Monday, 15 June 2009

It's a beret, not a tea cosy.


I simultaneously really like the Harry Potter books and whine consistently about them. Here's something to whine about: Dobby.



At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry visits the Ministry of Magic, where he sees a fountain that's symbolic of the hierarchical nature of the wizard worldview.
A group of golden statues, larger than life-size, stood in the middle of a circular pool. Tallest of them all was a noble-looking wizard with his wand pointing straight up in the air. Grouped around him were a beautiful witch, a centaur, a goblin and a house-elf. The last three were all looking adoringly up at the witch and wizard. Glittering jets of water were flying from the ends of their wands, the point of the centaur's arrow, the tip of the goblins hat and each of the house-elf's ears.
The fountain is only a very obvious marker for a theme that reoccurs a number of times during the series - the dodgy foundations of the wizarding world and the failure of the community to interact with other magical races on equal terms. The Malfoys mistreat their house elf, Umbridge refers to the centaurs as "filthy half-breeds", and the historical failure to treat with the giants means that they all end up on Voldemort's side. Hermione is made to sound silly for saying it, but Hogwarts functions on unpaid labour. Mrs Weasley (we're told in the second book) really wants a house-elf. Sirius Black's death is partly due to his consistently treating Kreacher the house-elf like shit. In the last book Harry himself attempts to double cross Griphook the Goblin. It's not just the bad guys - the wizarding world has functioned this way for centuries and every wizard is implicated.

Enter Dobby.

When Dobby arrives in the Dursley home in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he really appears to have revolutionary potential. He speaks for house elves as a class, rather than from the perspective of one discontented elf and we learn a few pages later that it must have required a tremendous act of will for him to come there against the wishes of the Malfoys at all. To make a decision like this one, to muster up the strength to carry it out, and to develop this sort of sense of class-consciousness is all pretty impressive. Dobby is genuinely heroic.

But Harry is the Hero. Dobby's working conditions improve drastically, he is given wages (tiny ones, but he won't accept more and he really likes work, no really), but it's all a gift from Harry. Dobby now become's Harry's willing servant. “'Dobby is a free house-elf and he can obey anyone he likes and Dobby will do whatever Harry Potter wants him to do!' said Dobby”.

Rowling's house-elves are given a weird kind of false consciousness that makes them impervious to Dobby's propoganda. There isn't likely to be any sort of house-elf uprising in the near future. Liberation can be forced upon the elves (Hermione) or gifted (Harry) but it's not likely to be taken.

In CoS, Dobby's decision to support Harry is shown to be in part strategic - the house-elves had a miserable time of it when Voldemort was in power and have a reasonable stake in trying to stop this from happening again. This is why CoS Dobby is interesting - he has his own agenda and while he may want to protect Harry he's also capable of being a genuine obstacle when their agendas don't match. Once he's freed he's turned into a goofy but faithful retainer who wears silly clothes and talks funny. From this point on, his investment in the fight against Voldemort appears to be entirely about Harry and the wizards. Eventually he dies rescuing Harry. Which is great on the one hand, because it means Harry can stay alive to defeat Voldemort and thus save the other house-elves from an increased crapness of existence (I wonder if this was part of his motive?). But it also means that the house-elves have lost the one prominent revolutionary figure they seem to have had in quite a while.

(Much love to Pradipta and Shreyas for silly photoshoppage)

7 comments:

Unmana said...

I agree - while on one hand Rowling defends the Muggle-born and disparages those who take pride in being true-blooded, how can we defend her failure to release the house-elves from being everlasting, willing slaves?

Sumedha said...

I wasn't too fond of Dobby in the books. Despite the demands for freedom and payment, he still is extremely devoted to Harry, his "devoted servant" as you said. And I found that attitude a little irritating, both because I couldn't see too good a reason for it, and because I find the "I'll-do-anything-for-you" thing irritating anyway.

And I don't know if he was too much of a revolutionary.. his demands were very different from the other house-elves (who had no demands whatsoever), but he didn't seem really interested in bringing others round to his point of view, did he? And I don't know whether his thoughts were radical enough to possibly make him a leader of a revolution in the future.

Elizabeth said...

I love this post.

Aishwarya said...

Unmana - Agreed. Even if the actual liberation of house elves wasn't a part of the last book, I'd have liked a hint that it had happened in the epilogue at least. It just doesn't seem like it was important to Rowling in the end.

Sumedha - But in the fourth book, I'd assumed the reason the other elves were cringing whenever Dobby spoke was that he'd been horrifying them with these impossibly radical ideas.

Though he was probably too nice to be a very good revolutionary in the end. I sort of wish he'd killed a few people to prove his badassness.

Elizabeth - I love your blog!

Unmana said...

I would like to know what you think of this: http://pennyred.blogspot.com/2009/07/harry-potter-and-fascist-ubermensch.html

I was a little ashamed of myself when I read it and realised they are right, but I didn't really think of these issues while I was reading the books, and I enjoyed them very much.

RukmaniRam said...

This has amused me no end. many thanks for bringing this to the joyless world.

Liz said...

I agree about Dobby! I thought that Hermione's house elf movement was a setup for something big and radical happening in the last book. Instead it felt like Rowling... but maybe the characters... missed a huge opportunity.