Before moving back to Australia, I was overcome with an urge to re-read the entire Harry Potter series. It could have had something to do with reading online articles about Harry Potter, but let’s not jump to conclusions.
Needless to say, faced with countless hours of free time up my sleeve, I started re-reading the series. But in my usual erratic way, I didn’t read them in order. I mean, why bother considering that I know the story back to front, I just wanted to devour the details this time round.
The last book I read was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It’s not one of my favourites (I prefer the Half Blood Prince) and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe because it’s the first time someone dies in the series? Or because Lord Voldemort comes back and that’s not a nice way to end a story? Who cares really.
However, after my year of living abroad and being exposed to ~ the world ~, re-reading the Goblet of Fire was the ultimate literary experience. I had those ‘aha!’ moments you yearn for when reading, and I was blown away by how I did not even see these themes before. Every chapter was a mind explosion and I questioned my ranking of Goblet of Fire in the series.
The most outstanding theme for me, was the theme of human rights, and what it means to different people. Having come back from a country where human rights is non-existent, this really touched me and made me more aware of how in our everyday lives, we unknowingly encoruage the continued abuse of human rights in our own environment, and globally.
I’ll be honest – it’s highly possible (I’ll give it an accurately unscientific estimate at 239% possible) someone has figured this theme out and written a similar blog or article. The difference is, they are not me and have not had my experiences so their interpretations may vastly contradict mine. I will let you, as my highly intelligent and acute reader, be the judge as to which interpretation is the best…
How human rights is discussed in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The issue of human rights is an obvious one from the get-go, with Hermione’s passion for S.P.E.W (that’s Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare for the uninitiated) and her fury at the indifference shown by the magical community to house elf rights. It’s a clear analogy for our own attitudes to human rights, a reflection of how we react when accused of enabling the abuse of human rights under our own noses and the general state of human rights globally today.
However, what I find incredibly interesting is the counter-argument for fighting for house elf rights, and also Hermione’s own attitude, and dare I say it, hypocrisy, towards house elves. Let me explain.
When Hermione confronts her wizarding world friends about supporting the rights of house elves (standard wages, holidays, sick leave etc), they’re all amused at first, but then exasperated when they have to repeatedly explain to Hermione that being subservient, displaying absolute obedience and confidence in their masters is part of who they are. In the world of Harry Potter and friends, you’d have to agree – they’re house elves and that’s their lot in life. Just like goblins are mistrusted, giants are shunned and Squibs ridiculed – it’s the world order and you just don’t challenge it.
Apply this concept in real life – imagine a world where people of colour are discriminated against on a daily basis… oh wait, that is real life. What if I told you they’re so used to being discriminated they’ve accepted it and just get on with life, having low expectations and are happy to be continually bullied, segregated and isolated from society? That’s essentially what wizards and witches are saying about house elves, but has anyone actually asked the house elves if this is ok?
Admittedly, in the book, their sole example of Winky, claims her life is about serving her master but that could be an attitude ingrained through generations of discrimination. Dobby is like the Nelson Mandela of house elves – who sees the BS of it all and doesn’t understand why house elves, who possess magic and knowledge far more superior to that of wizards, shouldn’t have equal rights.
Dobby really is the shining light in this book. He represents the hope for the groups in society who have little to no human rights, and shows us how a small step can lead to greater outcomes. When we first meet Dobby in Chamber of Secrets, we learn through him the role of the house elf in wizarding society. However, you understand through his language that he doesn’t agree with the current world order and seeks a better life for himself and his fellow house elves. So it’s quite wonderful to meet him again in Goblet of Fire, and to find out that he has grasped the opportunity of being freed from the Malfoys to lobby and advocate for equality for house elves.
Dobby is now employed by Hogwarts and thanks to headmaster Albus Dumbledore, he now receives a wage (one galleon per week) and one day off per month. Dobby proudly exclaims to Harry + Co that he enjoys being a free elf, much to the elation of Hermione and the chagrin of the other house elves. This example shows us that it doesn’t take a lot to achieve fairness and equality – it’s about the small wins, and each time Dobby, or another house elf, achieves a small win, they’re working towards a more equal and democratic future for wizarding society.
Where does Hermione’s hypocrisy come into all of this? There’s a line in the book, a simple, throwaway line in chapter 15, when George tells Hermione that the house elves are happy, she retorts with ‘That’s because they’re uneducated and brainwashed!’. I actually liked Hermione a little less after reading this (is it possible to dislike a fictional character?) because this one sentence shows that no amount of education can make her immune to prejudice born out of white privilege.
This opinion, that people or groups who are oppressed, discriminated against or have no rights, are stupid and brainwashed is a common sentiment among ‘Westerners’. To assume people who are not like you are stupid shows an ignorance of human intelligence and understanding, that thankfully can be corrected.
In this example, Hermione assumes because house elves are not ‘educated’ in terms her own frame of reference, they don’t know what it means to have rights and freedoms. What she should understand is that education isn’t just things you learn in school – it’s life experience, wisdom and stories passed down from generations and most importantly, compassion for others. Maybe house-elves were free once upon a time, and live in poverty and terror, and only becoming enslaved gave their life structure and purpose. So it’s possible that by advocating for their rights and equality, she could be doing them a disservice.
Essentially, the issue of human rights is not black and white. It’s a result of history, culture and human error and we need to understand the context of particular individuals and groups before we contribute to the conversation.
So why is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire an important lesson in human rights?
The book exposes our own biased views towards human rights and also make us think critically about how we view the world, our rights and privileges and how the decisions we make impact those around us. It makes you question your own values and attitudes, and hopefully inspires you to look more deeply into the abuse of human rights of minority groups around the world.
There are so many human rights issues touched on in this book: the death penalty, the right to a fair trial, discrimination based on race and class, torture, and one that threads the series together: the right to life, to live in freedom and safety.
If this post has inspired you to become a human rights advocate, check out the following sites to learn more:
- Simplified Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Amnesty International (global site): www.amnesty.org
- Human Rights Watch: www.hrw.org
- International Labour Organisation: www.ilo.org
- International Federation of Human Rights: www.fidh.org