?

Log in

No account? Create an account
 
 
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? 
 
 
 
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.
Why?
Quite a Machiavellian Figure: You must kill meangua9 on August 6th, 2007 03:54 pm (UTC)
She continually denies his heroism in interviews.
Why?


I can't speak for Rowling, but I'm guessing because he doesn't completely fit her mental definition of "hero" and she wants to discuss both his virtues and his flaws, rather than simply declaring him "good."

Anyway, she hasn't always denied Snape's heroism:

Meredith Viera Interview:
Is he a hero? You see I don't see him really as a hero.

MV: Really?

JKR: Yeh. He's spiteful. He's a bully. All these things are still true of Snape, even at the end of this book. But, was he brave? Yes, immensely.


and

I knew from the beginning what Snape was. Do I think he's a hero? To a point, I do, but he's not an unequivocally good character. Snape is a complicated man. He's bitter. He's ... spiteful. He's a bully. All these things are still true of Snape, even at the end of this book. But was he brave? Yes, immensely. Was he capable of love? Very definitely. So he's-- he's a very-- he was a flawed human being, like all of us.

Bloomsbury Online Chat:
Do you think snape is a hero

Yes, I do
; though a very flawed hero. An anti-hero, perhaps. He is not a particularly likeable man in many ways. He remains rather cruel, a bully, riddled with bitterness and insecurity - and yet he loved, and showed loyalty to that love and, ultimately, laid down his life because of it. That's pretty heroic!



She speaks ambivalently about whether or not Snape is "a hero," sometimes saying yes and sometimes saying no. That's very different from "continually denies his heroism." I'm a huge Snape fan, but I don't think that's mean-spirited - I think it's an accurate reflection of the complexities of Snape's character and storyline.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 06:38 pm (UTC)
Hmm . . . First of all, thank you for getting the quotations together! I think that my problem with them is that there is, as JKR says in another context entirely, 'Always the note of surprise'. No, she does not always deny his heroism, but she does qualify it, and seems to want to suggest that not being 'an unequivocally good man' makes him less of a hero - whereas I think that doing what he does despite being such a screwed-up person is a big part of his heroism and makes it greater. I also do think that it makes him a good man, and that this is very different from being a nice man - which he most certainly isn't. I do like it that his love for Lily is the foundation of his behaviour, but, again, it seems to me not this love that is the fundamental thing, but the fact that as a result of it he dedicates his life to protecting her son, whom he personally dislikes intensely. I suppose that what I see in this character in the books is a counterbalance to the idea that to be 'good' or 'heroic' you have to have a nice character and a warm, loving personality - and JKR's remarks sometimes make me wonder if I am making all this up!
the ghost of Alex Krycek: I'm the devil!cs_luis on August 6th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC)
Sorry for jumping in -

Her attitude has bothered me somewhat as well, although I don't think we need to concern ourselves with what she thinks of it, outside of what's on the paper - what's there is there. I do wish she would acknowledge that we all squee for a reason, but whatever. I think she's hesitant to say it's OK to like the mean characters. Or maybe she DOESN'T think it's OK. (What would she say if I said I LOVED Voldemort? Oh my.)

Anyway, that said, I can kind of see where she's coming from re: always wanting to qualify Snape's good deeds. I think she might be hesitant to say something like, "Yes, wasn't he great?" when there are millions of young children absorbing her every comment, without adding on something akin to "But don't forget, he was really mean!". While we as adults can appreciate that his vindictive, petty, and sometimes cruel personality and behaviors actually add to his heroism, I'm not sure JKR trusts that her young readers are able to do that, and she may be concerned that readers will overlook that aspect of his character.

Does this make sense? I'm hungry, thus my thoughts are scattered...

Good essay, btw, thanks for sharing. :-)
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 10:17 pm (UTC)
No, that makes perfect sense - my only problem with it is that the books themselves do not appear to be for children who are so young as to need to be told that. But I only know the age at which they would have appealed to me (I think) - and of course there are always younger brothers and sisters who will know bits of the story; and she probably always has the 'Severus Snape corrupted my child' headline at the back of her mind, so feels she must be ultra-responsible. No, it makes more sense the more I look at it.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 6th, 2007 10:33 pm (UTC)
No, I don't mind at all. And yes, it was the comments in the interviews that seemed to me to be mean-spirited (for example, Snape somehow not deserving to have his portrait included in the Head's office because he had abandoned his post, although I suspect that the real reason it wasn't there was that she was not sure whether to have it applaud Harry or say something sarcastic to him!) And yes, what bothers me is the contrast between the complex, heroic Snape in the books and the much more simplistic Snape who emerges from the interviews - and the views on morality and heroism that that simplistic Snape seems to represent.
(Anonymous) on August 17th, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC)
If you look at the 'heros' from the Bible, they make Snape look like a boyscout. She should worry more about kids emulating some of Harry's less endearing traits, than kids trying to be like Snape. Clearly, Harry is their role model despite his lying, cheating, stealing, sneaking off, vandalizing, fighting, disrespecting teachers, disregarding both rules and laws, putting himself and others in danger, and his performing dark, Unforgivable spells, even on innocents, just like Voldemort does. For most of what Harry does wrong, he is constantly lauded. Snape is rarely if ever lauded for anything until he is dead. Wouldn't any kid rather be like Harry?