Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," by J.K. Rowling

The Protagonist: Harry "Parseltongue-In-Cheek" Potter. The boy. The legend.
His Angst: As Slytherin's Heir stalks the school, Harry worries he may share more in common with the Slytherin Alumnus Who Shall Not Be Named than he originally thought.

New Characters:

Gilderoy Lockhart: A handsome, foppish celebrity wizard who just edged past Snape in the swimsuit competition to become the next Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.

Dobby: The Comic Relief Character Who Shall Not Be Named.

Colin Creevey: The first-year student voted Most Likely To Have a Creepy Harry Potter Love Shrine in his basement.

Ginny Weasley: Ron's younger sister. Currently annoying because she's too young to think about in a hot way.

Aragog: A giant granddaddy spider on loan from The Lord of the Rings central casting.

Tom Riddle: An unexpectedly hot teenage memory-ghost hidden in a magical diary he wrote himself. Remind me never to buy any copies of If I Did It from the Knockturn Alley Barnes and Noble.

Angst Checklist:

  • Am I allowed to drive a flying car if I don't even have my Learner's Permit yet?
  • I'm being stalked by a self-mutilating house slave
  • An obsession with snakes in pipes that is exactly what it sounds like and nothing more
  • Arachnophobia and why it's an entirely rational fear
  • Racism
  • Bullying
  • The price of fame
  • Being an Evil 16-Year-Old Wizard-Memory-Ghost forced to read about Girl Problems twenty-four seven, ugh! 

The Word: This is the second in my seven-part series of re-reading J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. While I'm too close to the series emotionally and psychologically to truly review the books (automatic A, baby!), I will be presenting certain analyses about my reactions to aspects of the books as they continue.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, being an early book in the series, is significantly lighter in tone than later instalments. In the first three novels, the final victory is celebrated with a grand feast, some harmless ribbing and a nice train ride home - compared to later books, where the ending is celebrated with the death of a beloved character while fate rips out Harry's heart and pees in the hole it leaves.

That's not to say that Chamber of Secrets isn't a gripping novel that examines some pretty hefty themes.  Harry learns that society's fascination with the different and unusual can easily turn into resentment and fear. The unusual background that makes him famous in the wizarding world also leaves him a target for suspicion as students start to wonder whether he's the Heir of Slytherin who's sending a Giant Racist Snake against the mudblood students.

The importance of choice is also raised by the discovery that Harry and Voldemort share remarkably similar backstories - both were orphans raised by unloving Muggles until they were invited to Hogwarts. While later books in the series examine their similarities in more depth, Chamber of Secrets poses this interesting question first and it resonates through every following book. Does coming from similar circumstances mean sharing a similar fate?

The novel examines this in a more understated way with the characters of Hagrid and Filch, as both of their backgrounds feature into the history of the Chamber of Secrets. Both Hagrid and Filch were denied a magical education for reasons beyond their control (Hagrid was wrongfully expelled at the age of thirteen, and Filch was inexplicably born without magic), and both were forced to watch everyone else graduate around them as they worked as custodians at Hogwarts. While Filch allowed this to embitter him into a thoroughly unlikeable villain, Hagrid focused on grabbing joy wherever he could find it (and successfully wrestle it into a cage), leaving no room in his life for self-pity or resentment. Similar backgrounds, but entirely dissimilar characters.

Moving on to the concept of the Chamber of Secrets, this plotline always made me wonder - why do they still have a Slytherin house at the end of the novel? I mean, not only does Harry Potter learn that Salazar Slytherin was a crazy wizard-racist, but he intentionally smuggled a deadly creature into the school for the sole purpose of killing students!

If your school was founded by John, Paul, Ringo, and Hitler, and three hundred years later, you found out Hitler had hidden a giant Nazi snake somewhere in the school to hunt down and eat unsuspecting Jewish students - would you really want to keep Hitler's name attached to your institution of learning? Think about it. Why couldn't they rename the house after Nicholas Flamel or Cornelius Fudge or something? Who would object? The Slytherin alumni are all in Azkaban!

Slytherin House represents my biggest beef with the Harry Potter series - the fact that Slytherin has always been blatantly depicted as the "evil" house, with its highest virtue (ambition) muttered as a sly innuendo while the other three houses and their virtues (courage, intelligence, diligence) are depicted as legitimate distinctions. Everyone sorted into Slytherin is a jerk and a racist, the Slytherin Quidditch team is all-boys, literally everyone hates Slytherin except for the Slytherins, and they even have their freaking common room in a dungeon. Who wants to have their common room in a dank, dark old dungeon? Oh, right - ugly, stupid, jerky old-wizard-money racists do.

I was also troubled that the dubious virtue of the "evil" house is ambition. The drive to get ahead, to excel, to discover, to rise above one's circumstances - at every opportunity the virtue of Slytherin is tied to the corruption of power, to the empty pleasures of money and fame, to the abandonment of morals in the pursuit of superiority.

To me, however, the demonization of ambition with the depiction of Slytherin carries the whiff of the status quo, of the idea that everything and everyone has its proper place and that attempting to rise above one's destined station in life is a breach of some unspoken social contract. It's a very British idea, really. Look at the depiction of the house elves (barring one extremely irritating exception) who are bred to love servitude and duty. Are there honestly no sassy Thomas and O'Brien house elves scheming away in the kitchens of Hogwarts?

Heck, look at the Sorting Hat - a magical object whose entire job is to label people based on certain personality traits and settle them into the "proper" houses, determining their entire future identities in the blink of an eye. And not always fairly - nice job sorting the impoverished Muggle-born Snape into the house full of Old-Wizard-Money Racists, Sorting Hat. Full marks.

To be fair, in Chamber of Secrets Harry Potter represents someone who actively chooses his place in Gryffindor over Slytherin, defying the Hat's attempt to determine his future for him, but Harry also isn't a very ambitious character. He's very much of the Everyman mould - average grades, average intelligence, no real dreams or hopes for the future beyond surviving the shit Voldemort throws at him.

However, these are only my opinions with regards to the wizarding world depicted in the first three or four books - a world that is understandably idealized by Harry as he still has a dreary Muggle childhood to compare it to. As the series matures and Harry sees himself more as a wizard in his natural environment and less as a shy newcomer, he starts to realize that wizard society is just as susceptible to weakness and fear as Muggle society.

Even a slender volume like The Chamber of Secrets can inspire some pretty big thoughts. Next time - Prisoner of Azkaban!

A (a.k.a. 10 Points to Gryffindor!)


  1. Chamber of Secrets was my FAVORITE part out of the entire series!! :D I recently made a review on Harry Potter as well! :)

    1. Nice! I really love the Harry Potter series.

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