Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)Reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”

I’ll be really honest right away and say Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is my least favorite of the books, and I think it’s definitely the weakest of the seven.  Mind, that’s like saying someone is slowest sprinter to qualify for and run in the Olympics; at the end of the day, Chamber of Secrets is still a really good book.  I’m just not convinced its of the caliber of the rest of them.

My first thought when considering why I don’t like this one as much had to do with the significance of the events within the book.  Book one was important for, obviously, all of its introductions, worldbuilding, etc.  It also let us know that Voldemort was back so, you know, valuable stuff.  Book three is going to have major ramifications for the later parts of the narrative in terms of character development, and the rest of the books have huge bearing on the trajectory of the plot.  But Chamber of Secrets feels oddly insular to me, as though it could be removed from the set and, with the addition of bits of explanation here or there along the way, the narrative could carry on just fine.  And I’m sure there are probably big ideas developed in this book, ones that I’m missing, that make it absolutely necessary for the series overall, but I can’t get away from the idea that Rowling has filled this book with so much one-off stuff that it ends up being a little underwhelming.  For instance, Gilderoy Lockhart, as interesting and annoying a character as he is, is introduced and exited in this book, and unless I’m wrong, he doesn’t really have any bearing on the rest of the narrative.  Now, Lockhart is a pretty easy pick in terms of throw-away elements of the book, but think about Nick’s Death Day party or finding out that Filch is a squib.  Again, I’m not trying to bag on the book or these mini-narratives, because they’re interesting; the problem is that so much of the novel feels non-essential.  In my mind, the essential stuff is the first dip into Voldemort’s past, the significance of the journal (here but primarily in later books), the introduction of Fawkes (though one could probably say this is less than essential), and the first real exploration of the greyness of Harry’s character.  Maybe I’m being overly critical, but this stuff seems like it could pretty easily be dispersed into surrounding books without much damage done.  I mean, I’m happy to read Chamber of Secrets, and there are moments (like Binns getting all of his students names wrong as he responds stiffly to their questions about the Chamber of Secrets) where I absolutely dig the book, but I can’t get away from thinking it is the weakest of the seven, which I suspect has a lot to do with its general lack of real significance for the overall trajectory of the books.  What are your thoughts?

I was also kind of disappointed this time through by the characterization of Hermione.  I get that she’s only, what, 12 or something during this book, but her blind infatuation with Lockhart, especially when you get someone as thick as Ron seeing through the scam artist’s tricks, strikes me as really weird.  Hermione stands out for me as a character because she’s so mature for her age, so smart, so driven, and so insightful, and it’s frustrating for me that she gets slotted as the character who, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary (Lockhart can’t deal with the pixies, Lockhart destroys Harry’s arm, Lockhart spends classes reading to them from his books and acting out scenes with Harry), she refuses to deal with the facts and accept that this dude is a big phony.  Remember the part in the first book where Hermione gets through Snape’s challenge before the Mirror room?  She gets through because she has common sense and believes in the power of logic, and the Hermione of Chamber of Secrets just isn’t that same character.  This is not only troubling for the reasons already mentioned, but it made me realize that I was placing so much weight on Hermione to be this fantastic female character because, really, she’s pretty much the only female thus far of any real significance.  Yeah, Ginny is an important part of the plot, but we don’t really get to know her here.  Who else?  McGonagall?  Mrs. Weasley?  Not exactly key, main characters with robust interiors and major development.  My frustration with Hermione no longer being this super bad-ass female character in every way is just as much a frustration with her solo-load as it is with the degradation of her character.  I still love her; it’s just upsetting to see her become the love-struck teenage girl screaming her heart out at a celebrity.

One of the things I’m going to be really interested to track, not having thought of this before, is the way in which Rowling takes Ginny from being a child here to a real, possible love interest for, *ahem,* certain characters later on.  She’s very definitely characterized as the immature, childish character (oddly paralleling Hermione’s blind infatuation with Lockhart through her own infatuation with Harry), and I’m interested to track the shift that happens to Ginny as the books progress.

Maybe my favorite part of the novel is the exploration of Harry’s own character and the shades of grey found therein.  We have that a little bit in the first book when the Sorting Hat lets Harry know that he could (should?) be in Slytherin, but Rowling does such a fantastic job here of pushing deeper into that and making Harry a much more complex, much more troubled character.  Sure, we know as readers that he’s not really the heir of Slytherin, and yeah we know that he didn’t set the snake on Justin Finch-Fletchley, but that doesn’t mean the ramifications of Harry being a parselmouth don’t still weight heavily on our minds as we read.  For me, the most troubling moment in terms of Harry’s character comes when he has the chance to explain what’s been going on to Dumbledore in the headmaster’s office.  Dumbledore asks if there’s anything Harry wants to tell him, and despite all of the evidence we (and Harry) have up until that point of Dumbledore’s overall awesomeness, Harry keeps quiet.  Now, I get that this is an important aspect for the plot (though, in that sense, it does feel a little contrived), but it also strikes me as a really important and limning moment for Harry’s character.  Here we have, at least at this point in the story, the best manifestation of goodness and honor in the books, and Harry decides that he isn’t quite willing to throw in with the old man.  Why?  I’m still not really sure, but it tells me that Harry is starting to develop into a complicated, complex character, because otherwise his refusal to tell Dumbledore what’s up doesn’t make any sense.  Recall that in the first book, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were ready to go to Dumbledore at the end but he had already left for the Ministry.  Here, we have a very different orientation toward the good, honorable adult, and it’s an interesting example of Harry’s development and complexity as a character.

Unfortunately, I left my kindle at work today, which means I can’t do my end-of-the-book awards/quotes, but I promise to have some really excellent ones for Prisoner of Azkaban next week!  Happy reading!

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2 thoughts on “Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)Reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”

  1. benwheelerfloyd says:

    Interesting. I remember loving ‘Chamber’ when I read it the first time, these many years ago. I think your point about Hermione is salient, and I like that you acknowledge that, in spite of her demonstrated badass-ness, she’s still a 12-year-old girl. Hermione is certainly the most capable and pragmatic of the Three. Thinking back, I like seeing her in a sort of inverted position. Harry and Ron both understand that Lockhart is totally a phony. For me, this reinforces the idea that, while each member of the Three is a capable and fine wizard, it is when they are together that they excel. Elements of each of their characters play off of, reinforce, and compensate for the other, if that makes sense. Without Ron and Harry, Hermione stays willfully doe-eyed, and without Hermione, Ron and Harry get dead.

    For me, Chamber is all about Tom Riddle. We are introduced to Voldemort in the first book as a purely phantasmagorical, evil character. He literally exists only in the muted superstition of the wizarding public, and as a phantom in Quirrell. What I liked about ‘Chamber’ is that Rowling immediately undercuts that fetishizing of the villain by showing, very clearly, that he was a human boy, much the same as Harry. Our interest in Voldemort deepens in that moment specifically because Rowling has thrown light on him, brought him out of the shadowy, indistinct realm that many authors are content to leave their villains until later in the series.

    But I also agree that ‘Chamber’ also feels sort of stopgappy. We sort of learn more about what we already knew about, with the obvious exclusion of Tom Riddle. I think the series really starts to find its emotional legs in ‘Prisoner,’ and I think it finds it’s voice in ‘Goblet.’

    • Yeah, I think the one positive aspect of Hermione’s infatuation with Lockhart is that it reminds us she’s 12, which is good because she’s so advanced so much of the time. I don’t understand, though, how this characterization of Hermione allows her to do the team-fitting thing that you’re talking about. I, too, like the fact that they are stronger as a team, but I’m not sure the sudden and strange characterization of Hermione as a star-struck 12-year old is the best way to make her a team character; I guess it feels sort of cheap and demeaning to me in a way the other character’s weaknesses never do. There’s a huge difference between Hermione supplementing Ron/Harry’s lack of magical prowess and Harry/Ron supplementing Hermione’s, what, celebrity-centric infatuation. Those feel like two really distinct and different things to me. On a separate level, it’s also a bit frustrating to see the character who is the most textually savvy get so fooled by someone like Lockhart who, for the most part, is a textual creation. He’s nothing more than his books (which he’s always signing, passing out, reading from, referencing) and that Hermione, the girl who, in her first year, had that enormous book (the one with Flamel in it) for light reading and who successfully parsed the Polyjuice Potion in her second year, is so easily and completely hoodwinked by Lockhart’s textual persona seems wrong to me somehow. I totally get the stuff about each of the Three having strengths and weaknesses that the others support, reinforce, and supplement; this just doesn’t seem like the right way to go about establishing Hermione’s.

      I think you’re right about “Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Goblet of Fire.” I’m excited to dig into these next few books and start the real emotional and narrative journey that encompasses the last major chunk of the series.

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