Reviewed in the United States on May 8, 2015
I've always liked the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, if largely for the sheer spectacle of the Triwizard Tournament. Unlike its predecessors, the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is very different from the book - necessitated in part because the book is almost twice the length of Prisoner of Azkaban.
Goblet of Fire contains an entire subplot about House-elf rights not even referenced in the films. It's an interesting social commentary and adds another layer of moral complexity to the Harry Potter series. Unfortunately, the characters' responses to the House-elves plight puzzles me, to say the least.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron learn that Dobby now works at Hogwarts as a free Elf. However, they also learn that hundreds of House-elves work in Hogwarts, basically as slaves. This immediately strains credibility. Harry, Hermione, and Ron have all snuck around Hogwarts at night. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry even learns about the secret passageways. I simply cannot believe that they'd never spotted any House-elves during their three years at the school. Up to this point. Hermione seemed to know every minute detail about the school and its history. Perhaps they were simply never curious and, like many kids, never wondered about the domestic help who cleaned up after them.
Hermione takes a strong interest in the plight of the House-elves and decides to form the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) to advocate for Elf rights. Despite her best efforts, neither Harry nor Ron join her crusade. In fact, they seem blasé about the House-elf situation and believe that the Elves are happy to work at Hogwarts. Harry even seems a tad insensitive; for Christmas, he gives Dobby - who risked his life for Harry in Chamber of Secrets - an old sock. Meanwhile, Ron teases Hermione for being obsessed with S.P.E.W.
I'm all for letting Harry and Ron's characters wade into morally ambiguous territory, but this setup doesn't quite ring true. If anything, given his backgrounds, Harry should have been more sympathetic to the plight of House-elves than Hermione. When we first met him in Sorcerer's Stone, the Dursleys basically treated Harry like a House-elf, forcing him to do chores and otherwise stay out of sight. In Chamber of Secrets, he actually developed a friendship with Dobby, and thus should have had a personal stake in the House-elf question.
As any social activist knows, personal appeals are often the most effective. I kept waiting for Hermione to say something like: "Harry, did you like the way your uncle and aunt treated you? Living under that staircase? Didn't they order you to act happy in front of guests? Imagine your life if Hagrid hadn't come to rescue you. How different is your situation from the House-elves, really? Except they don't have a Hagrid." Even if such an appeal didn't convince Harry to wholeheartedly join S.P.E.W., I think the character really need to confront the fact that he was turning his back on individuals in a situation similar to what he experienced under the Dursleys.
Believability aside, the House-elf subplot adds an interesting twist by suggesting that the world readers saw simply as "magical" in Sorcerer's Stone actually runs on slave labor. Again, as Harry grows up, the world is no longer black and white. As Sirius Black says, "If you want to know what a man's really like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors..." At the same time, Rowling strikes a delicate balance. Despite Hermione's pleading, the plight of the House-elves isn't so desperate that readers become disgusted with Harry or Ron. The House-elves have always been somewhat comical figures and do seem to genuinely prefer servitude. We might admire Dobby's Braveheart-like passion for freedom, and we be frustrated by the limits of Harry's compassion, but I doubt many readers come away from Goblet of Fire thinking that Harry condones slavery.
If anything, Goblet of Fire seems to use the House-elf subplot as social commentary on society's blind neglect of societal injustice. We know that problems exist in the world but rarely do we do anything about them. Most of us - and Rowling's largely Western, middle-class readership - never dig too deeply into the lives janitors, waiters, bus drivers, etc. A news article about Asian companies using slaves to catch seafood might jolt some readers, but will probably prevent few from taking action - if they even remember the following day. Goblet of Fire doesn't seem to imply that, in accepting House-elf servitude, Harry - or readers who engage in similar blind neglect - is becoming like Voldemort. It does make clear though that Harry will have to learn pity before he can become a truly admirable adult.
For all my discussion about the House-elves, they're a small part of Goblet of Fire. The later Harry Potter books continue the House-elf subplot. There's some payoff for Harry and Ron's character development, but oddly the larger issue of House-elf rights remains unresolved by the final book. Perhaps this is meant to convey the difficult of social change? In any case, the House-elf question provides an interesting subplot throughout he series, but I wish the characters had had more meaningful and personal conversations about the subject.