Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Themes


Harry Potter and his friends often rebel against the rules of their world in order to pursue truth and justice. Adults fail again and again to keep children safe, proving to be at times cruel, fearful, incompetent, and prejudiced. This leads to frequent dangers: at one point Harry is at risk of starving to death in his room, and Hogwarts is threatened with takeover by a sadistic murderous regime. At the beginning of the story, Harry lives in a tense, fragile peace at the Dursleys, in which he is surviving but neglected, and has little power. When confronted by Dobby with the choice of whether to maintain the status quo and give up the magical world, or rebel, Harry chooses magic. After Harry suffers the consequences, Ron and his brothers break the rules of their household to steal their father’s car and rescue Harry. Mrs. Weasley’s resulting fury is rooted in concern for her children’s safety: the wizarding world lives in fear, enforced by the Ministry of Magic, of exposure to Muggles. Mr. Weasley, who is fond of Muggles, is less concerned than eager to hear how the car flew. He has quietly rebelled by enchanting the car in the first place, writing himself a loophole in the law to justify his hybrid wizard-Muggle aesthetic.

To overcome the obstacle placed in their way by Dobby, Ron and Harry steal the car a second time to fly to Hogwarts. Then they learn the serious consequences of this rebellion: Because the car has been seen by Muggles during their flight, the Ministry considers firing Mr. Weasley, and his Muggle Protection Act is put in jeopardy. It turns out that wizards can have more to fear from the rules of their own institutions than they do from Muggles. In addition to placing the Weasleys and his policies into jeopardy, Harry and Ron place themselves in a bind: Dumbledore warns them that if they break any more rules they will be expelled from Hogwarts. This effectively means that as they continue to pursue truth and justice in the story, Harry feels that he can’t share what he knows with Dumbledore, at the risk of losing his place at school. He recognizes this insecurity in Tom Riddle, which makes him dangerously trusting of a character who turns out to want to kill him. Because the institution is not itself on the side of truth and justice, as evidenced by Minister Fudge’s weakness, this makes the hero a rebel, with the same outsider status as the villain. The world is therefore saved by Harry’s personal moral compass, his individual struggle towards goodness born out of love and loyalty, and the shared values of his friends.

As the plot progresses, Harry, Ron, and Hermione consistently break the school rules to solve the mystery. In order to find out if Draco Malfoy is responsible for petrifying students, they brew up the Polyjuice potion to transform their identities. This requires them to sneak into the restricted section of the library, steal ingredients from Snape, occupy the girls’ bathroom (which is off-limits to the two boys, as Percy warns them repeatedly), and break into the Slytherin Common room. Hermione evolves as she puts aside her rule-abiding nature in order to do what is right. She says that she doesn’t want to break rules, but thinks that threatening Muggle-borns is worse than creating the potion. Her identity informs her sense of justice. When Hermione is petrified, Harry and Ron continue to break school rules to pursue the truth. They use the Invisibility Cloak to sneak out at night to Hagrid’s hut and then to the Forbidden Forest. Harry also manipulates Lockhart to let them move about freely, by agreeing that security measures are unnecessary, using their common desire to circumvent authority.

When Ginny disappears into the Chamber of Secrets, and Professor McGonagall sends the students back to their dormitories for their safety, Harry and Ron hide in a wardrobe in the staff room to find out what happened. Then they take on the responsibility to rescue Ginny. They bring along Gilderoy Lockhart as the nominal adult who is supposed to be the rescuer, as a sort of punishment for his cowardice. He loses all authority in the process. When Harry and Ron emerge victorious, McGonagall points out that they have broken about a hundred school rules in the process. Even after they save Ginny and Hogwarts, the boys are afraid of being punished. But Dumbledore reverses his earlier position: Instead of expelling them, he awards them house points and a feast. Because of his institutional role, he could not have done this in the beginning. He had to uphold the rules, even as they protected the wrong people, and temporarily lost him and Hagrid their jobs. Harry Potter had to transform the meaning of justice at Hogwarts in order for the school to survive.


Harry Potter struggles with his identity throughout the book. The Durselys prevent Harry from being a wizard as much as they can. They make it impossible for him to connect with his friends, lock away his school books, and forbid him from talking about magic. Harry is lonely and isolated at Privet Drive with little control over his life or recognition for his abilities. When Dobby tries to make Harry promise not to return to Hogwarts, Harry risks the little security he has to refuse Dobby, because he feels that he belongs in the magical world. But at Hogwarts, Harry's identity isn't normalized, it is reversed. He is a famous celebrity, mainly for an event he can't remember: defeating Lord Voldemort when he was a baby. While Harry barely has enough to eat at the Durselys, he owns a mountain of wizard money in Gringotts bank which he inherited from his parents. Because Harry is used to a powerless identity at home, he feels awkward about his wealth around the Weaselys, who struggle with poverty. His consciousness from one world is incommensurate with his status in the other. This consciousness makes him uncomfortable, but also gives him compassion, to free Dobby for example. Harry's identity crisis is exacerbated when his fame becomes a source of suspicion amongst the Hogwarts students. During the panic caused by the mysterious petrification of students, and rumors about the Heir of Slytherin opening the Chamber of Secrets, the students find out that Harry is a Parselmouth—he can speak with snakes, like Salazar Slytherin. This unusual ability makes many students turn on Harry, further isolating him. This returns the despair he felt at the Dursleys, but with an added anger from rejection at a place he was supposed to belong. Harry worries about hearing voices that no one else can hear. Because he is an orphan he also worries that he could be the Heir of Slytherin and not know it. When he learns that he shares many similarities with Tom Riddle, he is afraid that he has also inherited evil, and wonders if they will have similar fates. Harry's concern about why the Sorting Hat placed him in Gryffindor House instead of Slytherin House represents two possibilities of human nature: essentialist and constructivist. When he reassures Harry that the Sorting Hat placed him in Gryffindor because Harry asked it to, Dumbledore proposes a thesis that, defends a notion of identity directly opposed to the essentialist pure-blood supremacist ideology espoused by the villains: "It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities."


The book examines prejudice by creating a world that seems at first to be bifurcated between Muggles and wizards, the mundane and magical, the banal and the wonderful, and then complicating that division. The Dursleys fear Harry’s magical abilities, leading to prejudice of his “abnormality.” Hagrid, in turn, expresses casual prejudice in his judgment of the Durselys as “lousy Muggles.” But Hermione, a Muggle who is also Hagrid’s friend, interrupts that moment. Hermione has exceptional magical talent and is born to Muggle parents. Her identity is proof that the pure-blood supremacist ideology espoused by Salazar Slytherin and perpetuated by Lucius Malfoy—the belief that wizards are who come from “pure-blood” families are superior—is nonsense. Likewise, the existence of “Squibs” such as Filch, who come from wizard families, but have no magical powers, complicates the division. There is as much prejudice in the wizarding world as in the Muggle world. The wizarding world contains a social hierarchy that depends upon the labor of the excluded, such as Filch, and the enslaved, such as Dobby. Lucius and Draco Malfoy are prejudiced against the Weasley family because they are poor. Even ghosts suffer from prejudice, as Sir Patrick bars Nearly Headless Nick from the Headless Hunt. One of the founders of Hogwarts was prejudiced against any student who wasn’t born into a wizard family. The Chamber of Secrets and the basilisk represent the fear and hatred perpetuated by prejudice, and their potential dangers.

The story highlights how prejudice can arise from assumptions based upon appearances. Harry is inclined to believe Riddle because they share experiences in common. Riddle’s diary creates visual imagery that persuades Harry to believe that he is having an experience himself, when in fact what he experiences is mediated by Riddle. Aragog and Hagrid were viewed with prejudice, and falsely accused. Riddle played on Dippit's prejudice against Hagrid, and used the pathos of his own story to manipulate him. When Harry speaks Parseltongue he experiences the same social exclusion at Hogwarts that he felt at the Dursleys, also as a result of prejudice against his abilities. Ultimately, Ernie apologizes to Harry for suspecting him, but then simply switches his suspicion to Draco. Ernie represents popular opinion, which turns out to be prejudiced and wrong. Ron Weasley suspects Draco Malfoy of being the Heir of Slytherin because of the nastiness of the Malfoys. In contrast, Hermione is good at suspending judgment, collecting empirical information, and coming up with hypotheses. Because of this, she is the first to figure out the true nature of the basilisk.


In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Muggles and wizards alike are afraid of both difference and the unknown. The Dursleys, Harry Potter's Muggle family, fear his magic, because it makes him different, unpredictable, and possibly uncontrollable. Their fear gives Harry a bit of power over them, which he loses when they discover that Hogwarts forbids underage wizards from performing magic outside of school. This rule is a result of the wizarding world fearing discovery by Muggles. When the book begins, Harry is caught between these two groups who mutually fear each other. When he manages to escape from imprisonment at Privet drive to Hogwarts, he discovers that those who try to maintain apartheid between Muggles and wizards fear contamination. wizards such as Salazar Slytherin and Lucius Malfoy police the boundary that determines the structure of this division: pureblood supremacist ideology. Hogwarts was founded in a time when “magic was feared by common people, and Witches and wizards suffered much persecution.” Perhaps because of this atmosphere, Salazar Slytherin distrusted anyone except wizards with pure wizard blood. He created the Chamber of Secrets with its monster out of fear. The legend of the Chamber, in turn, generates fear, as it represents a threat to so many at the school. “'They went for Filch first,' Neville said, his round face fearful. 'And everyone knows I’m almost a Squib.'” Tom Riddle, as Slytherin's heir, opens the Chamber and unleashes the monster within. As this unknown monster attacks and paralyzes some students, the students, teachers, and governors of the school panic. The terrorism leads to restrictions on the students and divisions among them. Some Gryffindor students want to expel all Slytherin students. And in their fear, many students turn against Harry Potter, who was once their hero, for being different, especially when they discover that he speaks Parseltongue like Salazar Slytherin. Fred and George Weasley provide comic relief by exaggerating the students’ fears. Fudge, under pressure from the governors, arrests Hagrid as a scapegoat. He claims that he’s taking Hagrid not as a punishment, but as a precaution. Fudge chooses to jail Hagrid because people are afraid, and want an easy answer. Fear accelerates the school towards fascism. All of this is fueled by Riddle, who says he "grew stronger and stronger on a diet of her [Ginny's] deepest fears, her darkest secrets." Fear is one of Riddle's greatest weapons. When he reveals to Harry that he is, in fact, Lord Voldemort he explains that "I fashioned myself a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak..." The basilisk is a fitting companion for Voldemort, as Aragog the spider explains that it “is an ancient creature we spiders fear above all others...We do not speak of it!...We do not name it!" The unspeakable (different, unknown) natures of both Voldemort and the basilisk, their otherness, gives them a dark, destructive power, fueled by fear.


J.K. Rowling became famous very quickly after the publication of the first Harry Potter book. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets could be read as her examination of that experience. Harry Potter's fame is a burden for him, as it makes him different from his peers. Draco Malfoy is particularly jealous, imagining that Harry's fame gets him special treatment. Gilderoy Lockhart represents the hollowness of undeserved fame. He tries to use Harry’s fame to increase his own by association. Lockhart is an undeserving blowhard desiring fame for its own sake and taking credit for the work of others. Popularity and financial success matter most to Lockhart, exemplified by his gloating over his book being “six solid months at the top of the best-seller list.” Colin Creevy reinforces the theme of fame by being Harry's most earnest fan, constantly photographing him and asking for his autograph. When the Heir of Slytherin is terrorizing Hogwarts, Ernie Macmillan accuses Harry Potter of being the Heir, using the mystery around how Harry survived Voldemort’s curse against him. The story that made him a hero ironically makes students suspicious of Harry. Lockhart was right in warning Harry about the dangers of early fame.


When Ron and Harry decide to fly Mr. Wesley’s flying Ford Angola to Hogwarts, they seize it as a symbol of independence. The car’s faulty invisibility booster represents the tenuousness of Harry and Ron’s adolescent position. They go from experiencing the “fabulous dream” of freedom to being semi-visible and vulnerable. They are not yet able to handle adulthood, running the car into a tree. At this moment, Ron breaks his wand. Ron’s wand is a phallic symbol, and its dysfunction is part of the coming-of-age narrative.

Lockhart’s Valentine’s day party fits into the theme of adolescence. The girls are ahead of the boys developmentally. Ginny sends Harry a valentine. Her desire disrupts the plot, as she both writes in her diary about her crush on Harry, and her singing telegram produces the chaos that reveals the trick of the diary to Harry. Hermione, like Ginny, has a crush: on Lockhart. She is inexperienced, but a passionate reader. Her naivety parallels that of Ginny, who believes in the voice in Riddle’s diary. Hermione’s transformation when she drinks the Polyjuice potion represents the physical transformation of puberty; she gains a male secondary characteristic, growing hair on her face, which shocks Ron, in particular. Myrtle’s delighted taunts represent the social trauma of adolescence. Hermione has experienced a consequence of risking new magic on her own without adult supervision.

Adults consistently fail to protect children in the book. When Dumbledore and Hagrid are removed from Hogwarts, Ron and Harry are forced to act as their proxies. In the coming-of-age narrative, this is the moment of loss of parental protectors. They become responsible for more than they should. They must defend the school, solve the mystery, and protect their fellow students from attack.

Throughout, the Mandrakes are a symbol of maturation, as they grow from babies into adults, providing a timeline in the book. Their maturity coincides with the end of the term, and with the solving of the mystery. There is an element of horror to this process, as once they are full adults, the school chops them up to use them as a restorative tonic for the paralyzed students.


At the beginning of the story, Harry Potter feels cut off from the magical world, and worries that he doesn’t have any friends at Hogwarts. He feels alone and vulnerable at the Dursleys. The pathos of this moment is deepened by the fact that it’s his birthday, and no one has noticed. He subsequently finds out that he is mistaken. His friends Ron, Hermione, and Hagrid have been writing him letters, which have been intercepted by Dobby to make him feel that he doesn’t belong at Hogwarts. Harry’s experiences with isolation, longing, and friendship are core to his character. He has grown up in a place where he is friendless and unloved, only to find out about his origins and place in the world when he turns eleven. He makes friends with Ron and Hermione in the first book, and the loyalty of the three is central to the story of the second. Ron rescues Harry from the Durselys and brings him home to the Burrow, where Harry experiences a happy family for the first time. They continue to work together to solve the mystery, rescue Ginny, and save Hogwarts. Their friendship makes them brave. This is not without complexity. In Harry’s lowest point, when many of his peers turn against him, even Ron and Hermione wonder if his ability to speak Parseltongue could mean that Harry is Slytherin’s heir. His self-doubt turns into an identity crisis and a social crisis, as he becomes angry and withdrawn. When Harry reconnects with his own loyalty to Dumbledore, and to his friends Hagrid, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione, he finds his confidence again. Voldemort tries to bait and manipulate Harry through his love for his friends, but through their support and camaraderie, Harry finds the wherewithal to endure and prevail.