Socks are closely related to a major, if not the major, theme in Harry Potter, namely Things Are Not What They Seem. The sock is a humble, even comical, garment, necessary but often unattractive and the archetypal boring Christmas present. J K Rowling, while getting full comedy value out of all this, builds it into much more.
In our very first sight of Harry (apart from his arrival at number four, Privet Drive) he is “looking for socks” (PS2) and has to pull a spider off one, illustrating the Dursleys’ uncaring neglect. Contrast this with Mrs Weasley’s “fussing over the state of his socks” (CS4) and having “washed all [his] socks” (GF10). At the Burrow, a family atmosphere is evoked: “Mrs Weasley dashed about in a bad mood looking for spare socks and quills, people kept colliding on the stairs, half-dressed with bits of toast in their hands” (CS5)—well, Mrs Weasley may be in a bad mood, but I’ll bet Harry loves it – this is what he’s been missing all these years. Unconsidered, yet a daily necessity—a clean pair of socks is a great metaphor for family love.
We get an early (PS12) hint that socks may be even more important, when Dumbledore reveals that he sees himself “holding a pair of thick woollen socks” in the Mirror of Erised, which shows “nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” He also makes the wonderful remark that “One can never have enough socks…Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books”.
When Dobby enters the picture, socks become hugely important: “Dobby can only be freed if his master presents 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 home for ever” (CS10). When Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into doing just that, we see Dobby “holding up Harry’s disgusting, slimy sock and looking at it as though it were a priceless treasure” (CS18, emphasis mine). And, of course, it is.
From then on, Dobby is a kind of sock magnet, as pairs of initially unwanted socks are passed on and eventually treasured by Dobby. The “freedom sock” has passed from Harry to Malfoy to Dobby. Other pairs of socks will echo this journey. Uncle Vernon’s old socks have a particularly interesting career, starting as “the worst [prior to Marge’s visit] present the Dursleys had ever given him” (PA2). Those Dursleys are inspired bad present givers—not just socks, but second-hand (foot?) socks! Harry says “I never wear those socks if I can help it” (PA11) which pretty much sums up his attitude to everything the Dursleys provide, such as it is. All he ever asks them for is freedom—will Dobby somehow free Harry, as Harry has freed him? Harry uses these socks to wrap up the Sneakoscope.
On Christmas morning, Harry gives Vernon’s socks (now known to be “foul” “mustard-yellow” and “extra knobbly”) to Dobby in one of the most delightful, and sock-filled, scenes in HP (GF23). In the same scene, Ron presents Dobby with an unwanted violet pair he got from his mother (by the way, is she colour-blind?!) and Dobby is tearful with gratitude:
‘Dobby did not know that he [Ron] was also as generous of spirit, as noble, as selfless-‘
‘They’re only socks,’ said Ron, who had gone slightly pink around the ears…
So now we have the Molly-Ron-Dobby socks and the Vernon-Harry-Dobby socks once unvalued, now treasured, in a scene overflowing with affection and joy. The worst Christmas present has become the best of all. Perhaps Dumbledore really did see himself with a thick pair of socks in the Mirror of Erised. After all, he never lies.
Dobby now gives Harry the socks, one red, with broomsticks, the other green with Snitches, that he has knitted for him, buying the wool from the wages he is now free to earn. Contrast Dobby’s thoughtful, personalised gift with Harry and Ron’s last-second thought. Dobby knows things they have yet to learn. What’s the betting these socks will reappear, and turn out to have some powerful magic knitted into them? Were these the ones Dumbledore saw in the Mirror?
In a final er, foot-note, Harry resolves to buy Dobby “a pair of socks for every day of the year” (GF26) in gratitude for his help in the Triwizard Tournament, and, to his very great credit, actually does buy him several pairs (GF27). Ron helps him to pick them out, including “a pair patterned with flashing gold and silver stars and another that screamed loudly when they became too smelly”. The humble sock now merits the kind of treatment previously reserved for books in the narrative.
So, what do socks symbolise? Love? Freedom? Redemption? At any rate, you can be sure they’re NOT WHAT THEY SEEM!
British spelling, punctuation, word usage not Americanized.