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I love the series, but I do find the whole house elf thing to be a bit of a sore spot. I'm curious to know how she will resolve it. Some of you will groan for me saying this, but the whole "happy slave" thing is not cool with me. "I is going to do this for Master" sterotypical slave talk bothers me as well. Though I read one article that suggests Rowling is trying to play on mainstream America's (former?) perception of slavery - that slaves wanted to be both ignorant and slaves.

I can't believe that Rowling is trying to play to the American audience more than to British audience. If there is any reference in the first five books to the United States at all, I missed it. I recall a couple references to Brazil, as being where the snake in the zoo was from and a place Sirius went to in Book 3; but those were just brief mentions. The places the wizards of England interact with are old world, primarily European. For all that I see in the books, there might not even be a wizard community in the United States.

To the extent the house elf situation is social commentary at all (and it might not be), I would expect it to be social commentary on British class issues rather than American slavery or civil rights issues. As an American who has never lived in Britain, I do not expect to understand the social commentary aspect without having it explained by a British reader.

This discussion does highlight how subtle the house elves situation is. What do we know about them so far?

Dobby is known to be well outside the mainstream of house elf culture. He disliked his master and wanted independence. The norm is that house elves consider themselves part of the familiy. Winky wanted to be loyal to the Crouches even after she got kicked out. Kreacher is loyal to the Black family tradition, to the point of disliking Sirius as a black sheep of the family. House elves in general are magically compelled to obey their masters and act generally in their family's interest. We aren't told whether this magical compulsion is part of their nature or the result of spells cast by wizards.

The clothing thing strikes me as poorly thought out. How do house elves maintain the houses without dealing with laundry? Okay, they do laundry but that doesn't count because they weren't given clothing. They were just required to maintain their masters' clothing. But then why are the Hogwarts elves afraid of cleaing the Griffindor quarters? Wouldn't caps hidden under trash count as something to clean up, and not as being given clothing that liberates them? I have to conclude that the intent of Hermione to give them clothing would be taken as a liberating action. This implies that Hermione is a "master" for purposes of being able to free the Hogwarts elves. (Note that Harry couldn't free Dobby, he had to trick Lucious Malfoy into doing so.) One can only conclude that the entire Hogwarts student body is considered a single family for house elf purposes. So why hasn't some prankster in the past freed a house elf as a joke, leaving us a story of the consequences?

In terms of intelligence and magical capability, house elves are on a par with the wizards. Possibly elves are superior to human wizards magically; they do a lot of magical stuff, but are not permitted to use wands. Dobby did all the stuff in Book 2 without using a wand, but we see human wizards practically disabled when they are deprived of their wands. Hmmm. Do goblins use wands? They do a lot of sophisticate magicl stuff, too.

I suspect the thrust of where the elves will go will ultimately be to admit them as an equal race similar to the goblins. The goblins do banking, the elves will likely excel at domestic chores. Poor wizards like the Weasleys might be able to pay a house elf service for one a month cleaning; rich wizards could lease full-time elves for services close to what they currently provide. Customers who are jerks would get charged more and might be denied service. I like this theory, but I suspect Rowling won't have the space to get there in two more books.

Anyway, the reason I think Hermione's attitude towards the elves is bad writing isn't because she thinks they deserve freedom and I think they don't want it. I think it's bad writing because Hermione is shown in every other respect to be highly intelligent and a thorough researcher of subjects that catch her interest. But in this single case, her position is a simple minded pushing of a political agenda that isn't being accepted. Why isn't she trying to talk to the elves about their point of view? If she can see the Ministry of Magic meddling in Hogwarts on the first day of class, why can't she see that the house elves issue is more complicated than simply fooling them into accepting liberation for their own good?

The good literary solution would be for Hermione to figure out the broad outlines of how the wizard economy would adjust to free house elves and present her case to the elves. She doesn't seem to be making any attempt to go there. I am disappointed in this treatment of Hermione. The kind of shallow political activism Hermione is doing on the elf issue would be more appropriate for a character like Luna Lovegood. Hermione should have more sophisticated thinking and a better plan of action to benefit the elves.

Patzer
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