Note: This is a much older work from when I was an undergraduate. Thus, it’s not perfect or anywhere near as polished as some of my more recent work. However, I really like some of the ideas underneath, and might revisit them.
Within the halls of Hogwarts, something sinister lurks. Centuries old, it is a wicked power that has been present in the world since the first civilization. It is not a basilisk or Lord Voldemort. It is the slavery of sentient, intelligent beings. House-elves, within the Harry Potter novels, are intelligent and capable creatures. They display emotions, and have magical powers equal to that of wizards. They are capable of relating to their fellow house elves, and wizards, on personal and intellectual levels. House elves can be alcoholic, neurotic, obsessive, self-sacrificing, noble; they have the same pitfalls and virtues as human beings.
So, why are the house-elves not free, if they function in the same manner as humans? What is J.K. Rowling claiming by creating a race of sentient beings who have been enslaved for centuries?
The claim is somewhat troublesome. It seems that Rowling’s claim is that slavery is necessary for society to work. However, Rowling’s apparent claims are very evident when looking at the journey of one house elf: Dobby.
Dobby initially appears in Chamber of Secrets. He is filled with good intentions, attempting to protect Harry (against his will) from his master’s dangerous plot to unleash Lord Voldemort and a basilisk upon the school. However, Dobby is acting against his master’s wishes and this forces him to inform Harry through riddles, between being forced by his life of brainwashing to cause himself serious bodily harm. At the end of Chamber of Secrets, it is Dobby, not Harry who bests Lucius Malfoy without the use of a wand. Dobby is liberated at the end of the novel, but really only as a reward for having proven himself to Harry.
The moral implications here are severe. The history of elf abuse is so strong that Dobby administers his own punishment. He beats himself over the head with a lamp, irons his hands, and shuts his ears in the oven. Harry is alarmed by Dobby’s behavior, but Dobby says, “‘… Dobby is always having to punish himself for something, sir…. Sometimes they reminds me to do extra punishments…” (Chamber of Secrets, 14). Punishment of disobedient slaves is a common theme in slave narratives, and more than likely the ingraining of self-punishment within the house-elves comes from centuries of abuse.
We do not see Dobby again until the fourth book, Goblet of Fire. In this book, Dobby is working in the kitchens of Hogwarts. He has acquired wages and time off, and his liberation has given him the power to express himself through his clothing. While Hermione launches into a campaign for abolition of house elf slavery, it becomes evident that she and Dobby are anomalies in their world. Most house-elves do not want liberation, and most wizards are not willing to give it to them. It is an old institution, upon which the wizarding society rests.
Deathly Hallows brings the end of Dobby’s journey. On their hunt for the Horcruxes, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are captured, and brought to Malfoy Manor. Dobby arrives to save the day. However, in the ensuing battle, Dobby is fatally stabbed by Bellatrix Lestrange.
These events are very alarming. Dobby, upon returning to the house of his enslavement, suffers a violent and painful end at the hand of the sister of his former mistress. He is buried, but the inscription upon his grave is fading within weeks. The implication is that slavery is inescapable, and an attempt to leave brings about death and anonymity. Only Harry and his friends know Dobby’s story.
Why must Dobby die?
Because he has violated the laws of wizarding society. By being a liberated slave, he has upset the balance, and he has nowhere to belong.
Who then, will speak against this injustice?
A teenage girl. Hermione Granger has a serious problem with the enslavement of the house-elves. She rallies around their cause, even as they refuse to help themselves. Upon witnessing the mistreatment of Winky by Barty Crouch, Hermione is mortified. “’You know, house-elves get a very raw deal!… It’s slavery, that’s what it is!… Why doesn’t somebody do something about it?” (Goblet of Fire, 125). However, Hermione stands alone. Almost everyone else, including Harry, sees Hermione’s attempts at freeing the house-elves to be “misguided idealism” (Lyubansky, 244). Nonetheless, there are several considerations to be made. It is entirely possible that after centuries of enslavement, house-elves would internalize the belief system of their oppressors. “… It is possible to imagine that the much more severe oppression of enslavement could, after several centuries, produce the unwillingness to make free choices that the house-elves espouse… the house-elves’ preference for enslavement is a product of oppression rather than an exercise of free will” (Lyubansky, 244). This means that Hermione is correct in her pursuit of house-elf liberation, although she does seem to underestimate the difficulty of such an action.
So, what is Rowling trying to tell us about slavery? Is she trying to claim that slavery is a necessary facet of society? Surely, a series of novels that seems to rest upon exposing the wrongs of racial discrimination would not make such a claim. This is cause for a look at the overall purpose of Harry Potter.
The books serve as a satire in several aspects. The wizarding world, while separate from the Muggle world, is a reflection. Politicians are not infallible, the media is not always to be trusted, and slavery still exists, despite abolition having occurred over a century ago in Britain and the United States.
When observing the books through the eye of satire, the purpose becomes clear. Slavery in the wizarding world is ludicrous. Why would a society that possesses the capability to transform into animals, to travel instantly and invisibly, and change a teapot into a turtle need slavery? The answer is that they do not, and neither does Muggle society. The charge is for us to reexamine our lives and society, and move to remove slavery. It is unnecessary, especially in this day and age.
The charge of ridding the wizarding and Muggle worlds of the chains of slavery is not easy, and would take serious societal change. As Hermione quickly realized, boycotts are not the way to bring about abolition. Rather, active political action is needed. Hermione’s goals upon forming SPEW are actually very relevant. “‘Our short-term aims… are to secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions. Our long-term aims include changing the law about non-wand use, and trying to get an elf into the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, because they’re shockingly underrepresented” (Goblet of Fire, 224-225). Hermione then does what many actual anti-slavery workers do- she goes into the kitchens to talk to the house-elves. As Hermione matures, it is very likely she could enact the change that is needed within the wizarding world. It will not be easy, as house-elves are the primary workforce behind Hogwarts, and in the homes of the wizarding elite. It will take education and patience to eventually convince the house-elves that they do have a right to free will and autonomy, just as it will take education and patience to liberate the house-elves.