Snape in Harry Potter

This gets interesting, I promise.

So, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. Huge. As I’ve gotten older, I can see a lot more plot holes and problems in the writing than I once could (book four, for starters, was entirely based around a massive plot hole), and Rowling has said some dumb liberal shit (she’s the idiot who came out and said Susan didn’t make it into Narnia because she “discovered sex”), but in the end I don’t care. As far as most young adult and children’s series go it’s well-written, has generally good characters, some really terrific sections (the graveyard scene in book four is a great standout), and morally is fairly unobjectionable. I think it will be remembered well in the years to come.

Arguably the most fascinating character in the entire series is Severus Snape. For those unfamiliar, he starts out as the Potions Master at Hogwarts and is a pretty generic Evil Teacher, but there were always signs that more was going on with him than he let on. When Snape killed Dumbledore in book six it was one of the most shocking literary moments to occur probably in decades. And book seven brought it full circle with the (admittedly fairly obvious) reveal that Snape was a double agent for the good guys.

I loved Snape’s character. It’s revealed at one point in the series that one of the main reasons that Snape hates Harry so much is that his father, James Potter, bullied him sadistically in school because “he existed”. This, as I have said in the past, I could sympathize with. Snape taking his anger and bitterness out on others because of systematic torture at the hands of bullies is not forgivable, but understandable.

The scene where we learn all of this is a fascinating one. Teenage Snape has finished taking a test when Harry’s father and his friends get bored and decide to gang up on him in front of a crowd and humiliate him. This goes on until Harry’s eventual mother, Lily, tries to put a stop to it. She ends up leaving when Snape loses his temper and lashes out at her with what can best be described as an ethnic slur.

What makes this scene so interesting is when we later learn that Snape was in love with Lily, and Lily was close friends with Snape. Snape is the classic example of what is called a “beta orbiter”. He hung around Lily like a puppy dog because she’s the first person who showed him kindness, afraid to make a move because he knew she’d say no.

And Lily, for her part, wasn’t really much better. Actually, she was worse in some ways. Snape is her best friend (yeah, okay). He’s being tortured in front of a crowd of people, essentially. So he lashes out in anger, then actually stakes out in front of her room to apologize to her. It was clearly the biggest regret of his life. He was clearly upset about it. He was obviously in a horrible situation.

But Lily, by that point, didn’t want to be friends anymore. She had already decided that this whole thing had gone too far. And now she had her excuse. It didn’t matter that Snape called her an ethnic slur (“mudblood”). She was going to leave anyway. And James was there – exciting James, maybe a bully, sure, but who cares, he’s an athlete, and he’s smart, and popular, and not creepy like that other guy hanging around her. He was higher status, and in the end, though it took a couple of years, Lily went for the high status.

Snape’s real sin in all of that is that he was a coward. He probably wasn’t specifically trying to find a way to manipulate Lily into falling for him, but he certainly was trying to figure out how he could stick around until he plucked up the courage to make a move. Lily’s sin is the same, coupled with some nastiness to go with it. Snape was no longer “cool” to have around. He was into the dark arts. People would talk! And really, it didn’t help her chances in the ol’ marketplace to have this weirdo plodding along behind her the whole time. But there’s the dilemma. How to reject him without looking like a bitch? The “mudblood” insult was a convenient excuse.

The thing is, this is a bit of a different reading than most people have, but in the (wonderfully written, and moving, by the way) chapter “The Prince’s Tale” you’ll actually find a lot of textual support for this interpretation of things. Lily was already telling Snape, before the incident, how creepy he was getting. By the time we reach the bullying scene, she was only one “strike” away from getting rid of him entirely in any case. Given the different directions their lives went they would never have been able to remain friends, honestly, whether you accept my interpretation of things or not. And it’s well-established that James was definitely a bully, and the only difference with him in his seventh year is that his “head deflated a bit” and he “stopped cursing people for the fun of it” – hardly a ringing endorsement. So we know that Lily was almost certainly secretly interested the entire time – all James had to do was put up the right front. And to be fair to James, who really ended up not being all that bad in the end, he DID save Snape’s life.

So what we see here is still a tragic love story, but a different one than what is traditionally looked at. What if Snape, instead of acting like a lovesick puppy, had made his intentions clear early on? What if, instead of getting into the dark arts, he’d decided to just not be a dick to people? That’s honestly all it might have taken – confidence and avoiding obviously bad ideas. Couple that with a shared history, and maybe there’s a shot.

And what if Lily wasn’t looking for excuses to get rid of Snape? What if she’d seen the friendship as a true friendship, not one where a single insult (despite a ton of apologies following) and “creepy” behavior is enough for you to find an excuse to leave him in the dust? And what if she put her money where her mouth was and really did decide to stay away from James Potter?

Snape, for his part, remained creepily obsessed with Lily his whole life. His devotion is rather touching, but then it consumes him. Instead of trying to be a better person and find somebody else because hey, you were rejected, it happens, he decides to continue his slide into the dark arts then remain so fixated on a dead woman married to another man that he neglects every other aspect of his life. Sure, he might have been with the “good guys” ultimately, but the only thing he’s considered with is how Lily would have perceived his actions. He does nothing just because it’s the right thing to do. The obsession is not healthy.

“The Prince’s Tale” is a terribly sad chapter, and one of the most important in the series. It’s powerfully written. But when you look at the dynamics underneath it, the picture painted isn’t so much one man’s love for a woman giving him the courage to do good, but one man’s obsession with a woman driving every single thing he does in life, to the exclusion of everything else.

As the saying goes, still a better love story than Twilight. I suppose we’re reaching for low hanging fruit now though.

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2 Responses to Snape in Harry Potter

  1. Mani says:

    You are being completely unfair to Lily. Snape was not some pathetic “beta orbiter”. He was an extraordinarily gifted wizard. According to Sirius, he knew more curses and hexes in his first year than most seventh years. He looked down on Muggles and Muggle-borns (except Lily , of course). He was not the “victim” of the Marauders’ “bullying”. Both picked on each other whenever they got the chance. In Snape’s Worst Memory, we only see one particular day when Potter and gang had the upper hand. But Snape gave as good as he got. We just don’t see it.

    The real reason Lily “broke up” with him was not the single “Mudblood” incident. That was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. For years, Snape had been getting deeper into the Dark Arts, and absorbing the Death Eater philosophy. His friendship with Avery and Mulciber began to rub off on him. The mere fact that the word “Mudblood” slipped out of his mouth was the symptom. The real problem was that he was changing into a Death Eater.

    Lily was perfectly right to reject his apology. He only apologized because of his feelings for her. Not because he realized that he was wrong. He didn’t mind calling any other muggle-born a mudblood. Lily knew this already.

    Deathly Hallows Prince’s Tale :
    “I was. I would have done. I never meant to call you Mudblood, it just—”
    “Slipped out?” There was no pity in Lily’s voice. “It’s too late. I’ve made excuses for you for years. None of my friends can understand why I even talk to you. You and your precious little Death Eater friends — you see, you don’t even deny it! You don’t even deny that’s what you’re all aiming to be! You can’t wait to join You-Know-Who, can you?”
    He opened his mouth, but closed it without speaking.
    “I can’t pretend anymore. You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.”
    “No—listen, I didn’t mean— ”
    “—to call me Mudblood? But you call everyone of my birth Mudblood, Severus. Why should I be any different?”

    A mere apology would be meaningless. Imagine a boy in Hitler Youth being friends with a Jewish girl, while wanting to move up the ranks in a government that makes no secret of it’s plan to exterminate all Jews. That’s what Snape wanted to be. If he had genuinely changed, Lily would have forgiven him (Of course she may still not have gone out with him,but that’s another matter). She was a very forgiving person to even put up with him for so long. Do you really think Lily was so shallow that she would dump him because he was not cool, because she cared about her popularity? He was becoming evil! He doesn’t deserve your sympathy. Nor do I feel bad for him that he didn’t have the ‘courage’ to tell Lily his feelings. He knew she didn’t feel the same way, so why bother talking about it? That’s just sensible thinking. In fact. that’s the real courage of Snape. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeves.

    • Snape was not some pathetic “beta orbiter”. He was an extraordinarily gifted wizard.

      The two are not mutually exclusive.

      He was not the “victim” of the Marauders’ “bullying”. Both picked on each other whenever they got the chance.

      Well, we assume that. Maybe. He certainly retaliated rather viciously. But the quote from James is “It’s more the fact he exists, if you know what I mean”. Sirius tried to KILL Snape, or at least get him turned into a werewolf, because, as he said in book 3, he was basically snooping around them.

      The mere fact that the word “Mudblood” slipped out of his mouth was the symptom. The real problem was that he was changing into a Death Eater.

      It was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” that just so happened to take place in the middle of essentially a torture scene. They made Snape COUGH UP SUDS.

      A mere apology would be meaningless.

      Snape became obsessed with Lily and making it up to Lily. It consumed his life.

      If he had genuinely changed, Lily would have forgiven him (Of course she may still not have gone out with him,but that’s another matter).

      Forgiven him, but gone out with his tormentor.

      Nor do I feel bad for him that he didn’t have the ‘courage’ to tell Lily his feelings. He knew she didn’t feel the same way, so why bother talking about it? That’s just sensible thinking.

      Yes, the MUCH better idea is to ENSURE you have no chance and have a creepy obsession with your friend! Instead of having the balls to risk rejection.

      I have sympathy for Snape, yes – more like empathy. I’ve heard “Where have all the good men gone?” rants from women, and I’ve been humiliated and bullied. But you are mistaken if you think I like Snape. I don’t. He was a terrible human being.

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