Going in, you could say J.K. Rowling has a lot to prove with this second novel in the Harry Potter series. The first book, though not very long, and very much aimed at children, is very entertaining and surprisingly dense in both plot and theme. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets continues that perfectly. Once again, the novel is not very long and it is still a children’s book, but this book contains even more plot and even more depth to plunder. But what really sets Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets apart from its predecessor is its darkness. Where the first book was more interested in liveliness and wonder, this second entry tries for bleak and ominous mood that sometimes borders on genuinely scary.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets begins with the introduction of Dobby the House Elf. He is trying everything he can to stop Harry from going to Hogwarts this year. Apparently there is a dangerous plot afoot and Harry needs protection. Once at school, that plot becomes apparent. The legendary Chamber of Secrets has been opened and students are being attacked. This being a Harry Potter book, there is a lot that happens in between and there is a lot of information that fills in the universe and makes the main plot itself that much more meaningful.
First of all, the fun stuff. Harry gets rescued from the Dursely’s by Ron and his brothers in a flying Ford and they take him to their home, The Burrow. Even though they are quite poor, the house is filled with magic in every corner and Harry can’t get enough of it. Later, when going to Platform 9 3/4, Harry and Ron find themselves unable to get onto the platform and end up missing the Hogwarts Express. They jump in the flying car and fly all the way to school, crashing into the Whomping Willow and nearly getting themselves killed in the process. There are also Quidditch matches and wizard duels and giant spiders and plenty of other memorably fun things that happen over the course of the book.
But all that fun is eclipsed by the opening of the Chamber of Secrets. Harry learns the story of Salazar Slytherin, one of the four founders of Hogwarts, who believed that magical education should be open only to those wizards of pure blood. He eventually left the school, but not before building his own secret chamber somewhere underneath the school in which he hid a terrifying creature. He claimed that one day his heir would return and open the Chamber, releasing the monster within and purging the school of its “impurity”. Now, in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, it seems that heir has returned to do Slytherin’s bidding.
What makes Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets particularly deep rests in its exploration of racism within the wizarding world, as well as the sense that Harry might actually have more in common with Voldemort than he would like to think. Harry—and the rest of the school—learns that he can talk to snakes, a rare magical ability held by both Slytherin and Voldemort himself. Through an enchanted diary owned by a young Voldemort, then named Tom Riddle, Harry learns that Voldemort also came from childhood with no parents and that he also held a strong affection for Hogwarts as their true home. This idea that Harry is actually very much like Voldemort causes him to question whether he really is a good person, which leads to one of the most important themes throughout the entire series: that it is our choices that define us. It’s a theme the books return to with more and more complexity, and even though there are hints of it in the first book, it is in Chamber of Secrets that it becomes much more fleshed out.
I don’t think Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is quite as good as Philosopher’s Stone. There is an even more nagging feeling that the presence of Voldemort in the book is way too coincidental. The book also doesn’t have enough detail in its plot to outweigh the lacking feeling of wonder at all the magic. All the same, it does push the series into directions that will, even in the very next book, create layers of depth and theme that raise it from good children’s story to brilliant story. What we have is an exploration of the darkness that pervades the wizarding world, as well as the increasingly disconcerting connections between Harry and the man who killed his parents, and that makes Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets another winning entry into J.K. Rowling’s wonderful series.