In honor of Hermione’s birthday, I am analyzing the organization that she founded, S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare).
The main argument wizards give against S.P.E.W is that the house-elves enjoy the work that they are doing. Hagrid says that freeing house-elves would
“be doing them an unkindness, Hermione. It’s in their nature to look after humans, that’s what they like, see? Yeh’d be makin’ ‘em unhappy ter take away their work, ‘an insultin; ‘em if yeh tried ter pay ‘em” (The Goblet of Fire, GOF).
Ron puts this statement in much blunter terms saying, “Open your ears, Hermione! They. Like. It. They like being enslaved” (The Unforgivable Curses, GOF). In fact, as readers we are bombarded on all sides by evidence and statements that house-elves are happier being enslaved. When we visit the house-elves in the kitchen we see them so happy to serve, so horrified by the idea of freedom, that it does in fact seem cruel to force it upon them. And besides, if Harry, our champion of justice and equality, does not seem perturbed by the house-elves conditions, then why should we?
The first step of debunking this notion is to place it in historical context of human societies. Whether or not house elves are happier in this condition, there can be no doubt that it is a form of slavery. Looking at the arguments that had been used to justify slavery in America and Europe, they are actually very similar to those used to oppress house-elves. Southern plantation owners claimed that black slaves were happy being enslaved, that they enjoyed the work, and that freedom would be too much responsibility for them to handle. They also described slaves, especially house slaves (think house-elves) as having an extreme sense of loyalty to their masters, being unwilling to leave them even in the event of freedom, and being the sole confidant in all matters of the home. In fact, the most famous Southern novel, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, depicts a character, Mammy, who is shown as simplistic but loyal, willingly staying with the family even after other slaves had been freed. I see Winky as an example of the Mammy archetype, with her devastation at being taken away from Mr. Crouch and her extreme loyalty to his family. There are thousands of modern people who read novels such as Gone With the Wind, but they do not take these racist views at face value. Modern readers know that slaves were not happy, loyal, or simple. They simply read the book as an example of how people thought in that specific place at that period of time. The same could be true with Harry Potter. We are reading a wizarding novel, through the perspective of a wizard, looking at a social construction which is completely normal for wizards. The books show the house-elves exclusively from the wizarding point of view. It is only Hermione, who comes from a muggle family, who can see the true injustice of this system. Harry, however, also comes from a muggle family. Why didn’t JK Rowling make him the champion of S.P.E.W? In making it Hermione, not Harry, who is able to recognize this cruelty, JK Rowling is putting us into a uniquely uncomfortable position as a reader. She is forcing us to view a flawed world through the eyes of a narrator we trust, yet not be blinded by his acceptance of this society. Therefore, we are led not only to see Harry as an imperfect person, but also to understand the flip side: that imperfect people who participate in unjust systems are not inherently cruel and unfeeling. Harry has to deal with this realization after Sirius dies when, tellingly enough, Dumbledore discusses how Sirius’ unkindness towards Kreacher was ultimately a factor in his death. He says that “Sirius was not a cruel man,” but he never “saw Kreacher as a being with feelings as acute as humans” (The Lost Prophecy, OOTP). Harry is forced to decide whether he believes Dumbledore, thereby tarnishing his memory of Sirius, or if he will fall into the same prejudiced trap as his godfather. In making amends to Kreacher in the beginning of Deathly Hallows, Harry aligns himself once and for all on the side of the house-elves. Ron’s realization comes later, during the Battle of Hogwarts, when he says “We can’t order [the house-elves] to die for us!” It is Ron’s final change from his wizarding bigotry that allows him and Hermione to finally get together.
Although both Ron and Harry start to change their beliefs about house elves at the end of the series, we are given no evidence of any major shifts in wizarding policy towards them. How do you think house-elf laws should change? How should Hermione go about changing them? Should they be allowed to carry wands, like wizards? How would wizarding society be affected if they were free? I think that this is a fascinating subject that I could easily write much more about, but for now I would like to hear your thoughts on anything you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting. Let me know if there are any issues left unresolved, and I will happily do another blog post on this topic.