The North Tower #36: Severus Snape 2: Losing Control

Hi everybody. Hope your holidays were nice. I thought I’’d cut right to the chase and start with today’’s article, which will continue my analysis of one Hogwarts Potions master. As I said in NT 34, there’’s a lot to this character, so I’’ll be writing a little series of articles about him. That’’s the plan, but there might be some insertions (like the last one on Dumbledore) because of reader reactions as well.

Today, I wanted to talk about control, because it seems to be one of the keys to Snape’’s character. He’’s both a very controlled character and one who seems to value control more than most other characters in the series (joining the club of Percy Weasley and Cornelius Fudge). He rarely shows emotion, and when he does, it’s usually anger. He’s a teacher of Potions, which seems to be the most controlled and ritualistic of the subjects taught at Hogwarts (exact quantities at the perfect time, stirring an exact number of turns in the right direction and so forth). I think that it’s quite clear from the Potions “welcoming speech” in PS/SS that Snape actually loves the subject he’s teaching, which could be a possible explanation to why he seems to hate teaching it to a bunch of kids who don’t appreciate it. He’s also, as we learn in OotP, a master at Occlumency – a magical science where the key to success is to control yourself and close your mind to intrusion. During Occlumency lessons with Harry in OotP, he defines people who lack self-control as weak, which tells you quite a bit about the way he probably sees things.

“Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow in sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked so easily – weak people, in other words – they stand no chance against his [Voldemort’s] powers.” 
(OotP, p. 473)

Control isn’t just something to be desired, it’s the key to survival. Harry is weak because he’s emotional, because he doesn’t hide his feelings about people around him. Snape very rarely shows any emotion that could be used against him (contempt, disdain and enjoyment of somebody else’s failure or pain are his most common ones, and those aren’t nearly as easy to manipulate as e.g. love or devotion). He keeps his distance, which can be seen e.g. in the way he addresses other people. Snape likes titles. He calls Dumbledore “Headmaster”, whereas Dumbledore calls him by his given name. He normally addresses the other teachers as “Professor”, whereas the people on the staff generally address each other less formally (Minerva, Sibyll, Poppy, and so on). Slightly odd. He seems to view titles and polite formalities very much as a sign of respect, seeing as the only people he doesn’t address in a formal way are the people he despises. It’s “Lupin” and “Lockhart”, not “Professor Lupin” or “Professor Lockhart” for example (when talking directly to them, that is). He insists that his students (and especially Harry) remember to call him “sir”, which I interpret as a demand for respect, or at least recognition of his authority. Again, we come back to the need for control.

It is therefore very interesting to see Snape actually lose control of himself. It does happen. He doesn’t fully live up to the ideal he sets forward to Harry (which would be the opposite of the things in the quote above). He doesn’t mask dislike or hatred, but wears those emotions “proudly on his sleeve”, and he does get provoked fairly easily, at least when it comes to some people.

I think it’s quite safe to say that Snape’s greatest weakness is the Marauders (and consequently, Harry). From the scene in the Pensieve, as well as the information we get from Snape’s interaction with Sirius and Lupin, we know that the Marauders were quite horrible to him in school and the way Snape acts around them and Harry shows that he’s not the type of person who forgives and forgets. The wounds inflicted clearly run far too deep for healing. I would like to compare two scenes: Snape’s loss of control at the end of PoA and the scene after he finds Harry looking into his (Dumbledore’s?) Pensieve in OotP.

If we start by taking a literary look at the two scenes, it’s quite clear that they fill two very different functions in the story. The PoA Snape is comical in his anger, screaming out his disappointment at the top of his lungs while Dumbledore manipulates the situation with a twinkle in his eyes. The OotP Snape is not comical. He’s scary, and the scene’s main purpose (in my opinion) is to give the reader the same unpleasant epiphany as Harry gets, and to create a situation where everything is suddenly turned on its head. The first scene is funny, the second is dark, and Snape is very different.

In the hospital wing in PoA, Snape is “beside himself” (p. 306). All his lines are written in capital letters and the verbs used are “roared”, “bellowed”, “howled” and “shrieked”. His face is twisted and spit is flying from his mouth. Hardly dignified behaviour, and a complete loss of self-control.

In the dungeons in OotP, Snape is described to be “white with rage” (p. 572). His lips are shaking, his face is white, and his teeth are bared. He grips Harry’s arm so tightly he cuts off his circulation, shakes him so hard his glasses slip down his nose, throws him to the floor with “all his might,” and throws a jar of dead cockroaches after him as he runs out the door. Intimidating? Yes. Loss of control? Not that clear.

The main difference in these two scenes lies in the dialogue. The PoA Snape bellows his accusations and acts very much like an angry child. “This has something to do with Potter!”, “They helped him escape, I know it!”, “He did it, I know he did it!” Hardly up to our dear Potions Master’s regular standards, now is it? The loss of control comes across as very sincere. When you lose it, you lose it, and you don’t think about what comes out of your mouth. Now compare this to the scene after the Pensieve:

“Having fun?”, “So, been enjoying yourself, Potter?”, “Amusing man, your father, wasn’t he?”, “You will not repeat what you saw to anybody!”, “Get out, get out, I don’t want to see you in this office ever again!”

The OotP Snape is sarcastic and mixes wit with insult much like he usually does. He’s very far from the screaming lunatic in PoA. If we look at the verbs, we have two “said” and one “bellowed”, a much softer choice of words than in PoA. There isn’t any capitalised dialogue to suggest screaming either. Overall, the scene comes across as highly intimidating, and the main reason why it’s so scary is, I think, that Snape actually stays in control of himself. He’s nowhere near the state he was in in PoA, which makes me wonder exactly how much control he has over the situation.

Self-control or Manipulation?

I thought I’d mentioned the theory of “Snape’s Worst Memory” being a possible setup in an earlier article, but looking through them now, I can’t seem to find it. As is quite often the case with me, this is a theory I first came across at the Red Hen site (to which I think you all know the address by now. :-)). To summarise, it states that Harry going into the Pensieve is actually a setup to get Snape out of the troublesome situation of teaching Harry Occlumency – a skill Dumbledore wants him to learn and that Voldemort doesn’t want him to learn, for obvious reasons.

I like this theory, both because I think it can actually be well argued for and because it gives a very interesting spin on things. The title of the chapter for example: “Snape’s Worst Memory”. Does this indicate a) the memory that Snape thinks back on as the worst moment of his life (doubtful, I’ll get back to that), or could it perhaps be b) the memory out of Snape’s memories that would have the worst impact on Harry? The wording is very ambiguous and allows for a multitude of different interpretations.

It seems unlikely to me that what Harry witnesses in the Pensieve should be the memory of the worst moment in Snape’s life. When Harry broke through his defences during Occlumency, he saw scenes of humiliation, loneliness, and possible domestic abuse. We also know that Snape was nearly killed by the Marauders (Lupin in werewolf form) at (what we think is) the end of their fifth year. He was (is) a Death Eater. He was overpowered and knocked out by three of his students (in PoA). He almost got an Order of Merlin, only to have it slip through his fingers at his mortal enemy’s escape. Lupin helped Neville Longbottom transform a boggart into him wearing a dress and vulture-topped hat in front of a whole class of students. The list goes on, and I highly doubt that the scene in the Pensieve was the worst thing that’s ever happened to him. From what we gather in OotP when Harry speaks to Sirius and Lupin in the fire, that sort of humiliation seems to have occurred quite regularly.

Which leads me to examine possibility number two: that this is Snape’s worst memory – for Harry. Not Harry’s worst memory, mind (the boy’s been through a lot after all), but the “best” Snape can offer. The memory does affect Harry deeply. It shows him his father, whom he’s always idolised, in a role that Harry hates (the role of the abuser – same as Dudley or Draco Malfoy), picking on another student, two to one, just to have some fun. It puts Snape, whom he hates, in a role he can so easily identify with, turning his world upside down. It does do some real damage.

Snape would have known that it would, assuming that he did set Harry up. Snape’s broken into Harry’s mind many times by the time of this scene. He’s seen all of Harry’s bad memories, many of which include bullying or abuse and people laughing at him. These are probably not Harry’s worst memories (the ones that have to do with death being indisputably scarier), but they’re bad enough. It’s also a memory that makes Harry ashamed, confused, and angry apart from feeling sorry for Snape. I don’t really see what Snape could have shown Harry that would have had a more negative impact on the boy.

Back to the control issues. In the OotP scene, Snape is intimidating and violent, but he doesn’t do any real physical damage. He shakes Harry and throws him to the floor. Had he wanted to really hurt the boy, he would probably have thrown him into something. A wall? A desk? If you’ve lost control, you tend not to think. I very much doubt that the PoA Snape would have thrown Harry to the floor and given him a little shake. A more believable reaction would be to try and strangle the boy (for example). It seems like he’s a bit too much in control here to resort to actual violence.

On the other hand, he doesn’t act as one would suspect a Snape-in-control to act either. There’s a very simple solution to catching one of your students taking a peek into your most intimate secrets, the ones that you don’t want anyone to know about – you simply obliviate the little bugger. Even in his state of blind rage in PoA, Snape is rational. He logically discards the option of Sirius Black having escaped through Apparition by stating (or screaming) that you can’t apparate on Hogwarts’ grounds. This was at a moment where he seems to have lost it completely. In the OotP scene, he comes into the room, sees Potter with his head down the Pensieve, walks over, gets in and pulls Potter out. Plenty of time for the thought “maybe I should obliviate him” to enter his mind. Anyone else who’s starting to think “Hey, this doesn’t quite fit.”?

In addition, Snape is (or at least has been) a spy. He’s working (has worked) for Voldemort. He’s a master Occlumens. One would think that he knows a) not to take stupid chances and b) how to hide something he really wants to hide. He can probably be taken by surprise, just like anyone else, which is what I think happens the time when Harry breaks into Snape’s mind. From what we’re told, Harry only succeeds in doing that once. So why then, in the name of all that’s good and holy, would Snape put the secret memories he absolutely wants to hide from Harry into a Pensieve, right in front of the boy, whom he knows to be extremely curious and utterly lacking in respect for his personal things, and then leave the Pensieve out on the desk, giving the boy easy access once he’s out of the room? And then, when he’s dragged the boy out of the stone basin, he lets him go with a warning not to tell anyone else, when heknows that the Trio’s practically inseparable, that Potter has practically no feelings of loyalty towards him and that the boy will need to discuss this with someone or it’ll eat him alive. It just doesn’t fit. There’s nothing to indicate that Snape puts his thoughts into the Pensieve to hide them from Harry, nothing except Harry’s assumption that is. And, let’s face it, how often is Harry right when it comes to figure out the motives behind Snape’s actions? Harry isn’t a trained Legillimens. Snape has no reason to fear that he won’t be able to hide secret thoughts from him once he’s prepared and doesn’t underestimate the boy anymore. If he doesn’t realise that inside the mind of a Master Occlumens is safer than in an easy-to-access-for-anyone-with-a-wand Pensieve, he’s just plain stupid. And I’ve never looked at Snape as being stupid.

Basically, what convinces me is this: To have acted like he does without an ulterior motive (just because he was angry), Snape would have had to be completely out of control and not thinking straight. And he’s not. We’’ve seen him in that state in PoA and this is not it. Another little detail that deserves to be pointed out is that he throws a jar which explodes over Harry’’s head. Evidence of mad rage? Perhaps, but, as Red Hen points out, this is a jar of dead cockroaches, which is probably one of the cheaper Potion ingredients. Might be a coincidence. It might also indicate that the “sign of fury” is really a show…

I think I’’ll leave you on that note and what it might indicate for now.

To be continued, see you next time.