Many Replies re: Harry Potter & etc.

Jacob Proffitt Jacob at
Sat Feb 1 16:49:12 EST 2003

---Original Message From: johanna at
> I don't think it's a matter only of "you're only as free as 
> you want to be." Some people/creatures are never given the 
> choice to be free--& yes, that comes with a lot of social 
> conditioning. This is similar to the image of the "happy 
> African" from the slavery period, the whole "but they like 
> it" thing (as you pointed out, that pretty much everyone else 
> besides Hermione & Dumbledore believe). And once you're given 
> the chance to completely change your life & throw off 
> everything that's familiar to you (even if it was hideous), 
> it's not surprising that, yes, it will take some getting used 
> to & perhaps the familiar-yet-bad will be preferable, as you 
> mentioned. That doesn't mean that the house elves really 
> would want to live in servitude, or that they shouldn't be 
> freed because "they're not ready for it". It's just not that 
> simple--like with battered woman syndrome, it's a lot more 
> complex than saying, "But why don't they just leave?"

Well, I'd hate for anything I say to be advocating slavery.  It's an
abhorrent practice and one I hope is gone for good (okay, so it isn't
actually gone if you look in certain back-water nations today).  I'm just
pointing out that freedom is a responsibility and not an easy one.  A small
example: I was in Germany when the wall came down.  I'll never forget it.
Along with all the joy, I noticed a remarkable phenomenon as East Germans
began to be more common in the West--East Germans had a tough time setting
all their new-found freedoms into practice.  They weren't aware of their
options and they had *no* defense against Western advertising.  There were a
number of times where they were taken advantage of in ways I'd have never
credited simply because they didn't know things that Westerners had long
taken for granted (they've adapted incredibly well, BTW, thanks to the
remarkable generosity of West Germans and a great deal of pain along the

And we saw a plethora of problems in the United States when the slaves were
freed.  A large population found itself cut off from what they had been
doing all their lives and forced to fend for themselves--often facing open
animosity as well as unscrupulous dealings by people taking advantage of
their ignorance.  The goal was laudatory and I wouldn't want to have put off
freeing them, but I wish that we'd have been able to take steps to teach
them things they needed to know--like property, contract, and family law (at
least as much as contemporaries would have known).  It was a cruelty to set
them free like that.  Now, keeping them in slavery would have been a far
greater cruelty, and if we're going to choose between just those two
options, I'd set them free no question.  

But life is more complicated than that and we have a whole lot more than
just those two choices.  JKR shows how it isn't so simple by her depiction
of the house elves.  Dobby wants freedom and he's willing to learn what it
takes to get there--and he is willing to do it the hard way.  Other
house-elves don't and that presents a dilemma.  At that point, if you want
them to be free, you have a couple of ways you can go about it.  Hermione's
way is to simply set them free and thrust them into the cold, cruel world.
She's headed to do what we did to slaves after our civil war.  As such, if
she succeeds, she will be the proximate cause of a lot of house-elf
suffering.  Dumbledore, on the other hand, has a better idea and I'm happy
to see it.  He sets them functionally free, gives them a taste of their
freedom, and gives them the chance to exercise their will.  He is more than
willing to set them entirely free if they wish it (as he has done Dobby),
but even if they don't, he's still pushing them (gently) in that direction.
It's a much more principled stance than Hermione's too-simple one.  He isn't
patronizing about it--he's willing to give them all the freedom they ask for
and letting them determine their own course.  It's this restraint and lack
of compulsion that I find so intriguing.

> It is trickier in sf/f, because in the world of the 
> fantastic, it's easy enough to say that yes, there IS a race 
> of creatures that exists only to be subservient & to make 
> your tea. Maybe they do. Maybe that's all that Rowling 
> invented them for. I'm a little sick of seeing that, though, 
> & wish the notion would be interrogated more. It's tired & 
> outdated. Falling back onto old, familiar stereotypes is an 
> easy substitute for doing the work to figure out what really 
> could be going on w/the house elves. If Rowling just wants a 
> laugh, she could find other ways.

What I'm saying is that I don't see her going for laughs with the house
elves.  Certainly not in later books.  I think she is more than aware of the
ambiguities of the situation and that she has done a great job presenting
the alternatives in ways kids will grasp without encouraging complacence
about house-elves' being happy in slavery.  She shows their misery and their
hard work.  She also shows how Dumbledore goes about it when he helps them.
I'm confident that most kids will grasp the situation well enough to have a
visceral abhorrence of slavery from those portions of the story.

In short, I think JKR did the opposite of what she is accused of--it would
have been much easier to have house elves be happy in slavery.  Taking the
easy out would have had Dobby happily settled into Hogwarts as a contented
house-elf slave and had Hermione's crusade confirmed a joke when she is
forced in the end to concede that they're happier when they're slaves.

Jacob Proffitt

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