Study Guide

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Themes

  • Choices

    In Chamber of Secrets, Professor Dumbledore presents the all-important message of the Harry Potter series: "it is our choices [...] that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities" (18.61). Starting in this novel, we being to realize that though Harry and Voldemort have a lot of life circumstances in common, it is their choices that define them and make them truly different. J.K. Rowling has stated that even the all-important prophecy revealed in Book 5 would not matter if both Harry and Voldemort chose to turn away from each other and not fight. Choice is vital to determining a person's character.

    Yet, while we admire this theme, we also realize that there are lots of limitations on people's choices that they can't control. For example, Harry can't choose not to face Voldemort because Voldemort won't let him. Even when Harry isn't looking for Voldemort at Hogwarts, he still encounters him by chance thanks to a cursed diary in Ginny Weasley's hands. So the question of choice versus fate is a bit more ambiguous than Professor Dumbledore's idealistic statement might make it seem.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Professor Dumbledore offers Harry the opportunity to speak to him several times about any concerns Harry may be having during his second school year. Harry never does. Why doesn't Harry tell Professor Dumbledore about his fears of being a Slytherin or the voice he's hearing in the walls? What does Harry's choice say about his relationship with Professor Dumbledore?
    2. Both Ginny and Professor Dumbledore decide not to share all the information they know about the Chamber of Secrets. Why not? How are Ginny's motivations different from Professor Dumbledore's?
    3. The Sorting Hat offers to put Harry in Slytherin, but Harry chooses Gryffindor. Does this mean the Sorting Hat misread Harry's character? What role does the Sorting Hat play in determining a future for each Hogwarts student?
    4. Think about all of the ways in which Harry and Tom Riddle are alike. In what ways are they different? How are their differences about the choices they've made? Are some of their differences not based on choices?
  • Fear

    In Chamber of Secrets, we find a number of examples of people fearing others who are different from them. The Dursleys fear Harry's magical abilities, so they lock him in a room by himself to keep him hidden from the rest of their neighborhood. The rest of Hogwarts fears Harry because he can do things they can't: he can speak Parseltongue, a Dark gift… and he seems to have a real talent for finding trouble.

    We also see fear rising out of acts of what is essentially terrorism. The basilisk's attacks on Hogwarts students create a panic which causes divisions. Ravenclaws, Gryffindors, and Hufflepuffs all fear and/or hate Slytherin House, because nearly all Dark wizards come from Slytherin. And most students fear Harry because they think he is the Heir of Slytherin. Once the panic is started, there appears to be little or nothing that anyone can do to stop it. That's the core of Voldemort's power: he's a terrorist, in the literal sense that he spreads terror. His manipulations are successful enough that he doesn't even have to be there (or alive) to turn decent wizards and witches against each other. Voldemort's terrorism is present in Chamber of Secrets, but it really comes out in Book 6 and 7.

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    Questions About Fear

    1. Does J.K. Rowling give any clues about what Voldemort fears? He's so good at commanding fear, but what frightens Voldemort (or Tom Riddle, in this case)?
    2. What different responses to fear do the Dursleys and the children at Hogwarts present? How does fear influence their behavior?
    3. How does Ginny Weasley deal with her fear of Tom Riddle's diary? If you've read some of the later books, how does her response to the diary foreshadow what kind of a character she goes on to become? Why does J.K. Rowling choose to spend so little direct time on Ginny when she is one of the most important figures in Chamber of Secrets?
  • Friendship

    The friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione provides an emotional core to balance out what would otherwise be a really fast-paced and intense series of novels (after all, wars against evil do not make light reading). In Chamber of Secrets, these friendships are what keep Harry going as the rest of Hogwarts begins to suspect him of being the Heir of Slytherin. It's only in the later books (e.g., Ron's feud with Harry in Book 4 and Hermione's annoyance with Harry's bad temper in Book 5) that J.K. Rowling starts exploring the pressures in Harry's life that arise when his friendships aren't there to support him.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. We get to see a little bit of Draco's interactions with Crabbe and Goyle when Harry and Ron take Polyjuice Potion. Like Harry, Draco has two primary friends. But how does Draco treat his friends? What is his definition of friendship? What does his behavior towards Crabbe and Goyle indicate about his character?
    2. How does it make a difference to Harry, Ron, and Hermione's friendship in Book 2 that Harry and Ron are boys and Hermione is a girl?
    3. How does Voldemort use Harry's strong sense of personal loyalty and friendship against Harry? Is there any way for Harry to protect himself against such manipulations?
  • Isolation

    Isolation works on two levels in Chamber of Secrets: first, there is the isolation of the wizarding world. Because wizards spend so much time avoiding Muggles, many of them have developed strongly negative emotions about non-magical people. That's where the anti-Muggle-born prejudice of people like Lucius Malfoy comes in. Still, there is also the isolation of Harry's home at Hogwarts. J.K. Rowling has discussed the emotional good sides of boarding schools:

    "There is something liberating, too, about being transported into the kind of surrogate family which boarding school represents, where the relationships are less intense and the boundaries more clearly defined." (source)

    Yet, while isolation may bring a sense of family, it also has a downside: claustrophobia. In a small, closed social setting, there is nowhere to go when public opinion turns against you. Rumors fly quickly. Harry's isolation from the Muggle world at Hogwarts in Book 1 seems like a blessing when all he wants to do is escape the Dursleys. By Book 2, though, some of the more negative sides of his small community and fame leave him feeling lonely and resentful.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Ron and Harry almost get expelled from Hogwarts for flying their magic car near where Muggles could see them. Why might wizards go to such great lengths to keep themselves isolated from Muggles? What danger does the Muggle world present to the wizarding world?
    2. What effect does it have on Harry to be isolated from his friends over the summer? What comment might J.K. Rowling be making about the results of isolation on a person?
    3. We see several examples in Book 2 of people isolated within the magical world: squib Argus Filch and house-elf Dobby both spring to mind. What do these characters have in common? How are their circumstances different?
  • Lies and Deceit

    Chamber of Secrets contains some pretty obvious examples of deceit. Lucius Malfoy tricks Ginny into taking Tom Riddle's diary. Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into freeing his house-elf, Dobby, in turn. Riddle tricks both Ginny and Harry into thinking that he's an honest, upright student – the biggest lie of all. There are also more subtle examples of withholding information, though, much of which stems from feeling of fear and insecurity. For example, Ginny decides not to tell anyone about her suspicions of Riddle's diary until near the end of the book. Also, when Professor Dumbledore asks Harry point-blank if Harry has anything he needs to tell Professor Dumbledore, Harry says no, even though he's been hearing a murderous voice in the walls. In fact, the whole plot of Chamber of Secrets depends on different degrees of manipulation, lies by omission, and outright fibs. Without all of this misinformation, Book 2 wouldn't have the atmosphere of mutual fear and suspicion that distinguishes it from the lighter-hearted Book 1.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Lucius Malfoy is an accomplished liar. For example, after four students have been Petrified, he pretends that he cares about the attacks on Muggle-borns in order to get Professor Dumbledore kicked out of office by the school governors. What lies does Lucius tell throughout Book 2?
    2. How does Lucius's smooth manner differ from Draco's conduct at school? Does Lucius approve of Draco's behavior towards Harry Potter? Why or why not?
    3. Book 2 includes a minor side plot about Percy Weasley's mysterious behavior from summer break right through to the end of the novel. What is Percy hiding? Why does he choose to deceive his siblings? Why might J.K. Rowling include this side plot?
    4. Why does Harry choose not to tell Professor Dumbledore about his fear that he might be a Slytherin? How do his motivations compare to Ginny's reasons for not telling anyone about Riddle's diary?
  • Principles

    By going down into the Chamber of Secrets, Harry proves that his principles include loyalty to his friends and courage in the face of terrible odds. By contrast, Lucius Malfoy, the book's most prominent pureblood, slips an eleven-year-old girl, Ginny Weasley, an enchanted diary with a piece of Voldemort's soul in it. He wants Ginny to become possessed and start killing Muggle-borns. That would discredit all of Mr. Weasley's efforts to pass the Muggle Protection Act. So Lucius Malfoy talks a good game about not "being a disgrace to the name of wizard" (4.176), but he's willing to stoop to attacking the daughter of a political rival to get his way. Where's the honor in that?

    Questions About Principles

    1. Does Chamber of Secrets give us a sense of what Voldemort believes in? Does he have principles in any way? Where does Voldemort stand in relation to the pureblood bigotry that so many of his followers (including Lucius Malfoy) buy into?
    2. Professor Dumbledore is the Headmaster of a school. He emphasizes loyalty and hard work, and presumably he cares about his students' educations. At the same time, he hires Gilderoy Lockhart to be Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. So what do you think Professor Dumbledore's principles of education are? What does he think it is important for Hogwarts students to learn?
    3. A lot of the characters in Chamber of Secrets have principles: Dobby has total faith in Harry, Harry believes in loyalty and protecting his friends. What about characters like Professor Lockhart? Does Lockhart have principles? In what does he hold real faith? How does he show that faith?
  • Education

    Hogwarts is a magical boarding school. The boarding school is a classic setting for British kid's fiction, but that's not the only reason why it's a good setting for the Harry Potter novels. As J.K. Rowling points out, "Of course it's been done before [... but] Hogwarts HAS to be a boarding school – half the important stuff happens at night! Then there's the security. Having a child of my own reinforces my belief that children above all want security, and that's what Hogwarts offers Harry" (source). Hogwarts is a magical setting that gives Harry comfort, but that also provides an interesting and potentially dangerous backdrop for his adventures. At the same time, it's a school. It's supposed to be a place where Harry is learning new things – not just book knowledge, but also personal discipline and wizarding culture. What kind of an education is Hogwarts providing Harry? How does his education differ from or resemble a Muggle school's?

    Questions About Education

    1. How does Hogwarts prepare its students to join the wizard world? What careers has J.K. Rowling suggested might exist for wizards? As of Book 2, which Hogwarts classes would you find most useful in your own life? Which would you rather not take? Why?
    2. What cultural differences are there between Hogwarts's wizard-born and Muggle-born students? As a magic-user brought up by Muggles, how do Harry's assumptions about the wizarding world differ from those of wizard-raised students like Ron Weasley, who have been seeing magic since they were children?
    3. As an end-of-school treat to make up for the whole Chamber of Secrets disaster, Professor Dumbledore decides to cancel their final exams. What do you think of this decision? Does it reflect responsible educational policy? How might it affect the older students, particularly the seventh years?
  • Perseverance

    Perseverance is a good thing: the ability to keep going when things seems difficult or even impossible. In Chamber of Secrets, Ginny's long-time resistance to Voldemort and Harry's willingness to keep living his life at Hogwarts, even though everyone suspects him of being Heir of Slytherin, both show perseverance. But we're not just using perseverance in the proper, positive sense. There are plenty of people in the Harry Potter novels who willingly endure hardship to achieve Dark, evil goals. For example, what are Tom Riddle's months of patiently gaining control over Ginny Weasley but proof of his perseverance? How about the twelve years that the Dursleys spend trying to repress the magic right out of Harry? They keep trying, even though it's not going to work. We're often told to keep trying, keep working hard and we'll succeed. We also need to consider, though, whether the goals we're working towards are worth our perseverance.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Which characters in Chamber of Secrets show the most perseverance? What are they working towards? Does the moral quality of the goal make a difference to the way Rowling depicts their perseverance?
    2. The character traits of Hufflepuff House are supposed to include hard work and patience; that sounds like perseverance to us. We meet several Hufflepuffs in Book 2 (Justin Finch-Fletchley, Ernie Macmillan, and Hannah Abbott). How do they show signs of perseverance? What are their goals? How does Hufflepuff distinguish itself from the other Hogwarts houses?
    3. The ghosts of Hogwarts continue behaving as though they are alive long after their deaths. They persevere in imitating the living. Why might a ghost choose to stay in the habits of its lifetime? Do you think there are special characteristics that make a person more or less likely to become a ghost in Rowling's world? What are they?