Sunday, November 25, 2012

S.P.E.W. and The White Man's Burden

Lately, I've been re-listening to the Harry Potter series of books on tape (as read by Stephen Fry) at night; alternating between all seven books and other entirely unrelated works like the BBC Radio productions of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Universe, Lindsey Davis's Falco series, and the abridged audiobook of Casino Royale. It's been fun: Fry tells the story well, and aside from the awkward accent he adopts for Nymphadora Tonks in the last three books, I approve of all his characterisations as well.

That said, there are a few components of the stories that have started to bother me more as I familiarise myself with the plots again. Not in the sense that they ruin the story for me, but that they bring up problems with the characters that round them out more fully and make the story fun to engage with intellectually. Can you tell yet that I'm an at-home mum? I'm using my historian's skills wherever I possibly can...even reading novels. As this post's title suggests, my first problem is with Miss Hermione Granger

via, Harry Potter Wiki
.In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, after the Quidditch World Cup, Hermione gets obsessed with her social justice crusade on behalf of house elves: wizardkind's version of Enlightenment-era slaves. House elves, as she rightly points out, get a raw deal. They do menial tasks without thanks, time off, or pay. They are forced to wear makeshift clothes like tea towels or pillowcases in order to maintain their inferior position subject to wizards. In the cases of Dobby and Kreacher, misery is a large part of a house elf's life. Dobby is constantly subjected to physical punishment if he doesn't do as he's told (banging his head against the wall, shutting his ears in the oven door...) and Kreacher is forced to do Sirius's bidding, even though he thinks of his master as "an ungrateful swine who broke my mistress's heart."

So here's where I bring in Rudyard Kipling. Hermione gets a serious case of what seems like the equivalent of white guilt once she sees the house elf Winky dismissed from her position by Mr. Crouch. She starts constantly harping on how wizards mistreat, not only house elves, but goblins, werewolves  Muggles, and all sorts of others. Does she have a point? Yes. But especially in the case of house elves, this social justice campaign gets a bit nauseating.

Again in Goblet of Fire, after visiting the kitchens with Harry and Ron, Hermione lets out this particular condescending gem:
I think this is the best thing that could have happened to those elves, you know...Dobby coming to work here, I mean. The other elves will see how happy he is being free, and slowly it'll dawn on them that they want that, too!
 It's this supposition that Hermione knows better than the elves what they want and what is best for them that gets so imperialist. While she holds the house elves in higher esteem than is implied by Kipling's line about half-devils half-children in The White Man's Burden, she still doesn't give them enough credit. Because they are oppressed, they must also be brainwashed: clearly they could never have differing values that embraced the idea of the nobility of unpaid manual labour. And if they do, those values are invalid and the result of coercion. She seems determined, like the white men of Kipling's poem, to drag the house elves into a better state of affairs whether they like it or not.

While this heavy-handed sense of social righteousness just plays into the image of Hermione as an insufferable know-it-all, I think it also rounds her out a bit as a character. Because she's basically the human Wikipedia of wizarding knowledge, it seems like she should have been sorted into Ravenclaw, not Gryffindor. Her contribution to reaching the Philosopher's Stone is to solve Snape's logic puzzle. Rather than bravely sallying forth into the Forbidden Forest or the Chamber of Secrets, Hermione hits up the library and solves the mystery of the basilisk. When Harry flies off the handle, screaming at Sirius when they first meet in the Shrieking Shack, Hermione, frightened to be in the same room with an alleged mass murder, begs him to keep his mouth shut. Doesn't exactly sound like she belongs "where dwell the brave at heart" so far.

And yet, she ploughs on with this crusade for elf rights in the face of pretty much universal opposition. She fights with Percy, berates Ron, harasses the whole of her house to join S.P.E.W., and sermonizes to anyone who will listen, undeterred by any degree of indifference or hostility to her cause. Standing as the lone self-righteous voice for greater equality amongst the magical species takes its own kind of bravery. And then, in the end, Hermione shows a bit more of the more obvious sort of bravery as well: leading Umbridge into the Forbidden Forest, spearheading the establishment of Dumbledore's Army, and often taking the lead in the search for Voldemort's horcruxes. She fought off Nagini in Godric's Hollow, masterminded the trio's escape from Death Eaters at Xenophilius Lovegood's house, and took point in the infiltration of Gringott's by masquerading as Bellatrix Lestrange: the position in their plan with the most visibility and risk.

So even though Hermione takes up the wizard's burden of dragging the brainwashed and oppressed house elves kicking and screaming into a bright new day of wages and clothes, her stubborn liberal paternalism helps to explain her placement in Gryffindor House. It does start to reek a bit of "daring, nerve, and chivalry" if you ask me.

In future posts? Oh, I have loads of nerdy ideas.

  • Mrs. Weasley and overbearing parenting. 
  • Dumbledore and the censorship of knowledge. 
  • The Deathly Hallows, credulity, and skepticism. 
  • Why can't wizards set up a decent government?
  • Wizarding couples and the BYU marriage phenomenon.
Indulge me...these are fun arguments to make. In a trivial way, I feel like I'm actually using the education I paid exorbitant fees to obtain.


  1. Yes!!! I've been looking for someone to address this. I've been doing the same thing in terms of rereading the books. I have to admit that as I've been rereading a lot of things have started to bother me as well. This stuck out to me, as you say, an example of white man's burden. I appreciate hearing this analysed from a historical perspective. It bothered me so much since it brought to mind the paternalistic "I know what's best for you" approach to non-white people. Also, this topic is very relevant to discussions of racism today and feminism For example, the feminist group that often protests topless, the name escapes me as the moment, often takes the same tone with Muslim women and it does more damage than good because it alienates people when they could be working together. I saw Hermione's approach as very much echoing this sentiment. Also, I was just downright annoyed when we learn that the house elves refused to clean Gryffindor tower. Hermione's shortsightedness and refusal to include the people she is trying "to save" has very negative consequences for Dobby who has to clean it all himself, not to mention alienating the house elves. I read somewhere that Rowling did this on purpose to showcase this particular mistake, but I also feel let down that she never really made Hermione confront this. I feel like it was a missed opportunity for all of the young white girls who look to Hermione as a model to learn why this attitude is to troubling.

  2. Thanks for the thought, Adele! And I agree: the underhanded attempts to free the house elves will-they-nil-they only alienated the demographic she was trying to help to the point that they were so insulted they went on strike! It IS a shame that none of the other characters ever got a chance to properly point out the flaw in her concern, though I can appreciate Rowling writing that sort of mistake in's probably fair enough for someone that age having their first brush with real discrimination.

    Thanks for stopping by long enough to comment!