I was going to do a recap of Chamber of Secrets chapter by chapter again, but I found I didn’t have quite as much to say per chapter as with Philosopher’s Stone. So I’m trying this format instead.
It does pain me to say it, but Chamber of Secrets is rather weak as Harry Potter stories go, though certainly not a bad book overall.
As often happens in sequels to stories with relatively happy endings, everything has gone seriously downhill with the start of this new installment. In Harry’s case, he’s back to being treated horribly by the Dursleys, his friends are all apparently ignoring him, and nobody is acknowledging his birthday. Aunt Petunia even tries to hit him with a frying pan! We also get some summaries of things from the previous book, in case anybody decided to start with this one for some reason: it’s done fairly smoothly here, but it’ll still be a relief when Rowling stops bothering with it in Order of the Phoenix.
As in the first book, Harry is granted a dramatic and triumphant escape from the mundane Muggle world – and as in the first book, is soon deposited in a much more wacky and random place: the wonderful Burrow, with its haphazard stacked design and its overgrown gnome-infested garden. Eventually, Harry’s heading back to Hogwarts – and I don’t know if I’m just being a stick-in-the-mud, but it really is hard to justify Harry and Ron’s decision to fly the Weasleys’ Ford Anglia to Hogwarts, instead of just waiting a few minutes to see if Mr and Mrs Weasley come back through the barrier. Really the only defence is that they’re twelve years old and they like a bit of adventure. I do like though how the journey starts out as a kind of fantasy scenario with fun and beautiful clouds and being in “a different world“, only for reality to kick in eventually as they have no drink, no food besides toffees, and clouds get quite boring after a while.
Once Harry returns to Hogwarts and classes resume, there are still some clumsy elements. Two characters we haven’t encountered before – Justin Finch-Fletchley and Colin Creevey – get suddenly thrown at us early on, and it’s emphasised that they’re both Muggle-born: why, could it be that something bad involving Muggle-borns is going to be happening this year? Nearly Headless Nick’s Deathday Party feels like a pointless interlude (though it does give us a proper date for the story for the first time, by saying Nick died in 1492 and that was 500 years prior), just to get Harry, Ron and Hermione into the right place to see the petrified Mrs Norris. We do meet Moaning Myrtle for the first time at the party as well, but that could have been done when the trio goes into her bathroom in the next chapter. Later, Harry briefly ends up in Dumbledore’s office, seemingly just to establish Fawkes the phoenix and his abilities which will be important later on.
As the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets progresses, the red herrings – Harry and co. thinking that Malfoy is the Heir of Slytherin, and so on – seem rather more obvious as such. The overall vilification of Slytherin, meanwhile, continues in earnest: the password to their common room is ‘pure-blood’, Slytherin girl Millicent Bulstrode looks considerably more ugly than any girl we’ve heard described in the other houses, and even Salazar Slytherin stuck out as a bad egg among the other founders of Hogwarts. It’s also pretty convenient how the Basilisk’s victims all find themselves in different circumstances where they don’t look directly into its eyes and die – as must also have happened when the Chamber was first opened, since we’re told the Basilisk attacked several students but only killed one.
This is really more negativity than I’d like to convey when talking about Harry Potter, so let’s talk about some good stuff. The central mystery itself is constructed compellingly, with the pieces falling into place one by one as our intrepid young heroes investigate – Harry and Ron even having to do so without Hermione in the latter stages. One good thing that Rowling does when setting up red herrings is actually having them make sense from the characters’ perspectives. For example, when Ron thinks that Malfoy is the Heir of Slytherin, he suggests that Malfoy attacked Colin out of frustration over the Quidditch match. When Ernie Macmillan thinks Harry is the Heir, he has his own explanations for why Harry would want to attack Mrs Norris and Colin.
Foreshadowing is handled very well:
• Ginny is frequently mentioned as being distressed at the attacks, or being quiet or “peaky“, though it’s not highlighted and you only really notice it with hindsight. Hagrid mentions seeing her around his cabin, perhaps looking for roosters? Even the mention that she is “terrified” to see Harry with the diary, which should look suspicious on the first read-through, is just slipped surreptitiously into the prose.
• While disguised as Crabbe and Goyle, Harry and Ron see Percy and Penelope Clearwater coming out of the same area one after the other.
• Ron, on how Riddle won his award for Special Services to the School: “Maybe he murdered Myrtle, that would have done everyone a favour…”
• We see in the diary flashback that Riddle wears a silver Prefect badge, which gives away to the attentive reader that he’s in Slytherin!
There’s also smart foreshadowing for future books:
• There’s an early mention of Mundungus Fletcher: given what we learn about him later, he must have been around one of the raids Mr Weasley mentions.
• Peeves smashes Hogwarts’ Vanishing Cabinet, creating severe problems for Malfoy in four years’ time.
• The description of how Harry is inexplicably drawn to the diary – “he kept absent-mindedly picking it up and turning the pages, as though it was a story he wanted to finish. And while Harry was sure he had never heard the name T.M. Riddle before, it still seemed to mean something to him, almost as though Riddle was a friend he’d had when he was very small, and half-forgotten” – seems very clear foreshadowing of his Horcrux status with hindsight.
The revelation that Riddle is Voldemort is another great twist, and starts giving us a proper idea of Voldemort’s background: all we knew from Philosopher’s Stone was that he had attended Hogwarts, and it’s hard to imagine the monster we see at the end of that book as once human. Meanwhile, the diary introduces us unknowingly to Horcruxes: its nature, and the “transformations” that Voldemort underwent, are left quite vague, but we still accept this because we know it’s a big magical universe.
For any fanfiction readers out there, by the way, I recommend The Very Secret Diary by Arabella, which details Ginny’s interactions with Tom Riddle over the course of the year. It’s compelling but also painful: poor Ginny goes through hell.
Some Character Observations
The qualities that made Harry a really likeable hero in the first book definitely carry over to this one. He initially refuses to follow Dobby’s warning and not go back to Hogwarts before he can’t bear staying with the Dursleys – but when he sees Dobby again later, by which time he knows the basic nature of the threat, his first thought is not abandoning Hermione because she’ll be targeted. I also like how, even when Harry thinks Hagrid opened the Chamber of Secrets the first time, he doesn’t then believe that Hagrid is the Heir of Slytherin, instead thinking it more likely that young Hagrid just really wanted to see the monster. Harry is still very tenacious – even when the Petrified students are about to be revived, he can’t let it go and still wants to pursue his independent investigation by talking to Myrtle – and while he gets substantial assistance in defeating the Basilisk, he was still prepared to take on the challenge alone in the first place. Harry is indeed a true Gryffindor.
Malfoy also has some interesting moments in this book that give some extra insights into his character. On his first appearance, he’s with his father in Borgin & Burke’s and not aware that Harry is present: we’re used to seeing him swagger around Hogwarts, sneering all the while, but here he’s just a petulant child, demanding a present and making excuses for not having better grades. Later, Hermione definitely hits a nerve when she points out he’s gotten onto the Slytherin Quidditch team through his dad’s money rather than his talent: Malfoy stops smoothly taunting the Gryffindor team and spits the wizarding equivalent of the N-word at her. And when Malfoy gets to his first Hogwarts Quidditch game, he’s more interested in his usual taunting of Harry than actually playing – but when this causes him to completely miss the Snitch and lose the game for Slytherin, he actually learns from his mistake, as he’s more focussed when playing Quidditch in later books.
Dobby’s appearance in Chapter 2 tells us most of what we need to know about house elves in a relatively short space. It’s interesting how his mind clearly works very differently from a human’s, and how what he perceives as greatness in Harry is really just a different set of moral values from growing up in a different environment. As with some elements in the first book, the whole theme of slavery seems much worse reading this through older eyes.
By the end, there’s no particular reason why we would expect to see Dobby again, yet he appears in every subsequent book except Prisoner of Azkaban. As for “Just promise never to try and save my life again” – thank goodness he doesn’t keep that promise.
As with many characters in the first book, Lockhart gets across the kind of person he is very quickly in his first appearance: he loudly draws attention to Harry and drags him up for a photo, just to make sure he himself gets a little more publicity. Rowling also constantly tells us the colour of Lockhart’s robes whenever he appears, just to emphasise what a fashionista he is.
Lockhart’s conversation with Harry before the first Herbology lesson tells us even more about him: he assumes that Harry has the same motivations that he does, he makes the flying car incident more about himself – even his language is revealing, with the number of times he says ‘I’. You get the impression that he would like to set himself up as a proper mentor to Harry, which would no doubt raise his profile even more long-term: he certainly focuses on Harry a lot, from making him take part in class demonstration to trying to fix his Quidditch injury. By the time we get to his class, where he sets a test all about himself, his narcissism has reached truly comical levels – and bear in mind, Rowling has said that she based Lockhart on a real person!
The scene in the staff room where Lockhart’s façade is properly broken is very effective, as his true self isn’t just conveyed in his behaviour – Rowling also says, “He didn’t look remotely handsome any more”, thus taking away one of his most emphasised qualities.
Oh, how I want to give this little twerp a clip round the ear. JK Rowling may not have been especially famous herself by the time Chamber of Secrets came out, but Colin Creevey certainly seems to be representative of the annoying, overenthusiastic fans that many celebrities have to deal with. It’s worth noting that when Colin snuck out to visit Harry in the hospital wing, he actually brought his camera. Was he hoping Harry would be in the mood for some photography in his hospital bed? I don’t think Harry would have reacted very positively if Colin had made it that far.
Little Observations and Nitpicks
• So what exactly does Uncle Vernon say to the workman who’s fitting the bars on Harry’s window? Does he perhaps slip him a few extra quid to not call the NSPCC?
• How is the radio in the Burrow powered without electricity? With magic, I guess. If only wizards would reveal themselves to Muggles, we could slash carbon emissions overnight.
• There are some little hints about what Ginny is really like when she’s not distracted by Harry – like Ron saying, “You don’t know how weird it is for her to be this shy, she never shuts up normally.” That sounds more like the more mature Ginny we see in Order of the Phoenix.
• The gnome-throwing reminds me of the minigame on Pottermore, where I gave countless gnomes brain damage by letting go at the wrong moment and chucking them into rocks and walls.
• Speaking of Pottermore, it would be great if Rowling could give us an issue or two of The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle.
• Apparently Percy is so full of himself that he actually wears his Prefect badge at home! No doubt Fred and George make lots of jokes about it.
• Floo Powder is the first of multiple instant travel methods that we see wizards using, and as much as instant travel is one of the magical powers I’d most like to make use of, it’s notable that it always comes with the penalty of being a physically uncomfortable experience.
• Arthur fighting with Lucius – that was one of the things I was most annoyed got cut out of the film.
• I do like the ‘right behind you’ moment with Snape after Harry and Ron arrive at Hogwarts. Snape’s sarcastic unpleasantness can make for dark humour under the right circumstances.
• Where do the Headless Hunt’s ghost horses come from?
• “Actually, Harry, you could be the Heir of Slytherin for all we know!” You’re so reassuring, Hermione.
• I would have liked to know more about just how the Muggle-born students feel, knowing somebody put a monster in the school for the express purpose of killing them or driving them away.
• I like how Harry describes Malfoy’s impression of Colin as “cruel but accurate“. He appreciates good physical comedy when he sees it, Harry does.
• So the Mandrakes get into moods, throw parties, and can apparently fall in love…perhaps it’s best we don’t see Professor Sprout chopping them up to make the restorative potion. Might be a tad disturbing.
• What exactly are the dwarfs that Lockhart hires as cupids for Valentine’s Day? I don’t recall any other reference to dwarfs in the Harry Potter universe.
• What exactly is the outside world saying about what’s happening at Hogwarts? Have the victims’ parents been alerted? Can St Mungo’s not do anything?
• “Well, er, if you must know, Ginny, er, walked in on me the other day when I was – well, never mind…” – This line from Percy can’t help but sound potentially dirty to me now.
• What would have happened if Riddle won? Would there be two Voldemorts?
• I wonder when Dumbledore actually realised that Harry was a Horcrux. It seems likely that he knew before the final chapter, as he would have heard about Harry speaking Parseltongue at the Duelling Club – but did he suspect it before then? Was he thinking at this point that Harry would really have to die?
• How does the Malfoys’ washing work if they can’t give Dobby clothes? Is it acceptable if they just tell him “Dobby, do the washing” without directly handing him anything?
• “All those times I could’ve died, and I didn’t manage it?” I count four for this book, to be exact: the Whomping Willow, the rogue Bludger, the spiders, and the Chamber itself.
As I said above, Chamber of Secrets has a lot of flaws upon re-reading. Maybe it’s because I’m older now that I can properly recognise them – or maybe, after being properly introduced to the wizarding world again through Philosopher’s Stone, some of the novelty has diminished in this linear re-read. For one thing, I still really like the prose, but nothing about it stood out in this one except for Rowling’s inventive use of similes (if that’s the right word – e.g. “Ron looked as though he’d just been told he had to go and live in the Forbidden Forest.”).
It also feels a bit awkward how the central conflict here is independent from the first book, rather than happening as a direct result of those events. But then again, Chamber of Secrets does tell a different story, and that’s a good thing. At this point, you could make predictions that Gryffindor would win the House Cup and there would be a new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher every year – but you could also get the impression that there were going to be different sources of conflict to battle in each of the books to come, despite them ultimately stemming from the single source that is Voldemort.
I was a little disappointed after re-reading Chamber of Secrets, but as I said, it’s not bad overall. Am now looking forward to Prisoner of Azkaban.