The Themes of
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
An Analysis of the Themes, Motifs and Symbols
- Good and evil: the Eternal Battle
The author (J. K. Rowling) has specified that the "conflict between good and evil" is a pervasive theme through all seven books. Such a common theme throughout children's literature, it, not unexpectedly, drives nearly all of the book's action and is described on the page: "The Hero's Journey." Characters are classified based upon which "side" they are on, and reader frustration develops when the lines are not clear.
The antagonist, Voldemort, embodies evil and is a clear benchmark for the protagonist, Harry, to fight against. The author has provided these two characters, foils for each other if you will, to allow the reader to both: compare and contrast their characteristics. Although Voldemort was shown to have been once a child, and an orphan like Harry, it is there that the similarities end. Harry is not so much a "comparison" as he is a "contrast." Voldemort, at least in his recollection, has never been loved, nor has he developed the capability to show it. While Harry wins friends, embraces diversity, and avoids but doesn't fear death, Voldemort does just the opposite: produces his own enemies, eschews anything but a "pure" race and is terrified of death. The sheer magnitude of his evil actions spawn's eddies of other thematic lines, such as: prejudice, bigotry, tyranny, narcissism and the like.
- Coming of Age: Finding 'Who I Am'
After two years at Hogwarts, and in the wizarding world, Harry is still "discovering himself." He has been disliked and abused in the Muggle world; loved and revered in the wizarding world; hated, abused and nearly killed by wizards; and, shown affection by creatures of all kinds. Through it all, much of what makes him who he is, has not been lost. It's been said so often that it has nearly become a cliché despite all logic, he still has the ability to be selfless, considerate and (yes) show love and affection.
Physically, he is growing grown into a handsome young man. Educationally, he seems to be an average student, frequently utilizing help from Hermione. Magically, he is learning, if given the chance, and can perform spells with vigor.
Harry's personality development is a bit unusual, for an abused child. His charisma seems to draw people to himself, for better or worse. Ron, Hermione, Neville etc have become fast friends; others, like collin, are 'groupies' of sorts; and still others, like Snape and Lockhart just won't leave him alone. When others joked about Myrtle, Harry did not join in. He does not seem to burn bridges, even with his enemies and is gaining the respect of (most) his teachers.
Harry seems to defend the weak and maligned, support just causes, show honor in restraint against excessive force toward enemies, and show the integrity to honor his commitments long after the rationale for making them has ceased. From an orphan with no knowledge of his parents he seems to be growing into a capable and caring individual.
- Choices: Making Life Our Own
The author has described "choices" as a recurrent theme in the books. "Its our choices," she had Dumbledore say, "that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." But, it would be naive to claim that an individual's life is completely an act of voluntary choice. Abilities, intellect, looks, environment and the like are all well beyond personal choice, and often present difficulties sometimes catastrophic. Harry didn't choose to be made an orphan; that was inflicted upon him. He didn't choose to live with his "bigoted" and abusive aunt and uncle; or, for that matter, even to have wizard abilities. In fact, pretty much all of the "driving force" behind his early life's agenda was set for him by the choices of others. He was often punished for, essentially, "being."
To combat the expected feelings of futility, the author is letting him discover the effect his choices could have on his life's outcome. While there were several other options, the sorting hat put him in Gryffindor, largely due to his personal choice. Harry's similarity to Voldemort has been pointed out to him; but, he is different because his choices are different choices made without knowing their significance. "I think," he told Draco, "that I can decide who the right sort are for myself, thanks." He chose his actions based upon their context to others, and "greater" good, and not upon the "self" aggrandizement or preservation, which is common in the Slytherin house.
- Bigotry: The Fulfillment of Arrogance
Bigotry is the active part of a narcissistic personality and its excessive love or admiration of oneself. It is a psychological condition characterized by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy, and unconscious deficits in self-esteem. Along with its cousin, racism, its psychological precondition is anxiety, usually over inferiority on some level. Contempt of the "other" provides a reassuring feeling of identity, even if false. Philosophically speaking, racism is the result of a world view that does not leave any conceptual room for the strange or the unknown. A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of opinions, lifestyles, or identities differing from his or her own.
The author has publicly stated that Bigotry is not only a theme prevalent in her books, but a personal angst as well. Because its formation is related to deficits in self-esteem, which are un-checked by a consideration for others; the Slytherin house, with it's self-preservationists, not unexpectedly contains many such characters. A collection of the prejudiced, spawns institutionalized bigotry. Harry seemed to show a natural antipathy toward anyone thinking they were superior.
- Death: And Its Meaning to Life
Harry's saga has begun, dealing with the aftermath of death his parents. The boy character's life story had its gestation in his "mother's" (JKR) struggles to deal with the progressively fatal disease of her own mother. Imagination had been fostered, values learned and natural abilities encouraged; until, with a verdant flash of light, the handsome 11-year-old with glasses broke from the mist and "simply strolled into (Joanne Rowling's) mind, fully formed." A boy who didn't know that he was a wizard, until he received acceptance to wizarding school; and, whose personal story of dealing with death and adversity, simply MUST be told!
Harry, as the boy would be known, began the life "inflicted" upon him in the home of his abusive step-parents, the Dursley's. The self-serving arrogance and lust for power, of a man he had never met, had created an orphan and defined Harry's life for the next seventeen years if not forever. The initial capturing of Harry's story consumed Rowling's efforts, and possibly provided moments of respite from her own struggles. She admits that Harry's initial "death scene" had been written in a somewhat "cavalier fashion," and despairs that she had never told her mother about her new "imaginary friend."
Within six months, Rowling's mother had died, and she could now tell by experience, just how "superficial" her depiction had been. The subsequent blossoming of the wizarding world into print, occurred within the context of her admitted "struggling with religious belief," and the effects of loosing her mother. It is in the viewing of Harry's life and world in this context, which gives his story its most poignancy. His scar came from his mothers selfless sacrifice motivated by love. The Mirror of Erised, which "shows a person's deepest desire," revealed to Harry the vision of the author, to see her mother. The mirror was followed by Hagrid's "photo album" which enabled continued relationship with deceased loved ones.
Harry's life was filled with loss and Rowling said that in order to keep her feelings about the story in perspective, before writing anything else, she had to write an "epilogue," which could remind her where the characters would end.
- Love and Friendship
Love, as a word in English, has, unfortunately, been diluted in meaning to range from simple pleasure, to sexual attraction, to something worth dying for. It can describe an intense feeling of affection, an emotion or an emotional state. The ancients gave these different aspects their own words (see sidebar); and, scriptural instruction is quite descriptive. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4)"
The characters in Harry's life are so well developed, that it isn't at all difficult to determine who is capable of having and expressing love. Petunia and Vernon struggled between "possessing" and "loving" even Dudley, who they cared about. Snape, unlike Voldemort, had been loved and could love; but, like Voldemort, chose not to. Hermione and Ron have begun as friends; but, by "taking the blows," are finding an often misunderstood and neglected pathway to love service.
Friendship, on the other hand, is a type of interpersonal relationship which is not found exclusively among humans; but, is shared with animals with rich intelligence, such as the higher mammals and some birds. Individuals in a friendship relationship, will seek out each other's company and exhibit mutually helping behavior. Friendship is an emotion expressed in such a way that another feels wanted and important; and, there will be feelings of loss or loneliness when the friend is absent.
"Who is my friend?" the ages have asked. Harry (and readers) would have to be blind not to recognize what the author showed as her answer. Arrogance and Bigotry are the reverse images of self-confidence, respect and friendship. It is possible and probable that those in Slytherin house consider themselves friends; but, clearly their selfishness must be limiting, beyond that of Gryffindor's and other houses.
The "hero" in any "cambellian" style of story (see Hero's Journey) must "work and play well with others" because the "journey" is never accomplished alone. The Peeves, Nearly-Headless Nick and even Moaning Myrtle have all given strategic help to Harry. Professors are being (mostly) as helpful as Harry will let them be.
The setting of Harry's world is an "island" of pseudo-medievalism within the modern world. Castles, armor, forbidden forests full of fantastic beasts and races of goblins and elves festoon the "Potterworld" experience. The government is, as yet, not described, but there is a "minister." The economy is not well explained but there definitely are financial classes of people.
Wizardry in Harry's world is considered "typically atypical." When he is "home" he is a "freak"; but, when at his "other home" he, magically, is nothing special if only it weren't for Voldemort's decisions. There are the rings, and swords of magical nature, and spells with incantations which seem hauntingly familiar, like they might be true.
Wizarding ability in Harry's world, does seem to have some, undisclosed, genetic relationship and therefore occurs in families. Not surprisingly, parents with the endowment, and who have undergone maturation into wizards, find educational and experiential opportunities for their offspring who are similarly endowed. There is incomplete gene penetrance, however, and spontaneous mutations are not unheard of, or uncommon. It is unfortunate, but these natural phenomenon's are facilitated with labels. The terms squib and muggle-born were coined to describe the two mentioned conditions, respectively. Such labels, along with "muggle" (non-magic folk) and "Mudblood" (muggle-born) are used by people, like Lucius and Draco Malfoy, to whom it matters, and expresses their prejudices. To them, like Hitler's Nazi's, a muggle-born is as bad as a muggle and even one non-magic grandparent makes you "half-blood."
- Facial Features:
The shape of a persons nose seems to indicate the level of "wizardry" in a person's family tree. Dumbledore's is described as long and pointy, Harry's as "pointy but not as much as his father's." Hermione's is short- being muggle-born; Ron's quite pointy- being pure-blood. Occasionally Rowling uses the description of "a long pointy nose" in a pejorative sense to connote "pure-blooded" and probably bigoted.
- Polyjuice Potion:
An interesting, if not creepy, literary device: what does the polyjuice potion made from your hair taste and look like? Like a pot full of tofu, the potion absorbs the 'essence' of the material place within it and turns the imbiber into that very person. Crabbe's turned a dark murky brown and Goyle's turned the khaki color of a booger. Perphaps we will discover how the 'essence' of other character's appear.
- Hidden knowledge of Dumbledore
Harry had to be satisfied with only partial answers to his questions last year, and it doesn't appear that he had them answered this year either. Why did Voldemort attempt to kill Harry as a baby? and why so important that he killed both his parents in order to get to him? And where did Dumbledore get that map-scar on his leg?
- Harry's future
Like some sort of 'leaf in a stream,' Harry hasn't seemed to have much control over his life to date. Ok, this may not be too different from most 12-year-olds, but at some point he will begin to make more choices than he has here-to-fore been able to make. He obviously doesn't think too kindly toward Voldemort, who killed both his parents, and who, he knows now, is 'still out there somewhere.' Some sort of 'show down' is probably inevitable especially if the evil git keeps having a go at him in every book!
- Snape's unexplained hatred of Harry
Snape seemed to 'hit the ground running' in his hatred of Harry from even the first book. This simply must have come from history but it doesn't appear to have been anything specific to Harry personally. If it was incidental, it probably wouldn't need explaining, but Snape's actions continually effect Harry's plot line and probably demands a background sometime.
- Snape's initial potion's lessons
Usually an author crafts very carefully their first sentence of a book. Also their first paragraph sets readers expectations, and the first chapter is often used for book reviews, so is also very important. JKR was no exception and from the outset the reader to tell they were 'in for a bumpy ride.' Harry's first day at school, set the stage for a continual battle with his potion's master. He claimed that he would teach them 'how to bottle fame, brew glory and stopper death' perhaps it will be with the Draft of Living Death, a Bezoar and Wolfsbane potions.