Did Snape See Himself as a Mudblood?
It’s happened to all of us as we read the Harry Potter books- new information comes along that makes us reread a past section in a whole new light. SS/PS has to be reread with the knowledge that Quirrell was working for Voldemort and had him on the back of his head for most of the book. The Ginny and Dobby scenes in CoS need to be reread once we discover the roles of Tom and Malfoy. PoA really needs to be reread once we find out that Sirius Black wasn’t a homicidal killer trying to add Harry to his head count.
HBP makes all the Snape scenes in the past books worth PLENTY of rereading. The is-he-good-or-is-he-evil debates have reached a whole new level of intensity. I’m going to skip that and go to another question entirely: Is he a Mudblood?
Yes, I know, his mother was a witch. I’m not arguing that point (as one fantasy writer pointed out in another, recent novel, arguing that a man is your father even though he never knew you’d been born is one thing, arguing that a woman is your mother who never knew you’d been born is quite another). What I’m wondering is whether or not Snape as a boy saw himself as being in the same position in the Pureblood hierarchy when he was at school.
A half-blood’s position in Slytherin could go either way. Tom talks about Harry’s Mudblood mother and, as Voldemort, denies having Muggle relatives. When Harry uses Voldemort’s name, Bellatrix says, “You dare speak his name with your unworthy lips, you dare besmirch it with your half-blood’s tongue…” (OotP, US version, p.784). Remember that Bellatrix was one of Snape’s fellow students when he was at school.
Snape was already the low man on the totem pole in Hogwarts. No one, no Slytherin nor any member of the other houses, interfered when James and Sirius attacked him- no one except the Muggle-born Lily Evans.
Now, I believe Lily was motivated by a sense of outrage at what James and Sirius were doing, but what was Snape’s take on those events?
Snape was a half-blood. With people like Bellatrix in his house, he had to have heard the purity of his blood questioned at least a few times. His fellow Slytherins did not step up to his defense when he was attacked by two purebloods.
Not only were James and Sirius purebloods, Sirius came from a family so old and pure they considered themselves practically royalty. They were also incredibly rich. While we don’t know how aristocratic the Potters may or may not have been, we know that they were also old money and that James was able to make off with a valuable artifact like an invisibility cloak to use at school as a toy. Compare this to the Order having two cloaks among them to use for sentry duty over the prophecy.
Snape wasn’t just James’ favorite victim; he was a half-blood who knew that no purebloods were going to stand up to the pureblooded James Potter and Sirius Black on his behalf. Blood didn’t have to play a major part in Snape being bullied, it only had to play a role in his perception of the bullying (although Sirius’ parents, if they knew about the bullying, probably wouldn’t have interfered with their son picking on a half-blood the same way they might have if they heard he was picking on someone on the family tree).
If Snape saw the purebloods as classifying him with the Muggle-borns and if he believed James and Sirius targeted him – and got away with it – because they considered him a Mudblood, then the worst memory changes radically.
The purebloods didn’t consider him one of them and wouldn’t stand up for him. The Slytherins barely considered him one of them and wouldn’t stand up for him. The one person who did was a Muggle-born, a girl who, at that point, he might have considered to be in the same boat.
Snape didn’t see Lily’s sense of justice as her motivation for standing up for him (at least not at first), nor did he think she did it because she liked him. What he saw was a Muggle-born standing up to a pureblood bully for one of her own. That interpretation was given more weight by the reason James gave for attacking him: “it’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean…” (OotP, US version, p. 647).
The fact he exists. To a kid who believes he’s being targeted because of his inheritance, that has to sound like a confirmation. James’ almost casual “if you know what I mean” reinforced that- If you, the Muggle-born, know what I mean about targeting someone because of what they are.
In that light, James’ asking Lily for a date had to sound ominous. First, Snape knew firsthand how purebloods felt about Mudbloods. Would he think for a second that James’ intentions were honorable?
And then comes Snape’s “I don’t need help from filthy little Mudbloods like her!”(OotP, US version, p. 648). What does it mean if he’s used to hearing himself called a filthy little Mudblood? What if, in his head, there isn’t a kid in the school who doesn’t think of him that way? What if he is fighting to be seen as an equal by his pureblood attackers and, perhaps most importantly, to get them to not see Lily as a target?
His statement, then, is aimed at James. He’s not thinking of its effect on Lily because he doesn’t expect her to take it the way she does. He has seen her as recognizing them as belonging to the same group and being treated accordingly. What he says may be a horrible insult, but it’s an insult he expects her – and everyone there – to see as equally and inarguably applying to himself.
Lily’s reaction teaches Snape he was wrong, just how wrong is something that may not sink in until she tells James he’s just as bad as Snape is. In that moment, he’s not just one of the bullies and Muggle haters; he’s the standard by which other bullies are judged.
And, apparently, some of the pureblood fanatics and young Voldemort supporters also heard him and decided that maybe he was one of them, after all.
No wonder it’s a bad memory.