In each book, Harry himself undergoes the process of discovering his identity. This process is long, arduous, and dangerous; indeed, answering the question, 'Who is Harry Potter?', takes all seven books to do and changes the wizarding world.
The nature of identity is at the root of problems for a lot of other characters. The crisis (krisis, to make it less hyperbolic) of every person in his or her teens is to make sense of one's identity, and how a person's identity is formed in childhood and adolescence goes a long way toward determining what kind of person he or she'll be as an adult.
Books one through three, and book five, probably have the most to do with identity, especially Harry's identity. The Goblet of Fire, it may be said, is the book which identifies the Ministry of Magic for what it truly is, while The Half-Blood Prince is in large part about Voldemort's identity, and The Deathly Hallows Dumbledore's.
Of the books which focus on Harry's identity, The Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the best in that regard. But I want to look at the question of identity in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. One weakness of The Philosopher's Stone, it may be said, is its occasional clumsiness with regard to the matter of identity. The uncovering of Quirrell as the real villain attempting to steal the Stone is not well handled, compared to nearly every revelation of a similar nature in the rest of the series, and in some respects Harry's discovery that he is a wizard is treated superficially. On the other hand, The Philosopher's Stone has some keenly felt and superbly written passages on the need to feel belonging (a yearning most poignant in Harry's case), such as the following:
A horrible thought struck Harry, as horrible thoughts always do when you're very nervous [notice the clumsy authorial interjection]. What if he wasn't chosen at all? What if he just sat there with the hat over his eyes for ages, until Professor McGonagall jerked it off his head and said there had obviously been a mistake and he'd better get back on the train [p. 90]?One almost believes that Rowling consulted widely among eleven-year-old boys for this passage, because Harry's anxiety could hardly be put better, from a boy's perspective. Those of us who are grown-up would not think about our fear of rejection in such basic terms, but this passage (except for the phrase beginning with 'as horrible thoughts') is a piece of perfect characterisation.
What I specifically wish to treat in The Chamber of Secrets is the sub-theme (under identity) of appearance versus reality. A person (or situation; but my focus will be on people) will appear or seem to be one thing, but will really be another. The Chamber of Secrets is in many ways the liminal book of the series. Had Rowling been unable to master her treatment of identity in The Chamber of Secrets, I question whether she would have been able to complete the series at all (and certainly the remaining five books would have been the poorer for it, even if the series were completed).
So, we'll examine some of the characters in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and discover how Rowling handles writing about their identity, particularly as it relates to appearance versus reality.
Lockhart's name signifies what kind of person he is (as do the names of most of the other characters in the Potter series), but I won't get into that.
Lockhart acts as a foil to Harry in The Chamber of Secrets. Whereas Harry struggles with misdirected anger and misguided hero worship because of people looking only at appearances, Gilderoy Lockhart exemplifies the person whose only substance is style, who has forfeited reality for appearance. No other character in the book is described quite so often as Lockhart; viz.:
There was a big photograph on the front [of the book] of a very good-looking wizard with wavy blond hair and bright blue eyes. [p. 32]Another eye-catching thing to highlight are the number of times the word 'real' is used of Lockhart:
Gilderoy Lockhart came slowly into view, seated at a table surrounded by large pictures of his own face, all wnking and flashing dazzlingly white teeth at the crowd. The real Lockhart was wearing robes of forget-me-not blue which exactly matched his eyes; his pointed wizard's hat was set at a jaunty angle on his wavy hair. [p. 49]
Several seats along, Harry saw Gilderoy Lockhart, dressed in robes of aquamarine. [p. 61]
Gilderoy Lockhart, however, was immaculate in sweeping robes of turquoise, his golden hair shining under a perfectly positioned turquoise hat with gold trimming. [p. 70]
'What's all this, what's all this?' Gilderoy Lockhart was striding towards them, his turquoise robes swirling behind him. [p. 76]
Gilderoy Lockhart, wearing robes of palest mauve today, came striding out. [p. 87]
'As long as it's not -' Harry began, but he ended on a groan: Gilderoy Lockhart was walking onto the stage, resplendent in robes of deep plum and accompanied by none other than Snape, wearing his usual black. [p. 142]
Lockhart, wearing lurid pink robes to match the decorations, was waving for silence. [p. 176]
The real Lockhart was wearing robes, &c. [p. 49]On pages 77 through 79 is the first Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson, when Lockhart releases the pixies but can do nothing to stop them, after which it is not hard to see that Lockhart is a phoney. After this point the word 'real' is never used to describe Lockhart again, and although the colour of his robe is described a few times thereafter (at the beginning of one of his ill-conceived schemes, usually), it is obvious that he is not only pompous but also a fake. The real surprise when he reveals how he got the stories for his books to Harry and Ron is Harry's disbelieving comment: 'You mean you're running away ... [a]fter all that stuff you did in your books?' [p. 220]
'He [Harry Potter] and his school fellows will, in fact, be getting the real, magical me.' [p. 50]
Harry yanked his robes straight and headed for a seat at the very back of the class, where he busied himself with piling all seven of Lockhart's books in front of him, so that he could avoid looking at the real thing. [p. 77]
A Foretaste of Reality versus Appearances
Upon re-reading the book during the creation of this blog, I have come to the conclusion that the following passage, which I took to be a bit of entertaining whimsy, is in fact a pointer to this sub-theme of the book:
'Muggles have garden gnomes too, you know,' Harry told Ron as they crossed the lawn.In this brief passage, Rowling transmits this theme through the mechanism of whimsy: the contrast between appearance (Muggle garden gnomes; think the gnome from the Travelocity ads) and reality (a creature which resembles a mutant potato).
'Yeah, I've seen those things they think are gnomes,' said Ron, bent double with his head in a peony bush. 'Like fat little Father Christmases with fishing rods ...'
There was a violent scuffling noise, the peony bush shuddered and Ron straightened up. 'This is a gnome,' he said grimly.
'Gerroff me! Gerroff me!' squealed the gnome.
It was certainly nothing like Father Christmas. It was small and leathery looking, with a large, knobbly, bald head exactly like a potato. [pp. 32-3]
This raises the question as to how much Rowling uses whimsy to camouflage the deeper themes and meanings of the story. But that is not an issue I am going to pursue here.
Reading the story in retrospect, it is hard to imagine how one couldn't notice something was up with Ginny. But Rowling deftly places clues to what is going on in the middle of other things, so that they seem to have to do with something else. (The skill which Rowling displays in this sort of thing, as well as with other matters we have examined, raises the question as to whether she can really be considered a hack writer.)
Ginny appears to be distraught or shy or flustered because of nerves, or her schoolgirl crush on Harry, or out of fear of the attacks. Considering her appearance (not in the sense of 'seeming' but in the sense of 'presence') in The Philosopher's Stone, her behaviour in The Chamber of Secrets is uncharacteristic, but we think nothing of it.
In The Philosopher's Stone:
'Now, what's the platform number?' said the boys' mother.In Ginny's two appearances in The Philosopher's Stone, she is told to be quiet by Mrs Weasley, and only finishes one of four sentences, the rest being cut off by her mother. So it is odd how little she speaks in The Chamber of Secrets, even allowing for her obvious shyness around Harry.
'Nine and three quarters!' piped a small girl, also red-headed, who was holding her hand. 'Mum, can't I go ...'
'You're not old enough, Ginny, now be quiet. All right, Percy, you go first.' [p. 70]
Harry heard the little girl's voice.
'Oh, Mum, can I go on the train and see him, Mum, oh please ...'
'You've already seen him, Ginny, and the poor boy isn't something you goggle at in a zoo. Is he really, Fred? How do you know?' [p. 73]
'Hurry up!' their mother said, and the three boys clambered on to the train. They leant out of the window for her to kiss them goodbye and their younger sister began to cry.
'Don't, Ginny, we'll send you loads of owls.'
'We'll send you a Hogwarts toilet seat.'
'Only joking, Mum.'
The train began to move. Harry saw the boys' mother waving and their sister, half laughing, half crying, running to keep up with the train until it gathered too much speed, then she fell back and waved. [pp. 73-4]
He [Harry], Ron and Hermione passed through the gateway together.
'There he is, Mum, there he is, look!'
It was Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister, but she wasn't pointing at Ron.
'Harry Potter!' she squealed. 'Look, Mum! I can see -'
'Be quiet, Ginny, and it's rude to point.' [p. 223]
Here is what Rowling writes about Ginny in The Chamber of Secrets:
At that moment there was a diversion in the form of a small, red-headed figure in a long nightdress, who appeared in the kitchen, gave a small squeal, and ran out again.Percy's arrival and mysterious comments about what Ginny saw - he assumes she was going to tell Harry and Ron about his relationship with Penelope Clearwater - distract us from Ginny's obvious torment. And had Percy actually told Harry and Ron the secret he thought Ginny was about to tell, it would have been obvious that that could not be it. And once Ginny is back to her normal self, she has no trouble telling everyone that Penelope is Percy's girlfriend. (Of course by then the Basilisk is, as it were, out of the Chamber.)
'Ginny,' said Ron in an undertone to Harry. 'My sister. She's been talking about you all summer.'
'Yeah, she'll be wanting your autograph, Harry,' grinned Fred[.] [p. 31]
On the third landing, a door stood ajar. Harry just caught sight of a pair of brown eyes staring at him before it closed with a snap. [Ed.: I am certain the allusion to Dobby doing the same thing in the first chapter is intentional.]
'Ginny,' said Ron. 'You don't know how weird it is for her to be this shy, she never shuts up normally -' [p. 35]
[Harry] and Ron went down to breakfast to find Mrs and Mrs Weasley and Ginny already sitting at the kitchen table. The moment she saw Harry, Ginny accidentally knocked her porridge bowl to the floor with a loud clatter. Ginny seemed very prone to knocking things over whenever Harry entered a room. She dived under the table to retrieve the bowl and emerged with her face glowing like the setting sun. [p. 37]
'Oh, are you starting at Hogwarts this year?' Harry asked Ginny.
She nodded, blushing to the roots of her flaming hair, and put her elbow in the butter dish. [p. 38]
'Famous Harry Potter,' said Malfoy. Can't even go into a bookshop without making the front page.'
'Leave him alone, he didn't want all that!' said Ginny. It was the first time she had spoken in front of Harry. She was glaring at Malfoy.
'Potter, you've got yourself a girlfriend!' drawled Malfoy. Ginny went scarlet as Ron and Hermione fought their way over[.] [p. 50]
'Busy time at the Ministry, I hear,' said Mr Malfoy. 'All those raids... I hope they're paying you overtime?'
He reached into Ginny's cauldron and extracted, from amidst the glossy Lockhart books, a very old, very battered copy of A Beginner's Guide to Transfiguration.
Mr Weasley had a cut lip and Mr Malfoy had been hit in the eye by an Encyclopaedia of Toadstools. He was still holding Ginny's old Transfiguration book. He thrust it at her, his eyes glittering with malice.
'Here, girl - take your book - it's the best your father can give you -' [p. 51]
They had almost reached the motorway when Ginny shrieked that she'd left her diary. [p. 54]
'That's what yer little sister said,' said Hagrid, nodding at Ron. 'Met her jus' yesterday.' Hagrid looked sideways at Harry, his beard twitching. 'Said she was jus' lookin' round the grounds, but I reckon she was hopin' she might run inter someone else at my house.' He winked at Harry. 'If yeh ask me, she wouldn' say no ter a signed -' [p. 90]
Ginny Weasley, who had been looking peaky, was bullied into taking some [Pepperup potion] by Percy. [p. 94]
Ginny Weasley seemed very disturbed by Mrs Norris' fate. According to Ron, she was a great cat lover.
'But you hadn't really got to know Mrs Norris,' Ron told her bracingly. 'Honestly, we're much better off without her.' Ginny's lip trembled. 'Stuff like this doesn't happen often at Hogwarts,' Ron assured her. 'They'll catch the nutter who did it and have him out of here in no time. I just hope he's got time to Petrify Filch before he's expelled. I'm only joking -' Ron added hastily, as Ginny blanched. [p. 111]
'Why shouldn't we be here?' said Ron hotly, stopping short and glaring at Percy. 'Listen, we never laid a finger on that cat!'
'That's what I told Ginny,' said Percy fiercely, 'but she still seems to think you're going to be expelled; I've never seen her so upset, crying her eyes out. You might think of her, all the first years are thoroughly over-excited by this business -'
'You don't care about Ginny,' said Ron, whose ears were reddening now. 'You're just worried I'm going to mess up your chances of being Head Boy.' [p. 119]
Ginny Weasley, who sat next to Colin Creevey in Charms, was distraught, but Harry felt that Fred and George were going the wrong way about cheering her up. They were taking it in turns to cover themselves with fur or boils and jump out at her from behind statues. They only stopped when Percy, apoplectic with rage, told them he was going to write Mrs Weasley and tell her Ginny was having nightmares. [p. 139]
Fred and George, however, found all this very funny. They went out of their way to march ahead of Harry down the corridors, shouting, 'Make way for the Heir of Slytherin, seriously evil wizard coming through ...'
Percy was deeply disapproving of this behaviour.
'It is not a laughing matter,' he said coldly.
'Oh, get out of the way, Percy,' said Fred. 'Harry's in a hurry.'
'Yeah, he's nipping off to the Chamber of Secrets for a cup of tea with his fanged servant,' said George, chortling.
Ginny didn't find it amusing either.
'Oh, don't,' she wailed every time Fred asked Harry loudly who he was planning to attack next, or George pretended to ward Harry off with a large clove of garlic when they met. [p. 157]
All day long, the dwarfs kept baring into their classes to deliver Valentines, to the annoyance of the teachers, and late that afternoon, as the Gryffindors were walking upstairs for Charms, one of them caught up with Harry.
'Oy, you! 'Arry Potter!' shouted a particularly grim-looking dwarf, elbowing people out of the way to get at Harry.
Hot all over at the thought of being given a Valentine in front of a queue of first years, which happened to include Ginny Weasley, Harry tried to escape. The dwarf, however, cut his way through the crowd by kicking people's shins, and reached him before he'd gone two paces.
Harry, glancing over, saw Malfoy stoop and snatch up something. Leering, he showed it to Crabbe and Goyle, and Harry realised that he'd got Riddle's diary.
'Give that back,' said Harry quietly.
'Wonder what Potter's written in this?' said Malfoy, who obviously hadn't noticed the year on the cover, and thought he had Harry's own diary. A hush fell over the onlookers. Ginny was staring from the diary to Harry, looking terrified.
But Harry didn't care, he'd got one over on Malfoy, and that was worth five points from Gryffindor any day. Malfoy was looking furious, and as Ginny passed him to enter her classroom, he yelled spitefully after her, 'I don't think Potter liked your Valentine much!'
Ginny covered her face with her hands and ran into class. [pp. 177-8]
Just then, Ginny Weasley came over and sat down next to Ron. She looked tense and nervous, and Harry noticed that her hands were twisting in her lap.
'What's up?' said Ron, helping himself to more porridge.
Ginny didn't say anything, but glanced up and down the Gryffindor table with a scared look on her face that reminded Harry of someone, though he couldn't think who.
'Spit it out,' said Ron, watching her.
Harry suddenly realized who Ginny looked like. She was rocking backwards and forwards slightly in her chair, exactly like Dobby did when he was teetering on the edge of revealing forbidden information.
'I've got to tell you something,' Ginny mumbled, carefully not looking at Harry.
'What is it?' said Harry.
Ginny looked as though she couldn't find the right words.
'What?' said Ron.
Ginny opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Harry leaned forward and spoke quietly, so that only Ginny and Ron could hear him.
'Is it something about the Chamber of Secrets? Have you seen something? Someone acting oddly?'
Ginny drew a deep breath and at that precise moment, Percy Weasley appeared, looking tired and wan.
'If you've finished eating, I'll take that seat, Ginny. I'm starving, I've only just come off patrol duty.'
Ginny jumped up as though her chair had just been electrified, gave Percy a fleeting, frightened look, and scarpered away. [pp. 211-2]
It is just possible, I think, for someone who read the book closely for the first time to guess that Ginny Weasley had something to do with the mysterious attacks plaguing the school. I did not make the connection. At any rate, this is a much more subtle exploration of appearance versus reality, for Ginny frequently appears to be upset for no reason at all, but is really upset because she is becoming aware of her role in the attacks. Her behaviour is uncharacteristic. Unlike Lockhart, who draws attention to himself and is a willing fraud, Ginny, normally gregarious and vivacious, becomes fearful and withdrawn, becomes, in fact, an unwilling fraud. But the distinction between appearance and reality in her case is much more subtle, and the near-tragedy of the book is that others were incapable of seeing through the appearances to the reality until it was all but too late - in the event, only Harry's supreme courage is able to save her.
Lockhart's identity as one who has forfeited any claim to reality in favour of appearance is made plain relatively early in the book, despite its official revelation not occurring until nearly the end. Ginny's withdrawal from reality to appearance is subtle and probably only a most diligent reader will have noticed it the first time through. Our retrospective has uncovered how cleverly Rowling placed the clues about her reality almost from the very beginning; at every turn, meanwhile the reader is misled by the other characters who look only at Ginny's appearance.
A lengthy quotation of every passage having to do with appearance and reality in Harry's case would result in having, as it were, to underline nearly the whole book. Harry is, of course, the only character in The Chamber of Secrets whose thoughts on what appears to be his identity and what it really is are accessible to readers. On the one hand, there is not the same opportunity for finding (if one reads carefully) hints and clues distinguishing what is real from what appears to be real in Harry Potter's case as in those of others; but on the other hand, readers get to identify with Harry as he struggles with working out what is real about him, and what is not.
Famous Harry Potter is what several characters snarl about Harry. Nearly every time Malfoy talks about Harry - in Borgin & Burke's, in Flourish and Blotts', in the Slytherin common room - he mention's Harry's fame. He denies being jealous of Harry's fame, as when Colin Creevey accuses him of being so at one point (p. 76), but one suspects that he does feel upstaged by the Boy Who Lived. Snape, who views Harry as essentially James Potter redivivus, sneers at Harry upon his arrival at Hogwarts by flying car: '[T]he train isn't good enough for the famous Harry Potter ... . Wanted to arrive with a bang, did we, boys? [p. 62]' And Lockhart, of course, because he understands nothing but the empty quest for fame, believes that Harry is as motivated as he is to have the limelight. Lockhart never calls Harry famous, but had he done so, he would have been the only one to mean it as a compliment. Colin, of course, is gaga for Harry. And while Fred and George make the most of Harry being thought of as the Heir of Slytherin, most of the rest of the students shun Harry, yet enjoy (as it were) his presence as an object of their horrified fascination.
Harry's fame is not all bad, however. Dobby reveres Harry, a reverence which the house-elf believes is deserved after Harry asks Dobby to sit down, an act of politeness which would hardly be remarked upon in most circumstances (p. 16). Yet although Harry has a good reputation with non-wizards such as Dobby, it remains one which is largely undeserved.
For one's reputation, deserved or undeserved, is, I believe, the main subject of the sub-theme of appearance versus reality (with regard to identity). Harry does not initially deserve the reputation Dobby ascribes to him at the beginning of the book; by the end of it, when he has acted valiantly and has gone to the trouble of freeing Dobby, he deserves Dobby's praise: 'Harry Potter is greater by far than Dobby knew! [p. 249]'
Harry's heroic reputation, about which Ginny had a lot to say over the summer (p. 31) and, evidently, to Tom Riddle (pp. 230-1), is largely overshadowed. Ernie Macmillan invents wholesale reasons why Harry Potter must be the Heir of Slytherin (pp. 148-9). It takes the Petrification of Hermione for him to come to his senses (although he then quickly comes to the conclusion that it must be Malfoy [p. 199], who by then we know not to be the Heir).
In a way, Snape's jibe back in The Philosopher's Stone, that 'celebrity isn't everything', is pointedly accurate. Harry is famous against his will - the reality is that he does not (usually) want fame (although, on p. 57, it is probably not only 'Fred and George's jealous faces' which Harry is hoping to see when he and Ron fly the car onto the Hogwarts grounds). He appears to be the Heir of Slytherin once he speaks in Parseltongue, because no one knows why he actually does; or appears to enjoy or seek fame, but in every such instance it is because a thrill-seeker such as Colin or the fame-obsessed Lockhart (or the dwarf who sings him the Valentine from Ginny) have caught him up.
How Harry handles fame in this book is very much how he handles it in future books. He is upset and angry when Ernie Macmillan presumes to know his motivation for doing things - feelings which recur when Ron (in The Goblet of Fire) and Seamus (in The Order of the Phoenix) do the same. When praised (as by Dobby), he is usually bashful - as when his accomplishments are listed by his fellow students at the first meeting of Dumbledore's Army in the fifth book. And at Christmas holiday Harry is relieved that he will not have to endure, for a while, the reproach of his schoolmates, because he is tired of it (p. 157). Harry does not really learn how to cope with his fame until after Sirius' death in The Order of the Phoenix, for while in The Chamber of Secrets and The Goblet of Fire he is able to endure the taunts and reproaches of an undeserved bad reputation, he finally cracks under the strain in the fifth book.
Thus, in The Chamber of Secrets, although Harry is conscious of much of what is real about him (and makes, under Dumbledore's tutelage, the important discovery of the meaning of choice - of, in other words, virtue - in shaping one's identity [pp. 244-5]), he is still concerned about how he appears to others.
Now to return to my initial question, as to whether Rowling had mastered her subject. At least with respect to the theme of identity (and the sub-theme of reality versus appearance), it is my opinion that Rowling has mastered the theme. Harry's reactions to fame in this book set the tone for how he will cope with it until his concern about it dies with Sirius. (Admirably, of course, there's more to Harry than his reputation; unlike, say, Lockhart). We are often unaware of the depth of Harry's struggle over his identity (and this is leaving out any analysis of the sub-theme of choice as it relates to identity), because it takes place within Harry's encounters with others - it is not spelled out in a bald editorial statement. And the easy distinction between appearance and reality which Lockhart exemplifies serves as a smokescreen for more subtle takes on the issue (such as Ginny Weasley, or the ever-so-revealing statement made by Cornelius Fudge in Hagrid's hut).
This is not to say, for example, that Rowling treated the themes of The Philosopher's Stone badly. I have no time to spare for an in-depth analysis of the first book in this regard. But the extent to which the themes of The Chamber of Secrets permeate it and inform it, without being clumsily obvious, reveal Rowling's skill.