Dobby debuts in the series in the second novel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in Chapter Two, Dobby’s Warning, in which Harry becomes aware of the existence of house-elves. Harry discovers Dobby, a creature he had never seen before, in his bedroom at number four, Privet Drive. Dobby is introduced to the reader with the following description:
The little creature on the bed had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls ... The creature slipped off the bed and bowed so low that the end of its long thin nose touched the carpet. Harry noticed that it was wearing what looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for arm and leg holes. (Chamber of Secrets, page 15)
From his very introduction, Harry and the reader can see from his physical appearance that Dobby, though humanoid, is not human. Since Harry is not any more familiar than the reader with such magical, non-human creatures, Dobby himself has to explain just what he is. Dobby explained, as always, referring to himself in the third person:
“Dobby is a house-elf – bound to serve one house and one (wizard) family for ever ...” (Chamber of Secrets, page 16)
What I find significant here is the use of the word “bound.” Dobby is bound to serve a wizard family, meaning not that he is employed as a servant for a wizard family, but that he is enslaved by a wizard family, staying and working for them against his will as if tied up and imprisoned!
It soon becomes apparent that though Dobby is not human, he has many of the same abilities of a human, such as the ability to speak, reason, and make decisions for himself. It stands to reason that these qualities make him deserving of equal rights with humans, and yet he is enslaved by a family of wizards who make him punish himself by self-inflicting wounds whenever he disobeys them.
Readers discover the level of cruelty that Dobby endures when Harry politely asks Dobby to have a seat in his bedroom – Dobby has never experienced such politeness from a wizard and bursts into tears. At first, Harry assumes he has hurt Dobby’s feelings and apologises for offending him. Dobby’s replies, “Offend Dobby ... Dobby has never been asked to sit down by a wizard – like an equal.” (Chamber of Secrets, page 16). As if his low self-esteem is not evidence enough of Dobby’s constant abuse, in Chapter Ten, The Rogue Bludger, Dobby tells Harry, “Dobby is used to death threats sir. Dobby gets them five times a day at home.” (Chamber of Secrets, page 133)
Harry even asks Dobby at one point why he cannot simply escape if he endures so much abuse – as Harry lives in a suburb with Muggles or non-magic people, he is unfamiliar with many magical creatures and wizard customs. Dobby explains his situation:
“A house-elf must be set free, sir. And the family will never set Dobby free ... Dobby will serve the family until he dies, sir ...” (Chamber of Secrets, page 16)
Dobby also does not wear the same clothes as humans, and it becomes apparent that his pillowcase attire is meant to further distinguish himself from humans, sending the message that he is not to be treated with the dignity of a human. For example, the pillowcase is described as “filthy” and when Dobby uses it to blow his nose, he was described as “looking so pathetic,” and prompting Harry to ask “Why d’you wear that thing, Dobby?” Dobby gives the following reply, which proves to be very important:
“’Tis a mark of the house-elf’s enslavement, sir. Dobby can only be freed if his masters present him with clothes, sir. The family is careful not to pass Dobby even a sock, sir, for then he would be free to leave their house for ever.” (Chamber of Secrets, page 133)
Thus Dobby’s pillowcase denotes the dehumanization that accompanies slavery, for Dobby is not to be treated with the same dignity or rights that a human being would have, and thus he is not to wear the same articles of clothing that a human would wear, even the smallest and least expensive articles of human clothing – socks! This is why Dobby informs Harry that even a single sock cannot be handed to Dobby from his masters, lest the family accidently grant him his freedom.
In the very last chapter of the novel, Harry learns just who Dobby serves. In Chapter Eighteen, Dobby’s Reward, Harry learns that Dobby is bound to serve the Malfoy family, a family of dark wizards who follow the evil Lord Voldemort. It makes much sense that Dobby is a slave in the Malfoy household, as the Malfoys are classist and extremely prejudiced – their beliefs in their own superiority due to their wealth, power, and “pure blood” status explain why they would believe in slavery and treat Dobby with such abuse and dehumanization. The identity of Dobby’s master is revealed when Harry is about to leave Professor Dumbledore’s office when the door bursts open:
Lucius Malfoy stood there, fury in his face. And cowering under his arm, heavily wrapped in bandages, was Dobby ... Mr Malfoy almost knocked Harry over as he swept into the room. Dobby went scurrying in after him, crouching at the hem of his cloak, a look of abject terror on his face. (Chamber of Secrets, page 246)
After a brief and incriminating discussion in Professor Dumbledore’s office, Mr Malfoy leaves angrily and even kicks Dobby through the office door as he does so. After witnessing the cruelty Dobby receives, even in his weakened, bandaged condition, Harry quickly devises a plan, and leaves Professor Dumbledore’s office carrying the destroyed diary of the evil Lord Voldemort:
Quickly, wondering if this plan could work, Harry took off one of his shoes, pulled off his slimy, filthy sock, and stuffed the diary into it. Then he ran down the dark corridor. (Chamber of Secrets, page 248)
It would appear that Harry remembered every detail of Dobby’s explanation about why he wore a filthy pillowcase, that if Dobby’s masters presented him with clothes, he would be set free, and thus they must take great care not to hand him the smallest article of clothing ... even a sock!
Harry cleverly distracts Mr Malfoy by handing him his disgusting, dirty sock, from which he removes the diary. Unfortunately, when Mr Malfoy saw the diary, he was so furious at the implication that the diary of Lord Voldemort belonged to him that he carelessly threw the dirty sock aside, not realizing that Dobby was right there to catch it! The chapter continues:
"Come, Dobby. I said Come!"
But Dobby didn’t move. He was holding up Harry’s disgusting, slimy sock, and looking at it as though it were a priceless treasure.
"Master has given Dobby a sock," said the elf in wonderment. "Master gave it to Dobby."
"What’s that?" spat Mr Malfoy. "What did you say?"
"Dobby has got a sock," said Dobby in disbelief. "Master threw it, and Dobby caught it, and Dobby – Dobby is free." (Chamber of Secrets, page 248)
This scene is changed slightly in the film, but it is still very effective, and worth viewing:
This, dear readers, is what the Harry Potter series, and Dobby the house-elf, has to do with socks. It was a single, smelly, dirty, slimy sock that aided in Dobby’s ultimate freedom from the abusive Malfoys!
After Dobby’s triumphant liberation from slavery, he found work in the Hogwarts kitchens for a descent salary – a salary that went to pay for, you guessed it, socks! The role of a single sock in Dobby’s liberation seemed to have led to Dobby developing a love-affair with socks – not unlike yours truly! He loved giving socks as gifts, and he certainly loved receiving socks as gifts! And why not? After all, when Dobby first received a sock as a gift, he was simultaneously receiving his freedom. It might have been dirty, smelly, slimy, and completely disgusting, but that single sock that Harry gave to Dobby was truly a Spectacular SOCK!
Interestingly, Dobby preferred single socks, as opposed to pairs of identical socks. Perhaps it is because his freedom came from receiving a single sock as opposed to a pair, or perhaps it is because he was still unaccustomed to wearing human clothing, and thus unfamiliar with the traditional wearing of matching socks. But who’s to say that Dobby is not right, that it is not more fashionable and attractive to wear two different socks than two matching socks? Perhaps the little elf knows something we humans are too uncreative and traditional to notice?
In closing, I just read on Harry Potter Wiki that the name "Dobby" was appropriately chosen from the old English word dobby. According to http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Dobby, the Oxford English Dictionary states that dobby was:
“a benevolent elf that would perform household tasks secretly in the night, like the elves in tales of the elves and the shoemaker. However, just as those elves disappeared when the shoemaker made them shoes, so the dobbies were said to disappear when offered clothing.”
An elf who secretly enters homes, does various chores such as laundry, and slips out before the family can catch him, and who also happens to be a lover of single, unmatched socks?
Perhaps we’ve solved the mystery as to where so many individual socks have mysteriously disappeared to leaving their mates behind in the laundry!
With that, Dobby, free elf, this segment of Spectacular SOCKS is dedicated to you.