One of the first things I stated in my post about rereading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was how dark it was for a book that was and is primarily marketed towards children. The same must be said about Chamber of Secrets, in which not only the abuse that Harry suffers at the hand of the Dursleys is increased but in which the population of Hogwarts is terrorized by a series of
attacks on students that is motivated by the Wizarding world equivalent of racism.
At the same time, Chamber of Secrets is easily the funniest book in the Harry Potter series, containing a whole bunch of scenes, characters and lines that are comedic gold: the degnoming of the Burrow’s garden, Ron vomitting slugs, the Mandrake repotting class, Hermione accidentally turning herself into a cat, Nearly Headless Nick’s Deathday party and, of course, everything Gilderoy Lockhart does, but especially his Valentine’s Day shenanigans and
“His eyes are as green as a freshly pickled toad
His hair is as dark as a blackboard
I wish he was mine, he’s really divine
The hero who conquered the Dark Lord”
On the other hand, as good as he is for comedic relief, Lockhart is also one of the most annoying characters that ever showed up in a Harry Potter book, and the way he treats Harry as some sort of stepping stone for an increase of his own fame is just gross, almost as gross as JKR portraying every single women being enamored with him. And while I’ve come to understand why the Hogwarts teachers tried to send him into the Chamber of Secrets after Ginny was abducted – McGonagall explicitly says that it got him out from under their feet, after all, and in my opinion it was very clear that the assembled teachers were taking out their own anger on Lockhart, who had been a pompous, annoying, insensitive phony every time the Chamber was mentioned – I still don’t entirely understand why he was allowed to mess with the student’s education as much as he did. It was explicitly said that Lockhart was the only one to apply for the position of Defence against the Dark Arts teacher, so I do get that part, but I don’t get why no one bothered to make sure that he did anything other than reenact scenes from his own books. Then again, no one ever bothered to make sure that Snape didn’t bully his students and unfairly give Slytherins a preferential treatment or that Binns didn’t bore his students to sleep, so making sure that students actually get a magical education does not seem to have a high priority among the Hogwarts staff.
Another thing that does not seem to have a high priority among the Hogwarts staff is punishing students for offenses that go beyond dirtying up the school, being out of bed during the night or using magic in the corridors. I am talking about Draco Malfoy, who says some truly horrifyingly offensive things. Of course, when he calls Hermione a Mudblood on the Quidditch pitch and tells Ron and Harry, polyjuiced into Crabbe and Goyle, about how he hopes that she dies, no teachers are around, but I honestly don’t believe that there were neither prefects nor teachers around when the petrified Mrs. Norris was discovered and Draco positively rejoiced in the idea that Muggleborns would be attacked next. And there were still absolutely no consequences, except me rediscovering my hatred for Draco.
But Chamber of Secrets, which also introduced Lucius, not only made me rediscover my hatred for Draco, it also made me question why certain sections of fandom adore the Malfoy men as much as they do, considering that they embody everything detestable about aristocratic rich (white) people, including the abuse of their servants.
I’m, obviously, talking about Dobby, another character introduced in Chamber of Secrets, though we only learn about his affiliation with the Malfoys in one of the very last scenes of the book. To be honest, I never knew and still don’t know how I feel about Dobby, whether I find him annoying, adorable or simply sad. I’m also never sure if Dobby was supposed to be another comic relief character or meant to offer a first glimpse at the Wizarding World’s darker side, though I think the second option is far more likely, especially because Chamber of Secrets offers a whole lot of these glimpses.
There is, for example, the fact that Mandrakes, who are sentient, have a will of their own, communicate and develop, are simply treated like any other plant that can be harvested and used, Bludgers being a thing that exists and no one has a problem with and the treatment of Hagrid, who is simply chucked into Azkaban as a precaution, without a trial, because he was accused of being responsible for the first opening of the Chamber and because the Minister of Magic needs to be seen doing something.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. After all, the book also introduces the eponymous Chamber of Secrets, built by the blood purist (aka white supremacist) Slytherin, which is trivialized as a legend despite the fact that a bunch of people who witnessed its first opening are still around. The Chamber and the blood purity/pureblood supremacy ideology because of which it was built and activated are ugly in themselves, of course, but I also wanted to point out how absolutely unwilling anyone was to talk about it except as some unprovable legend that definitely did not contain even a single ounce of truth, something that mirrors the unwillingness to talk about Voldemort and the first Wizarding War, in my opinion.
Another thing that really bothered me about scene in which Professor Binns talks about the Chamber was the assertion that when Hogwarts was founded – meaning roughly a thousand years before the second book took place, which was probably in the 1990s – wizards were persecuted by Muggles. This, honestly, does not make an ounce of sense: there is no way non-magical humans in roughly 990 had any sort of weaponry that could match magic or that wizards could not defend themselves against. The idea that wizards were being persecuted by Muggles and that thus, hatred or distrust of Muggleborns and their exclusion from Wizarding society was justified, cannot have a basis in historical reality.
At the same time, I loved Hermione not allowing Binns to fob her and the rest of the class off with simply claiming that the Chamber was a legend. I generally love second-book Hermione, who pulled off brewing a tricky potion in secret while simultaneously breaking a dozen school rules almost without a hitch (except accidentally using animal hair and turning into a cat) and then figured out what was in the Chamber essentially on her own, without the additional hints that Harry and Ron had been given by Aragog.
The hints that the monster was a Basilisk were, in my opinion, enough and placed in a way that made it possible to guess the nature of the monster if you know enough about mystical monsters without making it at all obvious. The fact that the main characters were investigating someone who turned out to not actually be responsible for the Chamber being opened while there were some fairly sparse hints that it was actually someone else definitely parallels the situation in Philosopher’s Stone, where the Trio was absolutely convinced until the last minute that Snape was the big baddie. And while the investigation plot in Chamber of Secrets doesn’t absolutely match the investigation plot in Philosopher’s Stone, it’s nice that JKR moves away from this in the later books.
However, something she does not move away from is the way that seemingly unimportant or unremarkable objects and characters later on turn out to be massively important: Harry’s ability to speak with snakes, which was tangentially shown in the first book, becomes an important plot point in Chamber of Secrets that throws Harry into an actual identity crisis, Dobby and Myrtle, two fairly minor and in my opinion sort of annoying characters give key hints that allow Harry to figure out the what’s going on, Fawkes, who saves Harry’s life, seems like a fairly unimpressive pet at first and the thing that is responsible for the catastrophe in Hogwarts is an unremarkable, tiny black diary that barely plays a role for the most part of the book. This is, of course, not limited to the plot of Chamber of Secrets: Polyjuice Potion makes a reappearance in Goblet of Fire and plays a key role in enabling Voldemort to return, the fact that pieces of someone can be magically stored in objects is key to not only Voldemort’s return, but also his destruction and the fact that some of him was transferred into Harry (which is explicitly said on one of the last pages of Chamber of Secrets, by the way!) is another key aspect of both return and destruction of Voldemort.
To be honest, I never realized this, but Chamber of Secrets does introduce a lot of key concepts without explicitly naming them and highlighting their importance, but by doing this, it lays the groundwork for a lot of what happens in the later books. In my opinion, that shows much planning and effort went into the series from the very beginning, which is impressive and something that JKR does not get enough praise for.
Something else that JKR deserves praise for is the way she portrays children and teenagers: Harry and Ron not sending an owl to Hogwarts to inform their teachers that they missed the train and instead stealing a flying car to get there is the sort of rash decisions that panicked twelve year old would make, in my opinion, as are the cringe-worthy and insensitive attempts to cheer up Ginny that Fred and George commit themselves to. Ginny being too scared to confide to anyone about what she is going through and instead tossing the diary in the toilet and then stealing it back when she discovers that it ended up in Harry’s possession is another example of this, especially considering that she is being manipulated by Tom Riddle.
Making Voldemort’s younger self the main villain of Chamber of Secrets and then additionally introducing him as someone that the main character trusts is another authorial decision worthy of praise. In Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort was a creepy, shadowy eminence, the sort of villain whose name was only whispered and who pulled the strings in the background, about whom little was actually known. Tom Riddle showcases an entirely different side of him, namely that of someone who gains the trust of the main character and the readers, but turns out to have been manipulating them the entire time. It makes him an even more threatening villain, in my opinion, because it he becomes more like a real character with actual motivations than a scary shadow.
On the other hand, JKR leaves too much unclear about the way the diary worked, especially about how it was possible for Riddle to come out of the pages. While we later on see that Horcruxes can generally negatively influence a person, I am frustrated by the fact that it’s never properly explained how Riddle managed to leech Ginny’s life from her and use that to become corporeal.
I’m also frustrated that Ginny being possessed and manipulated by a fragment of Voldemort’s soul never really comes up again until Order of the Phoenix and even then it only comes up because her mentioning it helps Harry. How it affected her family, her parents or her in general is never examined in any way, and I feel that it does a great disservice to the Weasley family in general and to Ginny’s character specifically. This is especially sad because we see so much of the Weasleys because they play such a pivotal role in Harry’s life and because seeing this loving, but slightly dysfunctional family deal with the fallout from this in a way that goes beyond Mrs. and Mr. Weasley taking their daughter to the hospital wing.
Then again, JKR’s portrayal of the Weasleys’ poverty is not only realistic, it’s also really important, in my opinion, because it’s the only children’s book that I can think of that actually portrays the way poverty influences people so respectfully, centrally and non-judgmentally.
I’ve already mentioned that I was surprised to remember how dark Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was and that that is a trend that continues with Chamber of Secrets, no matter how many funny moments the book contains. Simultaneously, I think the way Harry Potter deals with dark themes is actually one of the great strengths of the Harry Potter series because it shows that JKR takes the audience of her books – which at least for the two first ones were children – seriously enough to show them that there are many horrible things in the world, but it never falls into cynicism or pessimism. Instead, Chamber of Secrets continues the immensely enjoyable balancing act between showing that magic does not get rid of the real world evils and good-hearted whimsical fun like “ Ron’s old Shooting Star was often outstripped by passing butterflies” while also ending on an incredibly happy note.