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Nearly-Headless Nick clearly presumes that knowledge of Hogwarts' huge house-elf population should be common knowledge to the average student when Hermione asks about them here:

"There are house-elves here?" she said, staring, horror-struck, at Nearly-Headless Nick. "Here at Hogwarts?"
"Certainly," said Nearly-Headless Nick, looking surprised at her reaction. "The largest number in any dwelling in Britain, I believe. Over a hundred."
"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?" (Goblet of Fire, Chapter 12, The Triwizard Tournament)

Yet it's difficult to see how she or anyone else should be expected to know about them, considering that:

  • As Nick says, house-elves are by their very nature secretive and would regard it as the height of tardiness to let themselves be seen by a student.
  • From my knowledge, only Fred Weasley, George Weasley and James Potter are on record as ever making it down to the kitchens at this point. The other students seem to have the same attitude as Hermione has always had - they just eat the food that magically appears on their plates and don't ask questions about where it comes from.
  • There appears to be no literary record of the house-elves' existance.

"It's all in Hogwarts: A History. Though of course, that book's not entirely reliable. "A Revised History of Hogwarts" would be a more accurate title. Or "A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School"."
"What are you on about?" said Ron, though Harry thought he knew what was coming.
"House-elves!" said Hermione loudly and proving Harry right. "Not once, in over a thousand pages, does Hogwarts: A History mention that we are all colluding in the oppression of a hundred slaves!" (Goblet of Fire, Chapter 15, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang)

How was Hermione realistically supposed to know about the house-elves?

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    Depends on how well NHN knows her. If he doesn't know she's Muggle-born, then he might expect her to know about the house-elves because most people brought up in the wizarding world do. If he knows she's clever and knowledgeable, then he might expect her to know about the house-elves from some of the many books she reads. (One would expect it to be in Hogwarts: A History, and presumably he hadn't read that book and therefore didn't know it isn't.) – Rand al'Thor May 10 '16 at 11:11
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    Or he might simply be taking the approach, "I know, therefore it's obvious and everybody should know." – Matt Gutting May 10 '16 at 11:15
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    @MattGutting 's comment seems likely, given Nick's general personality. – nexus_2006 May 10 '16 at 11:22
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    You'd have thought that the ghosts would be used to explaining Hogwarts trivia to gormless students. The students are constantly changing whereas the ghosts are a constant. – The Dark Lord May 10 '16 at 11:31
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    Was he surprised that she didn't know, or was he surprised that she was horrified? – LindaJeanne May 10 '16 at 14:28
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Well, for one, it did not seem that Nearly Headless Nick was surprised that Hermione did not know about the house-elves. Nearly Headless Nick looked surprised at her reaction, which was 'horror-struck'.

So, you see, Nick did not expect them to know that Hogwarts was maintained by house-elves. Afterall, as you said, it is really difficult to catch one at work, because they are not supposed to be seen. Also, not many people know how to get into the kitchens, and few have been there. Of course, in such a magical atmosphere, it is entirely possible that the students don't even realise that someone has to prepare the food they eat or clean up their messes. They just take it for granted that it happens 'by magic'.

What was written in that paragraph, however, showed that Nick wasn't surprised that Hermione did not know, but he was surprised by her reaction to the news. So he maybe expected that she'd be surprised or even awed at the realisation that house-elves were working at Hogwarts, at the most, she might be shocked. But he did not expect her to be horror-struck, which is why he was surprised. For him, having house-elves as servants is a matter of course, which is why he was surprised that she seemed to object to it so much.

He wasn't surprised that she didn't know, he was surprised at how she acted when she found out.

8

Well for one, house elves are pretty common in the Wizarding World, at the very least among the upper class (So, not the Weasleys, but the Malfoys), which is where Nearly Headless Nick's lineage would come from. Moreover, since Hermionie's parents aren't wizards, she might not have as much knowledge of their existence compared to if she'd grown up in the Wizarding World.

But for another, Nick knows Hermione, and one of her most-quoted books is "Hogwarts: A History". While it might not be comprehensive (and apparently excludes house elves), such a fact is one Nick probably didn't expect to pass Hermione's notice.

For a girl who prides herself on her extensive knowledge, and particularly on her knowledge that she has gleaned herself about the Wizarding World, not knowing about the house elves in Hogwarts when she's been there for over 3 years is a fairly considerable oversight, especially when they're relatively commonplace in upper class Wizard houses. And for Nick, their existence is as commonplace as the air he...well, that he breathed at one point.

2

There are copper pipes, here?!

In a modern dwelling, you'd expect there to be plumbing, a furnace, electrical wires, etc. You get to see the effects of this infrastruture (lights, running water, heat), but you rarely if ever actually see the infrastructure.

Hogwarts has no visible servants. It has food, lighting, and all of the benefits of servants. Much as in the era when electricity and plumbing where new or only for the upper classes, if you went to a house with those services without servants, you'd exect the "invisible" infrastructure to be providing it.

At the same time, a book on a school wouldn't mention it has a furnace or it is electrically wired or it has plumbing, unless the retrofit occurred during its existence. In the case of Hogwarts, it probably has had house elves over its entire exitence.

The children probably didn't think about the house-elves, except for maybe ones at the edge of being well off. But there is no reason to think they wouldn't know they where there. The poorest or the muggle-bred might not even know how the services happen; the richest would presume it was house-elves and approve of their invisibility if they ever thought about it (how often do most kids think about plumbing?). Those at the edge of being able to afford their own house-elf might think about it more, being aware of the advantages, and recognizing them, etc.

1

Nick wasn't necessarily surprised at her ignorance (although perhaps he was under the impression that Hermione knew everything) but rather just her horror-struck-ness, as most students and even wizards didn't care about the house elves. She also might have had him under the impression that she was afraid of house elves which would certainly be quite surprising.

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He was surprised at her reaction, not that she did not know. I think that most students have no idea of how the laundry, cleaning and cooking is done. Some may conclude it's House Elves, if they know about their existence (this is the case for most people who have grown up in the Magic World); others may think it's just magic, as is probably the case for most Muggleborns. So, I think it would be quite common for a student to be surprised about learning this fact, but Hermione was horror-struck.

Hermione probably read all the books she could get her hands on about the Magic World. The House Elves must be in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and she must know that they are basically slaves. She did not know that Hogwarts had them, because it is not mentioned in Hogwarts: a History. She was horrified by the knowledge that Hogwarts, which she has in such high regard, would have House Elves.

In short, Nick isn't surprised that she didn't know about it, he is surprised by how horrified she is by that knowledge. It's something that for him, and a lot of others is a common thing or don't care about.

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