The curious case of Dobby and house elves

An examination of slavery in Harry Potter's wizarding world

Photo: Warner Bros.

HOUSTON, TX, June 8, 2011 – After my recent re-read of the Harry Potter series I’m still confused on one subject: the house elves. How is the reader supposed to feel about them? Should readers be angry about a particular group enslaving elves for centuries? Should we pity them and their unyielding ignorance about their condition, or should we just accept the evles’ place in wizarding society?

Rowling is very clear on a lot of subjects. Her stance on love, friendship and acceptance practically screams from the pages. House elves, however, are another matter.

Dobby, the house elf, from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (Image: Warner Bros)

Dobby, the house elf, from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (Image: Warner Bros)

I can’t help but be forcefully reminded of African slaves and white society, which, at the time, justified enslaving an entire race with the claim that they were happier that way and that the back-breaking labor gave Africans pride and purpose. 

Generally, when house elves come into contact with different characters, they have no major feelings. Harry regards Dobby as a friend, Ron thinks nothing of their enslavement, and in most cases, folks simply look the other way. There are two characters who have strong feelings about the status of house elves: Hermione Granger and Sirius Black.

Hermione, who is muggle-born, feels outraged at the elves’ enslavement. She creates the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.), to make the wizarding world aware that house elves are forced throughout their lives to serve, unpaid and underappreciated.  Even though S.P.E.W. fails from lack of participation, it illustrates two points:

  • First, no one in the wizarding world really cares about house elves; nobody notices the elves’ existence until services usually taken for granted cease. 
  • Second, Harry’s warm bed and the castle, which is inhabited by hundreds of kids, is spotlessly clean. Also, the famous Great Hall feasts are all the work of unpaid workers.

Wikipedia defines slavery as “a system under which people are treated as property and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work or to demand compensation …” 

While this definition describes the fate of the majority of house elves, it is not true of the elves that work at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Professor Dumbledore offers Dobby payment for work performed, and offers the house elf, Winky, payment, although Winky is insulted at the gesture. We can only surmise that Dumbledore also offered every house elf at Hogwarts payment, but they declined because they consider payment an insult to both their people and their traditions.

Sirius Black, born into wizard wealth and status, represents the stance of the majority of wizards, though his case is complicated. Sirius views his family house elf, Kreacher, as an extension of the mother he hated and treats him as such, which ultimately leads to his downfall. When chastised by Hermione, he justifies his treatment of the elf by basically saying that house elves have a place, and their place is to serve others.

Sirius’ treatment of elves is a bit confusing, coming as it does from a man who so wisely says, “if you want the measure of a man, look at the way he treats his inferiors and not his equals”. If this adage is true, then Black is a pompous, arrogant, grudge-holding jerk.

It is this treatment of Kreacher that blinds Sirius to the power he holds in his own basement. His, for lack of better terms, racism and classism blind him to the fact that, while he is sitting around in Grimmauld Place feeling sorry for himself, misused by Dumbledore and shut out from the dealings of the Order of the Phoenix, he has a ready-made spy at his disposal. A creature that holds such ancient and powerful magic that he can tread where wizards can not – apparating in and out of the walls of Hogwarts and other powerfully enchanted strongholds. If only Sirius had wizened up to the part Kreacher could play and had done so before his cousin, he might have lived.

Maybe that is the lesson Rowling wants us to learn in all of this: that there are some types of people that you cannot change; that for whatever reason, these people are set in their ways and refuse to budge. These ways may frustrate the outside observer as they do not respond to pleas for action to change their current situation. But the trick is not to write these people off. Because what we see as stubbornness in one situation may be strength in another. Ignorance in one stance can be courage in battle.

For house elves, all of these characteristics are brought out in the end as they join in the Battle of Hogwarts. When all is thought lost, the house elves of Hogwarts lead the charge, running from the kitchens with whatever they could find to fight the impending evil that threatens to take over the castle. At the helm is Kreacher, the once-hated elf turned hero; all because a boy whose greatest gift is love showed him just a glimmer of it.

Read more from Jasmine Harrison at http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/peace-love-harry/ at the Washington Times Communities.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Jasmine Harrison

Jasmine is Houston-based writer with a bachelor's degree in print journalism and a minor in creative writing from the University of Houston. Jas mine got into Harry Potter one lonely day away at school when she switched on the television and came across a movie about an equally lonely boy living in a cupboard under the stairs. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Jasmine is the lead organizer of the Houston Harry Pot ter Meetup group. She’s been a member of the group for six years and has met lifelong friends through her involvement with it.  By day, she is a development assistant for the College of Technology at the University of Houston.

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