House-elves are one of the Harry Potter book's most controversial subjects. Are they, as Hermione and Dobby contend, poor, brainwashed slaves, cruelly used by the wealthy and powerful Purebloods? Are they simply fulfilling a biological destiny as Ron and Hagrid say? Why do Winky and the Hogwarts elves act towards the idea of freedom so differently from Dobby? This essay will attempt to present a theory about House-elves, their magic and their place in the Wizarding world.
During the course of the first five novels, we meet three individual house-elves and one group. Only one is, I believe, typical for house-elves.
The first one we meet is Dobby. He is presented as a slave to the Malfoys. He wears a filthy pillow case as "the sign of [his] enslavement," he punishes himself, much to Harry's distress, and he truly hates both his condition and his family. After all, they are "evil, Dark wizards."
We have, at this point, no reason to think Dobby is unusual - slavery is bad, he's treated poorly and we know all about the Malfoys even if we've only seen Draco at this point. Why should we doubt him?
Except - he's tried to make Harry's summer more miserable by holding back his mail. I say "tried" because Harry has no expectations of friendship and is not more than mildly disappointed. He later performs magic to get Harry expelled - more on this later - then prevents him from going on the Hogwarts Express and finally causes him to fall off his broom. He does this entirely of his own will and in defiance of his family's desires. Yes, he punishes himself, but he does it anyway. Note that he leaves Malfoy Manor without permission.
He also longs for freedom. The idea is real for him - he wants clothing and to work for pay.
One further thing to consider - Hagrid, our expert for all magical creatures, calls him a "weirdo." Given that Hagrid named a three-headed dog "Fluffy" and bred Blast-Ended Skrewts, this is something to think about.
The next elf we meet is Winky. I believe she is the closest thing to a "normal" elf we have met, with the Hogwarts elves next. When we first meet her at the Quidditch World Cup, she is wearing a tidy tea-towel toga, and while she's unhappy at being so high up, she's not in any form of rebellion.
On the other hand, as we are later to learn, she has her own ideas and is able to persuade Crouch, Sr. to adopt them - she gets him to bring his son to the QWC. Nor is he surprised when she does so. She also runs in fear later, and while she ostensibly gets punished for this (as opposed to letting Barty go free), this is also a sign of a free will.
She is in despair when she is told she will get clothes, and even prostrates herself in front of Crouch. Note that she never punishes herself at this time. She doesn't get much of a chance, but Dobby would have run to the nearest tree.
The next time we see her, she is in the Hogwarts kitchens, wearing clothing - filthy clothing. She is ashamed of herself, she is still loyal to the Crouches and she is drinking heavily. What she is not doing, besides not getting paid, is working. And none of the other elves, in their tidy togas, seem to be bothered that she doesn't. That she's drunk, yes, but once they hide her away, they ignore her.
In OotP, we meet the Black elf, Kreacher. Kreacher is, apparently, insane. He does not work, he does not obey Sirius, he wears a filthy clout, and he steals. He also does not punish himself. However, he does not believe he's doing anything wrong. And, yes, Sirius does mistreat him, and that's wrong. But would Kreacher have trusted kindness from the family outcast?
Kreacher is considered to have become insane because he spent ten years in Grimmauld Place alone except for assorted vermin, photographs and portraits. This is not unreasonable. They also claim that he is waiting to join his ancestors on the wall.
The one time he obeys an "order" from Sirius, it's to leave the house. It is stressed that house-elves can't leave their family houses unless ordered. Kreacher, of course, runs to the remaining Black family member, Narcissa Malfoy, as Bellatrix is in Azkaban and Andromeda was struck out of the family when she married a Muggleborn wizard. Of course, Sirius was also burnt off, but that does seem more of a symbolic thing than anything real. He certainly wasn't disinherited. (Nor was his property confiscated, so it's not likely that the Malfoys will lose their fortune, either.)
The final example we have are the Hogwarts elves, which we've only met as a group. There are over a hundred of them to take care of the castle, do the routine cleaning and to feed all those hungry adolescents. To all appearances, they love it. They certainly resent all of Hermione's talk of freedom, to the point that they kick the Trio out of the kitchens. After which, they do not punish themselves that we can see.
They also refuse to clean Gryffindor Tower after Hermione starts leaving her gifts around, leaving it to the already-free Dobby. They do seem to accept Dobby as one of them, even if he shamefully accepts wages and even time off. They also accept that they will get no work out of Winky.
So, house-elves, Dobby excepted, regard getting clothes as a calamity. On the one hand, it is exactly analogous to a servant being turned out without references - a clothed house-elf has not only lost employment but also has a reduced chance of getting new employment, even if they don't want "paying." On the other hand, having gained employment, one would think that Winky would work, no matter how disgraced. This is, I think, important.
Less important but cute is how the elves' mental state is reflected in how they treat what they wear - depressed or unhappy elves are filthy, content ones are tidy. Kreacher, reflecting also Sirius's mental state, is so depressed that he doesn't care about his surroundings.
And Dobby is weird.
3. Wizarding world's views
There are two disparate views of house-elves in the wizarding world - Hermione's and everyone else's.
The rest of the wizarding world has a very simple view of house-elves. They are servants, and likely status symbols, given that Ron laments that his family can't afford one. Not that we have any idea how a family obtains them. They live but to serve, and they do so because they are house-elves and that's what they do. Goblins manage money, Centaurs watch the skies and Elves clean up after wealthy wizards.
Hermione, of course, believes that house-elves are enslaved against their wills, hate their lives and want to be given clothing. If not, they are brainwashed. She came to this conclusion, oddly enough, when she saw how hysterical Winky became upon being sacked. It doesn't help that Dobby is taking her little elf-mines, convincing her that she's right.
Two things are interesting here. One is that out of the hundred elves at Hogwarts, none of them wanted these gifts, even though they know Dumbledore will keep them on. The other is that no one doubts that Hermione, a mere student at Hogwarts, can give clothing. Remember that Harry had to engineer it so Lucius Malfoy gave Dobby his freedom sock. It can't be just anyone who does this, so how come Hermione can?
4. Digression - underage magic
At this point, it's necessary to discuss the detection of underage magic and the implications for underage wizards and witches and for house-elves.
We know underage witches and wizards are not permitted to perform magic outside of Hogwarts and the Hogwarts Express (and possibly Hogsmeade, although that's never made clear.) They get a notice at the end of the school year.
We encounter the effects of that ban along with our first glimpse of house-elves in Chamber of Secrets. Dobby comes to No. 4 Privet Drive with the express intention of preventing Harry from going back to Hogwarts, and to that end, he performs magic to disrupt the Dursleys' dinner party. Harry immediately receives an owl warning him that the next time he performs magic when he's not supposed to, he will be expelled from Hogwarts.
Since it wasn't Harry who performed that magic, this is confusing. It would also be confusing as to why he didn't protest, but this is Harry, who accepts that bad things happen to him. This is why Dobby's stoppage of Harry's mail also did not work - Harry at this point has no expectations about other people. He's sad they haven't written but not discouraged.
Anyway, the only conclusion one could get from that owl is that the Ministry of Magic can detect that magic is being done, but cannot detect who is doing it. Wands cannot be a factor because no wands were used.
This has serious implications for Hogwarts students. If the Ministry can only detect that magic has been performed, this law can only affect children in nonWizarding households. Draco Malfoy can do wandwork to his heart's content in the heart of the manor, while the Weasley twins can do the same hiding in their room (Mrs. Weasley would hardly permit it done in front of her.) Hermione and Harry, on the other hand, are forced to live magicless until September.
While understandable - children can be careless, so best to just forbid the practice - it would also be monstrously unfair.
However, things change in Order of the Phoenix. Here, Mundungus Fletcher Apparates right in front of the Dursleys' house - so close they hear the pop over the television. And no owl comes to warn Harry. It's entirely possible, this being Mundungus, that he has done so in the past as well, if not so close or at times when no one was home to hear it.
If it were only that, it could be solved easily enough - Harry is too young to Apparate and it occurred outside the Dursley house - although, as Harry is the only wizard on record as living in Little Whinging, that still should have been problematical.
Later on that day, though, Harry has to defend himself and Dudley against the Dementors, using very sophisticated magic. He does so at a distance from the house. And he is immediately owled with a message that he will be expelled and his wand - the brother wand to Voldemort's, although the Ministry probably doesn't know that - will be destroyed. Dumbledore sorts that out, but the problem remains - they know it was Harry and not some other witch or wizard wandering through the suburbs who did that magic.
Which means that the Ministry can detect underage magic. Which means that, unless their parents construct elaborate and undetectable shields, no underage witch or wizard can perform magic outside of school - not even Draco Malfoy. Which would be why the twins remark that they hope those letters are forgotten each year.
This leaves us with the first problem, then. If it's possible to detect who did what magic, how can Harry be punished for magic he didn't do? Perhaps Rowling made another mistake, but that's too easy.
I think it was actually Harry's magic, even though he didn't use it himself.
5. Theory of house-elves
This leads me to my theory. I think house-elves are symbiotic to wizards. That is, the "powerful magic of their own" that Dumbledore mentions, the one that allows them to also pop into Apparation-proof Hogwarts, is fueled by the magic of their families, and allows them to use it for the good of those families as well as to support their own abilities. In return, the house-elves are both servants and guardians of their families, keeping their families' secrets and their own silence.
In this light, let's look at the elves again, starting with Winky, who is the closest to normal I believe we get. She starts out, all neat and tidy, bound to the Crouches, who are a very powerful family, both magically and politically. Winky herself is the guardian of an important secret - Barty, Jr. She does this for thirteen years, until Barty fights off the Imperious curse and escapes at the Quidditch World Cup, which is when Mr. Crouch sacks her. It's not for running away, as Hermione believes.
When she is given clothing, she is disgraced and in despair, although she is still highly loyal to the Crouches. Her clothes become filthy and she herself takes refuge inside a bottle of Butterbeer. And, as mentioned above, she does not work and no one expects her to do so. She can't work. She has no source of magic beyond what ever she has intrinsic to her. She has no pride, no resources and nothing she can do about it. By being given clothes, she is lost.
Kreacher, on the other hand, has (or had) a family of sorts. Once upon a time, the Blacks were also very powerful both politically and magically. By the time of OotP, it's down to one direct heir and three collateral ones, plus one child who is the heir to another family. Two of those heirs have been burnt out of the family and two of them are or were in Azkaban or on the run. The three collateral heirs are all married into other families, too, although I'm not sure how much of a difference that makes. This family is torn apart and damaged and their power is gone, except what Narcissa wields as Madam Malfoy. This can be a great deal, but we don't know right now, as we've yet to even hear her speak.
However, it does seem that Kreacher's powers are limited. Look how he repaired those picture frames - Dobby was able to close off Platform 9 3/4. Kreacher is unable to fix cracked glass. We know once upon a time, Sirius was a talented wizard, and he was still an Animagus, but we don't know how much of his magic he lost in Azkaban. Winky had both Barty and Mr. Crouch. Kreacher barely had anything - and it's possible that part of Sirius's mistreatment was, unconsciously, withholding power from his elf.
More problematical are the Hogwarts elves, because who are they bound to? I think the answer to that lies in Hermione's elf-hats. The Hogwarts elves magically consider all the residents of Hogwarts to be their family. Because of that, Hermione can free them if they allow her to do so. And because of that, they have enormous power to draw upon, which is necessary given the amount they would need to keep after that school.
Finally, we get to Dobby. How can Dobby survive so well without a family? And how could he use Harry's magic, given that Harry is not Malfoy? Why does he, alone of the house-elves we have met, desire freedom so much, and why is he willing to accept payment?
The answer is that Hagrid was right. Dobby is a "weirdo", a mutant. He has the ability to use power from any witch or wizard, whether or not they're his family. So he could use Harry's power to entrap him and possibly get him expelled from school, and so he can be perfectly happy not being attached to any family.
In fact, he probably latched onto that very early on. He was still bound to the Malfoys, who required him to punish himself if he did wrong and with whom he was miserable (note the state of his pillowcase), but he could sense and use the power of who ever came to visit. So he knew that he could be free. For him, being bound was both cruel and galling. He got no benefit from it at all.
I do assume that most of the wizarding world is unaware of this relationship. I can't imagine they'd be comfortable with their servants leaching off their power, and knowing how paranoid they can be, elves could be in great danger if this were ever discovered. So the elves keep their own secret as well as their silence on this point - as does Dobby.
Dumbledore probably knows, though, and therefore knows that Winky is useless and Dobby is dangerous. This is probably why he's employed them and keeps Winky supplied with butterbeer.
If my theory is correct, then elves are not slaves, but are rather in a mutually beneficial situation, a symbiosis, with the wizarding world, with Dobby being the exception who, literally in this case, proves the rule. They act like slaves to preserve this secret in order to protect their lives and their source of magic. They would have no thanks for Hermione for her efforts.