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I understand that House-Elves really do want to serve but is it really what they want or would they prefer to be freed? This whole concept is really odd to me and I don't know how it is supposed to be. Do they love their family? Do they pay attention to abuse? How does it work? I can't figure it out.

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    The impression I've gotten from reading The Books is that they like good masters, and dislike abusive ones, but consider themselves bound/loyal in either case. Fanfic I've seen seems to reinforce this view (suggesting that I'm not the only one that holds it), but I don't consider fanfic to be authoritative in any way. – Jeff Zeitlin Apr 30 '18 at 14:14
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    @ZeissIkon - Really? I've nothing to cite to actually back it up except my personal impressions - anecdotal evidence, nothing documentable. I'd understood that the general rule on StackExchange is that anecdote is not generally considered acceptable for Answers. – Jeff Zeitlin Apr 30 '18 at 14:18
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    The first sentence in this question seems self-contradictory. Shouldn't it say "I understand that House-Elves seem like they want to serve"? – PlutoThePlanet Apr 30 '18 at 14:55
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    The House Elves are one of the more morally problematic parts of the Potter-verse. – Mark Rogers Apr 30 '18 at 19:14
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    Pure speculation: most people seem to enjoy being citizens of their country (unless the country abuses them). It always struck me as though the nature of House-Elf service had a similar feeling. – Cort Ammon May 1 '18 at 1:02
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Most of them find satisfaction in serving their masters BUT that's part of the horror of enslavement.

From the point of view of a free person, the fact that a majority of house-elves seem happy with their fate is puzzling, but it is actually a part of the vicious mechanism that perpetuates the system.

1/ The idea of freedom itself

House-Elves are born and raised as servants. All the other House-Elves they know are servants. This is the only model of existence they have. Their social scope is mainly limited to their own family and the wizard family they are serving, and Wizards make sure they only leave home for specific tasks. In these conditions, what would even mean "freedom" for an House-Elf? The modern ideas of freedom, democracy, equality, have been progressively shaped in the past centuries, and required education of the people to be widespread. It's not something that pops out of nothing easily.

2/ House-Elves' culture.

After centuries of - often violently - enforced bondage, House-Elves have developed a culture based on self-devaluation, worship of wizards, pride of well-accomplished work. In their restricted social circles, the worst shame they can think of is to be freed by their masters. In addition to be worthless, they'd end up being useless. Anyway, they would have no place to go, find no work (what family would accept a freed elf?), and probably die or worse (at least this is what they imagine). They may not be aware that Hogwarts is a last-chance refuge for homeless Elves, or at least it was when Dumbledore was Headmaster. Being a good servant, on the other hand, is a promise of peer recognition and safe future.

3/ Coping.

Many House-Elves are constantly threatened of violent punishment and social exclusion. As any sensible being in similar situation they develop coping strategies to survive, including self-denial, chronic anxiety, submission (as in the "Uncle Tom syndrome"), traumatic bonding… This, naturally, contributes building the "House-Elf culture", to the point Wizards do not even need to be violent anymore. "Kind" families benefit from a well-internalized domination system, where the oppressed are grateful to their masters for not being too violent.

You can add if you want the magical bond that guarantees their obedience and loyalty. However I'm not sure it is absolutely necessary. Sociology and psychology might be enough…

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    You may want to add Stockhom syndrone, which is terrible but seems very real. – user21820 May 1 '18 at 12:14
  • There should be a way to stretch this to cover modern capitalist wage-slavery, but that might be overly kind to the house-elf slavery. – Yakk May 1 '18 at 13:05
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    This reads like supposition based on our world's slavery ideas, rather than what's contained in the books and movies - and there is a lot in there about this subject. Consider adding quotes from the books to back up your assertions and statements. The wizarding world may look like our world, but answering wizarding world questions with our world's perspective isn't as effective as using in-world reasoning. – Adam Davis May 1 '18 at 15:08
  • @AdamDavis You are right about the lack of quotes, unfortunately I do not have the books in English and cannot provide correct backup. However, this doesn't mean that my answer is not an in-world reasoning. It is based on general facts about House-Elves which I try to rationalize without inventing stuff, just assuming that they are sentient enslaved creatures − which we know they are − and that at least one of them, Dobby, could appreciate what freedom is. – olly May 1 '18 at 17:04
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All House Elves enjoy serving a family that is kind to them

“Sirius was horrible to Kreacher, Harry, and it’s no good looking like that, you know it’s true. Kreacher had been alone for such a long time when Sirius came to live here, and he was probably starving for a bit of affection. I’m sure ‘Miss Cissy’ and ‘Miss Bella’ were perfectly lovely to Kreacher when he turned up, so he did them a favor and told them everything they wanted to know"

-Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Kreacher betrays Sirius even though he is his rightful master. Bellatrix and Narcissa probably manipulated Kreacher through kindness. Kreacher betrays an unkind member of the Black family for an kind member(kind to him and appreciative) of the same family.

Dobby was treated poorly by the Malfoys.

“Dobby hid and watched for Harry Potter and sealed the gateway and Dobby had to iron his hands afterward” — he showed Harry ten long, bandaged fingers — “but Dobby didn’t care, sir

So he betrayed his master to help Harry, who was good to him. Dobby responds even when he isn't called; when Harry calls Kreacher once, both Dobby and Kreacher appeared. If Harry had wanted Dobby for himself, Dobby would have probably accepted his ownership.

Winky is devastated when she is fired from Crouch's service.

Therefore, house elves wish to serve those who don't mistreat them. And they wish to serve rather than remain free, provided they aren't mistreated.

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    As a strong support for this argument, maybe you could offer some quotes about how Kreacher treats Harry and company once they start being nice to him? – JohnP Apr 30 '18 at 14:34
  • Including canonical movies though... In Fantastic Beasts the US has free house elves (are they still house elves at that point) that seem to be perfectly fine with leading the free life. – Cubic May 1 '18 at 13:27
  • @Cubic The US has free elves?! I didn't know that... Free elf like dobby you mean? – Simpleton May 1 '18 at 13:28
  • @Simpleton Now that I think about it, it isn't completely clear in the movie, but I had the impression that the house elves in Fantastic Beasts were free. They certainly had a different attitude compared to the british ones – Cubic May 1 '18 at 13:31
4

Your question indicates your realization of the obvious parallel between house-elves and human house slaves, of a race other than the masters'. Naturally, you're baffled by why a slave would enjoy serving his master, even with the option of being freed; or, more importantly, why Rowling, herself and through her protagonists, describes this is reasonable and commendable.

In my opinion, Rowling wanted to eat her cake and have it with the house elf-slaves: She wanted Potter & al to free them, but at the same time it seems she couldn't resist keeping them, or at least dobbie, as his servile self. So, the freed slave stays on as a happy pseudo-free servant.

It's not that this phenomenon is unknown in human history. I recommend you listen to an important speech by black liberation struggle activist, Malcolm X, called The House Negro and the field Negro (emphasis mine):

To understand this, you have to go back to what the young brother here referred to as the house Negro and the field Negro back during slavery. There were two kinds of slaves, the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes--they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food--what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master; and they loved their master more than their master loved himself. They would give their life to save their master's house--quicker than the master would. If the master said, "We got a good house here," the house Negro would say, "Yeah, we got a good house here." Whenever the master said "we," he said "we." That's how you can tell a house Negro.

If the master's house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master go sick, the house Negro would say, "What's the matter, boss, we sick?" We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, "Let's run away, let's escape, let's separate." The house Negro would look at you and say, "Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?" That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a "house nigger." And that's what we call them today, because we've still got some house niggers running around here.

This modern house Negro loves his master. He wants to live near him. He'll pay three times as much as the house is worth just to live near his master, and then brag about "I'm the only Negro out here." "I'm the only one on my job." "I'm the only one in this school." You're nothing but a house Negro. And if someone comes to you right now and says, "Let's separate," you say the same thing that the house Negro said on the plantation. "What you mean, separate? From America, this good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?" I mean, this is what you say. "I ain't left nothing in Africa," that's what you say. Why, you left your mind in Africa.

Rowling legitimizes the house negro, uses him to glorify her supposedly benevolent and moral protagonists - and that's one of the reasons I deeply dislike the Harry Potter series.

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    Interesting argument, but I don't think it's fair to say JKR glorifies house-slavedom. The heroes (well, Ron not really, but Hermione obviously all the more) do work towards enlightenment of the elves. That Kreacher doesn't get to benefit from this is always put down to “too dangerous to free him” in the war situation. – leftaroundabout May 1 '18 at 23:18
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    @leftaroundabout: That's another terrible thing she does - describing the "white man's burden" of enlightening the sub-humans. – einpoklum May 1 '18 at 23:46
  • Yeah. So what do you propose would have been a better display? Surely, it would be missing the point to just make the elves rebellious and openly demand freedom – that would circumvent having to discuss the ethical problematic of “house negro” castes. Even more so if the elves were free to begin with and slavery never mentioned at all. – leftaroundabout May 2 '18 at 10:21
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    Well, that's where I think you're not being fair. I think JKR specifically brings up the whole house elves subplot because she's aware of similar behaviour of particular groups of human slaves in history, and because she thinks it's a topic that's worth discussing. I don't think you want to criticise that. Then again you have to acknowledge that it's still a story she's telling, so she can't make a neutral scientific report out of it but has to somehow integrate everything. If you want to criticise her treatise, you should do it in that light. – leftaroundabout May 2 '18 at 11:08
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    Anyway, I’m a little surprised that you’re quoting Malcom X from this period. This was before he left the Nation of Islam and converted to Sunni Islam (sadly, it was exactly when he was undergoing this philosophical transformation that he was murdered). In what you quote, he’s advocating for black segregation and for black Americans to leave the US and found a separate state in Africa (and some of the other views he expressed at that time weren’t so pleasant either). I’m giving it an upvote because it’s a necessary point to have here, but I have some reservations. – Adamant May 10 '18 at 19:44
2

Elves genuinely enjoy being servants.

The most extreme example of an elf who enjoyed freedom and independence was Dobby, and even he had his limits, preferring the rigeour of work to all-out liberation.

"And Professor Dumbledore says he will pay Dobby, sir, if Dobby wants paying! And so Dobby is a free elf, sir, and Dobby gets a Galleon a week and one day off a month!"
"That's not very much!" Hermione shouted indignantly from the floor, over Winky's continued screaming and fist-beating.
"Professor Dumbledore offered Dobby ten Galleons a week, and weekends off," said Dobby, suddenly giving a little shiver, as though the prospect of so much leisure and riches was frightening, "but Dobby beat him down, miss...Dobby likes freedom, miss, but he isn't wanting too much, miss, he likes work better."
(Goblet of Fire, Chapter 21, The House-elf Liberation Front).

Hermione expressed hopes that Dobby's example would lead to a change of mentality from other elves, at least those at Hogwarts.

"I think this is the best thing that could have happened to those elves, you know," said Hermione, leading the way back up the marble staircase. "Dobby coming to work here, I mean. The other elves will see how happy he is, being free, and slowly it'll dawn on them that they want that, too!"
(Goblet of Fire, Chapter 21, The House-elf Liberation Front).

However, he was viewed by wizards like Hagrid as a strange exception to the traditional love of house-elves to serfdom.

...[Hagrid] flatly refused to join S.P.E.W. when [Hermione] showed him her badges.
"It’d be doin' 'em an unkindness, Hermione," he said gravely, threading a massive bone needle with thick yellow yarn.
"It’s in their nature ter 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."
"But Harry set Dobby free, and he was over the moon about it!" said Hermione. "And we heard he’s asking for wages now!"
"Yeah, well, yeh get weirdos in every breed. I’m not sayin' there isn’t the odd elf who’d take freedom, but yeh’ll never persuade most of 'em ter do it – no, nothin' doin', Hermione."
(Goblet of Fire, Chapter 16, The Goblet of Fire).

As for the elves themselves, they take a lot of pride in their work. They regard unemployment as the height of dishonour and see servitude as their life's goal. They have no other ambitions or dreams. This is made perfectly clear in their exchange with Hermione.

"Begging your pardon, miss," said the house-elf, bowing again, "but house-elves has no business to be unhappy when there is work to be done and masters to be served."
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" said Hermione angrily. "Listen to me, all of you! You've got just as much right as wizards to be unhappy! You've got the right to wages and holidays and proper clothes, you don't have to do everything you're told - look at Dobby!"
"Miss will please keep Dobby out of this," Dobby mumbled, looking scared. The cheery smiles had vanished from the faces of the house-elves around the kitchen. They were suddenly looking at Hermione as though she was mad and dangerous.
"We has your extra food!" squeaked an elf at Harry's elbow, and he shoved a large ham, a dozen cakes and some fruit into Harry's arms. "Goodbye!"
The house-elves crowded around Harry, Ron and Hermione, and began shunting them out of the kitchen, many little hands pushing in the smalls of their backs.
(Goblet of Fire, Chapter 28, The Madness of Mr Crouch).

The suggestion of wages, holidays and freedom from work is greeted with outright hostility. The elves don't want freedom. As Hagrid said, it's in their nature.

  • The suggestion of wages, holidays and freedom from work is greeted with outright hostility. isnt it because it's part of their culture now to reject demands that might endanger them and may cause the loss of their place? not the best analogy, but in many corporations the employees wont willingly discuss openly labour unions or their salaries in the workplace or demand healthcare or dental even though it may improve their situation. – user68762 May 7 '18 at 14:13
  • @witchy No, it's because they are proud and regard such workers rights as a disgrace. They are the precise opposite to unionised workers. Not only are they not offered wages and perks but they actively reject them, as the exchange with Hermione shows. Pleasing their masters isn't just an act of self-preservation, it's an inbuilt part of their psyche and culture. – The Dark Lord May 7 '18 at 14:41
  • sure, it's in their culture that some words are taboo and that their only purpose is servitude. as for the cause of it... whether theyre genuinely happy or were beaten into it and found a coping mechanism - i find curious their choice of words such as "house elves has no right to be unhappy when there is work to be done" and (from your quote) that they viewed Hermione as mad and dangerous, and that Dobby looked at hermione with fear. I think fear is a constant companion ofhouse elves. they fear what would be the fate of a house elf who lost his purpose. – user68762 May 7 '18 at 15:24
  • @witchy I think they're genuinely happy with their position because they've never known anything else. What they fear is the unknown. – The Dark Lord May 7 '18 at 15:33
  • maybe. we have no idea how they behave out of sight of their masters (or even what language they speak among themselves) and if they have any fun besides work but they seem well-acquainted with the aftereffects of butterbeer, so who knows what they do and say when no wizards are around... :) but i think it's awfully curious how Dobby described the woes of house elves, plural under the dark reign of Voldemort. – user68762 May 7 '18 at 16:58
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House elves were born into servitude to witches and wizards, so I suspect that freedom is something that isn't tangible, it is mysterious, and like humans, house elves are afraid of the unknown. Since they were born into serving and have been doing such for hundreds of years, they must have adapted into taking pleasure in constantly serving their masters. Also, to prove my point about fearing freedom we have Winky as a perfect example: as soon as she is free from Mr. Bagman she turns to drinking butterbeer which might not be as potent as alcohol for humans, however, it is quite potent enough for house elves to wash away their feelings. But something to contradict what I said about fearing the unknown is Dobby; who takes great pleasure in being free, but I believe he is one of a kind because when Harry, Ron and Hermione enter the kitchens all the other house elves working for Hogwarts were avoiding Dobby and Winky. Finally, when Hermione sets out knit hats in the Gryffindor common room all the house elves (excluding Dobby) feel scandalized and refuse to clean Gryffindors common room. In conclusion I do believe that house elves genuinely enjoy serving their masters. To make a note about Kreacher, he was always loyal to the family Black but, I think he strongly disliked Sirius because he was blasted off the family tree and consequentially, even though he does not feel like Sirius is family, he is still magically bound to him.

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    To make a note about kreacher, he was always loyal to the family Black but, i think he strongly disliked Sirius because he was blasted off the family tree and consequentially does not feel like Sirius is family but is still magically bound to him – Niffler May 5 '18 at 21:29
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    You can add your comment into the answer by using the edit option. Comments are temporary, they can disappear at any time. – Simpleton May 6 '18 at 4:18

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