For me, one of the most surprising things about the end of Half-Blood Prince had to do with the connections which Rowling chose to draw between Severus Snape and Tom Riddle. Harry learns that both Snape and Riddle were born to witch mothers and Muggle fathers. He assumes that The Half-Blood Prince is an impressive name that Snape gave himself, just like Lord Voldemort is an impressive title that Riddle made up, that they were both ashamed of their parentage, and that they both tried to make themselves feared by using Dark magic.
We can also surmise that both were clever and talented at deception. More obviously, both were Slytherins, and if Snapes murder of Dumbledore was as bad as it appears on the surface, then he is nearly as despicable as Voldemort himself. There are also certain similarities in the ways in which Harry views them. Harry taking advice from the old Potions textbook is at least somewhat similar to Harry learning from Riddles journal inChamber of Secrets. Harry has similar feelings about both Snape and Riddle at this point in the game. JKR said that Harry-Snape is just as personal now as Harry-Voldemort. Clearly, there is an attempt to draw parallels between the two characters.
I wondered why, if Snape were truly and completely evil, he would be so similar to Voldemort? Why would the books possibly need a less powerful, if more interesting, version of Voldemort running around? It would also seem to suggest that if you meet certain criteria, much of it related to background, which is uncontrollable, that you will be evil.
Then it hit me.
It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
This is, of course, a quote from Chamber of Secrets. It is what Dumbledore said made Harry very different from Tom Riddle his choices. I believe that this idea is very important to the series.
In CoS, Harry was continually compared to Voldemort. Admittedly, this was largely a ploy to make the reader wonder if Harry was the Heir of Slytherin, but it also had larger implications. It is never denied, in this book, that Harry and Voldemort have a lot in common. Instead, CoS sends the message that two people from similar backgrounds (both non-pureblood wizard orphans who were raised in loveless, Muggle environments) can become totally different people because of their choices.
Next, I remembered something from Order of the Phoenix which seemed odd to me at the time. There were attempts, throughout the book, to make Harry sympathize with Snape and, yes, even to compare the two. These were rather less obvious than Harry-Voldemort or Snape-Voldemort connections, but still clearly present. In Harrys Occlumency lessons, Harry and Snape exchange memories. Harry sees Snape as a child, crying because his mother and father are fighting and:
…it was unnerving to think that the crying little boy who had watched his parents shouting was actually standing in front of him with such loathing in his eyes.
In other words, Harry was able to find sympathy and even understanding for that little boy and it offset him because it was Snape. When Harry views Snape being tormented by James and Sirius, he becomes very upset because:
…he knew how it felt to be humiliated in the middle of a circle of onlookers, knew exactly how Snape had felt as his father taunted him.
I think that there is a clear attempt to draw connections between Snapes and Harrys childhoods. Drawing connections between the two even continues to a lesser degree in book 6 by way of the Half-Blood Prince. The princes spells are certainly of the sort that Harry finds interesting and he is horrified to learn that the boy who had helped him so much was actually Snape.
Now, we obviously dont have nearly as much information about Snape’s childhood as we do about Harry’s or Tom’s, but I think that we will learn more in book 7 and there are several clues to suggest that what we will learn is that all three had similar childhoods. I think that we will learn that all three were raised in loveless, Muggle environments.
In my eyes, it is more likely than not that Spinner’s End is Snape’s childhood home. I find it unlikely that it is a hideout either for the Death Eaters or for the Order because Narcissa (who is acting against Voldemorts orders) finds it easily and Bellatrix has apparently never been there before. Bellatrix also says he lives here, not he stays here or he is here, but he lives here. Snape lives at Spinner’s End. However, I find it highly unlikely that Snape would buy a house in a “Muggle dunghill” as an adult, so it must be where he lived as a child. This has interesting implications because it means that Snape was probably raised in a Muggle house, on a Muggle street, by a Muggle father, and most likely even attended Muggle primary school.
But how was he treated by Muggles? The glimpse that we have of Snape’s father is not encouraging. If the Snapes fought often and were poor (as seems likely) and if their personalities were anything like Severus then I dont think that they would have had many close friends among the people in their community. I also doubt that Severus was any more popular at his primary school than he was at Hogwarts; he would have been smart, unattractive, poor, and (at least in the later years), unpleasant. Not a good combination for popularity. No, I suspect that Snape’s years in the Muggle world were at least as dismal as Harry’s early years. In fact, the dislike of Muggles that almost certainly must go with following Voldemort (whether you eventually turned against him or not) may well have stemmed from Snapes feelings about his father and his mistreatment in his younger years in general.
Naturally, if you try hard enough, then you can find similarities between any two given characters. However, what I am talking about are more than similarities they are connections that Rowling obviously wants us to make. The books could hardly be clearer if they proclaimed “Hey! Here is a way that these two characters are alike” in flashing red letters.
The only character whom Harry is compared with more than Voldemort or Snape is his father, and this seems somewhat exaggerated. Voldemort is compared to Harry and Snape much more than he is compared to anyone else in the series. In fact, the only other people whom I can think of him being compared with at all are previous Dark Lords who are barely mentioned, and Dumbledore, in terms of raw power. I cant think of Snape being compared with anyone other than these two.
So why would Rowling choose to create three characters with such similar backgrounds and then throw it up in our faces so often? So Harry can identify with the bad guys and even they come out looking more human? Perhaps, but I doubt it. What we learned about Riddle and Snape in HBP hardly makes me sympathize with them. And comparing their backgrounds to Harrys only serves to make them seem worse because Harry turned out so much better (morally speaking) than them.
Rather, I think it comes back to what Dumbledore said in CoS about choices. I think what we are going to get in the end is a picture of three boys who were raised under similar circumstances, but who turned out as different as can be because of the choices that they made. Harry is the white and represents the good choices. He turned out nearly as good as was possible, considering his circumstances. Voldemort, at the opposite end of the spectrum is the black and became almost as evil as can be. So where does that leave Snape?
Just as morally ambiguous as he always been, of course! Snape is the grey.
As I said at the beginning, if he is as bad as he seems, then all he amounts to is a lesser version of Voldemort and why would we need what is essentially two of the same character? On the other hand, if he goes around making the noble sacrifices that some think he has made and will continue to make, then his heroism would almost overshadow Harrys own. Very few people are allowed to overshadow the hero of the story. In either case, he becomes much less interesting and probably a little out of character. I think it is much more likely that he will remain the same intriguing character that he has been throughout the series.
I find it interesting that even the Half-Blood Prince attests to Snape’s greyness. The Prince helps Harry become top of his class in Potions and he saves Ron’s life, but he also knows several nasty little spells which he passes down to an unwitting Harry. A thoroughly interesting character just like Snape. You’ll notice that Tom Riddle’s diary charms and deceives. It does a lot to harm Harry and very little (if anything) to help him. True, the diary had a piece of Voldemort’s soul and the Potions textbook was merely a book that Snape had written in as a teenager, but there were certain similarities in the way Harry viewed both objects.
Some would say that Snape killing Dumbledore must make him either evil incarnate or the self-sacrificing hero. I don’t agree. JKR said that there would be 10,000 theories about this issue and I can think of plenty of plausible ones which leave Snape’s morality up for interpretation. This isn’t really the place to discuss them.
I am not suggesting that we will not know, in the end, whether Snape was truly working for Voldemort or for the Order or for himself. I think that we will find that out. But I think if he is truly a Death Eater, then we will find out some information (perhaps about his past or his relationship with Dumbledore) which will make him not seem so very horrible. Or if he is working for the Order, then his actions still wont be totally excusable, at least not to everyone. I think that at the end of book 7, we may very well still be arguing about Severus Snape. He will always be a complex character who is both understandable and despicable.
And would we really have him any other way?