In April of 2006 J.K. Rowling was added to TIME Magazine 's list of the most influential people in the U.K. Rowling's successful and influential books are proud successors to masterpieces such as Alice in Wonderland and The Narnia Chronicles . All of these important books have touched on sensitive subjects, through the lens of an imaginary world. Wonderland and Narnia are both close enough and far enough away, and real and unreal enough, to be fruitful grounds for an indirect discussion of sensitive subjects, such as slavery and feminism. In this essay I will argue that enslaved house elves of the "Harry Potter" series should be seen as indirect and perhaps unintentional representations of unemancipated and unempowered women of the past, and those in oppressive societies today. Through her representation of house elves as akin to stereotypical oppressed women, J.K. Rowling projects an ambivalent attitude towards feminism. Thus, despite the fact that in many ways Rowling creates a world of impressively emancipated and empowered women (two of the founders of Hogwarts were witches, not wizards; Hogwarts has had many headmistresses, not only headmasters; Hermione Granger may be book smart, but she is also a member of Gryffindor House, the house of the brave; the sports coach is a woman, not a man; other examples abound), still, in the world she creates the nuclear family structure is intensely traditional and patriarchal, and the books, of course, focus on a hero, not heroine.
As is well-known, the Harry Potter books chronicle the life of Harry Potter, a child wizard who fights a malevolent and powerful wizard named Voldemort. Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, are enrolled at the "Hogwarts School Witchcraft and Wizardry." Each book in the series documents one school year spent at Hogwarts. In her books Rowling creates a mini-universe, or, to be exact, a mini-imaginary community, a community of people with magical abilities, as opposed to muggles--people like you and me, who don't have magical abilities. The social order that exists in this magical community mirrors Western capitalist society, and is thus a fertile ground for social criticism. Rowling's 'house elves' are an excellent example of that social criticism and, I will argue here, also serve to express Rowling's ambivalence towards feminism.
What are house elves? They are elves that serve a magical family or a magical institution such as Hogwarts (Chamber of Secrets , 11-14). Unlike the elves of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings , masterful beings of great beauty, warlike and poetic at the same time, Rowling's house elves are small in stature and purposefully described so as to appear amusing and harmless. These elves are enslaved for life, and unless they are set free, their descendants will carry on their tasks and their enslavement. The race has no apparent culture of its own and exists only to serve. Their usefulness makes them status symbols for the (usually very rich and very ancient) families to which they are attached, while their own deeply ingrained subservience guarantees their status as second-class citizens in the wizarding world. House elves are not allowed clothes and instead wear items like pillowcases and tea cozies. If their owner gives them an article of clothing, it breaks the "enslavement" and the house elf is freed. Stereotypically women are obsessed with clothing and so the use of clothing to free elves is significant. For most house elves receiving clothes would be the ultimate insult and they would be shamed forever because it means that they have failed in their work. House elves have magical abilities of their own. They can transport themselves over great distances. Dobby the house elf, for instance, bewitches Quidditch balls (a magical game played on flying brooms) and blocks the portal to the train platform 9-3/4.
Hogwarts has in its employ over a hundred house elves. They clean the castle, work in the kitchens, and tend to the fires burning in the offices and common-rooms. Unlike the poor treatment often meted out to other elves, Hogwarts house elves are treated fairly and with respect by their employer. They are presented as being genuinely happy about their situation. Like most house elves, they feel it is a matter of pride to serve well without complaint and to work hard.
House elves are an obvious allegory for subjugated populations everywhere, taken for granted by those whom they serve, and often taking their own subservient status for granted. Hermione Granger, so far as can be made out from reading the Harry Potter books, is the first person in the history of the wizarding world to be upset about this situation. Rowling's affectionate but not very respectful depiction of Hermione's campaign for house elf rights appears to reflect her own socially conservative stance. After all, Hermione names her organization S.P.E.W. (The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare), a name that causes her friends and the reader to snigger. Rowling can thus be read as poking fun at do-gooders who want to 'improve' the status of people who are content to be what they are; or, alternatively, as subtly criticizing a society which tolerates class oppression.
I leave that question to others; here I want to focus attention on another issue. House elves, I will try to show here, are an allegory of oppressed women as presented by Rowling, who, through them, expresses ambiguous ideas about feminism. House elves, small emotional beings with high-pitched voices, are treated very much like women used to be treated, and in some places are treated to this day:
House elves are uneducated creatures--much like uneducated women, women whose access to information has been blocked for much of history The best house elves are those who clean and cook and tend the fireplace--much like the "best' women through much of history. The best house elves are those who are unseen--not unlike good housewives who tend to the needs of their husbands but don't bother them. House elves do not have surnames because they are owned and do not have a history or culture of their own beyond that of their owner. This can be equated to the social norm that forces women to change their surname to that of their husbands, a norm that expresses the need of the patriarchal society to expunge the women's past and/or culture--now that they are married they must take upon themselves their husbands' past and culture.
Since house elves remind us so much of unemancipated women in chauvinist societies, it is no surprise that Hermione Granger, the central female protagonist in the 'Harry Potter' books, is bothered by the social injustices concerning the house elves, issues which do not bother Harry or his other best friend Ron. One would expect more social awareness from a sensitive and moral hero like Harry, who was oppressed for most of his life at the hands of the Dursleys (his legal guardians and aunt and uncle). Harry does save Dobby and treats the house elf with respect (he also makes it possible for the elf to get 'freeing' clothes) but Harry does not try to help the other house elves and basically mocks Hermione's interest in improving their lot. Once again, Rowling's ambivalence is evident. Hermione's response to the plight of house elves is, as I shall suggest, an unselfconscious response to greater feminist issues, or in other words a sublimation of problems with the way she is treated because she is a girl. Rowling, who never takes gender issues head on, consciously or sub-consciously chose to deal with a similar and comparable subject, in other words, house elves. It appears to me that Rowling herself is deeply ambivalent about feminism.
In order to make this point clearer it will be useful to review some of the major relevant stages of feminist thought over the last hundred years, tying those discussions to the plight of house elves. But first I would like to point out that there are male and female house elves, but they do not seem to have any sexual lives. The house elves' lack of sexuality is comparable to the chastity imposed on women by men. One must remember that the subject of sex is marginal in the 'Harry Potter' books until Order of the Phoenix (book five)--and even there it is treated naively. Most of the discussion on the subject of house elves is in Goblet of Fire (book four).
Liberal Feminism: The main problem facing women according to the liberal feminist school of thought is that the public sphere is entirely dominated by men; women are mostly excluded from the public sphere and forced to remain at home, with all that implies. This subjection of women is a political act. Liberal feminism does not recognize an essential or fundamental difference between men and women and does not emphasize the physiological differences between the sexes: men and women according to this school of thought are vessels of intelligence. Liberal feminism's 'plan of action' was to allow women into the public sphere by enabling women to gain equal education, and through legislation and public awareness (Tong, 11-38). House elves, as their name suggests, are largely restricted to houses. House elves are forced into the private sphere, having no public voice whatsoever. Making the point with excruciating clarity, at Hogwarts they are basically confined to the kitchen, leaving it only at night to clean up after the students. They are not seen as vessels of intelligenee at all, and that is why when Dobby, the Malfoy house elf, slips away to warn Harry in Chamber of Secrets of the Malfoys' sinister plans, the same Malfoys do not suspect the house elf because they do not for a moment think that he is capable of such actions. Note that Hermione tries to improve house elf rights though legislative action designed to allow house elves to enjoy vacations and pension plans. She also attempts to increase public awareness by founding S.P.E.W.
Marxist Feminism: Like the Marxist movement as a whole, those who belong to this school of thought see women as one more kind of proletariat; women, like workers, are an exploited class when it comes to housework. According to Marxist Feminism, women who are restricted to doing house-work are a political underclass. In other words, the ruling male class controls the means of production, they are the exploiting class, they build the spiritual, legal, cultural and ideological superstructures of society. Women are an oppressed class; they are a cheap and exploited class that creates surplus value for others, but not for themselves. One aspect of the Marxist Feminist plan of action is to treat house work as real work, which means that these thinkers think that women should get paid for house work. (Tong, 39-71 and 173-94). House elves, even if they don't know it, are very much a proletariat. House elves do not get paid for their work, very much like human housewives. When Dumbledore admits that house elves are horribly treated, and uses the term "our fellow" house elves, he admits that essentially house elves and wizards and witches are equal, and should have equal rights. The implication of this is that the house elves who work at Hogwarts should be treated as employees, not as indentured servants. Dumbledore does offer Dobby a salary (and Rowling, unfortunately, undercuts the possible feminist-egalitarian message of that act by turning it into a joke-- Goblet of Fire , 377-79), but, so far as the reader knows, makes no further effort to ameliorate the plight of the other house elves at Hogwarts.
Multi-Cultural Feminism: Feminist thought for years ignored the many differences between women of different ages, classes, cultures and religions, each of which can suffer a different form of oppression. This is one of the foci of MultiCultural Feminism. This movement also stresses the fact that women can oppress other women. In order to overcome these problems Multi-Cultural Feminists seek to create ad-hoc coalitions among oppressed women of various ages, classes, cultures, and religions and to work for raised feminist consciousness in each venue. This perspective allows us to see that the magical community, as described in the Harry Potter books, is largely composed of white, middle-class, western men and women. Against this background house elves can be stand out as an oppressed class, very much like women in traditional (and not so traditional!) societies. Indeed, they may be seen as doubly-oppressed, since women in the magical community suffer from many of the same sorts of oppression suffered by their Muggle sisters; these women, in turn, seem to have no compunctions about abusing and exploiting house elves.
We may now turn to a detailed examination of the way in which house elves are depicted in the Harry Potter books.
House elves 101
We first meet Dobby in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets . He is a house elf who belongs to the Malfoy family. The Malfoys are a family of evil wizards and witches, followers of Lord Voldemort, the arch-villain of the "Harry Potter" books. Lucius Malfoy, the head of the family, conspires to harm Harry. The house elf, a great admirer of Harry's (from afar), is deeply torn between his desire to protect Harry and his duty to the family to which he has been indentured. He seeks for ways to alert Harry to the dangers facing him without betraying the Malfoys. In the books Dobby is the only house elf to undermine his owners, to think for himself. (True, in Order of the Phoenix Kreacher the house elf disobeys his apparent owner, Sirius Black, but he does so only because he feels his true owner's wishes are expressed by a talking portrait of Sirius's mother.) This means that house elves are capable of free thought, even if they rarely exercise it. In that sense, among others, they are like oppressed women everywhere, who can clearly think for themselves, but are discouraged, to put it mildly, from doing so.
Dobby arrives at Privet Drive, where Harry lives during the summers with his awful Muggle relatives, the Dursley's, and sneaks into Harry's room. In this scene Rowling introduces Dobby the house elf, setting a base line of sorts for the species:
Harry crossed to his bedroom on tiptoe, slipped inside, closed the door, and turned to collapse on his bed. The trouble was, there was already someone sitting on it.... The little creature on the bed had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls.... The creature slipped off the bed and bowed so low that the end of its long, thin nose touched the carpet. Harry noticed that it was wearing hat looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for arm- and leg-holes. (Chamber of Secrets , 11-12)
Rowling not only provides us with a physical base line, but a social and emotional one to. In response to Harry's understandable query about his unexpected and unidentified guest Dobby replies:
"Dobby, sir. just Dobby. Dobby the house-elf," said the creature.... "Oh, yes, sir," said Dobby earnestly. "Dobby has come to tell you, sir ... it is difficult, sir ... Dobby wonders where to begin...." "Sit down," said Harry politely, pointing at the bed. To his horror, the elf burst into tears--very noisy tears. "S-sit down!" he wailed. "Never ... never ever...." "I'm sorry," he whispered, "I didn't mean to offend you or anything--" "Offend Dobby!" choked the elf. "Dobby has never been asked to sit down by a wizard--like an equal...." "You can't have met many decent wizards," said Harry, trying to cheer him up. Dobby shook his head. Then, without warning, he leapt up and started banging his head furiously on the window, shouting, "Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!" "Don't--what are you doing?" Harry hissed, springing up and pulling Dobby back onto the bed.... "Dobby had to punish himself, sir," said the elf, who had gone slightly cross-eyed. "Dobby almost spoke ill of his family, sir...." (Chamber of Secrets , 13-14)
Dobby knows that the Malfoys are conspiring against Harry and he tries to stop Harry from getting to Hogwarts, where he will be in danger. Harry manages to arrive despite Dobby's best efforts and when there Dobby tries to take Harry out of the game (literally: he bewitches a ball in the Quidditch game, a ball that knocks Harry off his broom) so that Harry will have to go home to the Dursley's, where Dobby supposes that he will be safe from the conspiring Malfoys. At the end of the book Harry, who of course survives the conspiracy, helps set Dobby free from the Malfoys by tricking Lucius Malfoy into giving Dobby one of Harry's smelly socks, thus freeing the house elf. It should be noted that the Malfoys never entertain the idea that Dobby might be capable of undermining their plans--he is so small and doll-like and so obedient, so much like the classic un-liberated woman. They cannot conceive that he has the will-power to obstruct them. In addition, Dobby behaves very much like a battered woman, so convinced that he deserves to be punished, that he deserves to be beaten, that he beats himself. Bowling stretches the phenomenon here to the grotesque.
But Bowling also provides us with a beam of light: Dobby is capable of free thought and action. The house elf influences the public sphere: he influences the great and famous Harry Potter's fate. In return for Dobby's clumsy, awkward, and indeed grotesque help, Harry helps free Dobby. The house elf is awkward because he is uneducated (as we can see by his poor English). Dobby refers to himself in the third person, almost as if he were an object--in other words he objectifies himself. Like many uneducated women Dobby does not have the tools to overcome his oppressor by himself. The house elf is a relatively revolutionary house elf, but he is still held captive by the state of mind that created his slavery in the first place. Dobby must punish himself because he is betraying his owners and the question must be asked: does he have to punish himself because he is bound by a magical spell to do so or because he confuses social norms with the demands of morality? Many women in patriarchal societies also think that their subjugated condition is a moral requirement and not just a societal norm.
Fear of Heights and One Female House Elf
Winky the house elf suffers from a common phobia, fear of heights (symbolically, it may be said that Winky is afraid to reach too high). It should be noted that a female elf is the one afflicted with this phobia. Winky is therefore a female's female; even for an effeminate race she is easily scared. Winky, unlike Dobby, the male house elf, cannot, or more exactly, does not think for herself. In the following passage we meet an example of the submissive female elf, one who is convinced of the righteousness of a chauvinist social order:
"Ah, sir," said Winky, shaking her head, "ah sir, meaning no disrespect, sir, but I is not sure you did Dobby a favor, sir, when you is setting him free." "Why?" said Harry, taken aback. "What's wrong with him?" "Freedom is going to Dobby's head, sir," said Winley sadly. "Ideas above his station, sir. Can't get another position, sir." "Why not?" said Harry. Winky lowered her voice by a half-octave and whispered, "He is wanting paying for his work, sir." "Paying?" said Harry blankly. "Well--why shouldn't he be paid?" Winky looked quite horrified at the idea and closed her fingers slightly so that her face was half-hidden again. "House-elves is not paid, sir!" she said in a muffled squeak. "No, no, no. I says to Dobby, I says, go find yourself a nice family and settle down, Dobby. He is getting up to all sorts of high jinks, sir, what is unbecoming to a house-elf...." (Goblet of Fire , 98)
Much like other oppressed individuals in a patriarchal society, Winky equates social norms with moral law. It is not only that Dobby's actions are unusual in her eyes, they are really immoral. Later on in Goblet of Fire Winky flees a group of bad wizards, but even for a scared elf she acts oddly, as Hermione notices. Harry replies:
"Bet she didn't ask permission to hide," said Harry. He was thinking of Dobby: Every time he had tried to do something the Malfoys wouldn't like, the house-elf had been forced to start beating himself up. "You know, House-elves get a very raw deal!" said Hermione indignantly. "It's slavery, that's what it is! That Mr. Crouch made her go up to the top of the stadium, and she was terrified, and he's got her bewitched so she can't even run when they start trampling tents! Why doesn't anyone do something about it?" "Well, the elves are happy, aren't they?" Ron said. "You heard old Winky back at the match: 'House-elves is not supposed to have fun' ... that's what she likes, being bossed around...." "It's people like you, Ron," Hermione began hotly, "who prop up rotten and unjust systems, just because they're too lazy to--...." (Goblet of Fire , 124-25)
Mr. Crouch finds out that Winky has shamed him; in order to cover up the shame he sets her free, shaming her in the process. But Winky's actions, as we find out later, are not her own, she was simply following orders. Like a bride in a patriarchal society, she was compelled to honor and obey her master.
Hermione the House Elf Suffragette
Hermione finds out that house elves, slaves in her eyes (and she is right), are 'employed' or enslaved at Hogwarts. Indeed there are more house elves in Hogwarts than in any other wizarding dwelling in Britain, even though they are never seen:
"I've never seen one!" said Hermione. "Well, they hardly ever leave the kitchen by day, do they?" said Nearly Headless Nick. "They come out at night to do a bit of cleaning ... see to the fires and so on.... I mean, you're not supposed to see them, are you? That's the mark of a good house-elf, isn't it, that you don't know it's there?'" Hermione stared at him. "But they get paid?" she said. "They get holidays, don't they? And--and sick leave, and pensions, and everything?" Nearly Headless Nick chortled so much that his ruff slipped and his head flopped off, dangling on the inch or so of ghostly skin and muscle that still attached it to his neck. "Sick leave and pensions?" he said, pushing his head back onto his shoulders and securing it once more with his ruff. "House-elves don't want sick leave and pensions!" Hermione looked down at her hardly touched plate of food, then put her knife and fork down upon it and pushed it away from her.... "Slave labor," said Hermione, breathing hard through her nose. "That's what made this dinner. Slave labor." And she refused to eat another bite. (Goblet of Fire , 182)
Such optimistic idealism is typical of teenagers, and is certainly not surprising given what we know about the brave, smart, and responsible Hermione. Most of the time these idealistic causes taken up by teenagers are not as important or as realistic as the teenager thinks. Hermione's behavior is as an allegorical smoke-screen for gender issues. Within the narrative, Hermione at this stage of her life is having a hard time expressing the difficulties that come with being female in the modern world and expresses her frustration through her advocacy of the house elf cause. Rowling's ambivalence comes through clearly here. Hermione takes the house elf cause seriously, but Rowling does not take Hermione seriously.
Hermione is still Hermione and she deals with her dilemmas in a typical fashion: she goes to the library to research the house elf issue. Afterwards Hermione makes an awkward attempt to raise public awareness:
"What's in the box?" he asked, pointing at it. "Funny you should ask," said Hermione, with a nasty look at Ron. She took off the lid and showed them the contents. Inside were about fifty badges, all of different colors, but all bearing the same letters: S. P. E .W. "Spew?" said Harry, picking up a badge and looking at it. "What's this about?" "Not spew," said Hermione impatiently. "It's S-P-E-W. Stands for the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare." (Goblet of Fire , 224)
Hermione 'recruits' Ron and Harry to her society, ignoring Ron's protests, his claims that house elves like to work. Hermione's actions might be perceived as the awkward actions of a teenager, the perception of her actions can be seen as an allegory for men who roll their eyes at issues that are important to women. Harry and Ron's responses may be compared to the responses of the husbands of the first feminists. These women dared to differentiate between social norms and moral law, and their husbands did either did not take them seriously or found their actions threatening; Rowling clearly does not take Hermione seriously here.
Winky, a Woman's Woman
Winky is a slave to what is socially acceptable in the magical community. She is convinced that house elves should be enslaved by witches and wizards, and cannot handle the freedom that was thrust upon her. She deals, or better, doesn't deal with the situation by crawling into a butter-bear bottle (a wizarding drink that is alcoholic for house elves):
Winky was sitting on a stool by the fire. Unlike Dobby, she had obviously not foraged for clothes. She was wearing a neat little skirt and blouse with a matching blue hat, which had holes in it for her large ears. However, while every one of Dobby's strange collection of garments was so clean and well cared for that it looked brand-new, Winky was plainly not taking care other clothes at all. There were soup stains all down her blouse and a burn in her skirt. "Hello, Winky," said Harry. Winky's lip quivered. Then she burst into tears, which spilled out of her great brown eyes and splashed down her front, just as they had done at the Quidditch World Cup. "Oh dear," said Hermione. She and Ron had followed Harry and Dobby to the end of the kitchen. "Winky, don't cry, please don't...." (Goblet of Fire , 376-77)
Asking for pay and decent working conditions, according to these house elves, is an immoral act. It may be said, in comparison to gender issues, that there is nothing wrong with being a housewife as long as you have a choice in the matter. A woman, who is a housewife because she has no other choice or because she has been convinced that this is the right thing to do socially or morally, is an oppressed woman.
Notice that Hermione is not disgusted by Winky's disheveled appearance and does not ignore the poor house elf as others do, because on some level Hermione understands Winky. Hermione does not live in an oppressive society but she does not live in a society that is a paradise of gender equality either. On the other hand, Rowling depicts Hermione as a sensitive and motherly figure; this is a capitulation to male chauvinist stereotypes.
The Dumbledore-Rowling Stance
Rowling, through Dumbledore, reinforces Hermione's position on house elf affairs. In most "Harry Potter" books Dumbledore expresses the main moral of the story in the last pages of the book. Harry Potter has many substitute parents, people who play different roles in Harry's life. Dumbledore is a Rabbi/Minister to Harry (without the social connotations) or therapist (without the proper diploma), but mainly a source of intellectual and moral support. Through these conversations the readers learn indirectly and directly about different approaches to the subject of death, about moral choices that say a lot about the chooser, and about consequences as a whole, ones we cannot always foresee. In this speech Dumbledore teaches Harry how to deal with strong emotions and hard questions:
"And," whispered Harry, his hands curled in cold fists on his knees, "and Hermione kept telling us to be nice to him--" "She was quite right, Harry," said Dumbledore.... "Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards, Harry," said Dumbledore. "Yes, he is to be pitied. His existence has been as miserable as your friend Dobby's. He was forced to do Sirius's bidding, because Sirius was the last of the family to which he was enslaved, but he felt no true loyalty to him. And whatever Kreacher's faults, it must be admitted that Sirius did nothing to make Kreacher's lot easier...." "Sirius did not hate Kreacher," said Dumbledore. "He regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike ... the fountain we destroyed tonight told a lie. We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward." (Order of the Phoenix , 832-34)
From what Rowling says here through Dumbledore, we learn a lot about her approach to the question of house elves and thus, as I have been at pains to show here, of her approach to issues of gender equality. According to Bowling-Dumbledore the way women are treated is not acceptable, and Hermione is right. But from this point on the voice of Bowling-Dumbledore exposes its weakness on feminist issues. Bowling is still bound by some chauvinist (mis)conceptions. According to Bowling female house elves are what they are bred and raised to be. Ergo, women and house elves are a product of what one does with and to them; they are like putty in male hands. Seemingly Dumbledore is voicing an applaudable feminist view of things, i.e. women and house elves are an oppressed class, sexually and in the workplace. The patriarchal society is promoting and prolonging a lie that things are OK even when women's bodies are cheapened by the media (what does a model's body have to do with a car?). Cheapening women's bodies leads to sexual abuse of women in the worst case and poorer working conditions compared to men in the lesser case. Rowling's problem comes from the fact that she is still held captive by Aristotelian ideas--women and house elves are putty to be shaped by stronger members of society, witches and wizards or Men. Aristotle writes in On the Generation of Animals 1.20 (729a5): "what the male contributes to generation is the form and efficient cause, the female contributes the material [cause]" (Horowitz). Women do not control their fate and their outcome; they are in effect inferior to men, because men can shape them.
The analysis offered here is supported in the last volume in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . Do house elves gain rights they did not enjoy before or shed the shackles of degradation, abuse, and stereotyping associated with women from oppressive societies? No. Kreacher and Dobby do exhibit hitherto unknown abilities and freedoms but their basic status and nature have not changed. Kreacher still serves Harry, and lives in a cupboard akin to Harry's closet in the Dursley's house in the first volume of the series (Deathly Hallows, 190). Kreacher's right of free speech is still censored by his master Harry, in the same way his very right to live or die was controlled by Regulus Black (Deathly Hallows , 191). We do learn through Kreacher that self-abuse in house elves is not only a perverse form of self-education but also a projection of the abuse they routinely suffer (Kreacher's response to kindness in Deathly Hallows , 198) much in the way that women in abusive relationships starve or cut themselves because they can't bring themselves to be angry at their oppressors. We also learn how a simple act of kindness can heal. On the other hand, we can deduce a few comparatively positive steps on the path of empowerment; it seems that Kreacher can read since he has stolen among other things a book (Deathly Hallows , 190). We also learn that the house elves are capable of self sacrifice, of valor in the fight for causes they believe in (Kreacher and the Hogwarts elves are loyal to their masters; and Dobby, who is loyal to death to the wizard who freed him).
House Elves and Women--the Allegory
House elves in the wizarding world created by J.K. Rowling are an allegory for subjugated and oppressed women. It should be noted that it does not seem that female or male house elves are treated any differently by the wizarding world; they are treated differently by Rowling herself who attaches fears to the female elf Winky. Hermione's campaign to empower the elves is very much a subconscious attempt on Rowling's part to deal with a wider spectrum of social injustices, among them, male chauvinism.
In this essay I have suggested that enslaved house elves of the "Harry Potter" series ought to be seen as indirect and perhaps unintentional representations of unemancipated and unempowered women, women of the past and women from present-day oppressive societies. Through her representation of house elves J.K. Rowling projects an ambivalent attitude towards feminism. Rowling's house elves are an excellent example of that social criticism and, as I have argued here, also serve to express Rowling's ambivalence towards feminism. House elves are an obvious allegory for subjugated populations in general. House elves are also an allegory for women. Why women? Because they are uneducated creatures, like many women were; the best house elves are those who are unseen (and have no room of their own); house elves do not have surnames because they are owned (even in empowering societies today, women more often than not adopt their husband's surnames) and do not have history of their own (so far as Rowling has told us) beyond that of their owners. Just as in our world, history is his-story and not her-story, house elves have no elve-story.
Since house elves remind us so much of unemancipated women in chauvinist societies, it is no surprise that Hermione Granger, the central female protagonist in the 'Harry Potter' books, is bothered by the social injustices concerning the house elves. Hermione Granger may be the first person in the history of the wizarding world to be upset by this situation, but her distress is not taken seriously by her friends or by Rowling's narrative . Hermione's response to the plight of house elves is an unselfconscious response to greater feminist issues, a sublimation of problems with the way she is treated because she is a girl. But it is Rowling's mocking account of Hermione's concerns which is crucial here. This mocking account is an expression of Rowling's own ambivalence towards feminism.
I compared the plight of house elves to that illustrated by liberal feminists. House elves are forced into the private sphere, having no public voice whatsoever. I also compared the plight of house elves to that illustrated by Marxist feminists: house elves, like many women, even if they don't know it, are very much a proletariat. I then compared the plight of house elves to that illustrated by multi-cultural feminists: house elves, like many women, may be seen as doubly-oppressed (oppressed by women who are in turn oppressed by men), since women in the magical community suffer from many of the same sorts of oppression suffered by their Muggle sisters; these women, in turn, seem to have no compunctions about abusing and exploiting house elves.
Dobby is the only house elf to undermine his owners, to think for himself. This means that house elves are capable of free thought, even if they rarely exercise it. In that sense, among others, they are like oppressed women in too many societies, who can clearly think for themselves, but are discouraged from doing so. The Malfoys never entertain the idea that Dobby might be capable of undermining their plans; they cannot conceive that he has the will-power to obstruct them. Dobby, in turn, behaves very much like a battered woman, so convinced that he deserves to be punished, that he deserves to be beaten, that he beats himself.
Rowling, through Dumbledore, reinforces Hermione's position on house elf affairs. According to Rowling-Dumbledore the way house elf-women are treated is not acceptable, and Hermione is right. But according to Rowling house elves are what they are bred and raised to be. Ergo, women and house elves are a product of what one does with and to them; they are like putty in male hands. Rowling's problem comes from the fact that she is still held captive by Aristotelian ideas; women and house elves are putty to be shaped by stronger members of society, witches and wizards or men.
Despite Rowling's ambivalence towards issues of feminism as illustrated here, she has still done a great service to the feminist cause. How is ambivalence a service to the feminist cause? Instead of serving us a fast-food like conclusion, she has forced the readers to think about the subject, to explore the subject in the company of three kinds of children, three kinds of reactions--Ron, who thinks the whole issue is moot, Harry, who has more important things to worry about, and Hermione, who decides to attack the subject head-on. Like all classics the seed planted in the reader's mind is what sustains the work for years.
Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle . Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Horowitz, Maryanne. "'Aristotle and Women." Journal for the History of Biology , 9 (1976), 183-213.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone . New York: Scholastic, 1997.
--. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets . New York: Scholastic, 1999.
--. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban . London: Scholastic, 1999.
--. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire . New York: Scholastic, 2000.
--. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix . New York: Scholastic, 2003.
--. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince . New York: Scholastic, 2005.
--. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . New York: Scholastic, 2007.
Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction . London: Unwin, 1989.