Over My Younger Head: Revisiting “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”

Guess who’s back? No, not Voldemort, not yet anyway.

Now that my second year of college is finished and I’m finally on summer break, I have a bit more time to devote to reading and writing. So, I’m very excited to continue this series of posts and to rediscover Harry Potter for myself in the process! With that said, let’s get right to some reflections about the second book in this magical saga.

While I admitted in my last post that I have not read the Harry Potter series from start to finish since the first time I flew through it all at around age nine, I have since returned to some of the books on their own multiple times. I estimate I’ve reread The Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, in some amount that ranges in the double digits. However, I feel the need to follow up these confessions with one of a different sort: before this particular readthrough, I had only read Chamber of Secrets the once.

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I know, Hermione. But you know what they say: when in doubt, go to the library!
I assure you that this fact is not rooted in intentional neglect; rather, I had never reread book two quite simply because up until a few years ago, I did not have a complete set of Potter books. That might sound like an even more blasphemous confession, but once more I have my reasons: when I set out to read the series as a kid, my local library had most of it available for free (as libraries are wont to do, because they’re amazing and you should totally support them!). So, I would just check out what I needed from there, and if any of the remaining books were absent when I got to them, I would simply buy my own copies. This led to me having an à la carte set of Potters rather than a full course, and so Chamber was, unfortunately, one of the books that was left out of my personal collection.

Now that I have my own copyhowever, I’m happy to say that rereading Chamber of Secrets was quite remarkable, for a number of reasons:

More Dursley Details

When I reread The Sorcerer’s Stone, I focused a great deal on the Dursleys and their striking patterns of abuse. Upon finally understanding the gravity of their actions, I resolved to pay more attention to these characters in an effort to better understand Harry himself, that is, how his childhood under their roof affects him and how he develops as a character outside of his abusers’ grasp. So, while reading the first portion of Chamber, I specifically looked at how Harry’s growing affiliation with the Wizarding World empowers him against his guardians.

What I discovered was a stark change from the first book. As I wrote in my first post, Harry’s life under the Dursleys had forced him into a form of timid submission before attending Hogwarts. He avoided most arguments, served his guardians as he was told, and essentially existed in an unbroken state of fear, all of which was signified by the symbol of the “cupboard under the stairs”.

That being said, while the Dursleys did not become any kinder in book two (if anything, they became even more abusive out of their fear of Harry’s new abilities), we still see more confidence in Harry from the outset. This boldness is evident from his dialogue; while Harry’s first lines in Sorcerer’s Stone are a recanting of protest, his first lines in Chamber of Secrets are protests in and of themselves:

Harry tried, yet again, to explain.

She’s bored,’ he said. ‘She’s used to flying around outside. If I could just let her out at night —’

Do I look stupid?’ snarled Uncle Vernon, a bit of fried egg dangling from his bushy mustache. ‘I know what’ll happen if that owl’s let out.’

He exchanged dark looks with his wife, Petunia. Harry tried to argue back but his words were drowned by a long, loud belch from the Dursleys’ son, Dudley.

(page 1, my emphasis)

Here, Harry holds his own against his guardians, arguing for the sake of Hedwig and demonstrating a continuing desire to defend himself. Therefore, despite the blatant lack of empathy shown here from all members of the Dursley family, this passage, especially the bolded segments, establishes a newfound sense of persistence that Harry did not have at the start of book one.

With that progress documented, however, the cupboard under the stairs also continues to be a symbol of Harry’s confinement within the Dursley house. After all, although he has since moved out of the cupboard, we are told that all of his magical belongings have been locked away in there for the summer:

All Harry’s spellbooks, his wand, robes, cauldron, and top-of-the-line Nimbus Two Thousand broomstick had been locked in a cupboard under the stairs by Uncle Vernon the instant Harry had come home. What did the Dursleys care if Harry lost his place on the House Quidditch team because he hadn’t practiced all summer? What was it to the Dursleys if Harry went back to school without any of his homework done?

(page 3)

As the passage indicates, this act marks another instance in which the Dursleys confine Harry through a lack of knowledge of who he really is. By having his belongings kept from him, after all, Harry is unable to deepen his understanding of his newfound identity and is therefore put at a severe disadvantage upon his hopeful return to Hogwarts. He is also denied the solace that these items could otherwise bring him during the summer holidays, therefore continuing the Dursley’s pattern of emotional abuse as well.

Furthermore, Harry is still physically confined by the Dursleys despite the fact he no longer sleeps in the cupboard. After all, he is directed to hide up in his room, make no noise, and pretend he doesn’t exist while Vernon’s dinner guests, the Masons, are visiting. The situation is made worse, of course, by Dobby’s sabotage; once more, Harry finds himself a prisoner in a cramped space, this time the smallest bedroom in the house:

“[Vernon] paid a man to fit bars on Harry’s window. He himself fitted a cat-flap in the bedroom door, so that small amounts of food could be pushed inside three times a day. They let Harry out to use the bathroom morning and evening. Otherwise, he was locked in his room around the clock.

(pages 21-2)

These conditions mirror those described in the first book, when Harry was often locked in the cupboard as punishment: an area too small to sustainably live in, limited access to food, and all for the sake of a wrongdoing that was completely out of his control. From this, one can conclude that the Dursleys have largely remained the same since the first book, perhaps even intensified due to their fears about Harry’s magic and their own relative inadequacies. Furthermore, their means of abuse has also not changed, since the cupboard continues to inform the ways in which they keep Harry physically, mentally, and emotionally confined.

Even so, the Dursleys’ cruelty is cut short in this book by the always-uplifting moment of Ron, Fred, and George breaking Harry out of his Privet Drive prison via flying Anglia. This scene cements for us as readers that while the Dursleys may not have changed, Harry, and his circumstances, have; he has found a new home at school, people who he can trust, and most importantly, an advancing sense of empowerment by virtue of his new abilities.

Tales that Time (a.k.a. I) Forgot

The Dursleys were not the only element of Chamber of Secrets that I focused on during my readthrough. Rather, since I had not read this particular installment in ages, I was also excited to rediscover some scenes that I had not otherwise remembered from the first time around. And rediscover I did; there were some passages in this book that felt so new and fresh to me that, upon reading them, I had to put the book down and reflect for a minute or two. From these reflections, I noticed that the passages that stood out to me the most were also the ones that added a lot more dimension to supporting characters, especially those that I had not previously thought too much about.

One example of a chapter that brought about such revelations was “The Deathday Party”, which chronicles the events surrounding a celebration held in honor of Nearly Headless Nick on the anniversary of his death. If memory serves, Nick is not only absent for most of the Potter film adaptations, but is also quite sparsely included throughout the books themselves. So, it was nice to be able to read a chapter that spotlighted him and to refresh myself on what really motivates him as a character. In particular, his frustrations about being barred from the Headless Hunt society (since, y’know, he’s only “nearly” headless) were both hilarious and “aww”-inducing; essentially, I found that I held a lot more sympathy for him after reading this chapter than I ever had before, which in turn made me feel more deeply for him upon his temporary petrification later in the novel.

Another passage forced me to recall some sympathy I once had for a character, but had since forgotten about; that is, I was reminded of Filch’s status as a Squib right as Harry makes the same discovery, when he finds a Kwikspell trial in the caretaker’s desk. Somewhat like the “cupboard under the stairs” symbol, the fact that Filch is a Squib is a relatively common piece of knowledge for Potter fans, so the unveiling itself was not exactly a surprise. However, the details surrounding this fact’s reveal—Filch re-enters his office, realizes that Harry has found out about his secret, and becomes incredibly embarrassed and timid—made the caretaker’s otherwise angry and bitter demeanor suddenly devastating to me.

After reading this scene, I needed to take a moment to remind myself of the implications of Filch’s lack of magical ability. After all, not only is he constantly surrounded by magic, but he is also surrounded by people much younger than him who are practicing this art, the art that he wants so desperately to be able to perform himself. To be barred from learning about the one thing that, by blood, should be available to you—his situation reminded me a bit of Harry’s life under the Dursleys, except in Filch’s case his powerlessness is not seasonal or escapable. Basically, I was reminded that Filch is an extremely sympathetic character, and is not just the strict, kooky guy with the cat that I somewhat feared as a kid.

Arguably the biggest character-related surprise came to me when I was reintroduced to Colin Creevey. This is another case in which my memory of a character was a lot more one-dimensional than the reality, except this time I had no recollection at all of the sympathetic fact that informs this character’s behavior. In other words, while I did remember that Filch was a Squib, I exclusively remembered Colin as the overzealous and slightly annoying kid with the camera, and not as a young boy with a rather touching muggle-born backstory. It turns out that he takes so many pictures because he’s trying to please his parents, especially his father, and that he just wants to share everything he can about this new world with his family. Suddenly, a lightswitch was flipped for me, and all at once I clicked with this character:

“ ‘And a boy in my dormitory said if I develop the film in the right potion, the pictures’ll move!’

Colin drew a great shuddering breath of excitement and said, ‘It’s amazing here, isn’t it? I never knew all the odd stuff I could do was magic till I got the letter from Hogwarts. My dad’s a milkman, he couldn’t believe it either. So I’m taking loads of pictures to send home to him. And it’d be really good if I had one of you’ — he looked imploringly at Harry — ‘maybe your friend could take it and I could stand next to you? And then, could you sign it?'”

(page 96)

After finding all of this out about Colin, his admiration of Harry, however inconvenient at times, suddenly seemed purposeful, meaningful, even sweet. I don’t think I’ll ever look at this character the same way again; he’s simply a kid with people back home whom he loves deeply and wishes to impress.

Overall, I feel that all three of these instancesNick’s deathday party, Filch’s Squib status, and Colin’s backstoryare a testament to J.K. Rowling’s incredible attention to detail. After all, she takes care to bring dimension to even the most secondary of her characters. Once I rediscovered these passages, these respective characters were made all the more interesting to me, even as they were fleetingly mentioned in interludes and transitions later in the book. All this, because Rowling calls us to feel empathy for them in short moments of vulnerability. It’s quite genius, if you ask me.

J.K. Rowling, Master of Details

My major takeaway from the previous section is also an overarching conclusion that Chamber revealed to me: that is, J.K. Rowling is truly a master of details. After all, as stated, she ensures that even secondary characters have something about them that makes them human, less archetypal. But perhaps even more so, the details she uses to transition between scenes are remarkably immersive. I feel that these passages are what make her worldbuilding, and writing in general, that much more effective.

An example of such a passage comes at the start of the previously mentioned “Deathday Party” chapter. It begins like this:

October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Her Pepperup Potion worked instantly, though it left the drinker smoking at the ears for several hours afterward. Ginny Weasley, who had been looking pale, was bullied into taking some by Percy. The steam pouring from under her vivid hair gave the impression that her whole head was on fire.

Raindrops the size of bullets thundered on the castle windows for days on end; the lake rose, the flower beds turned into muddy streams, and Hagrid’s pumpkins swelled to the size of garden sheds. Oliver Wood’s enthusiasm for regular training sessions, however, was not dampened, which was why Harry was to be found, late one stormy Saturday afternoon a few days before Halloween, returning to Gryffindor Tower, drenched to the skin and splattered with mud.

(page 122)

These paragraphs obviously have nothing to do with Nick or his upcoming deathday party, but they still serve a purpose; they ease the reader more and more deeply into the Wizarding World, until, by the time you finish them and continue on into the chapter, whatever follows feels completely natural and necessary. In addition, Rowling provides us with details here that seem at once inconsequential to the narrative at large, but actually prove to be subtly important in the context of events that occur later in the book. After all, we learn here that Ginny “had been looking pale”, the implications of which are extremely relevant to the climax of the book.

I feel the need to follow up this “Deathday Party” passage with another one, if not for more personal reasons. As it turns out, Oliver Wood’s “enthusiasm for regular training sessions” actually manifested earlier in the book, when he woke up the entire Gryffindor Quidditch team for en extremely early-morning practice:

The rest of the Gryffindor team were already in the changing room. Wood was the only person who looked truly awake. Fred and George Weasley were sitting, puffy-eyed and tousle-haired, next to fourth year Alicia Spinnet, who seemed to be nodding off against the wall behind her. … As Wood launched into a speech about his new tactics, Fred Weasley’s head drooped right onto Alicia Spinnet’s shoulder and he began to snore.

(pages 107-8)

This small passage may not seem like it adds much more to this section, but I felt the need to point out how absolutely heart-wrenching I considered this moment to be when I read it. I could say that I’m not sure why this passage affected me so much or why I still think about it sometimes, but I’d be lying; I was just so taken with this small vignette, especially with the image of Fred literally falling asleep on Angelina’s shoulder. Fred already makes me a bit emotional (for obvious reasons if you’ve finished the series), and this particular moment of his just felt so fragile and intimate. It made me put the book down, turn to my equally Potter-obsessed roommate, and squelch out a misty-eyed “he’s only a boy!!!!”

Ok, I may not have been as dramatic as that (at least I hope not) but nevertheless, this passage further cemented to me that J.K. Rowling is indeed a master of details. After all, if she can make me emotionally wrecked simply by mentioning offhand that a character is dozing off, then I’d say she’s a damn good writer.

Conclusion

Overall, Chamber of Secrets felt a lot newer to me than Sorcerer’s Stone, since I had only read this installment once before. I was able to gather a deeper understanding of Harry’s character development by analyzing his attitude at the outset of this novel as compared to the first. I hope to continue this Dursley-oriented analysis as I read the succeeding books in the series.

In addition to Harry, I discovered a lot more about other characters too, no matter how secondary they may have initially seemed to me. As a result, I found that on the whole, J.K. Rowling is a gifted storyteller that uses details, however small, to her advantage. As this second post draws to a close, I can’t wait to continue with these posts this summer and see what new revelations the Prisoner of Azkaban has in store!

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