Where It All Goes Down
England, early 1990s
If that brand new Harry Potter theme park in Orlando is any indication, the Harry Potter books have very memorable settings. But there are more settings than just Hogwarts in Azkaban, though the super cool school is probably the first thing people think of in relation to Harry Potter. So, instead of just talking about Hogwarts (it's huge, it's awesome, it's magical), we're also going to look at some of the smaller settings that play a big role in Azkaban. First up, the Dursley house.
Muggles vs. Magic
Azkaban and the previous two novels start off at the Dursley house. Often, an initial setting is used to set the tone for the entire novel, but in this case the Dursley house is used to set up a contrast. By the time we get into the magical world (Chapter 3), it seems even more magical by comparison to the dreary suburbia of the Dursley house.
Harry went down to breakfast the next morning to find the three Dursleys already sitting around the kitchen table. They were watching a brand-new television, a welcome-home-for-the-summer present for Dudley, who had been complaining loudly about the long walk between the fridge and the television in the living room. (2.1.1)
The Dursley house is like a prison for Harry. It's boring, it's colorless, and it revolves around consumer items like televisions. Compare this to Hogwarts, which is practically a riot of color and people:
It was a sea of pointed black hats; each of the long House tables was lined with students, their faces glimmering by the light of thousands of candles, which were floating over the tables in midair. (5.240)
The golden plates and goblets before them filled suddenly with food and drink. [...]
It was a delicious feast; the hall echoed with talk, laughter, and the clatter of knives and forks. (5.262-263)
It's notable that the Dursleys don't really function as a cohesive unit. They watch TV while eating breakfast and don't really interact with each other. We can contrast this to meals and activities at Hogwarts, where everyone is always talking (as the pages of sometimes uninterrupted dialog indicate) and where magic seems to create a community.
There's a common thread uniting all of the smaller settings that play an important role in the novel and that's invasion – the outside world is constantly intruding on Harry and his friends this year, which is a sign that they are starting to grow up and become more a part of the adult world.
So it's fitting that Harry spends part of his summer by himself in Diagon Alley. It serves as a nice foray into the adult wizarding world, but it's also a childhood fantasy come true. Harry's free to hang out, go shopping, and eat ice cream all day in Diagon Alley. The wizarding world is pretty insular, in a lot of ways – it's top secret, it has a fairly small number of people in it. But insular doesn't mean safe, as we see with the Sirius Black threat.
(Click the map infographic to download.)
The Wider Wizarding World
The idea of a threat intruding upon nice, safe parts of the wizarding world occurs throughout Book 3 – the Dementors decide to hitch a ride on the Hogwarts Express, Sirius Black breaks into Hogwarts two times, Dementors crash a Quidditch game, executioners pay Hagrid and Buckbeak a visit, and a traitor disguised as a rat has been hanging out in Gryffindor for the past few years. All of these threats contrast with the more home-grown threats in the earlier books – the basilisk in Book 2, for instance, was very much inside Hogwarts itself. This is the first book where we get a strong sense of dangers aside from Voldemort that come from the wider wizarding world.
This idea of the wider wizarding world is a part of the other smaller settings that play a huge role in the book too: Hogsmeade and the Shrieking Shack, in particular. Harry and his friends are continually trying to get out of the castle in this book, which is a theme best represented by the Marauder's Map.
Hogsmeade itself is similar to Hogwarts in a lot of ways – it's fun, it's magical, and there's lots to do and see. But it's also a right of passage; going there is a sign of growing up. So it makes sense that the most important scenes in Hogsmeade don't take place in joke shops or candy stores. They take place in the Three Broomsticks, a pub that both adults and kids frequent, and in the Shrieking Shack, a place of danger where secrets are revealed among literal ruins of the past.
It was extremely crowded, noisy, warm, and smoky. A curvy sort of woman with a pretty face was serving a bunch of rowdy warlocks up a the bar. (10.3102).
Though kids are welcome in the Three Broomsticks, it's a place that serves adults as well, which the trio discovers to their dismay when their professors come in for a drink. It's also notable that the kids don't just run into adults they know there; they also encounter random adults, coming in for a drink. This is a place removed from the confines of the school, out in the real wizarding world. So it's really fitting that this is where Harry learns a ton of dark information about his father and Sirius Black. It's even more fitting that he gets the truth about everything, finally, in the Shrieking Shack.
Her wide eyes were traveling around the boarded windows.
"Harry," she whispered, "I think we're in the Shrieking Shack."
Harry looked around. His eyes fell on a wooden chair near them. Large chunks had been torn out of it; one of the legs had been ripped off entirely. (17.57-59)
Quietly as they could, they crept out into the hall and up the crumbling staircase. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust [...] (17.62)
We spend more uninterrupted time in the Shack than in any other location in the book. The Shack becomes the set of a play in a lot of ways, where characters come and go while we stay rooted inside one room of the Shack for multiple chapters. It's really fitting that very dark revelations about the past occur in a literal ruin and relic, namely Lupin's painful and haunted past. The dark, decaying house also serves as a sort of stand-in for the other places we hear about during Sirius's tale – the forbidding and horrible Azkaban prison (which we never actually visit in the narrative) and James and Lily's house, which was destroyed by Voldemort (and by Peter, second-hand – we shake our fists at him!) on the night of their murder.
Despite its dark appearance, though, the Shack was also home to some good times between Lupin and his friends in the past, and it's where Harry finally meets his real godfather, who isn't the mass murderer everyone assumes he is. Appearances can always be deceiving in the world of Harry Potter, and the Shack is no exception to that rule. Want to read more about how the Shack ties into some of the novel's major themes? Check out the "Symbolism" section.
Danger tries to come in while heroes try to go out, and overall the settings here link school and the outside world, and Harry's childhood and oncoming adulthood, closer together.