By: Niki Wilkes
The Harry Potter series was a giant exercise in universe building, and with seven books, J.K. Rowling had a lot of space to incorporate many of the more complicated aspects of society. One notable inclusion is the plight of house-elves, the wizarding world’s manifestation of slavery. This institution was hinted at as early as the second book with the introduction of Dobby into the plot, but was placed in the background until the fourth book, when Hermione witnesses the harsh treatment of Winky at the Quidditch World Cup. She shouts, “You know, house-elves get a very raw deal….It’s slavery, that’s what it is….Why doesn’t anyone do something about it?” (80).
Hermione decides to be that someone and starts an awareness campaign, which would eventually be called S.P.E.W., as soon as she gets back to school. Harry and Hermione confronted the problem in very different ways with actions that produced different results. Where Harry desired to free one elf in The Chamber of Secrets and succeeded, Hermione felt called to topple the entire system by creating an awareness campaign, but failed.
Hermione was a young activist, likely to make many blunders as she learned how to move and persuade people. She had some good first steps by doing extensive research on the creatures that she was trying to free and attempting to make an organization for the cause to cling to. Her actual awareness building and persuasive tactics, however, fell a little flat. This is not altogether the fault of her social awkwardness or the stubbornness of her classmates. Part of it was that she lacked the proper techniques on how to make a private, domestic or economic issue, meant to be resolved between the house-elves and their masters, into an effective public and political issue.
An article by Nicolas M. Dahan and Milton Gittens explains how any anti-slavery advocate needs to frame their issue and move the issue from private to public. There are three framings needed to shape this problem into a public ethical issue. First, the activist must use diagnostic framing, which is pointing out the problem, its causes, and consequences. Then the advocate must come up with a prognostic framing that gives a suggested solution or plan of attack to eliminating the problem. Finally, they must use motivational framing, which gives their cause urgency and a rationale as to why their issue must be addressed quickly (230).
Hermione could point to the problem, but could not properly articulate the consequences, for both the house-elves and the people who benefit from the system. She also could not suggest solutions on how to handle issues that would arise if the house-elves were freed. For example, how would the elves be healed from the psychological damage inflicted by their masters, who made them believe that they are inferior and have no other purpose in life but to serve? And, who would fill the labor hole left by the elves’ emancipation? Finally, she is unsuccessful at convincing others as to why this is a problem that needs to be fixed immediately. All these qualities were missing in the S.P.E.W. campaign, which is why it unfortunately failed.
Her attempts are certainly noble, especially for trying to fight the issue alone. It was also not a complete waste of effort because, according to Brychann Carey, Hermione homed in on one important idea that can make an activist campaign more successful. He states that, unlike Harry, who managed to free one elf because Dobby helped him but did not continue with his abolitionist efforts, Hermione realized that the problem of house-elf slavery is not a personal one, but a public one requiring political engagement to reach public solutions (Carey 105). Hermione’s steps were clumsy, but she ultimately started with a workable model that just needed to be tweaked in order to make it more effective (Carey 107).
While Rowling does not offer suggestions on how to make a successful campaign, she does paint a picture of a world not too unlike our own where people in the non-slave class are, at best, apathetic to an institution so ingrained into our society. In most cases, even if we are disturbed by the fact that slavery still exists and that we even benefit from it, we feel that it is too big of an issue to individually tackle. The question of house elves gets dropped after the fourth book, just as the issue of modern slavery rises and falls in our own social awareness. Hermione was discouraged from her efforts because closer, more personal threats took up her energy, much like the reality that those who do not personally encounter slavery do not actively pursue the end to slavery. With the inclusion of the house elves and the issue of slavery, Rowling might be suggesting that so many social injustices continue to exist because activists are unable to give the issues the sense of urgency needed in order to resolve them.
Carey, Brycchan. “Hermione and the House-Elves: The Literary and Historical Context of J.K. Rowling’s Antislavery Campaign.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003: 104-115. Print.
Dahan, Nicolas M. and Milton Gittens. “Business and the Public Affairs of Slavery: A Discursive Approach of an Ethical Public Issue.” Journal of Business Ethics 92.2 (Mar., 2010): 227-249. JSTOR. Web. 9 Nov. 2014
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2000. Print.