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05 August 2007 @ 11:03 pm
Snape essay  
This is my first essay on this community, based on my frustration with some recent remarks made by J. K. Rowling about the character of Severus Snape, and explains why I think he is such an interesting character, and why he is important to the themes of her books.  (The title, by the way, has been lifted shamelessly from a series of concerts by the early music group Liber UnUsualis.)

Virtue and the Viper: the Heroic Severus Snape.

It is now over a week since I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and my impressions of it have shifted somewhat. My initial enjoyment of the story, and relief at the outcome, have faded, and I find that I am left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth. It is still a good story, but a certain moral confusion, and especially a lack of generosity in the treatment of some of the characters on the 'bad' side, means that for me it falls short of greatness. Is it really necessary, for example, for Draco Malfoy to be such an abject coward, or for it to be pointed out in the epilogue that he is losing his hair? Why does Horace Slughorn play a less prominent part in the final battle than the heads of the other houses, and does it really have to be the case that not one single Slytherin cares enough for his or her school to defend it? The 'good' characters, on the other hand, get a different treatment. James Potter is just assumed to become a loving father and a good man, although we have only ever seen him as the school bully. Harry and his friends plot to cheat goblins and use curses previously described as 'unforgiveable' - under pressure of necessity, certainly, but with no real consequences and very little comment. And Ron Weasley, nineteen years later, is STILL telling his children that Gryffindor is the only acceptable house, and more or less deliberately fostering a rivalry between his daughter and young Scorpius Malfoy. (The faces of the parents (and grandparents) on both sides when - as I trust will be the case - they eventually marry, will be a study!) This uneven treatment of 'good' and 'bad' characters has persisted throughout the series, but I did hope that the last book would see a more balanced approach, and a greater rapprochement between the Hogwarts houses than seems to have taken place. Harry is to some extent an exception to this, and his words to his son on the last page go some way to bridging the gap, but it is not really quite far enough, and their good effect has been partly undone by remarks made by J. K. Rowling in interviews since the book came out. It is exasperating to see potentially complex situations dissolve into an easy assumption that the good guys can do no real wrong, or into an equally facile political correctness that seems to suggest that no-one who has ever embraced the wrong opinions should really be acceptable to polite society again, and some potentially very interesting characters are seriously short-changed in the process.

Nowhere is this more the case than with Rowling's apparent attitude to Severus Snape. Sadistic potions master, repentant Death-Eater, spy, neglected child, bullied schoolboy, high-school genius and unrequited lover of Lily Evans, he is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters in the series. From the very first book, where he is set up as an almost pantomime villain, and is then revealed to have been acting in Harry's interests all along, he emerges as a highly original character in a genre where those adults whose role it is to help the young hero or heroine are usually shown as liking him or her. In a book for children he makes the very adult point that the good guys and the nice guys are not necessarily the same people. Nor does Rowling lose her touch with him in subsequent books. Information about him leaks out, bit by bit. We are never quite sure what to make of him, never lack a Ron Weasley to mutter darkly that 'poisonous toadstools don't change their spots', but his actions - as opposed to his words - are usually benevolent. Even in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, once we have recovered from the shock of Dumbledore's death, we notice that he then acts swiftly to protect Harry and Draco, and to encourage the other Death-Eaters to leave the castle, thus minimising the damage caused. But for all this he never becomes 'nice': there is never a 'Harry, I misjudged you' moment, and Rowling resists the temptation to turn him into everybody's friendly Uncle Severus. When he finally dies, pointlessly, managing at the very last minute to pass on to Harry the information vital to his mission, as well as the story that he, intensely private man that he is, has been keeping to himself for years, we surely echo Harry's tribute to him that he is 'probably the bravest man I ever knew'.

Yet his contribution is deliberately kept muted. For much of the book he does not appear. He dies almost alone, far from the main action. There is no deathbed reconciliation with Harry, and Harry does not seem to register any kind of surprise that Snape loved his mother, or regret that he has misjudged him. He comes to appreciate him later, but at the time he seems to have no reaction to his death at all. And J. K. Rowling is decidedly cool when she speaks of him. He is brave, yes, she will admit that, and he is capable of love, but he is allowed to be heroic only in the most qualified terms, and his unpleasant personality is stressed. This made sense when she was still holding out the possiblity that he might turn out to be a villain, but now it just seems mean-spirited - especially when we consider how important he is to two of the main themes of the series, love and self-sacrifice.

 As we finally learn in DH, Severus Snape repents of being a Death-Eater when he unwittingly directs Lord Voldemort's attention against Lily Evans, his former love, and her unborn child. We see Snape's love for Lily develop in the memories that he leaves to Harry: the childhood crush of the boy from the deprived home on the pretty, clever little girl he sees in the local park; the Sorting into different houses at Hogwarts and the subsequent estrangement; the fatal insult under pressure; the desperate grief at his love's death. And we see too how little foundation Snape ever had for his love. Lily Evans clearly liked him - as a friend - but even when they were children there were reservations, and it is very clear that she was never going to feel about him the way he so obviously felt about her. If this is the great love of Severus Snape's life, it is a bleak love indeed. And after her death, we see how it develops. From the desire to save her - and never mind her husband or son - that so arouses Dumbledore's contempt (but even then Snape was brave - he is clearly terrified of what Dumbledore might do to him, and how much standing among the Death-Eaters must he have lost by begging Voldemort to save the life of a Mudblood?) it extends to a promise to protect her son, which Snape keeps faithfully, even though his hatred of James Potter prejudices him fatally against the boy. It extends further, to other pupils, to protecting Hogwarts from the worst ravages of the Carrows, and to Snape's admission that he now watches the deaths only of those of Lord Voldemort's victims whom he cannot save. mary_j_59 in her essay 'Some thoughts on DH' notes that Rowling in her depiction of his childhood relationship with Lily suggests parallels between him and Heathcliff - but Heathcliff, thwarted in his love, turned to hatred and vengeance. Ultimately, the model seems to be not Heathcliff and Cathy, but Dante and Beatrice: the truly enobling love that transcends the beloved and leads the lover towards virtue. And that it took this turn, and on so slender a basis, must surely speak of something fundamentally very good in Severus Snape.

Snape's perseverance in the difficult road his repentance has set him on is no less noteworthy. He has little to encourage him. His beloved is dead. Her son (he thinks) is the disappointing image of his father - arrogant, careless and spoilt. He has clearly inherited a 'difficult' personality from both his parents, and appears to have no close friends, even if he could confide in them. Dumbledore, as we see, makes continual demands on him and gives him minimal support. It is doubtful whether the Death Eaters ever really treated him as one of them - Sirius calls him 'part of a gang' and Lily says that he 'hangs around' with Avery and Mulciber, which hardly sounds very intimate. The nickname written into his potions book surely betrays an ironic awareness that, as a halfblood in an organisation that values only purebloods, he will always be a second-class citizen. There seems to be a warmer relationship with the Malfoys, but even here one suspects that while Lucius Malfoy (more intelligent than the average Death-Eater - not that this is saying much) may be happy to call this clever and able man his friend, he might not feel the same about letting him, say, marry his sister. The Order never really trust him, and in his year as Headmaster of Hogwarts he must be aware that everyone around him despises him absolutely.

And yet he perseveres. For three years he risks death on a daily basis - risks it, ultimately, if what he says about 'only those whom I could not save' is true, above and beyond the call of duty. If there is a character in this series who can provide Harry with an example of doing what is right and not what is easy, then surely that character is Severus Snape. If there is a character who is an example of the transformative power of love, it is Severus Snape. If there is a character who embodies the Christian themes of repentance and redemption, it is Severus Snape. Truly he is a hero. And he is a hero despite, and indeed because of, the fact that he remains a thoroughly unpleasant person. Perhaps he could have done more to make himself nicer. But in the face of what he did do, that pales into insignificance. For those of us who came to Harry Potter as adults, who have had to come to terms with the fact that our more unpleasant personality traits are not going to vanish overnight, and who know too well how it feels for the imperative to love one's neighbour to be more a matter of brute willpower than of any actual inclination, he is at once comfort and inspiration. In a series of children's books whose theme is love, where the other examples of this love are mostly natural and instinctive - friendship, mother love - the dogged, self-sacrificing devotion of this bitter, unpleasant, unhappy, heroic, and fundamentally GOOD man is the vital ingredient that keeps the whole from becoming cloying and saccharine, and lifts it towards a kind of greatness, however flawed.

J. K. Rowling created this. Why can't she see it? 
yohopiratesyoho: [hp] r/hr good shipyohopiratesyoho on August 5th, 2007 10:40 pm (UTC)
Good essay. This is what I've been trying to tell my mom, but she just doesn't get it. So, I'm printing this and making her read it. Great job! :)

I do love Snape. He's a very intricate character.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
I'm very flattered! I hope it changes her mind.
Pherenike: look at meryhasso on August 5th, 2007 11:25 pm (UTC)
I couldn't agree more. I am so angry with her for what she's been saying in the interviews. "But is he a hero?" - my mind went blank when I heard her saying that. I really believed that all the awful things she had said about him before DH were just in order to sidetrack us. Apparently not.
This is an outstanding essay. :)
Teka Lynn: clipwing by Morgan Dtekalynn on August 5th, 2007 11:58 pm (UTC)
Hear hear. And bravo.
Sinicksinick on August 6th, 2007 01:05 am (UTC)
Wonderfully insightful, well-reasoned writing. Thank you for sharing this.
mary_j_59mary_j_59 on August 6th, 2007 02:15 am (UTC)
Yay, Anne! I am so glad you posted this here.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 06:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you all very much - I'm glad to find so many other people feel this way! And the icon (and others like it) can be found on lj under 'swanboat icons'.
Quite a Machiavellian Figure: sexy potions boyangua9 on August 6th, 2007 03:35 am (UTC)
What do you think J.K. Rowling doesn't see?

You say, in my opinion correctly, that she never loses her touch when writing Snape. And yet you also seem to feel that she doesn't know what she's done? Part of never losing her touch is that she keeps him deliberately muted, that she doesn't give him a heroic or triumphant death, that she doesn't go all soft-hearted and gush over him the way we fangirls do.

To you, her coolness when she speaks of Snape bespeaks some kind of disrespect and mean-spiritedness; to me, it demonstrates the distance and objectivity of an artist in control of her creation - the distance and objectivity necessary to create (and kill) such a successful and fascinating character. If she wrote Snape with the kind of partialness and partisanship shown in this essay, it would have ruined him.

Why can't Snape's fans see that?
mary_j_59mary_j_59 on August 6th, 2007 03:08 pm (UTC)
Anne, I'm sorry for jumping in; hope you don't mind. I think you meant that Rowling was meanspirited in her interviews, where she insisted Severus was not a hero, kept saying she couldn't understand why anyone would love him, and so forth.

And I believe Anne, like me and many other "fangirls" (Sigune, for one other example) has a balanced view of Severus Snape as written and does not gush. Here is the problem she's elucidated, in two sentences:
J.K. Rowling wrote Snape as a hero; indeed, a particular type of hero - a knight ennobled by his love for an inaccessible, ideal lady.
She continually denies his heroism in interviews.
(no subject) - angua9 on August 6th, 2007 03:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - anne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 06:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cs_luis on August 6th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - anne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 10:17 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - anne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 10:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on August 17th, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
leggedxl.leggedxl on August 6th, 2007 08:47 am (UTC)
Yes, he's a hero, for me.
Thank you for the good words about him.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 06:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Rickfan37rickfan37 on August 6th, 2007 10:19 am (UTC)
One of the best Snape essays I have read. Thank you. I did love this book, despite noticing a few flaws, and I get annoyed with some of the fandom's more extreme reactions. This essay is measured, calm and very intelligent.

There is no deathbed reconciliation with Harry, and Harry does not seem to register any kind of surprise that Snape loved his mother, or regret that he has misjudged him. He comes to appreciate him later, but at the time he seems to have no reaction to his death

This is something that really bothered me about DH. The revelation about Snape is huge, indeed I would argue that it is the crux of the whole theme of the series, and Harry doesn't seem to register it at all. However, I don't think a deathbed reconciliation would have worked. In a book with its fair share of cliches (Albus Severus, anyone?), it would have been one too many, IMO.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 06:51 pm (UTC)
No, on reflection I think I agree with you: a deathbed reconciliation would not have worked. But I do find it very odd that he can have his whole opinion of Snape turned upside down, with the further revelation that he was in love with his mother, and apparently not give it a second's thought.
(no subject) - danel4d on August 6th, 2007 07:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - rickfan37 on August 6th, 2007 08:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Harry's second of thought? - librarian2412 on August 7th, 2007 11:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Harry's second of thought? - anne_arthur on August 8th, 2007 04:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Harry's second of thought? - bemoan1000 on August 8th, 2007 06:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
imhilien: Snape - Animatedimhilien on August 6th, 2007 10:47 am (UTC)
A good essay... Snape was the real unsung hero of the series, IMHO, willing to do what was right in the end while most people despised him.

I know I wondered why there wasn't at least one sentence of how Harry *personally* felt after he had seen Snape's memories. Not even a 'eww, Snape loved my Mum', which would have been a realistic reaction of Harry, I'm sure.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - anne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 06:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Penumbra: DH epiloguethe_penumbra on August 6th, 2007 12:35 pm (UTC)
A very well written essay. I agree with your points and can't help wishing that more people felt this way. Snape was the reason why I kept on reading the books; I cannot understand why JK feels so much antagonism against her best and by far, most interesting character.

A friend of mine hated Snape for the past 6 books (doing a complete turn around in book 7 where 'Snape was not so bad')'because he's ugly and mean to Harry', something which irritates me to no end.

And he is a hero despite, and indeed because of, the fact that he remains a thoroughly unpleasant person.

I couldn't agree more.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 07:04 pm (UTC)
Very glad you like it. And it is very good to know that other people feel like this!
Rowanrowanhood on August 6th, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)
There wouldn't be a "Harry I misjuged you moment?."

Snape always judged Harry. Snape's reaction to Harry was a combination of having a relationship with all three of them - Harry and both of his parents.

He projected his negativity, resentment, and jealousy for James, who Harry mostly resembled and seemingly behaved, or at least possessed the reputation similar to his father of this "cocksure, I can't be hurt, daredevil."

But Snape also projected his love, caring, and protectiveness of Lilly onto Harry as well. Snape always felt that Harry was James' son, and therefor would never feel for him in a sentimental way... except through Lilly... here was Lilly's son. All that was left of her, all that he could still love and protect, no matter how much the boy reminded him of the man he had resented and had been bullied by so much...

Snape had always had love for Lilly, and that love was strong and true, and lasting enough for him to reject his own previous belief in Voldemort, once he just killed her. To be willing to act as a true and extremely convincing withthe powers he knew he had, as a double agent on the Order's side, for a person he had such extremely mixed feelings for... and to have that turmoil never come to the surface enough for Voldemort to see?? He had the most strength. That was beyond the courage and truth of heart that is intially worthy of Gryffindor. Come on.

No reader had absolute certainty that Snape was really working under Dumbledore's wishes, particularly through the majority of Deathly Hollows. Even those of us who wanted to be certain that Snape was only doing what Dumbledore had asked him to do at the end of HBP, within Deathly Hollows... hell, I know I was (trying not to, and yet was) seriously questioning that certainty throughout most of the book.

What was best, and most revealed, was that with Snape, nothing was black or white... nothing of his beliefs, his actions, his motives in those actions where either good or bad - all of them were in a completely grey area, muddled, mixed, and constantly changing....


to any reader who had been there, and grew up with these stories of bad things happening, people hurting you... the expected negative angry responses, maybe going through that for a while, and realizing that anger gives you nothing. Any love that you've experienced... ever... that's a stepping point.

I know from my personal experience, any caring I received since i was way young, I knew it was there, and I knew that I wanted it, but I hardcore pushed it away. In my teens and early 20's, love and intimacy was something I had to strive for. No matter how much a private journey it was, or how long it took, or how few have actually touched me that closely, (how few I've let touch me that closely).... It has still been my journey, and that craving for love is still what has driven me deep down.

It was easier to be cold and angry than it was to accept that somebody actually wanted to love me, as family, as a teacher, as a friend, and ultimately as a lover. Maybe I'm projecting my feelings onto this character, heh, obviously some of his experiences brought up a lot of issues I can identify with. But I think that the root is the same. That love is the strongest motivator, no matter how much you've been hurt.

I stand by that Snape was the bravest character in this book (very anti-Slytherin), and really the strongest. I didn't really feel that until the past two. His character's reflection on life, in my opinion, is so TRUE.

anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 07:01 pm (UTC)
I do agree with this, and I especially like your comment that he projected his love for Lily onto Harry as well as his hatred for James. But I'd like to think that his courage made him worthy of Slytherin as well as Gryffindor!
(Anonymous) on August 6th, 2007 02:38 pm (UTC)
Perhaps he could have done more to make himself nicer.

And yet, if he had remained a DE, who knows how much more disagreeable he would have been?

At the moment Harry pulls his head out of the Pensieve, any reflections on Snape's True Character are going to be overwhelmed by his realization that he is going to have to walk to his death. But it would have been nice to have seen him mulling over what he'd learned about Snape when he slips away after the final victory -- and that, at the last moment of Snape's life, Snape saw in Harry not James, but Lily.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC)
Oh I do like this! I'd realised that he was wanting to look into Lily's eyes, of course - but yes, that he finally saw in Harry Lily, not James, that's wonderful! I hadn't made that connection.

And yes, remaining a DE could only have strenghtened the cruel, unpleasant side of his character.
dolphinluv2783: snapedolphinluv2783 on August 6th, 2007 02:38 pm (UTC)
Great essay!

I think that one of the reasons I love Snape so much is that he is a hero, without neccessarily being a "good" person.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 07:11 pm (UTC)
Absolutely - he's an amazing character, which makes it odd that she sometimes doesn't seem to recognise it.
definitions of good - aeilaranna on August 10th, 2007 10:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
snape_in_lurve on August 6th, 2007 08:30 pm (UTC)
When JKR spoke of Snape being a truly horrible person - well - that title goes to Albus Dumbledore - all the evil conniving Dumbledore theorie were pretty spot on. Snape's not horrible, he's tragic. He's really the only one who did what was right, and not what was easy, unlike DD - you know - letting millions upon millions die (Grindelwald/Hitler) because he was 'afraid' Grindelwald might tell him it was Albus' shot that killed his sister. O honestly, Albus! A horrible old man indeed. And Harry is sooo daft.

I was very disappointed in the series - I chucked the books into the bin. She's an amoral superficial writer. I enjoyed what she wrote - but this last book really blew it - on all levels.

Not a coherent rant - I've already done that on my forum.

Nice essay - far too polite in my opinion - but nicely stated.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 8th, 2007 04:11 pm (UTC)
I hadn't thought of just how many people Grindelwald had killed before Dumbledore went after him - although any at all is too many, really. How depressing! Yet another example of shoddy morality. I'm not going to throw the books away - like you I have enjoyed them - but it is very frustrating to see them come so close to greatness, and then fall short like this!
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on August 17th, 2007 01:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - anne_arthur on August 22nd, 2007 04:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
boltoniaboltonia on August 6th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC)
Dante and Beatrice
First, let me say that your disappointments in Rowling's portrayal of Slytherins in DH match mine. Only seeing three house banners in the Room of Requirement left a bad taste in my mouth, and then she didn't allow any of them to show loyalty to their school. Yes, very disappointed in you here, JKR!

I'd like to follow up on your comments about Snape's love for Lily being comparable to Dante for Beatrice. After Order of the Phoenix many fans latched on to the possible Snape/Lily friendship and read a lot more into it than we were given until DH. One person wrote an excellent fan fiction story that has Dumbledore sending Snape to Muggle psychology sessions to deal with his anger. Snape discovers Dante's writings, and his life story helps Snape come to terms with his own hopeless love.

I was delighted to see that, with very little suspension of disbelieve, this story could now fit excellently within canon. I highly recommend this story for any Snape fan.

Therapy by Azazzelo
Nobody tells me anythingkatiemorris on August 7th, 2007 11:48 am (UTC)
Re: Dante and Beatrice
I so agree with you about the lack of Slytherin good guys. It simply went against everything Rowling had the sorting hat preach down the years - unity is strength. YET. She showed only three house banners, DD whispers to Snape, "perhaps we sort too early" meaning, for God's sake, that nothing good can possibly be expected to come out of Slytherin EVER, and all the Slytherins do a bunk without a single exception. That did annoy me. It was careless writing. However, I loved the book, I really did.
Re: Dante and Beatrice - zanesfriend on August 7th, 2007 03:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Dante and Beatrice - katiemorris on August 7th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Dante and Beatrice - anne_arthur on August 8th, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)