Chapter 1: The Worst Birthday
An argument breaks out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr. Vernon Dursley woke up early at the hooting of Hedwig, his nephew Harry Potter’s pet owl. Mr. Dursley yells at Harry that if he can’t control his owl, she will have to go. Harry explains that Hedwig is bored and asks to let her fly outside at night. Uncle Vernon refuses, implying that something bad would happen if Hedwig were let out, exchanging looks with his wife Petunia. Their argument is interrupted by a belch from Dudley, the Dursley’s massive son, who is being overstuffed with bacon by his mother. When Dudley asks Harry to pass the frying pan, and Harry replies “You’ve forgotten the magic word,” meaning please, the Durselys overreact in fear. Uncle Vernon has forbidden the use of the word “magic” in his house, calling it Harry’s “abnormality.”
Harry is a wizard, home for the summer holidays after his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The Dursleys are unhappy to have him back. Harry is also miserable. He misses Hogwarts terribly. Uncle Vernon has locked up all of Harry’s magical supplies in a cupboard under the stairs. The Durselys don’t care if Harry is prepared for his return to school in the fall. They are what wizards call Muggles, meaning that they have no magical blood, and are ashamed to have a wizard in the family. Uncle Vernon padlocked Hedwig in her cage to stop her from carrying messages to Harry’s friends.
Harry was left on the Dursleys’ doorstep eleven years before, at the age of one, after surviving a curse from the greatest Dark sorcerer of all time: Lord Voldemort. Harry’s parents died in the attack, but he escaped with only a lightning scar on his forehead. When Voldemort failed to kill Harry, his own powers were destroyed. Harry’s mother’s sister Petunia Dursley raised Harry along with her husband, Vernon. Harry kept making odd things happen without meaning to. He didn’t know why, because his aunt and uncle hid his magical nature from him, along with the circumstances of his parents’ death. Then, a year ago, Hogwarts wrote to Harry, and the truth came out. He started wizard school, where he was famous for having defeated Voldemort.
The Dursleys have forgotten that today is Harry’s twelfth birthday. Uncle Vernon is focused on making possibly the largest deal of his career at a dinner party at their house that evening with Mr. Mason, a wealthy potential client. He tells Harry to stay in his bedroom that night, making no noise. Harry goes outside to keep out of his aunt’s way as she prepares for the party. He sings “Happy Birthday” to himself and feels terribly lonely. He misses his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, who haven’t written to him all summer. Harry has been tempted to use magic to unlock Hedwig’s cage so he can send letters to his friends. But he knows that he would get in trouble because underage wizards are not allowed to use magic outside of school. Harry thinks of his previous year at Hogwarts, when he narrowly escaped Lord Voldemort again. Voldemort was a ruin of his former self, but still determined to gain power, and terrifying.
As Harry stares at the garden hedge, he finds that it’s staring back at him, with two enormous eyes. Dudley interrupts the moment to taunt Harry about his lonely birthday. In return, Harry claims to be planning to set the hedge on fire. Dudley is frightened but points out Harry’s powerlessness: his father has threatened to throw Harry out of the house, and Harry has nowhere else to go. When Harry pretends to cast a spell, Dudley tells on him, and Harry is punished with yard work, and no food until it is completed. Harry thinks of the contrast between his fame at Hogwarts and his mistreatment at the Dursleys. He enters the kitchen exhausted, smelling roast pork in the oven, and seeing Aunt Petunia’s elaborate pudding. She feeds him a small amount of bread and cheese and sends him upstairs. Uncle Vernon warns him again not to make a sound that night. When Harry turns to collapse on his bed he finds someone sitting on it.
Chapter 2: Dobby's Warning
Harry discovers a little creature with bat-like ears and large eyes sitting on his bed. He realizes that this must be who was watching him from the hedge that morning. Harry hears the Masons arriving downstairs. The creature slips off the bed, bows to Harry, and says that he has wanted to meet Harry Potter for a long time. He identifies himself as Dobby the house-elf and wears an old pillowcase. Harry tells Dobby that it’s not a great time for him to have a house-elf in his bedroom and asks why he is there. Then Harry asks Dobby to sit down, causing the house-elf to burst into very noisy tears, saying that he has never been asked to sit down by a wizard, like an equal. Harry tries to keep Dobby quiet while also being comforting. When Harry says “You can’t have met many decent wizards,” Dobby shakes his head, and then starts banging it on the window, repeating “Bad Dobby!” Hedwig wakes up with a screech. Dobby explains that he had to punish himself because he almost spoke ill of the wizard family he is bound to serve forever. Harry asks if the family knows he’s here. Dobby says no, and that he will have to shut his ears in the oven door for it, but they won’t notice because he has to punish himself constantly.
When Harry asks why Dobby doesn’t escape, Dobby explains that a house-elf must be set free. Harry realizes that Dobby has it much worse than him, and asks if he can help, which makes Dobby wail in gratitude loudly. Harry begs Dobby to be quiet. Dobby says that he has heard of Harry’s greatness but not of his goodness. Embarrassed, Harry replies that whatever he’s heard about Harry’s greatness is rubbish. Dobby is impressed that Harry is so humble and modest after defeating “He-who-must-not-be-named” (Voldemort) twice.
The house-elf says that he has come to protect Harry, to warn him that he must not go back to Hogwarts, where he is in mortal danger. Dobby’s warning upsets Harry because anticipating going to Hogwarts is all that’s keeping Harry hopeful as he endures his terrible life at the Dursleys'. Dobby argues with Harry, saying that he must stay where it’s safe—there’s a plot to make terrible things happen at Hogwarts this year. When Harry asks who’s plotting, Dobby bangs his head against the wall. Harry asks Dobby if this has anything to do with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Dobby shakes his head, while looking at Harry meaningfully, as if to give him a hint. Harry thinks that Hogwarts is protected from harm by Dumbledore, the headmaster and a great wizard. Dobby starts to refer to powers beyond any decent wizard’s ability to handle, then starts beating himself with Harry’s desk lamp, yelping loudly. Silence falls downstairs. When Harry hears Uncle Vernon come into the hall he stuffs Dobby into the closet. Uncle Vernon, angry that Harry has ruined the punchline of his Japanese golfer joke, threatens him: “One more sound and you’ll wish you’d never been born, boy!”
Letting Dobby out of the closet, Harry explains that this is why he has to go back to Hogwarts: it’s the only place he has any friends. Dobby says, “Friends who don’t even write to Harry Potter?” Harry discovers that Dobby has been stealing his letters, hoping that Harry wouldn’t want to go back to school if he thought his friends had forgotten him. Dobby pulls letters out of his pillowcase clothing from Ron, Hermione, and the Hogwarts gamekeeper, Hagrid. Harry tries to grab them. Dobby says that he will only give Harry the letters if he promises not to return to Hogwarts. When Harry refuses, Dobby sprints down the stairs.
Harry follows the elf soundlessly. He discovers him in the kitchen, crouched on top of a cupboard. Aunt Petunia’s elaborate pudding is floating in midair near the ceiling. Dobby is levitating the pudding through magic. Harry begs Dobby to put it down. The elf demands that Harry promise not to return to school. Harry says he can’t. With a tragic look, Dobby says he must do this for his own good. The pudding falls to the floor with a crash, shattering the dish and splattering the kitchen with cream. Dobby vanishes with the sound of a crack. There are screams from the dining room. Uncle Vernon discovers Harry in the kitchen covered with the remains of the pudding. Uncle Vernon tries to gloss the incident over with the Masons, calling Harry his “very disturbed” nephew. Vernon promises Harry that he will “flay him within an inch of his life” when the Masons leave, and hands him a mop.
An owl swoops through the dining room window and drops a letter on Mrs. Mason’s head, causing her to run screaming from the house. The letter is for Harry, from the Ministry of Magic. It notes that a Hoover Charm was used at his place of residence; that underage wizards are not permitted to use spells outside of school; that any magical activity risking notice by Muggles is a serious offense; and that any further spellwork will lead to his expulsion. Harry hadn’t told the Dursleys that he is not allowed to use magic outside of school. An enraged Uncle Vernon announces that he’s locking Harry in his room. He won’t permit Harry to go back to Hogwarts. And if Harry tries to use magic to escape, he will be expelled. The next day Vernon installs bars on Harry’s window, and a cat-flap through which to feed him. Harry stays locked up for three days, and has fallen into an uneasy sleep when he awakens to see his friend Ron Weasley’s face outside of his window.
Chapter 3: The Burrow
Ron along with his brothers, the twins Fred and George, arrive at Harry’s window in a car that their father enchanted so that it can fly. Ron was concerned that Harry hadn’t replied to his letters. He also learned from his dad that Harry had received an official warning for using magic in front of Muggles. Fred and George help Harry to escape using non-magical methods. Uncle Vernon tries to stop them by hanging on to Harry’s ankle, but fails. During the car flight to the Weasleys’ house, Harry tells his friends about Dobby’s warning and about the pudding disaster. When Fred and George wonder who holds a grudge against Harry, and might have sent Dobby, Ron answers that Draco Malfoy, another student at Hogwarts, hates him. The twins relate the rumor that Lucius Malfoy, Draco’s father, was a big supporter of Lord Voldemort. Ron also explains that he blamed Harry’s missing letters on Errol, their ancient messenger owl. So he asked his brother Percy to borrow his owl Hermes, but Percy refused. Percy Weasley is a prefect at Hogwarts. His brothers agree that he has been behaving oddly lately. Harry learns that Arthur Weasley works at the Ministry of Magic in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office. Mr. Weasley doesn’t know that his sons have borrowed his enchanted car. They touch down at the Burrow, the Weasely’s house.
Harry finds the lopsided house held together by magic wonderful. Mrs. Weasley yells at her sons for stealing the car, pointing out that they could have died, been seen, or caused their father to lose his job. While angry at her sons, she feeds everyone a big breakfast. She is especially kind to Harry. Ginny Wesley appears briefly and then runs away. Ron says that Ginny has been talking about Harry all summer. Mrs. Weasley orders her sons to de-gnome the garden. Harry joins in out of curiosity. She consults a book by Gilderoy Lockhart on the subject, who Fred says she fancies. Ron teaches Harry how to swing the garden gnomes like a lasso to make them dizzy, and then throw them over the hedge. Harry is sympathetic to the gnomes, until one bites his finger. Ron says that the gnomes will be back because his dad is too soft with them. Mr. Weasley comes home from a long night of raids. Mrs. Weasly confronts him about the car, which he hadn’t told her he had enchanted. He wrote a law with a loophole in it to make the enchanted car technically legal, as long as he wasn’t intending to fly it. When Mr. Weasley learns that his sons flew his car to rescue Harry, he is eager to hear how it went. Then he falters when he sees that his wife is angry. Ron shows Harry his bedroom, nervous about his opinion. Harry says it’s the best house he’s ever been in.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the second book in a series of seven. The first chapter reintroduces the protagonist, Harry Potter, and his world. We learn that Harry’s world is bifurcated into the magical, represented by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the mundane or “Muggle” world, represented by number four, Privet Drive. Harry’s status in these two places is starkly contrasting: in the wizarding world he is heralded for defeating Lord Voldemort, while in the Muggle world he is neglected and unloved.
Harry is prevented from bridging the gap between these two different identities by his complete powerlessness in his Muggle aunt and uncle’s home. He wants to communicate with his friends from school, but the Dursleys will not permit him to send messages via Hedwig, his pet owl. He knows that he can’t use magic to release Hedwig from her cage, as it is against Hogwarts rules for underage wizards to perform spells outside of school. The Ministry of Magic warns that “magical activity that risks notice by members of the non-magical community (Muggles) is a serious offense under section 13 of the International Confederation of Warlock’s Statute of Secrecy.” Harry is caught up in a clash larger than himself: mutual fear between Muggles and wizards. The Durselys' fear leads to prejudice, as they refer to Harry’s powers as his “abnormality.” Later we learn that some wizards also hold suspicion and prejudice towards Muggles, leading to the major conflicts of the story.
The beginning of the book uses auditory and gustatory imagery to display Harry’s relative powerlessness: he, and his pet, must keep quiet, while Vernon Dursley yells. He goes hungry while Mrs. Dursely overfeeds Dudley and prepares an elaborate meal for the Masons. These contrasts in sound and food are magnified by setting the story on Harry’s birthday: e sings only to himself, alone in the garden, and receives no birthday cake. Young readers expect that Harry’s birthday, like theirs, will be remembered. The situational irony of Mr. Dursley calling it a very important day, getting up the hopes of both Harry and his fans that he might be celebrated, and then disappointing by referring only to his own dinner party, reflects the pathetic formation of Harry’s character.
The broad slapstick of the Dursleys' behavior, their cartoonishness, makes their threats ridiculous. Although Harry is frustrated at this moment, we know that he will ultimately prevail over the narrow, wildly frightened Dursleys. Harry’s powerlessness is partially a symptom of his age, which will be overcome through maturing. This relates The Chamber of Secrets to a common genre, the coming-of-age story. There is an underlying mystery in the circumstances of Harry’s life, and the structure of the book: why is Harry in this home at all, where he doesn’t belong and is unwanted? Why do the Durselys take in Harry Potter, when they clearly loathe him? Why do adults who care for Harry in the wizard world knowingly permit him to return to abuse at home? These questions fit into a larger theme in the book of bungled authority in which adults are unable to keep children safe.
Harry’s isolated, lowly position is transformed during the school year through an enchanted escape, establishing the elements of another genre: the fairy tale. Harry plays Cinderella to the mean Dursleys. The third-person narration describes the Dursleys with great dramatic irony—they aren’t aware of how awful they are. Here’s one example: “‘Do I look stupid?’ snarled Uncle Vernon, a bit of fried egg dangling from his bushy mustache.” This technique of sly social satire built into the voice of the omniscient narrator is favored by Jane Austen, one of J.K. Rowling’s favorite authors. Even after he escapes into the world of magic, Harry will recognize injustice and fight for the downtrodden. Some have read the Christ story onto the Harry Potter series, seeing him as a persecuted savior who was resurrected to protect the meek.
As Harry longs for Hogwarts, the reader is introduced to both the Gothic context of a castle filled with secret passageways and ghosts, and the inventive vocabulary of the Harry Potter universe, from Quidditch to the Forbidden Forest, invoking the fantasy genre. Although Harry’s school is fantastical, his concerns about it are mundane: Will he be prepared? Have his friends forgotten him? In many ways, Harry is ordinary and relatable. He may be a wizard, but his needs are normal: to belong, to be recognized. The first chapter sets up a tension that the second chapter breaks. Harry lives in a precarious position, in which he must make himself small in order to survive. Dobby the house-elf will transgress this accommodation spectacularly.
Dobby is the first magical creature introduced in this book. His role in the plot is transgressive, as he breaks the rules of the Dursley household, transforming Harry’s position from precarious to impossible. Dobby also disrupts Harry’s vision of Hogwarts as a safe haven from the Dursleys’, creating suspense that remains unresolved until the end.
Because Dobby is bound to obey the family he serves, his presence in Harry Potter’s bedroom is also a transgression. In his guilt he is forced to constantly punish himself. Dobby recognizes a larger good in saving Harry Potter, beyond his social role, although the reason why is not revealed until later in the book. Harry attempts to be polite, and is empathetic when he hears of Dobby’s slavery, wishing he could help. In encountering the house-elf, Harry realizes that there are those who have it worse than him.
The central irony of Harry’s relationship with Dobby is that while Dobby is trying to save Harry, he repeatedly places Harry in danger. Uncle Vernon has already established what Harry is expected to do during the dinner party: to stay in his room, making no noise and pretending he’s not there. Harry is exhausted from yard work, has had little to eat, and wants to lie low until he can escape to Hogwarts. The one thing that Dobby asks Harry for in exchange for not disturbing the party is the one thing that Harry cannot offer: a promise to give up Hogwarts. For Harry, that’s the same as giving up hope.
At first, Dobby seems unaware of the social situation, as he wails loudly and crashes about, causing Harry to panic and Vernon to threaten. Chapter three is full of auditory imagery, which takes on a comic tone as Harry tries with increasing desperation to keep Dobby quiet, and the elf makes more and more noise. Dobby’s battle with his own nature is both darkly violent and exaggerated into broad slapstick. He brings chaos to the suburban household by banging his head on the walls and windows and beating his head with a lamp.
But Dobby is also uncannily aware of how to manipulate Harry. He steals Harry’s letters, hoping that if Harry thinks his friends have forgotten him, he won’t want to go back to Hogwarts. Then he finds the most precious item in the house at that moment: Aunt Petunia’s pudding, Harry’s anti-birthday cake, her offering to Uncle Weasley’s rich potential client, and holds it hostage. Dobby is aware of Harry’s desperation to keep the Dursleys calm. By levitating the dessert, he forces Harry to make a choice: maintain the tenuously safe status-quo and give up hope, or disrupt it irrevocably and maintain hope that he will be able to return to Hogwarts. Dobby prefers the former because he believes that Harry is safe at the Dursleys. When Harry chooses the later he loses his last shred of autonomy in that household. He maintained what freedom he had by not rocking the boat, and by making the Dursleys think that he could cast a spell on them at any moment. Both of those are lost, and Harry becomes a prisoner.
Then Harry is freed through the magic of friendship and an enchanted car. Mr. Wesley’s flying Ford Angola represents freedom and independence, and thus the promise of adulthood. It also represents the hybrid sensibility of the Weasleys, who value both Muggle and wizard skills. In a bit of irony for readers who expected a purely magical escape, Fred and George help Harry by knowing how to pick a lock. Arthur Weasley loves to tinker with Muggle things and also works for the “Misuse of Muggle Artifacts office.” Both arise out of respect for Muggles, but will create tension later in the plot. He works to keep the existence of wizardry covert with memory charms, even as his own politics are very liberal. He is willing to bend the Ministry’s rules. He takes delight in Muggles’ ingenuity for finding ways to get along without magic. He is impressed with difference and tolerant. In the flying car ride, the Malfoys are introduced as foils for the Weasleys. We learn that Lucius Malfoy is aligned politically with Voldemort, who represents evil in the series.
The Weasleys’ home the Burrow contrasts with Privet drive: it is situated in the country rather than the suburbs, is crooked and jumbled, and held together by magic. Mrs. Weasley cares, which is also a contrast to the Dursleys' indifference. She is both kind and fierce, and worried about her children. Her appearance is domestic and powerful, represented by her flowered apron with a wand in the pocket. The contrast between her rage and politeness to Harry adds a comedic tone to the scene. The sights and sounds of domesticity at the Burrow comfort Harry. Ginny Weasley is introduced as having a crush on him. Overall, female sexuality is ahead of male sexuality in this book. In Mrs. Weasley’s crush on Gilderoy Lockhart, female desire appears as somewhat silly and misguided.
The Burrow’s garden is unkempt, diverse, and full of life. Like Harry, the gnomes are displaced and homeless. In degnoming, the Weasleys toss them around until they are “dizzy, so can’t find their way back to gnome holes.” Harry is shocked by the routine mistreatment of gnomes until a gnome bites him. The omniscient narrator is the most sympathetic, adding pathos to their exodus with the description of “their little shoulders hunched.” This is an allegory for the politics of immigration. Ron thinks that his father is “too soft with them.”
Many characteristics of the Weasley family mark them as Irish Catholic: their liberal politics, red hair, large family, traditional gender roles, and relative poverty. While Ron is self-conscious about his home and room, Harry is enamored by the strange and unexpected at the Burrow, and the kindness he experiences there. We are given clues about Gilderoy Lockhart’s character early: He is a hyperbolic con-artist who bilks the poor Weasleys to sell his books. Errol, the Weasleys' pet owl, is a comic character who barely delivers messages in his advanced years, and also highlights the family’s poverty because they can’t afford a younger owl.