Happy Birthday Hermione Granger!

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.

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6 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Hermione Granger!

  1. This is a fascinating post!

    I imagine if house elves were free their own inherent magic would have room to grow and they wouldn’t need or maybe even want wands.

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    • I was thinking about that as well. At first, it seemed possible that the only reason house elves were able to do things like apparate in Hogwarts was because their master’s had ordered them to, in which case when freed they would lose all their magical abilities. Dobby, however, proves that false. Even as a free elf, he is able to apparate into the basement of Malfoy Manor and save Harry. Perhaps that’s why wizards kept house-elves oppressed, because they were scared of how powerful their magic could be.

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  2. The house elf situation makes me uncomfortable, but SPEW makes me uncomfortable as well. I think it’s the execution, how Hermione doesn’t take their own wishes into account. It’s sick, but house elves consider it an honor to have a position, and robbing them of this without their knowledge is not the right way to go about it. I think SPEW should be more focused on freeing the house elves that are in abusive situations, because the ones at Hogwarts are being treated as fairly as they can be given their situation.

    Perhaps the fact that Harry grew up with the Durselys is why he isn’t as upset by the house elf situation. It’s an awful thing to think, but maybe some of the Durselys’ attitudes rubbed off on him?

    I think house elves should have the right to wands, but would wands be useful to them, seeing as they can do magic anyway?

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    • Yeah, I think that when the house elves are freed they should be allowed to stay with their masters if they like them, but also given the choice to find new masters. I don’t imagine that freeing the house elves would mean that they would no longer be working in wizarding homes, just that they would be paid and have choices in who they worked for.

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  3. This is a very thoughtful post. As you say, pre Civil War era, the argument that slaves were not capable of being free because they had the capacities of children was commonly used to justify the practice of slavery. People believed that African Americans needed to be dominated, it was the natural order of the world. Most people who have been enslaved throughout history have adopted helpless attitudes. They are conditioned from birth to behave forever as children – uneducated, obedient, and submissive. If they act otherwise then they will suffer beatings and perhaps death. Under these circumstances it is true that slaves in America were not able to act as independent adults in society. It is similar to people who don’t leave abusive situations immediately and to criminals released from prison who are overwhelmed by the world because they were ‘institutionalized’.

    For these reasons I believe that if house elves were truly equal to wizards then the social construct of the wizarding world would be unrecognizable because there has never been a significant group of house elves who identify themselves by something other than their slavery and we don’t know how they would behave. They may be similar to wizards; requiring wands and attending Hogwarts, but I think it is unlikely. I think their role would be particular to themselves much like the goblins who work at Gringotts. They are grouped apart from wizards for they live in the “wizarding world” but it means only the world which includes magic. They do not have ‘wizard’ magic but their own type and house-elves would be the same.

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    • I agree, I think that house-elves are a different species than wizards, and would probably stay in their specialized jobs, but with more benefits and freedom. Just like goblins, centaurs, and merpeople, they have their own specific abilities, powers, and talents, and that much probably won’t change.

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