[DWJ] Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, part 1

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Thu Jul 12 03:46:42 EDT 2007

(All page references come from the first Scholastic (US) trade paperback
edition, September 2000.)

The movie version soured me on this book--or, at least, on the desire to
ever read it again.  All I remembered was that the movie felt too long, was
tediously edited, and that my kids have been on my case for years wanting me
to buy the DVD.  (I bought it today because it was $10 and I finally found
the widescreen edition, which is the only way I watch movies any more.  It's
nice to be able to afford to keep one's inner snob in the style to which it
would like to be accustomed.)  It was nice to find that the book is not
awful and that there were moments I remembered enjoying, though like _Harry
Potter and the Philosopher's Stone_ this still had me mystified as to why
kids were so crazy about the series.

On the other hand, it does strike me as far more substantial and coherent
than the first one.  Some of this is no doubt due to J.K. Rowling's use of a
standard mystery structure to tell the story of the Chamber of Secrets, as
well as give us more of an idea of where Lord Voldemort came from.  I have
mixed feelings about mysteries disguised as fantasy novels, but mainly
because I secretly feel I should not enjoy them as much as I do (should
fantasy be "pure"? is that even possible? and doesn't it say something that
I can never remember the plot of Steven Brust's fantasy/mystery _Orca_ until
I'm actually reading it?).  Still, it's helpful to be able to identify
_Chamber of Secrets_ as one such, and it's a perfect example of a mystery:
bodies piling up, plausible red herrings throwing Our Hero off the track,
last minute reversals that make everything make sense....  The fact that the
bodies are merely paralyzed and not dead indicates that we're still dealing,
if not with a truly juvenile novel, at least a book intended for young
readers.  Rowling continues her tendency to mix juvenilia with YA elements
by disallowing any possible fatalities, but giving her victims fitting or
amusing fates that satisfy the more experienced reader's need for balance in
the story.

I did remember, finally, that on my original reading I was actually
surprised to find that Moaning Myrtle was the murder victim fifty years
before.  I am not good at figuring out plots, so this could be my inherent
denseness, or Rowling did a good job at the mystery.  In any case, that's
still my reaction to the overall plot: good mystery that ought to be just
right even for young teens.

I'm still tracing the juvenile vs. YA theme and there's still a bizarre mix
of elements--so much so that I'd be hard put to label this book one way or
another.  Rowling is still playing with a number of things that can only
work in a juvenile novel.  Primary amongst them (though not something that
gets a lot of play) is the theme "Wizards are hilariously ignorant of the
Muggle world."  This is absolutely something that does not bear close
scrutiny.  What do they do, live in magic bubbles?  The Weasleys, for
example, live near a Muggle village and have to worry about activities like
broomstick-flying being seen (p.45-6); it's hard to believe that they could
live that close and not have some contact with the villagers, even if it's
just the English equivalent of the Fuller Brush Man.  (Do Girl Guides sell
cookies?  Are they as addictive as Girl Scout Cookies?  Will this start off
yet another of this list's perennially favorite activities: talking about

This line of thought has forced me to stop and evaluate the fundamental
structure of juvenile fiction and where the line falls between "implausible
but acceptable within context" and "too implausible even for a juvie."  As
an adult reader, my expectations are greatly different from a child's; from
conversations with my own children, I can tell when my questions about a
story are...the best word is probably "inappropriate."  And yet there are
books, or parts of books, that even children can't believe.  So I imagine
there is a line, or a number of lines, that separate good/plausible from
bad/implausible, for children and young adults and mature readers.  (Yes, I
*know* you can be a mature reader at a young age, blah blah blah, but if you
peak at sixteen and never get any better, you are either stalled out or you
are a divine avatar, and in neither case does any reasonable person want to
speak to you.)  The question with _Chamber of Secrets_ is--where does that
line fall?  Is it reasonable to ask those questions (and be disappointed by
the answers, is the tacit corollary) or is that--to use my phrase from the
first essay--unfair to the text?

My gut tells me that this is where a good many adult readers have a falling
out with the series.  There aren't a lot of these moments in _Chamber of
Secrets_, but Rowling's world is so well realized that such moments become
both more noticeable and, conversely, harder to ignore, harder to talk
yourself around.  And yet it's that very sparseness that tells me that
Rowling did not intend for these points to be anything more than window
dressing or a throwaway joke.  While this may come back to haunt her in
later books, in this instance I believe they should to be taken at face
value.  They may annoy mature readers, and it's always the prerogative of
the reader to like or dislike a book on her own terms, but from a critical
standpoint I'd say that's, again, unfair.  (Or, in other words, I'd accept
hating the book because of this, but not slamming it as bad.)

I took a number of notes on Rowling's textual or conceptual inconsistencies,
but mainly because I was tracking the places where she changed her mind or
had the story develop in a different direction than the one laid out in
_Philosopher's Stone_.  I'm too cynical to accept an author's "I knew where
it all was going from the start" as far as it applies to multi-volume works.
I'm actually more respectful of the author who can use ideas laid out in
earlier books to create brand-new plotlines and not have to retcon important
points to make them fit.  One I don't like here also bugged me in the first
book, and that's the description of Ginny Weasley as a "small girl" (p. 35
here, also somewhere in _PS_ that I don't feel like looking up again).  My
impression from those words as well as her overall cringing behavior was of
a much younger child, certainly not someone just a year older than Harry and
his pals.  I don't know at what point Rowling conceived the idea that her
crush on Harry would develop into something more serious and mutual, but I
had the devil of a time taking Ginny seriously.

Which, ironically, makes the revelation that she's the one who's been
working all the mischief (albeit under duress) almost chilling.  The girl
nobody takes seriously has actually killed creatures with her own hands
(Hagrid's roosters, and yes that's not much as far as death goes, but it's
still the first time in the series that actual death happens--p. 310).
That's pretty darn creepifying if you're still reading merrily along
thinking it's a juvie book.  Or, for that matter, it's also creepifying that
such a sinister presence has manifested as the kind of innocuous-seeming
magical item the characters, and by extension the reader, have gotten used
to.  Rowling does a number of semi-subtle things in this plot, but this one
is important because with it she undermines the illusion that the magic the
characters come in contact with is either benign or just generally
dangerous, but not malevolent.  (I would have liked to see this subverting
of the text develop further, but it probably wouldn't have been as effective
if she'd drawn attention to it.)

Having now two data points to go on, I can start identifying things I like
about the *series* rather than the individual books.  Probably my favorite
part of this world are the characters in it, particularly the adults and
non-protagonists.  Rowling is still working in very broad strokes here,
which is fine for a beginner, but I'm watching to see how and if she
improves; still, I think she has some work to be proud of.  Most of her
character development is along the lines of things (people) not always being
what they seem, and of course Gilderoy Lockhart is a perfect example. What's
amusing is that even the adults roll their eyes at his over-the-top behavior
and ridiculous claims to glory.  I am very fond of the scene with the
dueling club, in which Lockhart dragoons Snape (more on him in a moment)
into helping, and Snape knocks him on his can with hardly any effort (p.
189-191).  Deeply satisfying--probably because I've known so many Lockharts
and wished I could have done more than roll my eyes at *them*.  Then there's
the caretaker Argus Filch, who in this book is revealed to be almost
incapable of working magic (p.127-8); in this context, his crabbiness and
loathing of students suddenly looks different.  Or the proud ghost Nearly
Headless Nick, dead five hundred years and still dealing with hazing from
the popular kids in the club they won't let him join (p. 135-6).

But pride of place goes to Severus Snape, and let me tell you, J.K. Rowling
likes this guy best of all.  I can't explain it, I can't document it, but I
would bet hard money on her preferring his story to Harry's.  I realized
that I didn't mention Snape at all in that first review, and that was odd
because I also like Snape better than any other character, even my sweet
young twin Hermione.  _Philosopher's Stone_ hinges on the revelation that
Snape, who appears to be a bad guy, is actually a good guy, but once you
know that, you can't really be deceived.  But the great thing is that
there's more fun to be had in reading the books from Snape's perspective. We
already know, from _Philosopher's Stone_, that he hates Harry because of bad
blook between him and James Potter that long predates Harry's birth; that he
despises being thought weak (the scene where Harry sees Snape's injured leg
and assumes Snape hides it out of guilt is actually Snape's hatred of being
seen as weak, particularly by James Potter's son); we know that Snape,
despite his personal hatred for Harry, is driven by his sense of honor to
protect him.  No longer required to protect Harry in _Chamber of Secrets_,
Snape's hatred leads him to assume the worst about Harry, but he is still
honorable enough not to accuse him in the absence of proof (see p. 143 at
the opening of the Chamber of Secrets).  Snape's definitely not a nice guy,
but he's also not a villain.  I'd like him better if he wasn't so fond of
that sneaking weasel Draco Malfoy, but I'm guessing he sees his younger self
in Malfoy, and if Snape has one fault, it's that crippling pride of his.
Toward the end of the book, I realized that I got a little more interested
every time Snape showed up.  This guy has more character development than
anyone else.

(Casting Alan Rickman in this role, by the way, was a BRILLIANT move.  That
man can't smile without looking like it hurts.  I'm in awe of him.)

to be continued....

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