Features

To S.P.E.W. or not to S.P.E.W.: Hermione Granger and the pitfalls of activism

If Hogwarts had a debating club, what might it say on the subject of elf rights? We explored both sides of the argument spurred by Hermione and S.P.E.W.

Dobby and Winky in the Hogwarts kitchens with the other elves.
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Hermione’s one-witch crusade to free all house-elves didn’t exactly go as planned. She gained virtually no support from anyone at Hogwarts (elves included), but soldiered on making impassioned speeches and poorly knitted hats. Despite her best efforts, S.P.E.W. (‘Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare’, aka the ‘House-Elf Liberation Front’) ended up making little impact on elfish life.

We’re not sure if Hogwarts ever had a debating society, but let’s imagine it did. How might it tackle the thorny issue of the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare?

To S.P.E.W. or not to S.P.E.W. – that is the question.

To S.P.E.W. (pros)

Our self-appointed champion for elf rights would no doubt be the first to speak on the issue:

‘It’s slavery, that’s what it is! That Mr Crouch made her go up to the top of the stadium, and she was terrified, and he’s got her bewitched so she can’t even run when they start trampling tents! Why doesn’t anyone do something about it?’
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

After witnessing the mistreatment of Winky at the Quidditch World Cup, Hermione discovered there were house-elves at Hogwarts, cooking and cleaning for zero pay. And yet, nobody seemed to care. Horrified to the point where she couldn’t stomach the Hogwarts feast, she described the situation in two words – ‘slave labour’.

While it sounds heavy-handed, Hermione does have a point. No matter how you slice it, house-elves are unpaid labourers, magically bound to serve, left at the mercy of their respective owners. The system is ripe for abuse, and we have evidence! Step forward, Mister Dobby.

‘Dobby is always having to punish himself for something, sir. They lets Dobby get on with it, sir. Sometimes they reminds me to do extra punishments…’
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Dobby stands in Harry's bedroom
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

At Malfoy Manor, Dobby was flogged, threatened and made to hurt himself for speaking out of turn. Thanks to the house-elf’s enslavement, there was nothing Dobby could do. When Harry first heard of Dobby’s predicament he asked, ‘Can’t anyone help you? Can’t I?’ This is where an organisation like S.P.E.W. would come in, providing a voice for the voiceless. Because nobody should be forced to iron their own hands.

It wasn’t just Dobby who got a raw deal. An elf named Hokey was framed for killing the well-off witch Hepzibah Smith, and the Black family’s servants eagerly await decapitation when they become too frail to carry tea trays. Kreacher’s ambition of having his head mounted in Grimmauld Place still gives us the creeps.

Granted, the Hogwarts elves appear to be well-treated by comparison, but we’ve yet to address the issue of free will. Contented as they seem, elves are forced into servitude by a combination of magic and a culture of indoctrination. Hermione deems this ethically wrong and refuses to accept that it’s ‘just the way things are’. Of course most wizards would say that – they’re enjoying free labour without the guilt. As for elves, they won’t even consider the benefits of freedom thanks to a lifetime of fear and the stigma of shame.

Hermione believes elves deserve the same rights as everyone – sick pay, holidays, pensions, the lot. Any reluctance is merely the result of brainwashing. Once free of their mental conditioning, they’ll be all the happier for it… just look at Dobby!

Not to S.P.E.W. (cons)

Miss Granger is at best overzealous, and her goals are, at worst, unattainable. Hermione may have meant well, but at the same time did end up dragging a peaceful group into a political battlefield just because she felt that’s what they should want. Was she helping, or interfering in a culture she didn’t understand?

Hagrid looking sad before the execution of Buckbeak
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Elves deserve a spokesperson who’s sensitive to their needs, and Hagrid summed up the S.P.E.W. situation like this:

‘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.’
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Hagrid’s priority is the elves’ immediate wellbeing. If they’re happy to serve humans, why not let them get on with it? Hermione’s protests – that the elves will be happier in the long run – hold no sway. To Hagrid, the Hogwarts elves are a jolly bunch and it’s not worth upsetting them for change they neither want nor need.

But what about Dobby? Hagrid sees Dobby – the ‘free-and-proud’ elf held up by Hermione – as an oddball. Dobby, odd?! Well… okay, he might have a point.

Dobby holds the sock which grants his freedom from the Malfoys.
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Though some elves might embrace freedom and share Dobby’s joy of sock-ownership, others would struggle with their newly imposed status. So far, we’ve overlooked an important case study:

‘Winky was sitting on the same stool as last time, but she had allowed herself to become so filthy that she was not immediately distinguishable from the smoke-blackened brick behind her. Her clothes were ragged and unwashed. She was clutching a bottle of Butterbeer and swaying slightly on her stool, staring into the fire.’
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Even with Dumbledore’s support and Dobby’s pep-talks, Winky is clearly depressed. She’s even started hitting the bottle – yes, it’s only Butterbeer, but who knows the damage that’ll do to an elf over time? Hermione cites the shame imposed on Winky by her culture as the sole reason for her unhappiness, but there may be more to it. Separation anxiety might also account for Winky’s anguish and she doesn’t seem to improve much over time.

Is it right, exposing elves to such a fate? From here, it seems downright irresponsible. Even if the long-term good outweighs the bad, the state of poor Winky ought to be a bigger cause for alarm. By witnessing this first-hand yet refusing to rethink her agenda, Hermione appears to care more for moral crusading than the people she is supposed to be helping.

Dobby and Kreacher deilver Mundungus to Ron, Hermione and Harry in Grimmauld Place.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1

Final thoughts

The trouble with S.P.E.W. is that Hermione wants it all and wants it now. Political movements take time as well as effort, so the notion of changing the world overnight is quite naive. Even when people are well-meaning, there’s always the risk of doing more harm than good.

Hermione’s methods might be ill-advised, but this doesn’t render her entire cause unworthy. Just because most elves don’t want freedom doesn’t mean they don’t deserve better treatment. Hermione’s dream of an elf in government might be far-fetched, but there’s merit in wanting to protect the vulnerable and allow them more choices. However, she ought to be careful – ‘tricking’ elves into freedom is arguably as unethical as enslavement.

Before we go, let’s consider Kreacher. Think of how he changed when treated with kindness by his new master, Harry Potter. Previously he’d been bitter and unpleasant, not to mention a liability to his previous owner. Had Sirius treated him a little better, things might have worked out differently. Dumbledore was right – being kind to Kreacher was in everyone’s best interests.

An Illusration of Kreacher
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The best part of this Harry Potter subplot is that, instead of beating us round the head with a moral, it’s up to the reader to decide. While there are no house-elves in the real world, there are many issues that divide opinions. By painting Hermione’s activism in shades of grey, we’re invited to reflect on how we express our views and how we pick our battles.

If nothing else, at least Dobby got a few extra hats out of the deal.