The Writing on the Wall
Chapter 9 of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Writing on the Wall
Filch appears and immediately accuses Harry of killing his cat. The arrival of Professor Dumbledore and several other teachers defuses the situation. Professor Lockhart volunteers his office so Dumbledore can examine Mrs. Norris. Professor Dumbledore asks Filch, Harry, Ron, and Hermione to accompany him, while Professors Lockhart, McGonagall, and Snape tag along. While Lockhart babbles on about deaths he has prevented, Dumbledore examines Mrs. Norris, concluding she is still alive, but petrified, and that someone other than Harry is responsible. Filch still believes that Harry must be involved because he knows Filch is a Squib, though Harry has no idea what that is. Snape suggests that while Harry, Ron, and Hermione were possibly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, their absence during the Hallowe'en feast is suspicious. They explain that they were at the Deathday party. Harry, wanting to avoid revealing that he heard voices, gives a rather flimsy excuse for why they skipped the Feast afterwards. Snape, suspecting he is lying, suggests punishment for dishonesty, but is overruled by McGonagall and Dumbledore, much to Filch's disappointment. Ron explains to Harry later that a Squib is a non-magical person born to wizard parents.
The Chamber's possible opening causes some students to behave differently: Justin Finch-Fletchley now seems to be avoiding Harry, and Hermione, among other things, spends even more time in the library than usual. Harry goes there to speak with Ron and finds Hermione is upset because there are no copies of Hogwarts: A History available. In their next class, History of Magic with Professor Binns, she persuades the old ghost to recount the Chamber of Secrets legend. Binns explains that over a thousand years ago, the school's four founders, Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Helga Hufflepuff had a falling out over whether Muggle-borns and Muggles' descendants (half-bloods) should be admitted to Hogwarts. Slytherin alone believed only pure-bloods should learn magic, and he left the school when the others rejected his beliefs. According to the legend, he created a secret Chamber beneath Hogwarts and hid a monster within it. Only Slytherin's true Heir can open the Chamber or control the monster. Although the Chamber has never been found, Binns is unable to convince the class it does not exist.
While passing between classes, little Colin Creevey mentions that someone said Harry could be the Heir; Harry realizes this probably explains why Justin, who is Muggle-born, avoided him earlier. At the spot where Mrs. Norris was petrified, the Trio spies a clutch of spiders scurrying away, frightening Ron, who suffers from arachnophobia. Water flowing from Moaning Myrtle's bathroom covers the floor. The unused bathroom is in disrepair; it is also very wet, evidently because a moping Myrtle causes floods whenever she is upset. She is less than communicative with them. Percy catches the three leaving the bathroom and docks Gryffindor five House points.
During a later discussion, Ron thinks that, logically, Malfoy is the Heir. Hermione suggests they find out by using Polyjuice Potion to impersonate someone else. To get the formula, Hermione needs a teacher's signature to check out Moste Potente Potions from the library's restricted section. "But what teacher," asks Ron, "would be so thick?"
Although Filch is a minor character, he serves an important function in this chapter for several reasons. First, we see the pay-off to the set-up the author made when Filch's Kwikspell course was previously discovered. Filch is a Squib, born into a Wizarding family but lacking any magical powers, which is why he bought a beginner's magic course. While Filch is lucky to have employment at Hogwarts, it has left Filch a bitter man. Year after year, he sees children, possibly some from his own family, enter Hogwarts, be trained in the magic he can never know, then leave for careers he possibly once dreamed of, while he always remains behind. Being a Squib is a horrible half-life, knowing the magic world exists, being surrounded by it, but unable to participate magically. And while Filch's attempt to learn magic seems a desperate act, it may not be entirely futile; the author has mentioned in interviews that in rare instances, a person's magical ability can suddenly appear later in life. Filch may be harboring such a hope, though, at his age, that possibility seems virtually non-existent, and the author has stated that Filch's attempt is doomed to failure.
Filch's character also spotlights the multi-layered class divisions that exist within wizard society; human wizards top the hierarchy, while Squibs and non-human magical creatures occupy the descending levels. Readers have also seen that some wizards, like the Malfoys, believe an even finer distinction exists within the wizard strata, with pure-blooded wizards superior to Half-bloods and Muggle-borns. And among purebreds, there seems to be the belief that those with wealth and power reside at the apex. Harry, Ron, Hermione, and other characters continually encounter these social and racial prejudices.
The story's core plot line is also revealed here. Though Binns states the Chamber of Secrets is non-existent, and that multiple headmasters spent years searching for it without finding so much as a Broom-closet of Secrets, it is evident to the reader, as well as the students, that the Chamber does exist and a monster dwells within. There could be few, if any, other possible explanations for Mrs. Norris being Petrified.
A bit more insight into Gilderoy Lockhart is offered here. Inside his office, we see his pictures whisk themselves from their frames, hiding, when Harry and the others enter; some, overcome by curiosity, reappear later, and Harry notes a few are wearing hairnets. This may reflect something about Lockhart's true nature. Lockhart himself, rather than helping with the investigation, babbles on about deaths he has supposedly prevented. When Mrs. Norris is found to be not dead, but merely Petrified, Lockhart suggests that he could whip up a restorative potion in short order, though he never does so. This boast irritates Snape, who of course, as Potions master, would assume any potion-making task to be his.
This also highlights Snape's dislike for Lockhart, who has probably been dismissed as a fraud by most teachers at this point; Snape likely shares that opinion. We suspect Professor Dumbledore is also aware, and he may have hired Lockhart only because he was the lone applicant (according to Hagrid). We should also note that Snape was particularly irritated by Harry's fame in the previous book; it was Harry's celebrity that Snape dwelt on in Harry's first Potions lesson. Harry avoids the spotlight, but Lockhart chases it, and almost everything he does is aimed at gaining him more attention. This can only increase Snape's dislike of Lockhart, a dislike heightened even more by Lockhart's self-serving attempt to usurp Snape's duties.
Considering that Snape, according to rumour, has always desired the Defence Against the Dark Arts position, it seems curious that Dumbledore would instead hire someone as incompetent as Lockhart rather than appoint Snape. The reader may begin to wonder about this; it likely will be revisited as the series progresses.
- Why did Salazar Slytherin leave Hogwarts?
- Why does Filch accuse Harry of Petrifying Mrs. Norris? Is there any truth to his accusations?
- Why would anyone want to Petrify a cat?
- Since Mrs. Norris is just a cat (not an Animagus), why would she be the first victim?
- Why is Harry suspected as being the Heir of Slytherin? Is the evidence credible or merely coincidental? Explain.
- What does Hermione hope to find in the library?
- Why would Percy dock the Trio House points for being in a bathroom?
- Despite evidence, why has no one been able to locate the Chamber of Secrets?
- What kind of monster might be in the Chamber? How can it be controlled?
- Why do Lockhart's pictures run and hide when someone enters the room, and what does that say about him?
While Harry, Hermione and Ron are examining the area where Mrs. Norris was found, they notice some strangely-behaving spiders. Ron admits he fears spiders, which is confirmed later in this book, and also in the next two books: by his Boggart in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and his behavior during Mad-Eye Moody’s Unforgivable Curse demonstration in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The spiders' peculiar behavior here gives a clue about the monster Slytherin concealed within the Chamber.
Percy claims that he is penalizing Harry and Ron House points despite Prefects lacking this power. It is possible, however, that anyone challenging Percy's over-inflated ego and self-importance, as Ron does here, causes Percy to react by threatening that he is docking House points. It may also be that the prefects, reporting any misbehavior to the House Head, can recommend docking points. While that may be what Percy intended, technically, he apparently has overstepped his bounds. In an interview, the author stated that Percy is more likely to be right than Ron, who says in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that prefects could not dock House points; she also reinforced this statement on her official web site. Against this, however, we must mention that Draco Malfoy, a prefect in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, agreed that prefects lacked the authority to dock House points. One can be sure that if Draco were able to dock House points from Gryffindors, he would, as later, as a member of Dolores Umbridge's Inquisitorial Squad, he acquires that power and freely abuses it. In this particular case, however, it makes more sense that Percy is merely overstepping his boundaries through over-officiousness, a very Percy-like trait, than to have Draco later refrain from abusing a power he has been given.
One must wonder about Professor Binns' vehement denial that the Chamber of Secrets exists. We will learn that the Chamber had been opened some fifty years previously, and Headmaster Dippet considered closing the school as a result. While it is possible this was before Professor Binns joined the school, that seems unlikely; Binns' apparent refusal to teach anything later than about the nineteenth century argues for his having been a teacher for many more years than a mere fifty, and indeed suggests that his curriculum may have stopped changing when he died.
There is an interesting side note to this. Professor Binns tells the class that, according to the legend, only the true Heir of Slytherin can open the Chamber of Secrets. This part, at least, will be proved wrong. Not only does Harry open it later in this book by speaking Parseltongue (snake language), but presumably Ginny Weasley, controlled by Tom Riddle's memory, must have been instructed by Riddle on how to open it. Much later in the series, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ron will also open the Chamber by repeating the same Parseltongue words he heard Harry speaking when he unlatched Slytherin's Locket Horcrux. This suggests a great conceit by Slytherin, in that he apparently believed that only his heirs would be able to speak Parseltongue. And while it could technically be argued that Voldemort's small soul portions residing within Harry and Ginny—Harry through Voldemort's attempt to murder him, and Ginny through the Diary—gave them this ability, Ron had no such connection. Considering how interconnected the many Wizarding families are, some, including Harry and the Weasleys, could be descended from Salazar Slytherin's family. Even though this connection may be quite diluted and even indirect, it may still be enough to open the Chamber. Ron, however, attributes his limited ability to simply mimicking what Harry had done to unlatch Slytherin's Locket Horcrux.
This conceit will be furthered mirrored later by Voldemort, who, smugly believing only he knows about the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts, uses it to hide a Horcrux. Dobby, however, will suggest to Harry (in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) that he use this room for his secret Dumbledore's Army meetings, which he does. Dobby gives the impression that this room is well-known to the other Hogwarts House-elves.
While Mr. Filch seems consumed with bitterness over being a Squib, not all such non-magical persons are so resentful; presumably some even marry witches or wizards and can produce magical offspring, just as a Muggle married to a magical spouse can. Mrs. Figg, Harry's neighbor, is also a Squib who, unbeknown to Harry just yet, has been helping to guard him since his arrival at Privet Drive. It will be learned much later that she also belongs to the Order of the Phoenix, a secret organization dedicated to fighting Voldemort. It is uncertain whether Squibs are encouraged to integrate themselves into Muggle society, as the only two we see are Filch and Mrs. Figg, both of whom have presumably been kept in the Wizarding world by direct or indirect action of Professor Dumbledore. Mrs. Figg has apparently adjusted to her non-magical status and is useful to Dumbledore, apparently eking out a living in the Wizarding world by breeding her unusual cats, which may be Kneazles or cat-Kneazle crossbreeds, that she presumably sells to wizards. Hermione's cat, Crookshanks, that she purchases in the next book, is likely such a creature, and plays an important role in that book.
Filch's character also highlights another recurring theme: how easily innocent and vulnerable people (and non-humans) are accused of and punished for crimes they never committed. Here, Filch, in a rush to judgment and already biased against Harry (and most students), claims that Harry petrified his cat, Mrs. Norris, even though there is no evidence other than Harry's early arrival on the scene. Fortunately, the Hogwarts faculty dismiss Filch's unfounded accusations. However, later in the series, Harry will again find himself implicated in various incidents based on faulty evidence, or accusations that he is an attention-seeking liar, by an indifferent and complacent Ministry of Magic. This injustice later extends to other characters, who, betrayed or manipulated, are disbelieved and/or punished for crimes they never committed. Harry continually finds himself confronting a legal system that seems bent on obtaining image-enhancing results rather than uncovering inconvenient truths. He will also learn that individuals who wield power and wealth are usually considered more credible than their everyday counterparts, often enabling them to influence events to their advantage. Readers can also see that merely making an accusation can often bias others into accepting it as fact, as when students almost immediately begin forming opinions regarding Harry as the Heir of Slytherin.