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When I first read about house-elves in The Chamber of Secrets, I thought they were introduced as a very clear ethical artifact to teach children reading the story about slavery and forced work. The references and similarities with racism introduced by muggle born and "mudbloods" would then be extended to cover other ethical concerns.

However, during Goblet of Fire and further down the series the house-elves are depicted as actually wanting to serve and, with the exception Dobby, being unhappy when not allowed to do so. To me that basically counteracted the main ethical message to the children.

So my question is: Was there a point for introducing the house-elves into the story, or were they just a plot device to get the plot moving in the right direction?

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The Hogwarts ones are happy because Dumbledore is great and a foreword thinker. The others are miserable. It also raises Game of Thrones type questions like "Is slavery ok if your slave is happy?" – ThruGog Mar 8 at 18:21
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@ThruGog Kreacher was a miserable wretch, but still wanted to serve. – CreationEdge Mar 8 at 22:00
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@CreationEdge - I don't think Kreacher is meant to be viewed as particularly sane. And, again, he raises the question - does a happy or proud slave make slavery acceptable? It certainly happened/happens in real life. But Dobby suffered under Malfoy, Winky suffered under Crouch - we are not meant to think that most house elves are happy. – ThruGog Mar 8 at 22:27
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@ThruGog Oh, not saying it was okay. Just that even though the happy ones wanted to serve, unhappy ones did, too. The conditioned oppression is strong – CreationEdge Mar 8 at 22:28
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"These walls are kind of funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. That's institutionalised." If they like it, is it still wrong? – Brindha Mar 9 at 6:42
up vote 37 down vote accepted

Like practically everything else in HP, it is part of the overall racism theme

Q. Your books have a theme of racism with the wizards oppressing other races and half­bloods. Do you think this has changed how people think when they read them?

JK Rowling: do not think I am pessimistic but I think I am realistic about how much you can change deeply entrenched prejudice, so my feeling would be that if someone were a committed racist, possibly Harry Potter is not going to be to have effect. I would hope that it has made people think, I mean I do not write the books thinking what is my message for today, what is my moral, that is not how I set out to write a book at all. I am not trying to criticise or make speeches to you in any way, but at the same time, it would be great if the people thought about bullying behaviour or racism. The house elves is really for slavery, isn't it, the house elves are slaves, so that is an issue that I think we probably all feel strongly about enough in this room already.
Edinburgh "cub reporter" press conference, ITV

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I want to extend the good answer of ibid abit.

The phrase "entrenched prejudice" is important.

If the house elves had not wanted to be slaves, the whole situation would have been so simplistic as to be almost babyish.

Adding a layer of entrenchment of the prejudice to include the house elves themselves challenges us to think "whoa, is it possible that a slave wants to be a slave?"

Thus it doesn't detract from the point of house elves as a device to illustrate and teach about the ethics of slavery, as implied by the question.

Rather, it enhances it with real life questions and challenges.

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One potentially complicating factor to the whole situation is the relationship between a house elf's magic and their servitude. While Dobby's magic does not seem in any way diminished by being freed, this, to my knowledge, has never actually been confirmed. If, for some reason, servitude somehow increases the magical power of a house elf, this would cast house elves in a new light and explain why some of them seem to actually want a life of servitude. If that's the case, house elves just might just be too power-hungry to really want freedom. – Adam Mar 9 at 0:36
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Yes - these layers of complexity are "the point" in a way, aren't they. The OP's question has a premise that the depection of "wanting to serve" nullified the idea that house elves are there for teaching about ethical dilemma, but this premise is false. Wanting to serve just brings layers of interst to the ethical dilema. – GreenAsJade Mar 9 at 1:31
    
wouldnt an edit proposal to his answer be better? – beppe9000 Mar 10 at 0:02
    
@Adam: I find your comment baffling. Is there any reason to think that freedom would diminish a house elf's magic? If not, then -- why call out that particular complicating factor, rather than, say, the potentially complicating factor that house-elf magic doesn't work against African lions, and the real reason they want a life of servitude is so that their wizard masters will keep them safely away from lions? – ruakh Mar 10 at 0:29
    
@ruakh: The only "evidence" that a house elf's magic would be diminished by freedom is their willingness to live in servitude, which isn't really evidence at all. My comment was just meant to propose a potential explanation to their desire for servitude. I'll admit that stockholm syndrome is a perfectly viable explanation. Just that for the sake of the story (which honestly seems to be more at the heart of the author's purposes in the first place), I feel like it would be interesting if the situation I suggested was the real culprit. – Adam Mar 10 at 16:59

As ibid's quote shows, it seems that JKR's intended message is mostly clear.

But looking at just what we see in the books, there's other issues to consider. House elves are repeatedly shown possessing much stronger magic than the wizards - Dobby can teleport in and out of Hogwarts at will, he readily disarmed Bellatrix in a "duel" (though it could be argued that it only worked because she wouldn't ever imagine something like that would ever happen) and a similar case with Lucius in the Chamber of Secrets, Kreacher and Dobby easily overcame Fletcher etc. Chamber of Secrets in particular is full of impressive magic on part of Dobby. So why are they serving in the first place, when they are so much stronger?

As far as I know, there is no canon answer. But we can consider a few possibilities:

  1. There's simply too few house elves left. Even though they are individually very powerful, a rebellion would end badly.
  2. They are used to the status quo, and see little benefit to freedom. They might even be outright afraid or undesiring of freedom. This was certainly the case for many slaves in our own history, so it would be an interesting reflection. In a few historical countries, slaves possessed much more physical power than their owners, and yet they kept being slaves (for way too many reasons to explore here :)).
  3. The magical contract between a house elf and it's family is binding, like the Unbreakable Vow, for example. At some point, the house elves agreed to be put into such a contract, and they could never break free on their own, "because magic". Until the owner voids the contract (like Lucius did), the elf simply cannot act against the owner (Dobby himself pushes this quite to the extreme, so either the binding is kind of vague, or there's many more complexities involved that weren't explored in the books). It does raise the question of why more owners didn't release their elves, but there's way too many plausible answers to that - for example, Dumbledore doesn't actually own the Hogwarts elves, most elves seem to be quite content with not being free (let's be honest, most people are quite content with giving away parts of their freedom - in a way, not having to care about some things gives you freedom as well).
  4. Historically, there were plenty of slaves that had more real power than most freemen of the time (e.g. the master slave of a Roman senator), or even just power over the other slaves. This seems to apply to an extent (Kreacher seemed to be rather proud, and in a powerful position, due to his affiliation with the Black family), but probably doesn't apply widely enough. This may also be limited by the previously mentioned magical contract.

An interesting question is also where that binding contract came from. Maybe it was a result of a war as with the Goblins being forbidden from using wands? In that case, all the typical answers apply just fine - we've had plenty of historical precedent.

Maybe the house elves were created by a wizard at some point, specifically to be happy with servitude? If that's the case, we get into the uncomfortable territory of "when does a machine stop being a machine, and becomes a person/slave?". And what if that wizard adapted an existing creature (magical or not), rather than creating it from nothing? Is a pig with an artificially heightened intelligence, capable of abstract thought and speech a person? However, while this is a frequently explored and important ethical consideration, it most likely wasn't JKR's intention.

Overall, the parallels with historical slavery are quite clear, and probably quite enough :)

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JKR has discussed the history of house elves a bit. Something involving Helga Hufflepuff having plantations IIRC. – ibid Mar 9 at 14:30
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This is my favorite answer because it gets at the most interesting bits of it: why do house elves want to serve (even Dobby wants to serve as we see in his time at Hogwarts how he relates to HP), and how did that situation arise? I also find the comparison to goblins interesting - why do wizards singularly seem to be the gatekeepers of wand-lore, is there a reason goblins haven't made headway when they're clearly interested? Do wizards hold a similar strength over house elves? – Jason Mar 9 at 17:45

I think originally they are there for slavery however later on they become a plot device as the stories required a creature undervalued by wizards that had magical powers others would not suspect. The goblins couldn't be used as they are not particularly helpful or friendly towards Harry so why not use a character who liked Harry, had strange, unexplored powers and was hated/ignored by most wizards, especially Death Eaters. Put these factors together and you get Dobby. Once you have Dobby as a character why not bring in more House Elves so you can use their powers as a useful get-out clause to get around limits of wizard magic.

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And don't forget to kill them off for maximum pathos and a "this story just got real!" message. – ThruGog Mar 8 at 22:58

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