Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter/Major Events/S.P.E.W.

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Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter - Major Event
S.P.E.W.
Location Hogwarts School
Time Period Starting in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Important Characters Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley

Overview[edit]

Beginner warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.

S.P.E.W., or the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, was founded by Hermione Granger during her fourth year at Hogwarts to promote liberation and rights for House Elves, an enslaved caste who are basically happy as they are. Hermione believes all Elves should be freed and instead receive wages, pensions, sick leave, and other benefits that a normal worker earns. Ron and Harry are reluctantly recruited into helping promote her cause.

Event Details[edit]

The groundwork for this organization is laid in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Hermione is at the Quidditch World Cup. There, she meets Winky, a House-elf who, despite her fear of heights, has been sent to the Top Box to hold a seat there for her Master, Bartemius Crouch. Winky is plainly terrified at being so high in the air, and Hermione is scandalized, first that she could be so casually forced to do something that is so against her wishes, and second, that having demanded this service from Winky, Mr. Crouch doesn't even appear in the Top Box during the game to make use of the service he has demanded of her. She is further dismayed when Mr. Crouch dismisses Winky for the apparently trivial error of having the wand that had cast the Dark Mark into the sky.

At the Arrival Feast at Hogwarts, Nearly Headless Nick mentions that there had nearly been no feast at all. Upset at not being invited to the feast, Peeves had been wreaking destruction in the kitchens and had badly upset the House Elves. Hermione is upset at the news that the dinner had been prepared by "slave labour", and refuses to eat any more of it, despite being tempted by Ron.

The following day, Hermione eats breakfast hurriedly, saying that there are better ways to fight this than simply abstaining from eating, and departs for the library. Over the next few days, she spends a lot of time in the library, eventually returning with a stack of pamphlets, buttons, and a donations box. She explains the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare to a bemused Ron and Harry, saying that when they two join, the society will have three members. Ron protests that the House-Elves are happy as they are, but eventually joins.

Over the next while, we are told that Hermione is often to be seen shaking her donations box under people's noses in the Common Room, without much apparent success. At one point, she takes her donations box and tries to convince Hagrid to join. He listens to her sales pitch, but gently declines, saying that things are more complex than Hermione, who is yet young, understands, and that the elves are happier as they are.

At one point, Harry and Ron become estranged, and Hermione asks Harry to go to Hogsmeade with her on a Hogsmeade weekend. Harry, after directly asking if she is hoping to end his and Ron's estrangement, agrees to go but only under his Invisibility Cloak. Sitting in the Three Broomsticks apparently by herself, Hermione says she feels foolish, but luckily she has brought some S.P.E.W. business along with her that she can spread out over the table.

Later in the same book, Hermione innocently asks Fred and George where they had got a supply of pastries that they had brought up to a Gryffindor party. Fred starts to tell her where the kitchen is, but then stops, asking her if she is trying to start a House-Elf rebellion. Picking up on this, Ron starts referring to S.P.E.W. as the "House-Elf Liberation Front." Apparently, what Fred has revealed is enough, because shortly after this, Hermione leads Harry and Ron to the kitchens, where they find that the Hogwarts House-Elves now include both Dobby and Winky. Dobby explains that as a Free Elf, he now looks for payment, and this has made it extremely difficult for him to find work, but that Professor Dumbledore has hired both him and Winky. Harry can't help but notice that the other House Elves look disconcerted, and seem to keep their distance from Dobby and Winky. As they leave the kitchens, Hermione says that seeing how happy Dobby is can only have a good effect on the other House Elves, when they see how well Dobby has taken to being free. Harry privately thinks that the counter-example provided by the equally free, listless, drunken, wailing Winky is likely more powerful.

During Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hermione tries to set Hogwarts' elves free by hiding hats and socks under crumpled parchment and the like, to force the elves to take the clothes and free themselves. However, this backfires when all the Hogwarts elves (save Dobby, who is already free) refuse to clean the Gryffindor Tower because "they finds them insulting, sir," as Dobby says to Harry. While Hermione's efforts here are clearly related to the reasons for S.P.E.W.'s existence, whether this is done under the auspices of S.P.E.W. is not explicitly stated.

Although we can safely guess that S.P.E.W. and the rights of House-Elves remain in Hermione's thoughts, the organization itself is not mentioned in later books.

Notable Consequences[edit]

It is only because of her efforts to free the house elves from what she sees as slavery that Hermione becomes interested in the Hogwarts kitchens. It is because she reaches the kitchens that we discover that both Dobby and Winky are now at Hogwarts. Winky will give us some clues to the nature of the hidden danger at Hogwarts, while Dobby will later provide Harry with information that he will need for the Second Task and, in a later book, for the establishment of Dumbledore's Army.

Hermione's championing the rights of all magical creatures will, according to the author, form a significant part of her career after she leaves Hogwarts.

Analysis[edit]

It is surprisingly muddy thinking on Hermione's part to think that the elf hats she hides around the Gryffindor common room will have any effect. We have learned that a House-Elf can be freed if given clothes by his or her master, but Hermione is not their master, and so accepting clothes from her will not free the elves. Hermione should have been able to predict that the elves would not be freed by her gift. Their reaction, finding the hats insulting, is unsurprising, though not for this reason; the reaction of the elves in the kitchen during the conversation about Dobby's and Winky's freedom is very much more telling. The House Elves seem to actually fear freedom, and with good reason, as neither Dobby nor Winky was able to find work as a Free Elf, and as they are not maltreated at Hogwarts, none of the House Elves there sees freedom as being worth the loss of security. Hermione would have been able to see this, were she not blinded by her own certainty.

The reaction of the House-elves to the idea of freedom appears to depend on the conditions of their servitude. While Dobby clearly welcomes his freedom, this is almost certainly due to his earlier home life, suffering torture at the hands of the Malfoy family. Winky, on the other hand, vastly preferred her life as a slave in the Crouch household to the uncertainty of life as a free Elf. It is safe to assume that Winky's situation was more comfortable than Dobby's, despite the events at the Quidditch World Cup. We can safely assume that with Dumbledore at its head, Hogwarts is a secure and just place for House-elves to work, which would explain the general satisfaction of the kitchen staff with their indentured positions. More analysis of this may be found in the article on house elves.

Hermione championing rights for House-elves (that they actually do not want) formally begins in Chapter 14 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Although S.P.E.W. becomes a smaller subplot in later books, Hermione continues to believe, quite correctly, that House-elves are a slave caste and should be freed. However, Hermione does not yet realize that freedom comes with a price, and it must be carefully orchestrated if elves are to survive and thrive without discrimination or retribution within the wizarding world. Simply turning loose what most wizards consider to be inferior beings (even more so than other non-human magical folk) would create great hardship, just as it did for Dobby and Winky, who were unable to find work until Dumbledore offered them paid employment at Hogwarts. Few wizards would be as generous as he, knowing that a free elf has the option to leave at any time if he or she feels maltreated; possibly, in fact, it would only be a place with as large an elf population as Hogwarts that would not be incapacitated by the sudden departure of a House Elf. It would take a huge effort to realign the general wizarding population's thinking to accept House-elves as free agents. Hermione would do well to study how emancipated Muggle slaves fared following the American Civil War in the mid-1860s. Although former slaves were now free U.S. citizens, they struggled against severe discrimination, hatred, violence, and poverty while attempting to assimilate into a white-dominated, patriarchal society, all while lacking (and being denied) adequate education, jobs, and other opportunities needed to fend for themselves. As in the Wizard world, it was more than one race that was discriminated against: Irish, Asians, Italians, and Gypsies, among others, were routinely denied equal opportunities based solely on their ethnicity. However, much like some non-human magical folk in Wizarding society (goblins and centaurs, for instance), these particular ethnic groups were never enslaved and they had functioned within their own countries as free citizens and with at least some education. Also, immigrants were often able to establish their own small, protective communities while gradually integrating themselves into American culture, whereas freed slaves created a sudden and rather chaotic influx into a new social order in which there was little management or oversight and which often resulted in abuse and exploitation. Over a century later, these struggles still exist to some extent and are likely similar to what House-elves would experience.

Hagrid's refusal to join S.P.E.W. is interesting for two reasons. First, Hagrid shows that many wizards do not believe House-elves are mistreated and generally are happy with their lot in life; as we see in the Hogwarts kitchens, this is the case, at least at Hogwarts, if not in the Malfoy family. And secondly, Hagrid says that it is in House-elves nature to serve wizards. This could imply that House-elves may have freely entered into servitude, but at some point in history, wizards may have gained an advantage that allowed them to turn elves into slaves. This may have been achieved through selective breeding and magical mind manipulation. House-elves seem genuinely happiest when they have masters to serve, which apparently confirms what Hagrid is saying here. It is debatable then as to how well House-elves could, or would, adapt to sudden and unexpected new-found freedom.

Visiting the kitchen provides Hermione a reality check when she witnesses first-hand just how truly satisfied House-elves are with their indentured lives, at least those at Hogwarts. They are quite literally "happy slaves" who believe their only purpose in life is to freely serve wizards, and they are unwilling to change. The only exceptions are Dobby and Winky, who the other House-elves disdain for being paid workers. While Dobby is proud to be a free agent, Winky is ashamed; as a result, she has become a sad, pathetic alcoholic, still pining for her former master, Mr. Crouch, who cruelly and unjustly fired her. And though Dobby and Winky are no longer slaves, their freedom created great hardship, as there are few opportunities available for masterless House-elves. Dobby, by his own report, spent a year-and-a-half seeking work; and while Dobby is resourceful and adaptable, Winky likely would never have sought other employment, and, without Dobby's help, probably would have suffered a miserable demise. Only Dumbledore's kindness has saved them both.

The later name "House-Elf Liberation Front" may be a nod by the author to the famous "People's Front of Judaea" by fellow-Britons Monty Python.

Questions[edit]

Study questions are meant to be left for each student to answer; please don't answer them here.

Greater Picture[edit]

Intermediate warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.

We will never know whether Ron's sudden interest in the welfare of the House Elves in the kitchens in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is real or calculated. Hermione's concern about the House Elves is quite clear to everyone by this point, and presumably Ron could have been simply playing on that concern when he suggests warning the Elves about the upcoming battle, but if so, it was rather an odd time to be expressing that concern. We, like Hermione, believe that this is an expression of something that Ron is concerned about, and it does seem to win Hermione's heart.

In a post-publication interview, the author has stated that between the Last Battle and the Epilogue "Nineteen Years Later" in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione starts her dream to help all house-elves by working at the Ministry Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, where she begins to correct the culture with its shades of wizard superiority over, and in-built prejudice against, non-Human magical creatures.