A while back I tweeted @jk_rowling and asked if the character Dobby might be a representation of the depression she experienced before and during writing the Harry Potter series. She’s a very busy woman and I don’t anticipate a response. However, I do believe that even if Dobby does not reflect her personal battle with depression, that he embodies the disorder to a tee. For those who may have not experienced depression before, Dobby may seem a caricature. His reactions are overblown. He’s over-emotional, obsessive-compulsive and derives his self-worth from how happy he makes others, but to people who have suffered from depression, we know exactly where he’s coming from.
*A quick warning: this post contains spoilers from the Harry Potter series.
When we first meet Dobby the house-elf in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he’s described as a pitiful creature, constantly abused by the family he is bound to serve. Most of his first meeting with Harry Potter is spent attempting to harm himself because communication with Harry is forbidden, and as such he must make amends for his guilt by causing himself physical harm. This is why researchers have dubbed this practice in humans a “Dobby Effect.” As I mentioned in Part I of The Dobby Effect, this self-harm seems comical on the surface, but in reality, self-punishment is a very real symptom of depression and often the result of excessive and unnecessary guilt felt by the depressed.
House-elves embody this idea of the cycle of guilt and self-punishment, so much so that even their work is part of the cycle. Their main job, and they work constantly, is typically cleaning. I don’t know if J.K. Rowling intended this, but this actually fits very well into a coping mechanism for depression. The idea of washing one’s hands of a situation has been around for centuries. When you wash your hands of something you consider yourself blameless no matter what the situation may entail from that point forward. Even the Biblical practice of baptism is a physical cleansing to represent a spiritual washing away of sin or guilt. There’s a reason for this. Physically washing your hands can actually alleviate feelings of guilt. Since house-elves are constantly made to feel guilty, what better way to counter that guilt than to make sure everything else is spotless?
As we move through the stories with Harry Potter, we also move with Dobby as he fights his depression to grow into who he knows he really is. After he is freed from the Malfoy family, Dobby begins his journey as a free elf. He picks up a hobby of knitting socks. He gets a new job at Hogwarts School. This new job is especially important for his character development. Now he works on his own terms, boosting his self-confidence. He is able to bring himself out of the isolation he had experienced up to this point, living in a house where he was constantly abused. Dobby makes friends and builds social ties. This is an incredibly important part of healing. Self-punishment and self-isolation go hand-in-hand. It’s correlational, certainly, but it stands to reason that the less isolated you feel, the less likely you are to want to harm yourself. Dobby shows this throughout the books as he learns to stay his instinct to hurt himself when speaking ill of his former masters.
In the end, it is Dobby’s relationship with the boy-hero Harry Potter that helps him overcome his internal battle. One of Dobby’s main characteristics is the reverence he has for Harry, even before he is freed because of Harry’s actions. This feeling only continues to build as Harry, time after time, restrains Dobby so that he is incapable of harming himself. Although Harry’s side of the relationship typically consists of giving Dobby an occasional gift and asking favors of him, they do develop a bond and a respect for one another. This bond is formed in empathy. Harry knows what it feels like to be abused because of his life with his family. Dobby and Harry both grow in perseverance and emotional strength, largely with one another’s help. It’s this empathy that is Dobby’s biggest asset and his biggest downfall. In excess, this empathy can lead you to that desire for self-punishment when you feel you’ve wronged someone, but it also allows you to form the social bonds that can help to break out of depression.
Dobby reaches his apex when it becomes his turn to free Harry from the Malfoys. Harry’s life is in danger and Dobby takes a stand against his former masters with no hesitation and no desire to hurt himself. He is able to save Harry because of this, and ends up sacrificing himself. But, as Harry carved into his tombstone, Dobby died a free elf.