Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Chapter One

19 Jan

Content warning for fat hatred. Right from the first page. Sigh. Nothing notable about the chapter illustration either – I’ll try not to be too lazy to add them in when we do comment on them. Cut time:

We open with the Dursleys, as we will for most books; Rowling wants to make sure we never forget that they’re awful people. And yet every time they show up I become more and more sympathetic to them – this scene is no exception. We also open with them eating breakfast, purely to mock Dudley.

Vernon is annoyed with Harry because Hedwig keeps making noise all night. Harry claims this is because the owl is bored – it’s possible, but she’s more likely to be protesting her diet, or lack thereof, since all Potterverse owls live off biscuits and table scraps. She’s also intelligent enough to realise that her only value is delivering letters, which she’s not going to be able to do if her wings are damaged from lack of exercise. That said, she’s also intelligent enough to shut up and not cause problems, since it’s obvious by this point that Harry can’t do anything about it – magic owls can recognise literally any human in the world by name, I’m sure they can understand ‘please stop screeching or I’ll be made to sell you back to the pet store’.

Incidentally, snowy owls don’t really vocalise much, unless it’s mating season or there’s an invader near their territory.

Harry asks, apparently not for the first time, if he can let her out to fly around at night. Vernon says no:

‘I know what’ll happen if that owl’s let out.’
He exchanged dark looks with his wife, Petunia.

We’re not told what, of course. Harry writing to his friends isn’t really an issue for the Dursleys – they’re not keeping Harry in a cupboard, so all he can tell anyone is that he’s fed up. They can forbid him to invite anyone to Privet Drive, and one would think they would want him to piss off somewhere else for a visit and spare them his presence. It’s possible they’re concerned about the neighbours seeing the owl, but it’s not likely that they would, and snowy owl calls can be heard up to eight miles away in open tundra so they can certainly be heard next door in a suburban environment, so secrecy can’t be an issue either.

Harry is almost showing actual concern for his pet, so naturally this conversation has to be interrupted immediately to fat-shame Dudley. Apparently he has no bones and/or is melting into some sort of gelatinous ooze, since his backside is ‘droop[ing]‘ over either side of his chair. This is not how fat people work. He demands more food; Petunia says there’s more on the stove and frets that he’s not getting enough to eat at school. Vernon says he’s fine, he went to Smeltings himself and always had plenty to eat. Dudley tells Harry to pass the pan:

‘You’ve forgotten the magic word,’ said Harry irritably.

All three Dursleys are immediately violently triggered. Petunia screams, Dudley falls off his chair (with a literally earth-shaking crash… fuck off, Rowling) and Vernon jumps up with visible facial tics. This strong a reaction is pretty indicative of some deep-rooted trauma, despite the attempt to make it look cartoonish by our ever-sensitive author.

You could say this was an honest mistake, since Harry immediately says he didn’t mean it, but he doesn’t apologise and we’ll see later in this chapter that he’s been doing it deliberately all summer. I’m more interested in wondering where Harry learned this phrase – it’s common enough but Petunia wouldn’t have taught either of the boys anything with the word ‘magic’ in it. Presumably somewhere in his Muggle education pre-Hogwarts, but I wouldn’t expect it to become part of his regular vocabulary, particularly now that ‘magic’ means something different to him.

[It’s pretty obvious that Rowling thought she was really clever in making that parallel, but as in so many other cases it makes no sense when you stop to think about it. I know that’s a phrase that’s often taught to children in preschool, so they could theoretically have learnt it even if Petunia and Vernon would never have said it, but we also had a long digression about how preschools work in the UK and whether it’s even likely Harry would have attended one. Long story short, we’re not sure, because we think they’d want him out of the house and out of their sight but we’re not sure they’d be willing to pay tuition to accomplish that. So the most plausible interpretation, to my mind, is that Harry’s being a brat and used this phrase deliberately to provoke them.]

Vernon yells at Harry that they’ve told him not to use ‘the M word‘ in the house, accuses him of threatening Dudley, and adds that he won’t tolerate mention of Harry’s ‘abnormality‘ under his roof.

This is clearly supposed to be a very heavy-handed metaphor for homophobic/transphobic parents rejecting their children, except in the very next paragraph the narrative cheerfully agrees that Harry is extremely abnormal and proceeds to give us a recap of his backstory. [That parallel is really apparent now, but I’m not sure it would have been taken as such in the late ’90s when this was written, the culture’s changed quite a bit since; I don’t know whether she intended it or was just trying to make Harry out to be ‘special’.]

We’re told two contradictory things on a single page. First, that Vernon has been treating Harry ‘like a bomb that might go off at any moment‘ and that the Dursleys are frightened of him. Second, that they’ve confiscated and locked away his school things (and we already know they’ve locked his owl’s cage) and clearly aren’t worried about him reacting. You can’t have it both ways, Rowling – if they were frightened of him they wouldn’t be imposing restrictions on him.

The book’s recap of Harry’s backstory and his life at Hogwarts is interesting. It made us really wish we had a few guinea pigs to blind-test reactions, because we were wondering how it would hold up to scrutiny if you hadn’t read the first book. Would everything make sense? Just how different is it from the actual book? There’s certainly some mild continuity drift here, but it’s hard to tell how much is a deliberate retcon and how much is just Rowling describing the book she thought she’d written.

[There’s an interesting discussion to be had here, probably, about the nature of sequels. We’ve observed that this recapping is a thing almost every sequel does, probably in part to refresh the reader’s memory since it might be some time since they read the prior volume (or ostensibly so, it may also be used to ‘subtly’ make retcons), and in part so that the book is not complete nonsense to someone who hasn’t read it – there seems to be a sort of implied desire that a sequel ought to be able to stand alone even if best understood in context. I don’t think we’re capable of analysing these books outside their context, as we’ve spent far too long with this series, but it might be an interesting question whether any of them individually are more self-consistent in a vacuum. My suspicion is there might be some improvement but it wouldn’t save any of them…]

Harry isn’t pleased that his possessions have been locked up – “All [his] spellbooks, his wand, robes, cauldron and top-of-the-range Nimbus Two Thousand broomstick had been locked in a cupboard.” Despite being literally books of spells, his textbooks have never been described as such before and never will be again. I don’t know why we need the narrative to brag about how amazing his broom is, either – providing a brand name could be a nice detail for new readers who are unaccountably reading book two of a series first, or reminders for readers who haven’t read the first one in a while, but why do we need to be told that it’s amazing?

Our hero whines that the Dursleys wouldn’t care if he got booted from the Quidditch team because he hasn’t been able to practice all summer. You don’t need to practice, you are unaccountably some sort of sports savant with ridiculous levels of natural talent. You would also not be allowed to practice whether you had your broom or not because you live in a Muggle area, idiot child.

He also whines that they won’t care if he gets into trouble for not having done any of his homework. This is true (although they will care if he fails, since if he gets kicked out he’ll have to come and live with them year-round again; we know Saint Dumbles would never let that happen, but the Dursleys don’t) but it also raises an interesting point. I genuinely can’t remember all of Harry’s summer homework over the years – there are a lot of essays, but at least in the movieverse they also have to learn and practice new spells over the summer. I don’t think that’s book canon, but it might be. In any event, Muggleborn or Muggle-raised students are at a real disadvantage even if it’s just essays – they’re limited to whatever’s in their textbooks and have no way to access any other reference books. (I wonder if there are public libraries in the wizarding world?)

More practically, why do they have summer homework? They’d have homework during other holidays, sure, but the summer marks a transition from one academic level to the next. Homework from the previous year is pointless and they haven’t been taught anything from the upcoming year yet. Reading assignments are a common thing, but actual written/practical homework doesn’t happen during summer vacation. Apart from anything else, when will the teachers have time to grade it, given that they’ll be assigning new homework from the first week of the new year?

Anyway, Harry segues into more mental whining about the Dursleys. The book explains that they’re Muggles, “not a drop of magical blood in their veins“. Wrong. Unless either Lily or Petunia were adopted – which we know they weren’t – then Petunia has magical blood and thus so does Dudley. The fact that Petunia is blood kin to Lily is an important plot point, after all. Just one of many reasons that the archaic style of using ‘blood’ as metaphor for genetics inevitably causes problems, though in this case Rowling seems to be equivocating between ‘magical heritage’ and ‘magical ability’. Harry also says they’re ashamed that they’re related to a wizard; that triggered reaction earlier didn’t look like shame to me.

The book tells us Harry doesn’t look anything like any of the Dursleys. It then goes on to give just enough physical description to contradict this. Petunia is the only one to not get her colouring mentioned (I’m pretty sure it never is); presumably she’s blonde, since Dudley must have inherited that from someone, but it seems weird it’s not noted. Nobody else has eye colour mentioned and Harry’s hair is the same colour as Vernon’s, so he might actually resemble one of them a little, especially since he and Petunia are both noticeably skinny.

Also, why does it matter whether he looks like them or not? Dudley doesn’t seem to particularly resemble either of his parents. If all three of them somehow looked similar – all being blond and blue-eyed, for example, or all ginger given how prevalent red hair is in Fantasyland – then Harry not looking like them would be a good way to underline his outsider status. Since they all look different anyway, it doesn’t matter.

The book then starts harping on about Harry’s special pony-mark scar of specialness.

“It was this scar that made Harry so particularly unusual, even for a wizard. This scar was the only hint of Harry’s very mysterious past, of the reason he had been left on the Dursleys’ doorstep eleven years before.
At the age of one, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest dark sorcerer of all time, Lord Voldemort, whose name most witches and wizards still feared to speak. Harry’s parents had died in Voldemort’s attack, but Harry had escaped with his lightning scar, and somehow – nobody understood why – Voldemort’s powers had been destroyed the instant he had failed to kill Harry.”

Gosh, this sounds dramatic. At this point, it’s just a scar – I believe Harry’s only had mysterious plot pains in it once. It’s not that unusual and we discussed last book that there’s no reason 99.9999% of the wizarding world would even know he has it or what caused it. Hell, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Dumbledore did it himself just to provide a building block to construct the Chosen One myth.

Voldemort was not the greatest Potterverse sorcerer of all time. Grindelwald was. The books never admit that, and will continue to pretend Voldy is near enough a god-demon, but we’re also going to be told that Grindelwald conquered half of Europe and was seriously threatening the rest of it and much of the Americas before he was taken down. Voldy… murdered some people and scared some of Britain and seemed to have had no impact on the rest of the globe whatsoever. I don’t know why Rowling invented Grindelwald, except to tell us that Dumbledore is awesome – all she managed to do was make her main villain look worse by comparison. Why is nobody scared to say Grindelwald’s name?

This isn’t even a later retcon; Grindelwald was mentioned early in the first book, on Dumbles’ Chocolate Frog card, as a famous dark wizard that Dumbledore was responsible for defeating. The same card did not mention the Order or Voldy.

I don’t know why the book is telling us nobody understood what happened to Voldy, either. Dumbledore explained it to us at the end of last book. Magical Anime Love Powers. It’s nice that the book is trying to retcon that out of existence, because it’s bloody stupid, but plenty of characters understand it just fine, including Harry.

Anyway, that’s why Harry lives with the Dursleys, woe and angst. He never knew that when he was little, they told him his parents died in a car crash – the book always seems peculiarly offended by this whenever it’s mentioned, as if it’s insulting to suggest that any of the superior magical people could die in such a common Muggle fashion.

He mentions it’s exactly a year ago to the day that Hogwarts wrote to him, but today is Harry’s birthday. On his previous birthday, Hagrid showed up to the hut on the rock. His first Hogwarts letter was delivered weeks prior to that. Fandom never seems to remember that he got his letter before his eleventh birthday – come to that, Rowling never seems to remember that either, and she wrote it.

The date is only mentioned for more angst anyway, as Harry tells us the Dursleys haven’t remembered his birthday.

“Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high; they’d never given him a proper present, let alone a cake – but to ignore it completely …”

So… the neglectful Dursleys who hate him apparently do usually acknowledge the date? Otherwise he wouldn’t know that this time is different. They wish him Happy Birthday, maybe give him a card, maybe a present that isn’t a ‘proper’ one (whatever that means; I assume it’s a synonym for ‘expensive’)?

If his life is already total shit, we don’t need to have a specific occasion where it’s extra extra shitty. Particularly when it makes no damned sense. This focus on Harry’s birthday-angst just makes him seem petulant and whiny, and undermines everything Rowling wants us to believe about his home life. Sometimes less is more, Rowling.

Back with the breakfast scene – Harry’s clearly been staring into space monologuing to himself about how awesome he is for long enough for the Dursleys to recover from their respective trauma episodes – Vernon announces that as they all know, today is very important. The book tells us he’s been talking about this very important day for the last fortnight, yet Harry still immediately assumes it’s about his birthday. He has absolutely no reason to make this assumption given that he’s just told us they never do anything to mark his birthday. After ten years of it he should be conditioned not to expect anything, even without a fortnight of reminders about something else happening today.

Long story short, Vernon has invited a potential customer and his wife (Mr and Mrs Mason) for dinner and the Dursleys are going to ridiculous lengths to impress, down to hiring dinner jackets and preparing flatteries in advance, and Harry is under orders to stay in his room and pretend not to exist for the duration. Let’s break this down.

First, can we just complain about a builder named Mason? The Meaningful Names strike again.

[Eurgh. I suppose it could be worse; a lot of surnames did originally come from professions, and Mason is a common enough name anyway (this isn’t quite a Remus Lupin), but it’s still annoying and I’m no longer willing to give Rowling the benefit of the doubt. That said, I also recently learned that somewhere there is or was a plumber actually named (I couldn’t make this up!) John Flood, so I guess truth can be stranger than fiction.] True. One of my biology lecturers at uni was named Dr Fish. And his speciality was freshwater fish, particularly sticklebacks. But even so.

We’ve never been told what Vernon does for a living, only that he works for a company called Grunnings, who make drills. His job last book involved shouting at people, making phone calls and attending meetings, so he’s presumably a manager with staff working for him. Here it’s implied that he’s in sales, since he’s hoping to close a deal for a ‘huge order‘ with Mr Mason, a ‘rich builder‘.

So, my older brother happens to work in sales, and deals with actual huge orders (we’re talking multi-millions here). That’s colouring my view of this scenario, because if that’s the kind of order Vernon is talking about, ‘a builder’ isn’t going to cut it, rich or otherwise. He’d be dealing with someone in a huge construction company who build hundreds of huge office towers a year, or something. It’s possible this is the case, since Harry certainly isn’t going to be paying attention to the details and clearly doesn’t give a shit, but if it is in fact true then the outcome of this dinner party is really significant.

See, if Vernon’s dealing with the sort of orders my brother negotiates, then this final meeting to close the deal is the result of literal years of work. Losing it means he won’t meet his goal for the year and will cost his company an obscene amount of money; this loses his year-end bonus, drastically affects his salary, and if the potential contract was large enough could well cost him his job. Given his age, he’ll struggle to find employment at even close to his previous level. Dudley can kiss his private school goodbye, for a start, and the family might even have to move to a cheaper area. Harry could well almost ruin his family’s lives next chapter.

If something like this had happened when Harry was younger, it would have been a really good way of showing why the Dursleys hate him and magic so much.

The other interpretation is that Vernon is just hoping to sell a few dozen drills to a rich builder, in which case the ridiculous lengths the Dursleys are going to implies that it’s still massively important and maybe his job is still on the line for whatever reason. This makes much less sense, unless Grunnings is actually a single store and Vernon’s assistant manager or something- in which case he and Petunia can’t afford private school for Dudley anyway. So my previous scenario is the most likely.

[For a slightly alternative take, I don’t find it absurd that an executive of a construction company would be referred to as ‘a builder’. My father’s family are in the flooring business, and when I was young there was still a fair amount of new construction going on, so often we’d get contracts to do things like put all the floors in a housing development when it went up. These weren’t mega-corporations doing the construction, most of them were smallish to mid-sized family-run companies, and the people who ran them were often referred to as builders. So I could imagine putting Vernon’s deal in that sort of context, though that still doesn’t help here because it would still be a significant chunk of money and the loss of it would not be good for the company.] Fair enough.

This is all completely moot, though, since no matter what level of sales you work in you do not invite clients to your house for a black-tie dinner with your wife and son. Fancy restaurants with no family tagging along, yes – domestic meals, no. And if Harry’s presence is that big a threat, send him to Mrs Figg for the evening. Or let him write to his friends and go stay with one of them. Or just kick him out to wander the streets until curfew, it’s not like they’re bothered about his safety.

In short, there is no possible level where the events of next chapter make any damned sense. Shocking, isn’t it. And this could all have been prevented by making the Masons friends of the family instead. As it is, we’re forced to conclude that the only reason for any of this to exist – apart from introducing us to one of the most irritating characters in the series – is to mock the Dursleys; I have a feeling there’s some sort of statement here about them pretending to be of a higher social class than they actually are, but it’s hard to find amongst all the fail. We think Rowling decided to make this dinner business-related because she couldn’t stand to let the Dursleys have actual friends.

Breakfast finally over, Vernon leaves to go and pick up the formal wear for himself and Dudley, and Harry’s sent outside to keep out of the way while Petunia cleans the house in preparation. Please note Harry is not made to actually do the cleaning or otherwise help in any way. Cinderella, this boy is not.

He tries very hard to sulk for a while about how awful his life is, but since it’s not actually that bad, he doesn’t get very far. (Such melodrama!) His only legitimate complaint is that he misses his friends but doesn’t think they miss him because neither of them have written to him all summer, which is the first actually horrible thing he’s angsted about.

“Countless times, Harry had been on the point of unlocking Hedwig’s cage by magic and sending her to Ron and Hermione with a letter, but it wasn’t worth the risk. Underage wizards weren’t allowed to use magic outside school. Harry hadn’t told the Dursleys this.”

Harry, the reason you haven’t unlocked Hedwig’s cage by magic is that you don’t know how to. Your wand is locked up and you still haven’t managed any spells with it anyway, let alone doing any deliberate wandless magic, which I’m not sure you even know exists. Besides, Hermione did all your door-unlocking for you last book, and I shouldn’t think you bothered to learn the spell she used.

This also makes Harry look pretty spineless. ‘My life is awful. I have the power to do something about it, but there might be consequences, so I won’t bother and will sit and be emo instead.’ Apart from anything else, I’m sure there have been plenty of times when he’s been left home alone and could go and find some bolt cutters in the shed or garage and cut the padlock off Hedwig’s cage, no magic necessary. Like right now, when he’s outside and nobody’s watching him. Or just break the hinge side of the door, bird cages aren’t exactly robust.

[If this was being deliberately written as Harry deluding himself as a form of comfort, that could actually be a nice touch, but that would require a much subtler hand than Rowling’s and I’m honestly not quite sure how you’d do it. Regardless, that’s obviously not what she’s done here.]

And let us note that last sentence. As I mentioned at the end of last book, Petunia should already know underage wizards aren’t allowed to do magic away from Hogwarts – the fact that she doesn’t clearly implies that Lily was just as awful as her son.

“For the first couple of weeks back, Harry had enjoyed muttering nonsense words under his breath and watching Dudley tearing out of the room as fast as his fat legs would carry him. But the long silence from Ron and Hermione had made Harry feel so cut off from the magical world that even taunting Dudley had lost its appeal.”

Aww, how sad, everyone. He’s so alone that he can’t even enjoy repeatedly deliberately triggering his cousin’s post-traumatic stress for his own malicious amusement. Isn’t it just so tragic? My heart bleeds for the poor lad, it really does.

“He’d almost be glad of a sight of his arch-enemy, Draco Malfoy.”

…Draco? Since when is Draco his arch-enemy? Hey, Harry, remember Voldemort, the actual villain who was actually trying to kill you? Or even Snape, the guy you assumed was trying to kill you?

Oh, you do remember Voldemort, the very next paragraph is about how you faced him and how terrifying he was. So I ask again, how the hell is Draco your arch-enemy? What did Draco even do to you last year – he got you a detention once. That he shared. That’s pretty much it, because it’s not like you give a shit about Neville.

I’m choosing to read this as Harry still in denial and inventing reasons why he wants to see Draco. And also as Rowling having no clue what it means to be someone’s enemy, since long after the series finished she still insists that Snape is Harry’s real enemy and not the actual villain.

[Rowling’s pronouncements about Draco and Snape being Harry’s archnemeses make a lot more sense if you reconfigure your morality to make saying mean things to/about Harry the worst possible thing a person can ever do. And isn’t that depressing. That seems to literally be the morality she’s running on.] Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are apparently much worse than that…

At this point Harry sees eyes in the hedge, but before this turns into anything actually interesting we’re interrupted by Dudley, inevitably described as ‘waddling‘ towards him. I know what day it is, says Dudley, it’s your birthday and nobody cares, don’t you have any friends ‘at that freak place‘?

[‘Waddling’ is not menacing, no matter how many times Rowling wants to convince us of such. She really needs to stop equivocating and make up her mind whether Dudley is meant to be threatening or ridiculous.]

Coming on the heels of Harry admitting he’s been threatening his cousin for the past few weeks, and the pages of fat-shaming (his trousers slip later in this scene and need to be pulled up), I give no fucks about this. Mock away, Dudley.

Harry’s idea of a retort is to say that Dudley better not let Petunia hear him talking about Hogwarts. Why? Is magic such a strong trigger for her that it’s the only thing that could possibly make her scold her beloved son? Because if so that means her trauma is more serious than I thought.

Dudley asks what Harry’s doing staring at the hedge, and Harry says he’s trying to decide how best to set it on fire, because Harry is scum and clearly bullying his cousin is still enjoyable despite his earlier emo moment. Dudley panics, stumbling back and developing a stammer, leading to one of Mitchell’s favourite parts of the entire series:

‘Jiggery pokery!’ said Harry in a fierce voice. ‘Hocus pocus … squiggly wiggly …’


Yeah. This is genuinely the first instance where Harry ever says anything even vaguely magical. Our Hero. (His actual first spell is even funnier, but we’re quite a long way from that.)

[No, Loten is not joking; thanks to the re-read this is my favourite moment in the series. This is literally the first incantation Harry ever says on the page; remember, we counted and he did a grand total of zero spells last book. Zip. Zilch. This is our boy wizard hero: flailing about saying nonsense words to terrify someone who doesn’t know better, because he doesn’t know how to do the real magic he’s supposedly capable of. And the narrative seems to be trying to fake the reader out into thinking he’s doing an actual spell.]

Dudley panics further and makes a run for it, yelling for his mother to help him. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where the book tells us Petunia apparently tries to hit Harry with a frying pan, because this is now Tom & Jerry, before he’s sent outside to do chores as punishment. The book’s so casual about this – and it’s so clear that Petunia wasn’t actually trying to hit him, since she doesn’t try again when Harry ducks, nor is there any mention of her even shouting, nor does she tell Vernon later – that I can’t see this as abusive even though I’d be horrified in a different situation with different characters. Rowling’s used up her benefit of the doubt a very, very long time ago.

Harry spends the rest of the day working in the garden and angsting about his friends; maybe Dudley was right and they don’t like him after all. I’d have more sympathy if he wasn’t a terrible person, and also if his main concern wasn’t that he just doesn’t look awesome any more and it’s not fitting of his celebrity status:

“‘Wish they could see famous Harry Potter now,’ he thought savagely, as he spread manure on the flowerbeds.”

[But do let’s keep in mind that Snape is Wrong and Evil for daring to call this boy arrogant.]

At half past seven Petunia calls him in so he can eat something and go hide upstairs before the guests arrive. Hello, timing fail, good to see you appearing so soon in the book. I don’t know what time this dinner is supposed to start, but by 7.30 I would expect them to be here and for them to be having drinks before the first course, if not already eating. Instead the food is only half-prepared (though Petunia is already wearing her cocktail dress; pink, naturally, because pink is evil) and Harry hasn’t been dealt with yet. I’m side-eyeing the food as well – there’s no mention of the first course, but the main is apparently roast pork, which is not dinner party food (and should really be cooked in advance so you have time to check it’s done properly), and Petunia’s put the pudding on top of the fridge which is really stupid since it’s covered in whipped cream which will melt if you stand it somewhere as warm as the top of a fridge.

In one of the dullest end-of-chapter scenes of the series, Harry eats and climbs the stairs to his room as the doorbell rings and Vernon warns him to keep silent. It’s riveting stuff. Harry goes into his room and there’s someone sitting on his bed, and the chapter ends before we find out who, which is just as well because a) I don’t really care and b) oh god it’s bloody Dobby.

Next time: oh god it’s bloody Dobby.

[As a bit of a concluding aside, there’s something that’s become clear to me over the course of analysing this chapter. It’s really impossible to divorce Harry-the-character from Harry-the-reader-insert-suit. Harry’s reactions in this chapter make a kind of sense if you imagine him as the typical (projected) reader of the books being dropped into this situation at the precise moment the book occurs. Readers will be familiar with ‘what’s the magic word’, readers know what it’s like to have birthdays so the ‘omg what if it was your birthday and nobody ever acknowledged it ever you poor baby’ might resonate with them, readers will be vicariously thrilled with Harry’s snappy replies to his relatives, etc. But none of them make sense if you take the actual background Harry’s character is supposed to have seriously, only if you look at him as a reader-shaped-hole. The Dursley scenes especially only make sense to me if they’re functioning as a backdrop for children to fantasise about e.g. getting one over on their families/guardians/’unreasonable’ adults in their life, and schoolyard bullies via Dudley. That seems to me to be the most sensible explanation for this constant flipping between the mundane and the absurd.]

And that’s how you end up with a really bad story full of plotholes and not-characters that somehow everyone likes. Turns out you don’t need to be able to write in order to be a successful author. Go figure.


Posted by on January 19, 2017 in loten, mitchell


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25 responses to “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Chapter One

  1. Andrensath

    January 20, 2017 at 4:59 am

    I’m not sure how to feel about Dobby. Either he’s brain-damaged from all the self-harm… or he’s literally what pre-ACW slaver propaganda claimed about Afro-Americans.

    As for Bumblemore’s totally-not-baseball-card thing, the only way I can make sense of it is by headcanoning that they started producing it before Voldy was at all well-known and haven’t bothered updating the text.

    (And frankly, if I were Hermione, I wouldn’t like Harry either.)

    • Sarah P

      January 20, 2017 at 7:12 pm

      Dobby is one of my least-liked characters, and I was always perplexed that he was so popular among fans. On the page, he’s irritating, and in Doylist terms he seems to exist only to drive the plot by making Harry’s life harder at key moments.

      He also functions as an excuse for the series never delving into the subject of elf slavery after Hermione’s brief SPEW period: Dobby is portrayed as unique among house elves in that he is the only one who doesn’t like being a slave. It’s never clear whether that’s attributable to him as an individual or the fact that the Malfoys are just exceptionally cruel to him, but either way, after he’s freed the whole question of house elf rights vanishes completely, as if by freeing one elf the characters have done their moral duty and never have to worry about it again.

      So in addition to being a clunky writing tool, he’s also a proxy for the entire moral problem of slavery in the HP-verse, and the solution Rowling uses him for, in my mind, is not adequate.

      • Loten

        January 22, 2017 at 8:03 am

        Yes… most writers have the sense to avoid delving into the morals of slavery because there is no way to handle it except with a full-out instant condemnation that doesn’t make you look really, really bad. Rowling had no business including it in a children’s book at all, but if you are going to touch the subject you need to do it well. Just like, for example, bullying, or alcoholism, or child abuse, or…

      • Andrensath

        January 22, 2017 at 8:54 pm

        “as if by freeing one [slave] the characters have done their moral duty and never have to worry about it again.” Yeah. The Star Wars prequel trilogy does a similar thing with Anakin, but at least there we’re supposed to think of the Jedi as having lost their way.

    • Loten

      January 22, 2017 at 7:57 am

      Yeah, there’s really no way to talk about Dobby without running into a lot of problems. In Rowling’s defence I certainly don’t believe she meant for Dobby and his entire messed up race to give the message her adult fans get from them, but this is why you do research.

  2. Jane Doh

    January 20, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    The thing about JKR and this series is that she captures the self-centeredness of tween and teens perfectly without tipping over into intolerable arrogance, which is a hard balance to do. Watching my own kids, I see how all of JKR’s child characters see themselves as the center of the world–everything that happens is either about them or else it is boring/unfair. Real kids act this way for quite some time, but yet remain likeable (which JKR achieves with many of her kid characters). I think this is another reason (besides the self-insert thing you mention) that her writing is so popular and enduring.

    Alas, her adults are either kids who never grew up (Hagrid, Sirius, Remus, Lily, James, Arthur), evil (all the Slytherins, Filch, Umbridge), or humorless rule enforcers with some personality quirks overlaid to distinguish them (Molly, Moody, the Hogwarts staff). Albus is all three at times, which is why even JKR doesn’t know why he set the the whole rise, fall, rise, fall of Voldemort in motion rather than actually doing something useful.

    • Loten

      January 22, 2017 at 7:55 am

      That’s an interesting point, and you may be right that it explains Harry’s popularity. The problem is that Rowling can’t write anything else – having read her non-HP works I can confirm that all her main characters, regardless of age, are selfish and entitled brats who think the world revolves around them. And of course our oft-repeated point that with the background she insisted on for Harry there’s simply no way he could develop that sort of personality; it doesn’t start to show over the course of the series once he learns he’s famous, it’s there at full throttle right from the moment we get inside his head, and doesn’t show signs of disappearing even once there’s a war going on and he really ought to have other priorities.

      Still, it could certainly explain the popularity of a lot of the side characters.

  3. Sarah P

    January 20, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    “We’re told two contradictory things on a single page. First, that Vernon has been treating Harry ‘like a bomb that might go off at any moment‘ and that the Dursleys are frightened of him. Second, that they’ve confiscated and locked away his school things…”

    THANK YOU. This is probably the pettiest remark I could make about this book, and the most insignificant thing I could have drawn from your review, but I encountered this book as a 9-year-old child who was just beginning to logic and this particular contradiction bothered me every time I read this book. I’m so glad you noticed it, because I feel very vindicated as a 9-year-old now.

    • Loten

      January 22, 2017 at 7:58 am

      9-year-old you was off to a very good start 🙂 Rowling cannot logic better than a 9-year-old. Sounds about right.

  4. Ymfon

    January 20, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    in the movieverse they also have to learn and practice new spells over the summer. I don’t think that’s book canon, but it might be.

    I very much doubt it; after all, Harry & co being strictly forbidden from doing any magic* outside of school is about to become a bit of a plot point next chapter… Then again, it’s Rowling, so it’s not entirely beyond belief for some of the teachers to give their students practical homework anyway.

    *Would be interesting to know if this includes potions as well, and why/why not.

    I wonder if there are public libraries in the wizarding world?

    I don’t know what would be sadder: that no one’s ever seen the need for one, or that one does exist, but in all his seven years of school our hero never once has occasion to think about it. (Personally, I’m leaning towards “no”; I can easily imagine Harry being that incurious, but Hermione is a different story.)

    • Loten

      January 22, 2017 at 8:01 am

      A plot point that unfortunately evaporates after next chapter and will not resurface for the rest of the series, as far as I remember, since I can think of a couple of occasions when the narrative either creates loopholes or simply ignores the prohibition, but we’ll see when we get there. Good point about potions – I believe Pottermore said, back when it had some actual information on it, that potions do require someone with magic to make them because they draw on the brewer’s magic passively to turn from essentially a nasty soup to something with power in it, but since there’s no conscious spellcasting involved I wonder if that would trigger the restriction? Hm. And yes, I agree that there’s no wizard library, or it would certainly have been part of Hermione’s preparations at the start of book 7. That is pretty sad.

      • Ymfon

        January 22, 2017 at 6:06 pm

        Oh dear wizard god, yes. At some point, you’re probably going to end up having to do an entire separate post about the Decree of Very Occasional Restriction of Underage Sorcery.

    • Dove

      January 24, 2017 at 1:53 am

      By wizarding standards, public libraries are relatively modern things – only since the 1800s, if I’m remembering right; they got their origins when novels started getting popular enough that it was worth the money to buy a whole bunch of, say, Dickens and other popular penny-farthing novels, and rent them out for cheap. Then it became a moral thing, to ensure that the common masses were reading something besides cheap bodice-rippers and thrillers.

      Eventually, it spiralled into what we know today: public-access libraries that try and avoid censoring any books, and which offer a multitude of services to the community.

      I could easily see research libraries being a thing, certainly! And I’d be surprised if no Muggleborn Ravenclaw has ever gone “what do you mean, there’s no public libraries” and set about trying to fix that. (Or Muggleborn Hufflepuffs, for that matter – a ‘puff does feel more likely.)
      Which would mean that 1) Hermione would know about them, yes, and may even have told Harry about them (not that I’d expect Harry to listen), but 2) they might not be easily accessible by someone who can’t Apparate, can’t get a portkey, and doesn’t know about the Knight Bus.

  5. liminal fruitbat

    January 20, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    We’re not told what, of course. Harry writing to his friends isn’t really an issue for the Dursleys – they’re not keeping Harry in a cupboard, so all he can tell anyone is that he’s fed up. They can forbid him to invite anyone to Privet Drive, and one would think they would want him to piss off somewhere else for a visit and spare them his presence.

    You’d think they’d remember what happened the last time Harry didn’t communicate with the wizarding world. They should be desperate for him not to drop out of contact!

    Harry’s very mysterious past

    A magic Nazi showed up and killed his family, then blew up. Oh, the mystery!

    I have a feeling there’s some sort of statement here about them pretending to be of a higher social class than they actually are

    Unlike Harry, who actually is born to the highest social class.

    The book’s so casual about this – and it’s so clear that Petunia wasn’t actually trying to hit him, since she doesn’t try again when Harry ducks, nor is there any mention of her even shouting, nor does she tell Vernon later – that I can’t see this as abusive even though I’d be horrified in a different situation with different characters.

    Potterverse abuse is in this really weird area where verbal abuse is correctly recognised as bad but exalted far above physical abuse which is all a bit of a laugh, really. (Possibly because Rowling’s heroes aren’t smart enough to come up with clever insults.)

    • Loten

      January 22, 2017 at 8:09 am

      Excellent point, but that would require a character to be consistently written from one book to the next and to retain memory of previous books. And I agree with you that could be why verbal abuse is seen as so bad – it ties into Rowling’s inexplicable anti-intellectualism. Clever people are either pathetic or evil, apparently because they’re able to out-argue the good guys and that’s not fair!!! But luckily all clever people are physically weak and don’t play SPORTS, because they’re pathetic or evil, so you can just hit them instead.

  6. Sue

    January 23, 2017 at 12:49 am

    No letter from Hermione –

    Hermione is a muggle born. Harry is muggle raised. Neither one thinks of using the telephone?

    • mcbender

      January 23, 2017 at 1:05 am

      Very good point.

      Neither of them think of trying to use the Muggle postal service either, or ever as far as I recall. Which might be even more bizarre in later books – they ought to learn from this book’s Dobby incident that magical post is at risk of being interfered with and consider using other methods. As far as I know, they never do.

      (Although I guess the Muggle post is theoretically vulnerable too, if we judge by young Petunia’s ability to get a letter to Dumbledore as revealed in “The Prince’s Tale”. But Harry and Hermione wouldn’t know that and should at the very least consider it.)

    • Loten

      January 23, 2017 at 4:52 am

      I assume Hermione at least has thought of it, but that would require Harry having made the effort to give her his Muggle contact details instead of expecting her to acquire the services of a magic owl her family don’t own. If I remember right, in a later book after Ron manages to spectacularly fail Harry does think he should have given his details to Hermione instead because she already knows how to use a phone… yet clearly he never does.

      • kitmharding

        January 25, 2017 at 8:17 pm

        Not quite– he does give his contact details to Hermione in a later book, it’s just Ron tries first and Vernon refuses to let Harry talk to him, and Harry infers that Ron let Hermione know not to bother trying.

  7. Sue

    January 26, 2017 at 12:22 am

    Petunia should already know underage wizards aren’t allowed to do magic away from Hogwarts

    As I’ve seen discussed elsewhere young Severus & Lily could have learned of the loophole. As long as they do the actual spell work close enough to his house the ministry can’t tell who did the magic – the kids or Mrs. Snape. So Lily could enchant things and bring them home. Tuney could folow and see them doing magic out of school, with no letters coming.wash

  8. dispenzaresearch

    February 5, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    Practical homework over summer is a thing, at least in American schools. If I signed up for an Advanced Placement class (took place before the end of the year), I’d get what I needed to do it before I left for the summer. Then I’d either drop off my homework at some point over the summer (admittedly not an option for Harry), or the teacher would grade it when we got back.

    • mcbender

      February 5, 2017 at 9:05 pm

      Interesting. I went to school in the States myself and never came across such a thing. The closest I ever saw were reading assignments where (in some cases) the teacher made it very clear there would be an in-class essay test about the book during the first week of class. I did plenty of AP courses and none of them ever assigned summer work.

      I’m prepared to believe you that it does exist, but I can’t imagine it’s very common (which still makes it a weird choice for these books IMO). Most teachers I’ve known don’t like having more things to grade when they can avoid it, and prefer to do other things during the summer.

      • Sue

        February 5, 2017 at 9:51 pm

        Growing up in Minnesota I never had summer homework, I don’t remember any of my 5 siblings having summer homework either. Summers as a kid we practically lived at the campground. My son never had summer homework either. So it may be something some schools do, but defiantly not all of them.

        I’m not sure exactly when we signed up for next years classes. But I do remember for some none required classes you were asked for your 1st pick, than a 2nd choice in case you couldn’t get the 1st. I not sure exactly when all the scheduling was done, but I doubt the school knew exactly what classes you would have the next fall when you left for the summer.

  9. Sydney

    May 30, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    Incidentally, snowy owls don’t really vocalise much, unless it’s mating season or there’s an invader near their territory
    Maybe she’s sensing Dobby.
    I got English homework over the summer sometimes.
    They might be acknowledging his birthday with something like ” And today is the day that you were born to ruin our lives and be a burden.” Also, the only birthdays Harry would have seen would be Dudley’s, which were expensive (37 presents!).
    Harry, dear, Snape hates you, and so does Voldemort. Draco’s just jealous.
    Yes, it is weird that Vernon would have a business dinner at his house – and why not just send Harry to Mrs. Figg?

  10. segertsch

    September 25, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    “you reconfigure your morality to make saying mean things to/about Harry the worst possible thing a person can ever do.”

    I dunno, I was a sensitive child so saying mean things deliberately to hurt someone’s feelings always seemed pretty bad in my book. After all, in this same chapter Harry is criticized for deliberately saying “magic” (out of context) to mess with the Dursleys. Words have power too.


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