I began my discussion of Goblet of Fire with one of the highlights of the book: an extended stay with the Weasley family. So it seems only fitting to jump straight to the worst the book had to offer: a widespread defense of slavery. Rowling treats the enslavement of house-elves, and Hermione’s efforts to end it, with a mostly light and even mocking tone. It seemed like she viewed it with a sense of amusement, operating under the assumption that no one would think too critically about the obvious parallels of her creation. But it didn’t really even take a very critical eye to come away shocked at the inexplicable decision to include that storyline at all.
From Chamber of Secrets, we knew that house-elves are seemingly powerful magical creatures who have somehow been forced to act as slaves to wealthy wizarding families. The only elf we’d actually encountered prior to Goblet was Dobby, a bumbling elf who tries to help Harry (and mostly fails, doing more harm than good) and practices self-flagellation for disobeying his masters. He wasn’t exactly the most sympathetic introduction to his species — or at least to me; I know others found him more amusing, but he was annoying to me. But whatever else I might say about Dobby, at least he wanted to be free. He achieved that freedom at the end of Chamber, but I knew he came back near the end of the movies, so I assumed he’d have even more of a role in the remainder of the books — perhaps with more explanation as to the whole enslavement of house-elves.
Whatever I was expecting, though, it wasn’t that we’d see the return of house-elves, only to learn that all of them except Dobby want to be enslaved. What’s more, nearly every character in the HP world supports that slavery, as well. This is about the part where I started blinking a lot and wondering if I was imagining all this happening. No one would actually put all this in an ostensibly kids’ book, right?
Yet it was real, and got increasingly worse. Hermione was the sole character who seemed to understand how completely screwed up the whole situation was. But when she tried to do something about it, her friends either tried to ignore her (Harry) or convince her how wrong she was (Ron). It’s important to note that because we experience the book mostly through Harry’s point of view, his dismissive attitude toward Hermione’s beliefs about house-elves results in a rather mocking tone being presented to the reader. The implication is that Hermione, who has always had a tendency to get far too worked up about certain things, is just engaging in another silly cause. She almost immediately abandons her own hunger strike cause, and most of her efforts involve pestering people who couldn’t care less to buy badges. Even the name of her movement, Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) invites mockery. (Sidenote: the most intelligent character in the series doesn’t realize that creating an organization with the acronym SPEW is going to make it hard to be taken seriously?)
It’s also important to note that it’s not like we’re only seeing the Malfoys, or even Barty Crouch, on the opposite side of Hermione, though those may be the only characters who are outright cruel toward house-elves. But Hermione is even opposed by Harry, all of the Weasleys, and Hagrid. (Yes, Hagrid, who supports wild and dangerous magical creatures being free, does not support the same for house-elves.) These are characters we’ve been conditioned to like and mostly agree with. Writers often give “good” characters a dark or fatal flaw to make them more rounded, but this doesn’t feel like Rowling trying to do that. There’s no price for Ron or Harry to pay for condoning slavery. The only one who pays at all for her views is Hermione, with mockery and scorn.
And the defense so often cited in defense of slavery? It’s good for the elves, and the elves want it. They wouldn’t know what to do with freedom or wages. What’s more, Rowling makes these arguments vindicated. We see that the house-elves really don’t want freedom, and repeatedly turn it down when offered. There are two house-elves we’ve actually seen freed, Dobby and now Winky. Winky ends up wallowing in despair and eventually alcoholism once she’s separated from serving her master. Dobby is considered an embarrassment by the rest of his kind for wanting wages, and even he still wants to serve others and turns down Dumbledore’s initial offer for far more pay and vacation time, requesting less money and fewer breaks, because that’s what he’s more comfortable with. Even the one elf who wants his freedom doesn’t want too much of it.
Are you cringing yet? Because you probably should be. What an awful, abhorrent storyline. Even if we give Rowling every benefit of the doubt, she’s at least horribly tone-deaf in including this story, in this manner, at all. How historically ignorant do you have to be to not understand that these are some of the same arguments made in favor of real-life slavery? Or, more likely, did she include these arguments because they did mirror real-life history? And if so, how could she be so foolish as to not explicitly condemn them?
Other than Hermione, who loses every battle on the issue, we only see two oblique references to anyone supporting house-elf freedom. The first is that Dumbledore does give Dobby a paying job, when no one else would, and offers him very nice compensation (which, again, Dobby turns down so he can earn less). Because Dumbledore tries to treat Dobby so fairly, it’s a fair inference to think he would give Hogwarts’ many other elves their freedom and wages if they would accept it. Because Dumbledore is the undisputed master of wisdom (despite his failings that suggest otherwise), this may be Rowling’s attempt to subtly show Hermione’s position as the enlightened one. But subtlety has rarely been Rowling’s style, and this wasn’t a good place to start, not with so many popular characters espousing such unfortunate views.
The other show of support comes from Sirius Black, and it really isn’t even that supportive at all. When our trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione meet up with Sirius, Hermione heatedly mentions Barty Crouch’s mistreatment of Winky, and Ron tells her to give it a rest. Sirius replies that Hermione has a better understanding of Crouch than Ron, saying, “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” That’s about as mild as support gets; Sirius is still explicitly calling the slave-elves inferior. But at least he appears to get that abusing them is wrong; even that seems refreshing compared to Ron rolling his eyes at how bothered Hermione is by the abuse.
And that’s it. We have Hermione, who fervently supports house-elf freedom, and is mocked for it. We have Sirius, who views the elves as inferior, but thinks they should be treated well. And Dumbledore, who is at least willing to treat them fairly, but still uses the willing slaves. And then we have everyone else, favorite characters who are annoyed by someone wanting to do something about slavery, spouting off lines from a Stephen Douglas speech. And we have those views validated by elves who are ashamed when one of their own seeks freedom, and fall into depression when forcibly freed.
And then? We have no real resolution to the subplot. The books ends, and the issue lingers past it. No one else is freed. No one recants their position. No elves realize they deserve more. Sure, it’s a seven-book series, and Rowling still has time to resolve that story. But that’s too explosive of a plotline to leave dangling for future books, in my opinion. If you’re going to make excuses for slavery in a book, then conclude that angle before the book ends.
To be clear, I don’t think Rowling is racist or even that she was trying to make her characters be racist. I think in her mind, house-elves and blacks (or any other group that’s been enslaved) are completely separate. But I think she was incredibly misguided, in a way that defies comprehension. Even if the intent was pure, the sheer stupidity astounds me, to tackle slavery in any form and not realize the obvious and immediate connotations. (Or to tackle it and not safeguard against how those connotations would affect readers’ perceptions of your story.) I’m not saying this blunder has to taint your entire perception of the series, but I am saying that it was bad and unnecessary.
Somehow, incredibly, I still enjoyed Goblet of Fire despite the slavery subplot. And that might be Rowling’s most impressive magic of all.