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According to J.K. Rowling, the house-elves are used as an allegory for slavery.

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. (Source)

However, the books really seem to make light of the whole "house-elf slavery thing." The movement to help them is given the humorous name of "S.P.E.W. Hermione is mostly ridiculed for her efforts to help them, even by "good" characters like Ron. The entire subplot was so thin that it was almost completely dropped from the films, with no real effect on the story. The entire subplot also remains unresolved in the actual series and the house-elves are only vaguely helped, completely off-screen (off-page?).

Why did Rowling make light of this serious issue?

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You may wish to note that the original SPEW (the "Society for Promoting the Employment of Women") was not intended as a funny name. – Valorum Mar 16 at 19:01
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I took it to be a stylistic thing, where children's books authors frequently write things that should be dark and disturbing as comedically over-the-top and matter-of-fact. Not only the elves but the treatment of Harry by the Dursleys, for example. Roald Dahl is another author that does this, like when the children meet horrible ends in Wonka's chocolate factory. – Kai Mar 16 at 19:21
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@Mayo sorry 1840's in the south, specifically, with hermione as a northerner trying to talk to plantation owners. (muggleborn vs pure blood elite ) thats the conversation i had in my mind that parallels. some of the poorer whites in the south might listen to her, but wont do much, and the purebloods/rich would just laugh. – Himarm Mar 16 at 21:54
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IIRC, house elves are based on brownies - an existing mythical creature that basically does assorted houseworks for no pay (and really doesn't like it when it's being paid forcefully). I'm not sure of the details... similar myths in other cultures usually involve them doing it for symbolic pay ("don't forget to put a small plate of food at the front door" is one of the common versions). – January First-of-May Mar 17 at 8:13
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@Kai Funny, I read it in exactly the opposite way. The Dahl version would have had the elves all realise how terribly oppressed they were and rising up thanks to Hermione's inspiring leadership. Or worse, wouldn't address it at all. The fact that the issue is so muddied, the house elves claim to want to be slaves, and the idea that it can't all be solved by one teenager over the course of three school years all point to me to an author who was taking the issue quite seriously. – DavidS Mar 17 at 10:14
up vote 79 down vote accepted

Hermione's crusade is portrayed as comically misguided because it kind of is comically misguided, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. Rowling commented on this in a 2000 interview with CBC Newsworld:

JK: My sister and I both, we were that kind of teenager. (Dripping with drama) We were that kind of, 'I'm the only one who really feels these injustices. No one else understands the way I feel.' I think a lot of teenagers go through that.

E[van Solomon]: In Britain they call it 'Right On' or something.

JK: Exactly. Well, she's fun to write because Hermione, with the best of intentions, becomes quite self-righteous. My heart is entirely with her as she goes through this. She develops her political conscience. My heart is completely with her. But my brain tells me, which is a growing-up thing, that in fact she blunders towards the very people she's trying to help. She offends them. She's not very sensitive to their…

E: She's somewhat condescending to the elves who don't have rights.

JK: She thinks it's so easy. It's part of what I was saying before about the growing process, of realizing you don't have quite as much power as you think you might have and having to accept that. Then you learn that it's hard work to change things and that it doesn't happen overnight. Hermione thinks she's going to lead them to glorious rebellion in one afternoon and then finds out the reality is very different

Hermione is the stereotype of a teenager who sees injustice in the world, and wants to fix it (which is a good thing), but goes about it in ways that are self-righteous, self-involved, and not really helpful.

I would argue that the in-universe response, then, mostly falls into three camps:

  • The House-elves themselves, who are being condescended to and understandably don't appreciate it1
  • Characters like Ron, who don't see the problem because they've grown up in a system that benefits them. This reaction is most likely intended to make you feel uncomfortable, because it's kind of the stock response to a lot of real-world social issues
  • Characters like Hagrid, who know that Hermione is going about her crusade with the wrong attitude; the sensible adult, in other words.

I couldn't begin to speculate on why this subplot was less prominent in later books2, but I suspect it was mainly for character development reasons; Hermione realizes that she's not helping, so she dials back her over-the-top efforts. And then, of course, after Goblet of Fire there are many more immediate issues at hand.


1 Though there's also likely an element of internalized oppression, but I'm far from qualified to talk about that

2 Although I can speculate on why it was dropped from the film; lots of subplots were dropped from the film, because it's not easy to turn six hundred pages of book into two hours of movie

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Hermione is kind of like Lisa Simpson. – Andrew Mar 16 at 22:56
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@Andrew - I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought that – Robotnik Mar 17 at 4:14
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Well, it's difficult to properly help a population that, for the most part, is perfectly happy with their situation. While there are exceptions (like hardcore rebel elf Dobby, who likes to express his freedom by choosing whom he serves), generally speaking house elves seem to be massively offended at both the idea of being paid for their services or their servitude contracts being terminated. Hermione's primary mistake was to completely ignore their culture (and possibly their nature, it's not quite clear how much is taught and how much is instinct from birth). – Cubic Mar 17 at 11:58

It's not surprising in the context of the universe that Rowling created. It's also a world where wizards and witches enforce segregation between themselves and Muggles, and call their fellow human beings "Muggles."

It's always struck me as very analogous to the historical United States—while the violent Ku Klux Klan/Death Eaters perpetrate lynchings on the boundaries of society, the privileged white/magical society at large shares the same fundamental beliefs of their own superiority to n-gg--s/m-gg--s. Injustice reigns as a result. Elves being magically enslaved, and called "house-elves", is an unsurprising byproduct. Once the house-elf concept was introduced, it would be difficult for Rowling to have many characters respond to their situation with compassion.

Note also that the few who did, including Hermione, Harry, and Dumbledore, were also the most likely to hold the belief that Muggles were people just like wizards and witches, and deserving of respect—and not coincidentally, those few are the exact same people who Rowling most clearly meant to portray as the virtuous.

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+1 for a (IMO) rather novel & probably unpopular opinion, which, nevertheless, makes sense to me & convinces me. – vaxquis Mar 17 at 15:13
    
There are very important practical reasons why the two worlds are kept apart, not just pure ideology. And there are real and important differences between being able or unable to use magic, so there has to be a term do describe it. If someone would declare the word "Muggle" to be politically incorrect and make this wide-spread, a new word would be made up to replace it, and the next SJW would find that new term offensive and so on. Also, while there are parallels between house elves and human slavery, they are not the same. – vsz Mar 18 at 7:15

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