The second book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets follows Harry Potter’s adventures in his second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. From the moment that the mysterious house-elf, Dobby, arrives in Harry’s bedroom at 4 Privet Drive, the boy-wizard has to deal with his second year of school – just as action-packed as his first.
Like Harry, the readers are introduced to more aspects of the magical world in this novel. Because the reader is placed so firmly in Harry’s shoes and sees and hears only what Harry does, it means that the reader, too, is as innocent in the ways of magic and the wizarding world as the hero is. In the second part of the series the readers are introduced to house elves, or at least to one, Dobby; Knockturn Alley, the seedy part of magical London; the Burrow, where the Weasleys live; a Basilisk, a large snake which scares spiders and which is doing the bidding of Voldemort around Hogwarts; the Whomping Willow that will later in the series increase its significance; Gilderoy Lockhart, a narcissist wizard who becomes the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher; Aragog, a large spider and friend of Hagrid’s; Colin Creevey, a photography and Harry Potter fan; polyjuice potion, which allows the drinker to morph into the person whose hairs are made to brew the potion; and the man who will be causing Harry a lot of strife, Lucius Malfoy, Draco Malfoy’s father. The issue of family bloodlines and what it means in the world of magic, past and present, comes to the fore in this volume after only being hinted at in the first novel.
Quite similar to the first novel in tone, Chamber of Secrets was written by Rowling with a child-audience aged 8 to 12 years in mind. Although over 360 pages long, there are many chapters in the book to obviously make the reading of the novel much easier for younger readers. The language is still on the level of Philosopher’s Stone and so capable readers will find themselves easily reading through the second lot of Harry Potter’s adventures. The fascination that the novel holds on younger readers is obvious – there is humour, friendship, adventure and a mystery that needs solving, all involving children as protagonists and all in a place where their imaginations are allowed to run wild. Moreover, this helps bring back memories for adult readers who may wish for some healthy escapism.
Harry’s sidekicks, as in the previous novel, are Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. A year older, yet their personalities are still the same: Ron is still the Quidditch obsessed, loyal friend and Hermione is the skeptical, know-it-all who often has the answers that help the two boys out of trouble. Characters of the first novel reappear and so there is continuity in not only the story of Harry Potter and his battle against Lord Voldemort, but also in the people around Harry and their individual personalities. Along with the first novel, Chamber of Secrets is still laying the foundations on which the rest of the series will rely heavily on. More is learned about not only the three main characters but also about the Weasley family, especially Ginny Weasley, the Malfoy family, Filch the caretaker of Hogwarts, Hagrid the groundskeeper, Lord Voldemort and other students who are in Gryffindor house.
It is by pure accident at the first meeting of the duelling club run by Lockhart that Harry learns he can speak parseltongue, snake language, when he stops a snake from attacking a fellow student. With an evildoer stalking the halls of Hogwarts, Mrs. Norris (Filch’s cat), Colin Creevey, Nearly Headless Nick (the Gryffindor ghost), Justin Finch-Fletchley, a Ravenclaw student and, later, Hermione, fall victim to the Heir of Slytherin who is somehow petrifying (freezing into statues) his victims; Harry and his two friends must discover what the Chamber of Secrets is, where to find it and who the Heir of Slytherin is in order to protect those students who come from Muggle families. The Heir of Slytherin is bent on ridding Hogwarts of “Mudblood” students, those students whose parents are not wizards or witches and have no links to magic in their family trees. Because of Draco’s pureblood family, Harry believes that Malfoy is the Heir of Slytherin; however, this isn’t the case. Harry has a sneaking suspicion that he himself is somehow related to Salazar Slytherin, one of the four founders of Hogwarts, a Parselmouth, and a wizard who was intent on stopping those with a Muggle background receiving education at the school. Harry keeps secret the Sorting Hat’s insistence that he would have done well in Slytherin and hopes that he is not linked with the Heir of Slytherin or the Chamber of Secrets.
Dobby the house-elf is trying to protect Harry, and so initially tries to dissuade him from returning to Hogwarts by keeping Harry’s mail and in turn hoping that Harry will hate Hogwarts if he thinks that he doesn’t have any friends there. When this doesn’t work, Dobby performs magic in the Dursley (Petunia and Vernon Dursley, aunt and uncle of Harry) household which results in a warning to Harry from the Ministry of Magic about the illegal nature of underage wizards performing magic. This ends in the Dursleys gleefully locking Harry into his room for the rest of the summer until he is rescued by Ron, Fred and George Weasley in a flying Ford Anglia. Rowling’s fond memories of her own adventures with her friend Sean Harris while in high school led to Ron’s character being based somewhat on Harris, as well as using Harris’ car, a turquoise Ford Anglia, to be the choice of transport for the Weasley family.
As in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Harry seems to be the student who has trouble following them around the place, but through rising to the challenges put before him, Harry illustrates, somewhat naively perhaps, to adult and children readers alike that staying true to yourself and fighting for the side of the good ensures that good can overcome evil. The fact that Harry and his two friends always appear to be involved in the suspicious activities around Hogwarts elicits the hatred of the Potions professor, Severus Snape. Snape, an integral character to the entire Harry Potter series, is somewhat sidelined in this instalment and his bullying of Harry is kept to a minimum. Rowling reveals more about Snape in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Themes running through this instalment of the saga build upon the previous novel’s themes of love (parental love first and foremost), friendship (especially between the three main characters), loyalty (to friends, family and one’s heroes) and bravery (in the face of danger and death). Rowling also introduces the magical equivalent of racism: blood purity. This is certainly an issue that is central to the series; later on it is treated very seriously and in an adult manner, but in Chamber of Secrets it is dealt with at a more basic level that can teach children about this issue and the effects of racism upon a community.
As the mystery of the petrified students and Harry’s parseltongue knowledge unfolds, it is hinted that Ginny, Ron’s younger sister, is somehow involved in the happenings around Hogwarts. Unfortunately the young girl feels lonely and so turns to writing in a magical diary, finding a friend within the pages who writes back to her. Ginny is duped and comes under the influence of her new ‘friend’: Tom Marvolo Riddle. Whereas readers have heard the monikers used by witches and wizards to name the most evil wizard of all time, Lord Voldemort, You-Know-Who, the Dark Lord and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the identity of the real man behind these names is revealed in Chamber of Secrets. Tom Marvolo Riddle is the young Lord Voldemort. Educated at Hogwarts just like the other wizards and witches of Britain, Tom decides while a student there to undertake Salazar Slytherin’s work and rid Hogwarts of ‘Mudbloods’. As Tom is the heir to Slytherin he is the only one who can control the basilisk living in the Chamber of Secrets built by Slytherin many centuries ago. Seeing that, while young, Tom’s plan didn’t work effectively and he could only kill one student, he hopes that through the soul he steals from Ginny he will again come to life and power again to rid Hogwarts and Britain of Muggles, ‘Mudbloods’ and, most especially, Harry Potter. Riddle wants to know how Harry Potter could survive all those years ago when Voldemort had tried to kill him, and Harry unveils that his mother produced a powerful counter-charm to protect Harry from Voldemort’s death curse: love saved Harry. The significance of love and the power it has over people is central to the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which builds upon and certainly explains in greater detail the effect that love has on Harry and Voldemort.
As in the previous novel, Harry saves Hogwarts and defeats Voldemort, albeit temporarily. Harry also manages to make Lucius Malfoy a sworn enemy when he (Harry) finds a way to have Dobby the house elf freed from his slavery with the Malfoy’s. The fears that Harry has been having throughout the novel, that perhaps he is the heir of Slytherin and that he actually belongs in the Slytherin house rather than Gryffindor, are also laid to rest. A piece of information that the reader learns at the end of the novel – that Lord Voldemort inadvertently left a piece of himself in Harry when he tried to kill him so many years ago – will certainly reappear in the later novels and play a large role in the last novel of the series.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets it becomes apparent that all is not as wonderful as we would first assume in the magical world. Although overtones of the dark side of the fantasy world make a subdued appearance here, the questions raised comment equally on contemporary society as what they do on the fictional world itself. The issues of racism and slavery are made abundantly clear to readers. In this way the Harry Potter novels are, as Giselle Liza Anatol writes, “among the most politically engaged novels to have been written for children in recent years” (Anatol, 2003, p. 105). Through the discussion of “Pure bloods” and “Mudbloods” throughout the Chamber of Secrets, Rowling highlights the tensions which are still prevalent in contemporary English (and indeed worldwide) society – those based on race within communities, including multicultural ones. Although the official “line” from community leaders may be that all is well, clearly there are unresolved issues, extreme protectionism for the “purity” of a country or race, and fear from and violence towards those who are perceived and labelled as the “other”. With the changes taking place in Europe’s demographic composition, the problem of racial discrimination is one that needs addressing in children’s literature as well. Although the links between the racism of the magical world created by Rowling, and the world which the readers inhabit may at first appear slightly unclear to young readers, adults will certainly be able to see the parallels that Rowling makes between the two worlds. The animosity between the characters of Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger are race-related, leading to heated arguments, and even disturbing exclamations from the “purist” Draco, who upon sighting a (seemingly) dead cat hanging from a torch bracket cries “You’ll be next Mudbloods” (152). Part of the disturbing nature of the issue of racism within the novel is that it is being perpetrated by children against one another. Although Rowling alludes to the attitudes of the adult wizarding population’s views of race purity, it is the school yard scenes where this is highlighted in this novel. Slavery is likewise linked with race – Dobby as a house-elf is bound to serve one wizarding family for the rest of his life, unless they release him. As Dobby explains “Dobby is a house-elf- bound to serve one house and one family for ever… A house-elf must be set free, sire. And the family will never set Dobby free…Dobby will serve the family until he dies, sir…” (20). Cleary, Dobby does not have an equal status with wizards; he is enslaved. His freedom can only be guaranteed if the family he serves give him clothing; with the gaining of clothing house-elves can be free to choose their employers, ask for wages and have some of the rights of wizards. The true and full nature of elf slavery (and slavery as an issue for the real world) is left for further discussion in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Nonetheless, as it is illustrated by Rowling in Chamber of Secrets it is a serious issue in the wizarding world, where Harry (and consequently the readers) has felt more at ease than in the Muggle world, if for no other reason than that it appeared to be more egalitarian.
Rowling received numerous awards for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as was the case with her first novel. In 1998 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was awarded the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize: Gold Medal 9-11 year old category, the book also received the British Book Awards Children’s Book Awards NIBBY prize, and was short listed for the Carnegie Award. In 1999 the book picked up the Booklist Editor’s Choices award, as well as the Booklist Top Ten Fantasy Novels for Youth 1998-1999 award. In 2000 the ALA Notable Children’s Books award went to the novel. The novel picked up other awards around the UK, America and Canada as well. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has sold approximately 77 million copies worldwide.
The novel was adapted to film, directed by Chris Columbus and released in 2002; Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint reprised their roles in the first part of the series. Keeping to Rowling’s wish, the film features only British actors, with Kenneth Branagh starring as Gilderoy Lockhart, and Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy.
References: Anatol, G. L (2003) Reading Harry Potter. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Citation: Nagy, Victoria. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 June 2009 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=22077, accessed 30 September 2023.]