Admittedly, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was my least favorite of the films, so I approached this book with some trepidation. The Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets isn’t quite so bad, but I still can’t help but wonder what exactly Harry learned in this book. What role does this book serve in the larger Harry Potter mythos?
I think one problem is that, through Dumbledore, the book misrepresents Harry’s character development. Indeed, I’d argue this book muddles the larger themes of the Harry Potter series. It’s as if Dumbledore doesn’t quite understand what’s going on in his own story.
At the end of Chamber of Secrets, Harry tells Dumbledore that he’s worried about the similarities between himself and Tom Riddle (a.k.a. Voldemort). Dumbledore reassures him by saying, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” It’s a nice sentiment, but what does it have to do with this story?
First, I doubt that any reader actually saw anything more than superficial similarities between Harry and Voldemort. Yes, they’re both orphans with brown hair who became talented wizards. But that’s about it. There are probably hundreds of kids who fit that description, even at Hogwarts. Harry has been nothing but a nice, innocent kid. By his age, Voldemort was already torturing other kids and stealing things. I just don’t think the books give us enough to take seriously the idea that Harry might really follow in Voldemort’s footsteps.
Even more problematic, Dumbledore seems to frame the whole story as a matter of choice, yet everything in the story thus far suggests the opposite. Nowhere in Chamber of Secrets does Harry ever “choose” to be good or resist evil temptations. He always acts with intent to defeat the villain. He seems genuinely disgusted by anti-muggle bigotry and Voldemort’s actions.
The story could have presented Harry with a moral decision. For example, there’s a scene in which other students think Harry told a snake to attack Justin Finch-Fletchley. The movie tries to create some ambiguity by making Harry sound slightly menacing when speaking Parseltongue. However, it doesn’t really work because Harry has no motivation to attack Justin. The scene is even less ambiguous in the book because, as the point of view character, we know all of Harry’s thoughts and know that he never intended harm.
If the snake had been poised to attack Draco Malfoy instead of Justin, Harry might have felt tempted to attack. Harry and Malfoy are antagonists. Harry resents Malfoy’s attempts to bully him and his friends. From Malfoy’s own statements, it seems quite clear that he would have been happy to have the Basilisk kill muggle students. As such, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Harry rationalizing an attack on Malfoy as “for the greater good,” to rid the world of a bully. If Harry had been confronted with that choice and decided against attacking Malfoy, then I’d be impressed with his actions.
Another point that undermines Dumbledore’s argument is that in the Harry Potter series generally treats characters as innately good or innately evil. Even from the very beginning, Harry is portrayed as inherently good. We never see him ever learn right from wrong; he certainly didn’t acquire his sense of morality from the Dursleys. While the character might occasionally get angry, jealous, or frustrated, he never comes close to slipping toward Voldemortism. It’s worth contrasting him with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, who clearly did give into his anger and attack enemies with aggression. In Return of the Jedi, Luke saw the danger of his actions and made a clear decision to reject the Dark Side.
Then we have the Sorting Hat. When students first come to Hogwarts, they are sorted into houses – before they make any choices of consequence. Gryffindor House is clearly affiliated with the heroes, Slytherin House contains all of the villains, Ravenclaw House has the intellectuals, and Hufflepuff House has… well, I’m not quite sure what it has. Ever sinister character we meet up to this point belongs to Slytherin; there are no villains in this story who do not belong to Slytherin. There are of course a few exceptions, especially in the later books, but a character’s house affiliation is a remarkably reliable predictor of that character’s moral worldview.
Ultimately, Chamber of Secrets simply isn’t a story about characters making moral choices. Does this mean that the Harry Potter books are devoid of moral dilemmas? That Harry never has to face tough decisions? No. In a way, the choices that Harry does confront in the later books are more meaningful than a simplistic choice between good and evil. I’ll save that discussion for a later review. In the meantime, just remember not to take Dumbledore’s interpretation of the story as definitive.
Next week, I review Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the Harry Potter series…