Revealing Discrimination: Social Hierarchy and the Exclusion/Enslavement of the Other in the Harry Potter Novels

Amy M. Green

Amy M. Green received her Ph.D from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and
specialized in Shakespeare and 19th century American literature.  Her
dissertation explored the influence of Shakespeare on the novels of Henry
James. Her articles appear in numerous journals including Papers on Language
and Literature and The Mark Twain Annual. She currently teaches at The Meadows
School, a private college preparatory academy in Las Vegas.

I never fail to be intrigued by the many critical approaches to Harry Potter by scholars from all facets of academia.  Amy M. Green, in the following essay, approaches the series from an inherently Marxist perspective, exploring issues of landlessness and disempowerment in the series.  Green’s essay exposes gaps in Rowling’s ostensibly progressive Wizarding world, including failures to challenge extreme systemic inequity even by our favorite characters.  Focusing on Rowling’s treatment of non-human and part-human species, Green explores the tensions inherent in the series’ ideologies of race and identity: centaurs and giants relegated to the (literal) margins of Wizarding society, house-elves complicit in their own subjugation, and lycanthropes forced into hiding their true identities are all expected to both subject themselves to human laws of Wizarding society and retain a sense of loyalty to the very wizards who oppress them.  Green investigates these tensions thoroughly and with sensitivity, offering intriguing possibilities for further study and exploration. 

(Caroline Jones – editor, Alice’s Academy)


When Harry Potter first steps into Diagon Alley, the wonder of the Wizarding world enchants both boy wizard and reader alike. Before Harry extends a world of possibility, one in which magic and magical creatures abound. Yet beneath the veneer of magic wands, Quidditch, and the like lies a troubled world that proves anything but egalitarian. The Wizarding world expresses unease surrounding issues of identity, race, and those who deviate from expected norms. Concerns for racial purity abound, with families like the Malfoys and Blacks fixated on the maintenance of a “pure” bloodline [1]. In addition to unease concerning identity tracked through bloodline, wizards and witches also maintain strained relationships at best with all magical beings who are not fully human. Worse still, the practice of holding slaves remains a tradition in this society. Lisa Hopkins asserts, “One of the things Harry and his peers must evidently learn is tolerance of difference” (32), potentially an admirable aim of the series should this have proven to be a lesson learned. Further still, her contention that J.K. Rowling writes difference as “warmly advocated by her books” (Hopkins 32) does not withstand the litmus test given the final lack of resolution to the rampant discrimination against non-human species. Sadly, these non-human creatures appear in large part to have already lost the battle for equality at some distant point in the past. Although named “house-elves” in the novels, such a term merely softens the harsh reality that this group of non-human workers exists as a marginalized, captive slave class. The young reader gaining experience alongside Harry slowly begins to understand, as Harry does to some extent, that these terrible injustices inflict an emotional toll on human and magical creature alike.

While Rowling immediately depicts as evil or small-minded those characters who vociferously advocate the shunning of non pure-bloods, she adopts an ambivalent attitude towards the plight of creatures like the house-elves. Certainly, her near-exclusive use of Harry as a limited third person narrator could serve as a basis for arguing that the novels privilege Harry’s views, not the author’s. However, specific events, characterizations, and dialogue in the series throw such an assertion into question. As the discussion to follow shows, characters like Dumbledore do not directly advocate for the abolishment of slavery and the equal treatment of all species. Instead, the novels provide examples of appalling racism toward the non-human and semi-human species in the novel. This consistent and persistent discrimination and exclusion of the Other has kept the house-elves enslaved and has pushed other creatures like the giants to the brink of extinction.

Where the Muggle and Wizarding worlds live in near complete exclusion from one another, those classified as non- or sub-human species within the magical world fare far worse than suffering from isolated acts of cruelty. If wizards and witches generally express either contempt for or vague curiosity about the Muggle world, they take much more openly hostile stances towards those within their own society who threaten a sense of human identity. Relatively late in the series, during The Order of the Phoenix, both the reader and Harry finally enter the halls of the Ministry of Magic. In the main hall of the building, an immense statue entitled the “Fountain of Magical Brethren” (127) occupies a goodly portion of the space. A wizard inhabits the central place in the composition, with a witch, centaur, goblin, and house-elf surrounding him. The narrator comments, “The last three were all looking adoringly up at the witch and wizard” (127). Harry himself does not comment further about the distressing symbolism of the fountain as he worries about the outcome of his trial for using magic outside of Hogwarts. Instead, he promises only to throw coins into the fountain should he avoid expulsion. Harry’s attitude, that of a self-centered teenager in crisis, likely mimics that of many younger readers of the series. The adult reader, however, more readily apprehends the societal commentary imbedded in the statue’s composition. The central location of the male wizard in this configuration leads to a troubling conclusion. Not only does the witch appear in awe of her male counterpart, but so do the non-human figures. The statue exemplifies attitudes which continue to permeate the novels, that of the wizard as steward of the inferior races who cannot take care of themselves. The “narcissism on which the colonial relationship is based” (Otalvaro-Hormillosa 49) evidences itself by the adoring expressions on the faces of the non-human figures which prove so obvious that the otherwise self-absorbed Harry makes note of them. The statue also confirms what the older reader already suspects thus far in the series: the Wizarding world long ago colonized the territories of the non-magical creatures and avoided giving them the status of sovereign nations.

The giants and centaurs provide the closest approximations to peoples granted some sense of sovereignty. These two groups prefer isolation to Wizarding company and live on allocated plots of land eerily reminiscent of the reservations onto which Native Americans were forced. However, Rowling reveals that both of these races ultimately exist at the whim of the Ministry of Magic rather than having been afforded the rights of sovereign nations to negotiate treaties and govern themselves. The half-giant Hagrid eventually attempts to recruit the giants to Dumbledore’s cause after Voldemort’s reemergence and reports on the inexorable dying out of the giant as a species. He comments, “Dumbledore says it’s our fault, it was the wizards who forced ‘em to go an’ made ‘em live a good long way from us an’ they had no choice but ter stick together fer their own protection” (Phoenix 427). As a result of the unnaturally close quarters in which the giants live, they continually fight one another, often to the death. Hagrid continues, “Dumbledore argued against the killin’ of the last giants in Britain” (Phoenix 429) and these two statements taken together depict the giants as both colonized and ostracized. The giants experienced the trauma of being uprooted from their homelands and sent to live exiled in mountainous, undesirable terrain; in keeping with the attitude of superiority even part-humans like Hagrid express towards the non-human classes, the reader sees espoused the notion that the giants exist in a near-infantile state and cannot otherwise take care of themselves. Hagrid’s recounting of Dumbledore’s words characterize the latter as a benevolent sort of overseer, a role which becomes especially apparent as regards the house-elves, who will be discussed in-depth further on. Despite Dumbledore’s concerns about the treatment of creatures like the giants, he does not appear to have ever mounted sustained and active campaigns to afford them full civil rights and equal protection under Wizarding law. Instead, he voices concerns and expresses pity, but this reads akin to those who espoused the myth of the “vanishing Indian.” In those impassioned treatises, poems, and stories especially popular in nineteenth-century America, authors write of native peoples and their sorry, reduced state. Yet in the same breath, the Native Americans are depicted as having gone “somewhere” – almost as if they disappeared into the great ether of the West. Their state is lamented and mourned, but nothing is done to change it.

The centaurs fare little better than the giants, although they have not been banished to the geographical margins of the Wizarding world. An enclave of centaurs inhabits part of the Forbidden Forest on the grounds of Hogwarts, but endeavors to remain isolated from humans. As Hagrid describes, they “keep themselves to themselves mostly” (Sorcerer’s Stone 254) and Firenze ends up in trouble for what his herd views as “peddling our knowledge and secrets among humans” (Phoenix 698). Although they have a partially humanoid appearance, the later actions of the Ministry of Magic treat them as a non-human class. Furthermore, an incident occurs during The Order of the Phoenix which confirms the centaurs’ identity as non-human. After Firenze opts to help Dumbledore and thus suffers exile from his own people, he becomes Hogwarts’s Divination teacher. During his first teaching session, student Dean Thomas inquires, “Did Hagrid breed you, like the thestrals?” (601). Dean does not intend offense but instead reflects the prevailing attitudes of those adults around him that any non-human creature, however powerful or eloquent in his or her own right, must surely have come into being under the careful, watchful eyes of at least a half-human like Hagrid. Finally, Dolores Umbridge reveals while hurling insults at the centaurs that they fall under the auspices of the “Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures” which “generously” granted “certain areas of land” held by the Ministry (Phoenix 754) for centaur use. Again, Hogwarts with Dumbledore at its head serves the uncomfortable function of a supposed haven for these “magical creatures.”

Umbridge’s revelation also hints at a wizard land-grab occurring at some early point in time outside of the scope of the novels. This resulting landlessness becomes a recurring theme in the histories of many of the non-human races in the series. The giants have long since lost rights to their homelands and the centaurs enjoy only a small portion of land which Umbridge implies could be taken away at the whim of the Ministry should they fail to stay in their place as an inferior species. The garden gnomes also “are denied the rights to homes” despite being “sentient beings with language,” (178) as Farah Mendlesohn argues. The gnomes unfortunately endure beatings and other physical mistreatment until they flee the homes they make in the gardens of wizards and witches as if they were little more than pests to be cleansed from the land. Lack of compliance on behalf of a non-human not only becomes grounds for the stripping away of land, but also of the right to life itself. The hippogriff Buckbeak finds himself summarily sentenced to execution for attacking Draco Malfoy. No one in the Ministry proves interested that Draco insulted, threatened, and goaded the hippogriff even against Hagrid’s explicit warnings. Rowling focuses on the wizards and witches of England, with only Beauxbatons and Durmstrang illustrating their presence in other parts of the world, but the novels imply that the magical world is vast and global. A further disturbing implication gleaned by the reader is that at some point, wizards and witches acted as a world-wide imperial force to subdue the Other in all parts of the world.

Other races in the series, namely the goblins and the Veela, enjoy slightly better treatment at the hands of wizards and witches but for purely selfish reasons. The goblins have control of the banking system and also craft the finest of weaponry and other metal goods. The goblins harbor deep resentment for the Wizarding world and what they view as the exploitation of their handiwork. In the final book of the series, the goblin Griphook reveals the belief that no artifact, even once paid for, ever truly becomes the possession of the human purchaser. Indeed, the goblins believe that humans “steal” their goods, paid for or not. This belief becomes more reasonable through understanding Aimé Césaire’s use of the term “thingification” to describe what colonizers do to native identity (qtd. in Chowdhry 18).  As with all the other non-human races in the series, wizards and witches render the goblins nothing more than commodities who in turn create other commodities. They do not consider the cultural significance of a given design, the selection of one color or another, or even the cultural tradition of metalworking which forms the core of goblin identity.

The Veela emerge as the exoticized/eroticized Other in the series valued for nothing more than their physical appearance. Although the Veela can and do intermarry with humans, wizards and witches tend to treat them as highly sexualized objects. Male wizards turn nearly idiotic in their presence, literally enchanted by their overwhelming physical charms, while witches grumble about their beauty. Fleur Delacour, a competitor from Beauxbatons in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, is only half-Veela, yet her effect on men is immediately spellbinding. Ron, after ogling her, states, “They don’t make them like that at Hogwarts!” (Goblet 253). Instead of presenting Fleur as a competent competitor, Rowling instead relies on gender stereotyping by focusing not just on Ron’s reaction, but the similar reaction of other young men who see her arrival.  

The Dementors exemplify the danger of Wizarding attitudes towards the non-humans. Certainly, the Dementors are the stuff of nightmares and possess the abilities to extract joy from those in close proximity and to drive insane humans in their continued presence. Furthermore, they can bestow their Kiss upon a sentenced criminal, which sucks the victim’s soul from his or her body. Dementors appear “like something dead that had decayed in water” (Azkaban 83) and possess tremendous powers. The Ministry utilizes the Dementors primarily as prison guards of Azkaban, but later uses them to patrol Hogwarts and the neighboring town Hogsmeade in search of Sirius Black and expects the Dementors to do as they are told. Voldemort exploits the Ministry’s treatment of the Dementors as little more than automatons without motivations or desires of their own and gains them as allies. Voldemort sees further alliances with the outcast classes possible declaring, “The Dementors will join us...they are our natural allies...we will recall the banished giants” resulting in “an army of creatures whom all fear” (Goblet 651). Rowling provides no indication of inherent evil in the Dementors or the giants and prior to some becoming adherents of Voldemort, both groups prove morally ambiguous at best. The Dementors are undoubtedly powerful beings, but that need not imply that if left to their own devices and free of the Ministry of Magic that they would terrorize people on their own. The Dementors employ their frightening powers under the order of the Ministry while giants lash out violently when forced unnaturally into close living quarters with one another. Wizards and witches, through their consistent subjugation and humiliation of non-human races, create the scenario in which vengeance becomes an attractive option for the oppressed races. 

Not only does the Wizarding world ostracize those who are not human, but it does so to part-humans as well. In the novels, a part-human might be someone of mixed ancestry like the half-giants Hagrid and Madame Maxime, but the term also covers werewolves and vampires. Given that many members of this subset of the human world can easily masquerade as fully human, the Ministry takes the added precaution of creating “Guidelines for the Treatment of Non-Wizard Part-Humans” (Goblet 147) in order to extend its power when necessary into the Muggle world. For example, if a Muggle suffered a werewolf bite and became infected with lycanthropy, the Ministry appears poised to take possession of that person, presumably for the “greater good.” Two of Rowling’s major characters, Hagrid and Remus Lupin, exemplify the difficulties of living with the part-human label. In Remus Lupin, the reader not only encounters discrimination against a werewolf, but against a pure-blood wizard who becomes less than human by virtue of his lycanthropy. Lupin first appears in Prisoner of Azkaban and is described: “The stranger was wearing an extremely shabby set of wizard’s robes that had been darned in several places. He looked ill and exhausted” (74). Rowling immediately sets Lupin apart as an outcast both by virtue of his poverty and by his sickness. Although he later will later prove himself not only as a powerful wizard but an excellent, trusted teacher, Lupin remains the subject of scorn. Harry proves condescending in some ways towards Lupin as when he laughingly tells Ron, “Listen, if he had this much gold, he’d be able to buy himself some new robes” (Azkaban 224). Harry, the figure through which nearly all events of the novels filter, displays his lack of maturity and scope of vision here and it will not be until the final book that Harry proves capable of truly feeling the plight of the Other. Even Ron himself expresses contempt towards Lupin when he first learns of Lupin’s werewolf status. After Hermione reveals Lupin’s lycanthropy to Harry and Ron in the Shrieking Shack, Ron immediately tells Lupin, “Get away from me, werewolf! (Azkaban 253). Rowling italicizes the text, indicating that Ron spits out the words with a good deal of venom.

Lupin’s employment as a Hogwarts instructor comes to an abrupt and definitive end at the close of Prisoner of Azkaban. Due to his own carelessness in forgetting to take his Wolfsbane potion and Snape’s subsequent “outing” of him to the members of Slytherin, Lupin’s lycanthropy becomes widely known. As a result, he opts to leave Hogwarts and declares, “They will not want a werewolf teaching their children, Harry” (Azkaban 423). He leaves in expectation of a flood of complaint letters from furious parents. Dumbledore appears during this scene, wishing Lupin well but otherwise not attempting at all to persuade him to stay and fight for his position. Rowling avoids both resolution of the legislation against werewolves and Lupin’s ability to eventually gain some measure of acceptance outside of the Order of the Phoenix through his death in the final novel. Prior to his death, Lupin marries Nymphadora Tonks and the pair have a child together, yet Lupin vacillates between bitter regret and joy about his situation. He attempts at first to abandon his pregnant wife because he cannot bear the thought of her and their child suffering the same scorn he does. He tells Harry, “My kind don’t usually breed” (Deathly Hallows 213) and his words imply that he has learned to deny his own humanity.

Lupin highlights the Wizarding world’s fixation on discernible and constant identity. His transformation into a werewolf during the full moon renders him a dangerous figure. Not only does he lose all control of his faculties while a werewolf, which makes him a very real physical threat, but worse still, outside of the times of the full moon, he looks like everyone else. The Ministry, as a result, keeps records of all known werewolves, forcing sufferers of lycanthropy to register knowing full well it means they will be discriminated against at will. Under the direction of Umbridge, ever a purveyor of histrionic and ridiculous racist attitudes, the Ministry enacts further restrictions against werewolves, rendering them incapable of holding paying work.  Furthermore, the Ministry does little if anything to alleviate the suffering of werewolves. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Lupin reveals the existence of the Wolfsbane potion, which allows a werewolf to keep his or her human mind while in wolf form. Given that werewolves not only maim and kill, but can also infect others with their bite, the Ministry certainly has plenty of motivation to manufacture and make available at little or no cost the Wolfsbane potion. Such is not the case. Lupin obtains his potion from Snape, who only brews it under direct orders from Dumbledore. The Ministry passes decrees which blame the victims of lycanthropy, a ridiculous stance given that werewolves have their condition inflicted on them by another infected party.

Lupin himself reveals that Fenrir Greyback bit him when he was just a child. Greyback, thoroughly corrupted and allied with Voldemort, makes ridiculous the Wizarding world’s attitudes towards werewolves. Greyback for some time has ceased waiting for the full moon to attack and has “developed a taste for human flesh that cannot be satisfied once a month” (Prince 593). In the same manner in which pure-blood status does not guarantee magical prowess, being a werewolf does not make one inherently evil. Greyback’s sadistic actions in the novels stem from a darker source than his lycanthropy. Rowling makes clear that a werewolf turns to bloodlust only under the direct influence of the full moon. Once he or she has become human again, the animalistic, bloodthirsty part of that person recedes. Greyback, given his constant desire to consume human flesh, becomes less a victim of his condition than he is a cannibal. Further still, Lupin comments, “Greyback specializes in children” and “positions himself close to victims, ensuring that he is near enough to strike” (Half-Blood Prince 334, 335). Greyback does all of his planning while in human form and derives pleasure from inflicting torment on the innocent.

here Lupin suffers the scorn of others continuously throughout his appearances in the novels, Hagrid manages to lead a more peaceful existence under Dumbledore’s protection. However, Rowling reveals Hagrid’s tumultuous past. He suffers expulsion from Hogwarts and the Ministry officially sanctions him from performing magic, although Hagrid violates this edict. Tom Riddle manages to blame Hagrid for the petrifications and deaths of several Hogwarts students and Hagrid apparently never gets the opportunity to defend himself against these dire accusations. During The Chamber of Secrets, the reader learns that Riddle, responsible for opening the Chamber and unleashing the basilisk, fears seeing Hogwarts shut down completely since he lives in an orphanage when not in school. Riddle learns of this from the Headmaster and asks, “If the person was caught—if it all stopped—” (Chamber 244). He then puts into motion a plan to deflect blame for his own actions and to keep the school open. He knows that Hagrid has been keeping Aragog, a giant spider, and that this will provide the perfect explanation for the murders. Clearly, Riddle needs to deflect any suspicion about his own guilt and does not want to see the school close. Hagrid becomes the perfect solution. He is a half-giant in possession of a non-human creature. Riddle chooses to accuse Hagrid not just because he tends to be clumsy and less polished in speech but due to his half-giant status. Riddle rightly deduces that the word of a human will automatically be taken over that of a part human. Dumbledore averts a complete disaster by helping to secure Hagrid a position at Hogwarts as the gamekeeper.

Although Dumbledore’s actions provide him with steady employment and a home, Hagrid still faces uneasy relationships with Hogwarts’s student body. Draco dismisses Hagrid by declaring, “I heard he’s a sort of savage (Sorcerer’s Stone 78). The young Malfoy certainly expresses the most extreme of views, but many of the other students fail to actively support Hagrid through his misadventures. Only Harry, Ron, and Hermione consistently champion Hagrid and routinely visit him as friends. Unfortunately, their role in his life focuses reader attention on Hagrid’s shortcomings. Rowling imbues Hagrid with goodness and loyalty, but also with a child-like recklessness. Aside from practicing magic in violation of Ministry orders, an act which could land him in prison, he at various points in the series keeps a dragon as a pet, hides his giant half-brother in the Forbidden Forest, and exposes his students to dangerous creatures. He does not mean any harm, but cannot overcome his fascination for creatures which routinely maim and injure him. As such, “Hagrid needs to be saved by the trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione again and again” (Ostry 95) which unfortunately endorses the paternalistic and patriarchal view that non- and part-humans simply cannot care for themselves.

Where the non- and part-humans suffer ridicule, discrimination, mistrust, and hatred, the house-elves also endure the loss of their freedom, as they exist as a slave class in Wizarding society. Harry first meets a house-elf in Chamber of Secrets when Dobby tries valiantly, if problematically, to protect him from danger. Upon seeing Dobby, “Harry noticed that it was wearing what looked like an old pillow case” (Chamber 12) and the reader will learn that this raggedy, filthy garb proves key to the house-elves’ enslavement. The narrator’s use of the gender-neutral “it” to describe Harry’s initial response to Dobby emphasizes the young man’s continuing willingness to jump to quick conclusions, as he does multiple times with Snape. By this point in the series, Harry has encountered various forms of magical beings, both good and evil. In this scene, when faced with an obviously sentient if not somewhat harried Dobby, Harry immediately apprehends the house-elf as an “it” due to its degraded and dirty state. Harry does not see Dobby, or later any of the house-elves, as “rational, autonomous beings” (Patterson 109) at this point in the series. He both feels pity for and is annoyed by Dobby, but not until the final book in the series will he come to understand the profundity of any house-elf’s plight.

The house-elves fully internalize their roles as slaves to their households, exemplified by Dobby’s compulsion for self-injury any time he speaks out against his masters or divulges their secrets. If slavery requires “the creation of fear and maintenance of order” (Chowdhry 18), than the Wizarding world succeeds in abundance. The house-elves do not require the physical presence of their masters in order to inflict serious wounds upon themselves. Instead, they have been so completely subjugated as to automatically dispense punishment to themselves when needed. Ironically, Dobby only ceases to mutilate himself under a direct order from Harry. Furthermore, the house-elves often espouse the belief that they serve their masters out of tradition, an uncomfortable parroting of rationale sometimes used to justify slavery in America. Most disturbingly, some proponents of slavery vehemently detested the idea of kidnapping as a means of obtaining slaves (Mason 168). Presumably, the slaveholder ignores the means by which slaves came to stand on the auction block then argues that once that slave has children, they all maintain slave status by tradition. That the house-elves themselves argue along this same line of reasoning provides the reader with a troublesome view of slavery as at once bad, acceptable, traditional, and perhaps inevitable. When a freed Dobby returns to Hogwarts to work as a paid employee, the other house-elves “all looked away [. . .], as though Dobby had said something rude and embarrassing” (Goblet 378) and Winky feels nothing but “shame” (Goblet 381) about having been freed herself.

Rowling also reveals early in the development of the house-elves as characters that they possess tremendous magical powers which function differently than those of wizards and witches. For example, Dobby can apparate not only at will and without the use of a wand, but into those places supposedly blocked from magical access. In order to avoid either depicting or explaining the absence of a massive slave rebellion in light of their consistent mistreatment, Rowling constructs the following system. Dobby explains to Harry, “A house-elf must be set free” (Chamber 14); specifically, the master must give clothing to the elf. Harry exploits this loophole in the slavery system near the conclusion of Chamber of Secrets by tricking Lucius Malfoy into freeing Dobby. Harry may well do this in part to relieve Dobby of the constant emotional and physical abuses he suffers in the Malfoy household, but he also frees Dobby to irritate Lucius.

The house-elves continue to mimic the worst of stereotypes surrounding African American slaves and their plight. Upon being freed, Dobby appears ecstatic over his circumstances. He extols, “Dobby is free” (Chamber 338). Dobby unmistakably understands both his previous role as an enslaved being and his current status as a free elf. Yet even prior to his emancipation, Dobby idolizes Dumbledore, calling him “the greatest headmaster Hogwarts has ever had” (Chamber 17) and it is to Hogwarts that the freed Dobby goes. Yet Hogwarts proves as dependent upon an unpaid slave labor force as any of the Wizarding families in the novels. Dumbledore certainly does not condone the physical abuse of any house-elf, but he nonetheless expects them to do their work. One scene finds Dumbledore in need of a last minute celebration feast and he directs McGonagall to “go and alert the kitchens” (Chambers 330) as to his requirements. Dumbledore does not refer to any of the house-elves by name and indeed, does not mention them at all as he simply expects them to be awaiting orders. Dumbledore will continue to fill the uncomfortable role of kindly patriarch and benevolent overseer.

The “plantation fantasy” (Carey 104) enacted by the house-elves of Hogwarts continues dangerously even past the closing pages of the series. The reader discovers that Dobby finds paid work at Hogwarts during Goblet of Fire due to his inability to find any other gainful employment: other wizards and witches expect Dobby to toil for free. Despite the hardships, Dobby declares, “Dobby likes being free” (Goblet 38). However, none of the other house-elves at Hogwarts appreciate Dobby having escaped the yoke of slavery. They shun Dobby and consistently look down upon him for having betrayed the “traditional system.” Worse still, Winky, a house-elf “gifted” with freedom after she angers her master Mr. Crouch, turns to alcohol and neglects her personal hygiene in the aftermath. During her time in the Crouch household, Winky acts as “a mammy whose first loyalty is to her charge” (Mendlesohn 179) Barty Crouch, Jr. and in the absence of those duties, Winky falls apart. Winky and the other house-elves champion the dangerous idea “that oppressed people can and should be satisfied with their lot” (Heilman and Gregory 245). George Weasley will go so far as to declare to Hermione, “They’re happy” (Goblet 239) as an excuse to keep the house elves enslaved. Upon closer inspection, the reader finds that even Dobby may be less comfortable with freedom than he outwardly declares. Dobby turns down Dumbledore’s offer of a higher salary “as though the prospect of so much leisure and riches were frightening” (Goblet 379) rendering him the stereotype of the child-like slave who simply cannot handle life off the plantation. Furthermore, Dobby still has a penchant for obedience. He uneasily marries the ideas of freedom and obedience by asserting to Harry, “Dobby is a free house-elf and he can obey anyone he likes and Dobby will do whatever Harry Potter wants him to do” (Prince 593).

Kreacher, a house-elf originally belonging to Sirius Black’s family, provides a stark contrast to an accommodating Dobby enamored of Harry Potter. Indeed, the foul-tempered creature directly lies to Harry during The Order of the Phoenix about Sirius’s whereabouts, an action which leads to Black’s death at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange. While the reader certainly feels pity toward Harry and his deep anguish over the loss of Sirius, hating Kreacher outright as a result proves problematical. Decades of service devoted to the racist, pureblood Black family have seen Kreacher internalize the beliefs of his masters, most notably Sirius’s own mother. This point is later given credence by Kreacher’s eventual change of attitude toward Harry. Kreacher passes into Harry’s ownership after Sirius’s death, but at first, little changes. Kreacher at one point looks upon Harry with a “contemptuous look” (Deathly Hallows 190) before recounting his history with Regulus Black, Sirius’s brother. Again, only Hermione displays any concern for Kreacher’s status as a slave when she states, “Oh, don’t you see how sick it is, the way they’ve got to obey?” (Deathly Hallows 197). This chapter concludes with Harry bestowing on Kreacher a locket that once belonged to Regulus. Kreacher is genuinely moved by the gift and from this point on, his attitude toward Harry softens. As such, his own attitudes begin to shift again to enfold those of his new, and now respected, master. This leads to Kreacher marshalling the house-elves to fight against the Death Eaters during the final, climatic battle at Hogwarts.

The implication one infers from reading Kreacher’s entire story arc places blame on the poorly behaved slave owner, while still sidestepping the larger problem of slavery itself. Sirius’s own cruel treatment of Kreacher supports this reading. Sirius, the black sheep of his family while he was young and by the time of The Order of the Phoenix, a brooding, resentful, alcoholic, treats Kreacher with contempt. Kreacher represents a living and loyal tie to the pureblood fanaticism of the Black family, a side Sirius despises. As such, he constantly berates Kreacher for dereliction of duty in keeping number 12 Grimmauld Place clean and states that if Kreacher does not stop muttering, he, Sirius, will “be a murderer” (Phoenix 110). Despite his obvious hatred for Kreacher, Sirius also echoes what seems to be a consistent rationalization for keeping house-elves enslaved. When confronted by Hermione about setting Kreacher free, Sirius at first rightly asserts that Kreacher knows too much about the Order of the Phoenix and therefore must be kept under orders not to betray them. However, in the same breath, Sirius reasons, “the shock would kill him” (Phoenix 110) should Kreacher be given his freedom. Sirius’s poor treatment of Kreacher continues unabated, despite this admission that Kreacher has become so accustomed to slavery as to be incapable of functioning in any other state.

After Sirius’s death, Dumbledore comes to Kreacher’s defense. He criticizes Sirius’s treatment of the house-elf, stating, “And whatever Kreacher’s faults, it must be admitted that Sirius did nothing to make Kreacher’s lot easier” (Phoenix 832). Part of Kreacher’s lot lies in his status as a slave who has lost the mistress to whom he displayed unerring loyalty. Dumbledore’s assessment of the treatment of Kreacher leads to a disturbing conclusion. Treat a slave right and one gets a happy, obedient slave. As has been consistently the case, Dumbledore makes no assertion as to Kreacher’s inherent right to be free. Instead, he essentially blames Sirius for being a poor slave master. By eventually treating Kreacher with a measure of kindness, Harry becomes a benevolent slave owner. Pointedly, Harry does not appear to be poised to give Kreacher his freedom, as he had Dobby. Deathly Hallows instead concludes with an exhausted Harry “wondering if Kreacher might bring him a sandwich” (749).

Dumbledore’s role as the “overseer” of Hogwarts begs further analysis. He appears willing to extend to Dobby the offer of paid employment, but does not broach this idea with any of the other house-elves. Indeed, as Brycchan Carey argues, “Dumbledore may not yet be ready to emancipate the Hogwarts house-elves” (106) and he dies without either doing so himself, or leaving orders in place that the practice of slavery must end at Hogwarts. Certainly, Dumbledore relies on a free labor force in order to avoid the expense of paying for a phalanx of kitchen workers and housekeepers as much as any other wizard or witch. The reliance on slavery for the performance of mundane and undesirable tasks proves embedded into the Wizarding psyche. Dumbledore perhaps holds the belief that house-elves should “ask” for freedom instead of being inherently entitled to it by right, which is in keeping with his role as the benevolent overseer trying to do what is best for his childlike slave labor force.

Only Hermione actively advocates for the house-elves. She discovers the direct correlation between the non-paid labor force which tends to Hogwarts and is the first to call the house-elves “slaves” (Goblet 154). Yet Rowling at the same time diminishes Hermione’s cause by characterizing her as petulant and off-putting. She rants against the exclusion of any mention of the house-elves as a slave class in Hogwarts, A History and the school’s “colluding in the oppression of a hundred slaves” (Goblet 238). In her fury, Hermione takes definitive action to free the house-elves through the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, which takes the unfortunate acronym “S.P.E.W.” Rowling further lessens the importance of Hermione’s ideals by referring to the freedom movement later as the “House-Elf Liberation Front.” This name bears unmistakable resemblance to both the Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts, both of which are known for their willingness to employ deadly and brutal tactics in the furthering of their causes. In so doing, Rowling reduces Hermione’s genuine concern and outrage for an established and endorsed system of slavery to both a histrionic and dangerous state. Hermione never gains much support for her endeavors and her friends consistently mock her efforts behind her back.

Rowling revisits Ron’s ambivalent attitude toward the plight of the house-elves late in Deathly Hallows. Ron realizes that the house-elves have not yet evacuated the besieged Hogwarts and in response to Harry’s query about having them join the battle, ponders, “I mean we should tell them to get out. We don’t want any more Dobbies, do we? We can’t order them to die for us—” (625). Immediately upon hearing this, Hermione kisses Ron for the first time, presumably due to Ron’s seeming change of heart regarding the cause dearest to her heart: the rights of the house-elves. However, reading this as a pivotal moment of change for Ron proves problematical and is not a position otherwise supported anywhere in the series. Clearly, the death of Dobby affects Ron – that much appears genuine. He makes the above statement “seriously” (625), a descriptor which signals Ron’s understanding of the lethal nature of the war raging around them and the potential for many others to be added to an already escalating body count. Further still, he appears legitimately concerned over the moral quagmire inherent in ordering the house-elves to fight, knowing that they will be unable to resist the command. Beyond this, nothing substantial changes in Ron’s stance toward the house-elves. Tellingly, Ron never once in this scene speaks of freeing the house-elves. Indeed, he speaks specifically of ordering them to flee. While Ron certainly advocates for a better course of action than sending many of the house-elves to their deaths, he still maintains the role of master over a race of subjects, as he has in every other place in the series that the issue of freeing the slaves has arisen. Hermione’s passionate response to Ron’s declaration, leading to an extended and enthusiastic kiss amidst the chaos around them, switches this moment of insight completely. Immediately after the kiss ends, Hermione and Ron both blush, then prepare for combat. Although Ron gives voice to the issue of ordering a slave to die for his or her master, and clearly comes down on the side of not doing so, he fails to understand the broader picture. Moreover, he never again revisits this topic. The plight of the house-elves as a slave race is never an issue for Ron, as it has been all along for Hermione.

Sadly, as already hinted at above, Dobby gives up his life for Harry in the final novel of the series. In his grief and outrage over Dobby’s death, Harry finally moves closer to understanding the importance of having freed the house-elf several years before. Not only does Harry bury Dobby, he digs the grave alone, then affixes the simple epitaph, “Here lies Dobby, a Free Elf” (Deathly 481). If the house-elves and other oppressed classes of non- and demi-humans have any hope of a change in circumstance, it lies well outside of the scope of the novels, in generations following Harry and his friends. Harry’s one moment of recognition may well set in motion a slow changing of ideals in the Wizarding world. Certainly, Harry’s deliberate memorialization of Dobby as “free” sets him much more closely in line with Hermione’s attempts at freeing the house-elves than he has ever been before. Concrete proof of these changes, however, lies well outside the scope of the novels, including the closing scene which flashes forward to Harry, Ron, Hermione, and company married with families of their own. Perhaps Harry, Ron, and numerous others of their generation will begin to agitate for meaningful change and an end to slavery of the house-elves and the constant encroachment of wizards and witches into territory belonging to other nun-humans. Regrettably, the opposite has just as much chance of proving true. The house-elves go back to their work in the kitchens of Hogwarts and in the homes of Wizarding families and the status quo remains. Creatures like giants and centaurs continue to be pushed to the margins of Wizarding society, both literally and metaphorically, until perhaps they all but disappear, relegated to either sub-prime land or increasingly shrinking reservations. Although Rowling ridicules consistently the pure blood panic about purity, her stance on slavery never definitively condemns the institution. Harry, Ron, and their peers may have a “moral blind spot attributable to youth” (Patterson 116), but this fails to account for the myriad adults complicit both in maintaining and benefiting from an enslaved race. The novels certainly introduce readers to complicated issues of Othering and slavery, but often do so without depicting such ideals and practices as harmful and degrading.



1. The issue of racial purity proves as equally distressing in the series as that of the treatment of non and demi-humans. Such a discussion, however, falls beyond the scope of this discussion.


Works Cited

Carey, Brycchan. “Hermione and the House-Elves: The Literary and Historical Contexts of J.K. Rowling’s Antislavery Campaign.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Lisa Anatol. Westport: Praeger, 2003. 103-115.

Chowdhry, Geeta and Mark Beeman. “Situating Colonialism, Race, and Punishment.” Race, Gender, and Punishment: From Colonialism to the War on Terror. Ed. Mary Bosworth and Jeanne Flavin. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2007. 13-31.

Heilman, Elizabeth E. and Anne E. Gregory. “Images of the Privileged Insider and Outcast Outsider.” Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Elizabeth E. Heilman. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2003. 241-259.

Hopkins, Lisa. “Harry Potter and the Acquisition of Knowledge.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Lisa Anatol. Westport: Praeger, 2003. 25-34.

Mason, Matthew. Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006.

Mendlesohn, Farah. “Crowning the King: Harry Potter and the Construction of Authority.” The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter. Ed. Lana A. Whited. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. 159-181.

Ostry, Elaine. “Accepting Mudbloods: the Ambivalent Social Vision of J.K. Rowling’s Fairy Tales.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Lisa Anatol. Westport: Praeger, 2003. 89-101.

Otalvaro-Hormillosa, Sonia. “Racial and Erotic Anxieties: Ambivalent Fetishization, From Fanon to Mercer.” Postcolonial and Queer Theories: Intersections and Essays. Ed. John C. Hawley. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001. 87-111.

Patterson, Steven W. “Kreacher’s Lament: S.P.E.W. as a Parable on Discrimination, Indifference, and Social Justice.” Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. Ed. David Baggett and Shawn E. Klein. Chicago: Open Court, 2004. 105-117.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. 1999. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

---. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.

---. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

---. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.

---. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003.

---. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. 1999. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

---. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. 1998. New York: Scholastic, 1999.


Amy M. Green

Volume 13, Issue 3 The Looking Glass September/October, 2009

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“Revealing Discrimination: Social Hierarchy and the Exclusion/Enslavement of the Other in the Harry Potter Novels"
© Amy M. Green 2009.

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