienced or is experiencing psychiatric institutionalization or who is suffering mentally or spiritually during this month, please reach out to them with a card or a letter to let them know that they are someone, that they matter, and that you care.
This winter, we hope to be the owls for our friends who need our fellowship, love, and compassion. We hope to be the owls who deliver letters to those kept in proverbial cupboards under the stairs. We invite you, during December, to join us in recognizing and acknowledging an often-forgotten community of our peers.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Press, 1997.