The Harry Potter Reread has grown up so big and tough, it gets a whole other book! Or maybe, like, six whole other books! But we’ll just start with the one, because we should pace ourselves. We might get indigestion otherwise.
So now we get a sample of what Harry’s summer really turned out like, and we get to meet our very first house-elf. Time for Chapters 1 and 2 of The Chamber of Secrets—The Worst Birthday and Dobby’s Warning.
Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.
Chapter 1—The Worst Birthday
It is Harry’s birthday again, but the Dursleys don’t remember or care because Vernon has a big business dinner that evening, requiring Harry to be up in his room pretending he doesn’t exist. The summer has been horrid for Harry, who has heard nothing from his friends or anyone in the wizarding world since he left Hogwarts. Dudley teases about exactly this (while Harry tries to figure out why the backyard bush has eyes and seems to be staring at him), which results in him using some fake magic words to terrify his cousin.
Aunt Petunia forces Harry to do an entire day’s worth of hard labor (she can call them chores all she likes, he should be pulling in at least minimum wage for what he does in a day), offers a measly dinner of bread and cheese, and the Dursleys send him upstairs to spend the evening in silence.
Harry goes to flop down on his bed, but there’s someone already there.
This is mostly a “hey, remember what these books are about?” chapter, with a lot of slim recapping going on. Makes sense for a second book, also intensely boring on reread.
Even so, I’d say it’s clear within the first pages that Rowling’s skill with humor is finer than ever. Asides like this, after Vernon suggests that they will be able to get a vacation home if the dinner goes over well, are peppered everywhere in the narrative now:
Harry couldn’t feel too excited about this. He didn’t think the Dursleys would like him any better in Majorca than they did on Privet Drive.
Also, the Dursleys’ abuse has stepped up on this round—Petunia almost hits Harry over the head with a frying pan. A giant heavy bludgeon made of solid metal. It’s not surprising that they’re more frightened than ever, but if I were Harry, I’d break into that cupboard with a crowbar, grab my broom and run out the door. Especially after doing that day of work and getting some toast and cheese for dinner.
The fear of being forgotten here is a sharp and understandable one, especially given Harry’s current age and newness to the wizard world. He hasn’t heard word one from anyone—who can blame him for thinking the whole thing might be a dream? Or that he might have been overlooked while everyone else enjoyed their break? I remember having a couple of lonely summers as a kid when I’d moved or friends were away at camp. It sort of feels like your whole life has come apart, at that point when three months might as well be eternity.
Chapter 2—Dobby’s Warning
The creature on Harry’s bed is Dobby the house-elf and he comes with a warning: Harry cannot go back to Hogwarts. There are dangers brewing that he should stay well and clear from. Dobby knows this because he is the servant of a wizard family, and they are clearly somehow involved or clued into the nameless danger. Harry finds out that it is Dobby who has been keeping his mail from him, but Dobby won’t hand his letters over unless Harry promises not to return to Hogwarts.
When Harry doesn’t, Dobby heads downstairs to ruin the Dursleys’ dinner party.
He smashes Petunia’s pudding on the floor, and then an owl shows up with a letter, frightening the wife of Mr. So-and-So who might want to buy drills from Vernon. They storm out in a huff, and a furious Vernon gets to read the note to Harry—informing him that he’s not allowed to use magic outside of school. Now Vernon knows he doesn’t have to be afraid of Harry casting spells in his house, and he vows never to let him go back to Hogwarts, putting bars on his windows and a cat flap in his door for meal delivery.
Harry wonders if he’ll ever make it back to school, if someone will come looking for him. He is having nightmares when he wakes in the middle of the night… and finds Ron Weasley peering in through his window.
Ugh, I had forgotten Vernon telling his racist jokes. How could I have forgotten that. Ugh. Way to go ten-out-of-ten there, Dursleys. You guys are greeeaaatt.
Dobby. What a fascinating character, really. Tell anyone who reads this book or sees eponymous film that in several volume’s time you be weeping over his death, and they’ll probably give you the side-eye. He’s too histrionic, too over the top, and combine that with the fact that he’s screechy and being a pain to your protagonist… well, most people aren’t going to be his biggest fans.
But Dobby is also the first solid introduction we get to the evils in the wizarding world. You can sense that some things are off with the goblins and the centaurs in the first book, but you can write that off as their desire to keep humanity at arms length. With Dobby, we find out straight off the bat—he’s a slave. Wizards can own slaves. Slaves who are encouraged to enact their own punishments for even thinking to say ill of their masters.
And what’s Harry’s immediate response? “Can’t anyone help you? Can’t I?”
He instantly snaps out of any sort of self-pity, says the Dursleys aren’t so bad, and wants to help. Since Hermione ends up being the more forceful crusader in the fight for elf rights, it’s easy to forget Harry’s initial reaction. But these are the moments that give us a clear idea of what will make Harry into the sort of hero needed to take down Voldemort in the end. The kid who will eventually build Dumbledore’s Army because his first instinct is always “How can I fight this?”
Quick question: who has been saying Harry is All That around/to Dobby? He keeps saying that he’s heard all this excellent stuff about Harry, but we know the Malfoys sure aren’t saying it.
Of course, everything gets ruined by the house-elf in question (Dobby doesn’t quite thinks these things through… I’m sure someone would come looking for Harry if he just didn’t show up at school), and then Vernon effectively puts Harry in prison. I mean, that’s what he does to Harry’s living situation. I think the cupboard under the stairs might have been better. It’s ridiculous.
Thank goodness for Weasleys.