When reviewing Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, I argued that the true theme of the franchise is prejudice and racism. In no book is this more true than in The Chamber of Secrets.
In many ways, The Chamber of Secrets is simply a continuation of the magical fantasy world that Columbus brought so successfully to the big screen. In another sense, however, it is a deeper thematic exploration than its predecessor in ways that truly matter. The new fantasy elements that Rowling introduces directly tie to racism.
How, you ask? Meet Dobby. Dobby shows up at the beginning of our story, begging Harry not to return to Hogwarts, and has even gone so far as to intercept all of his friends’ letters. The twist here? Dobby is a house elf, a slave to a wizarding family, bound by very powerful magic, who has to constantly punish himself for disobedience.
Things don’t get much easier for Harry after that. When Dobby sabotages Harry’s life at the Dursleys, he has to be rescued by the Weasleys with a flying car. When the platform for the Hogwarts train gets blocked off, he and Ron have to use the flying car again . . . which is then totalled by a homicidal tree. But herein lies the important part: Dobby, a slave, is trying to save Harry Potter.
Tension increases still after Harry and Ron make it to school. Ron, using a taped wand, tries to curse Malfoy, which then backfires on himself. Why? He calls Hermione a mudblood – a vulgar racial slur for someone who has muggle parents. The continued use of the word throughout the series unfortunately dilutes its effect. But in its first use, the word appears to be a wizarding equivalent to the n-word.
From there, things only get worse. A series of victims are left petrified by some unknown means, along with a message written in blood: The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir beware. Malfoy interprets the latter part of that sentence with an annoying audience-hand-holding moment: “you’ll be next, mudbloods.”
But annoying as it is, it brings Harry’s eye-opening experience with the wizarding world full circle. From the existence of slavery to racism and now racial cleansing, Harry learns that one of the founding members of Hogwarts, Salazar Slytherin, was something of an ancient KKK Grand Dragon.
Imagine, then, how awful it must be for Harry when people think that he might be the heir of Slytherin. He does share Salazar Slytherin’s ability to talk to snakes, and we’re reminded that the sorting hat had wanted to put him in Slytherin. It all seems to fit.
Connecting Harry to the horrid legacy of Salazar Slytherin is a way of adding conflict to the character. But what’s of particular interest here is what Harry is able to use to defeat the true heir in the final climax. For that, we have to the a step back.
At a particularly desperate moment in the plot, Harry is in Dumbledore’s office when his bird bursts into flames. He’s a phoenix, Dumbledore explains. But the thing he emphasizes to Harry is not the bird’s prowess in battle or destruction, as we might be used to seeing in a phoenix. Rather, he emphasizes its rebirth, and the healing power of its tears.
But later, when Harry is in the Chamber fighting the basilisk, what comes to his aid? The phoenix. I say all of that to say this. In these stories, J.K. Rowling emphasizes the power of love over evil. I find it particularly compelling that the thing that has power over racism and hate is the symbol of healing and new beginnings.
In all of this, the theme never overpowers the characters. Certainly the character conflicts are not as impressive as they are in future stories, but the way that Ron and Hermoine try to help Harry through his identity struggles and self-doubt (even if thise actors aren’t quite grown into their roles yet) is indicative of what middle schoolers often face.
In the end, however, it’s this ultimate ideal of healing and rebirth overpowering hate and prejudice that lead me to say this is often an unappreciated work in the Harry Potter franchise. Without this foundation, the way the story ultimately unfolds simply would not work as well.