Severus Snape: Shedding Some Light on This Dark Soul

by Jackie

Abstract: In this essay, I pose the question: What drives Severus Snape? It asks the reader to go deeper than “Love for Lily Potter.” The writing discusses Snape as the product of early childhood abuse and bullying, drawing from personal experiences that have illuminated Snape for the author. So many people on chat sites have argued about whether Snape “redeemed” himself. This essay tries to understand his actions, not discuss his redemption. It also poses the question: How much of the blame does society own for the actions of one of its injured?

There has been a huge debate on so many Potter fan sites about the nature of J.K. Rowling’s most fascinating, subtle, (and I argue), most remarkable character: Severus Snape. I was so moved by this series, particularly the last novel, that I’ve spent some time viewing the characters, especially this murky character, through the “Lumos” of my personal experiences. My question is: What drives Severus Snape? I want to go deeper than “his love for Lily Potter.”

By the time I had finished Book Two, staying up late reading many a summer night with my enthralled children, I was troubled. I was troubled because I began to realize with some revulsion that I was sympathizing with the most oily and loathsome of the characters, the dark and cruel potions master, Severus Snape. I was ashamed to tell my kids who my favorite was. Why wasn’t I completely in Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s camp? Why was I more captivated by what I didn’t know about Snape, than by the sparkling friendships growing between the three child protagonists? Why did I want to ponder Snape’s feelings and ruminate about his intentions and loyalties, the cause of his rage when Sirius was freed, instead of letting my mind take flight with Harry on the Hippogriff in Book Three? My kids, of course, wanted to hear more about Harry, Harry, Harry, or in the case of my ten-year-old daughter, Ron Weasley, her biggest crush. But I tuned in closely, and I read more slowly when Snape entered a chapter.

I kept wanting to stir the cauldron, to see if I could distill some essence of understanding for our dark potions teacher. Sick, huh? I mean Snape berates Harry, humiliates him and Ron, and poor Neville. He’s entrusted with protecting these kids. How can he behave like this? And how come I think there’s some kernel of something admirable in him?

But wait… Snape treated Dumbledore with respect and deference, and Dumbledore liked Snape, and trusted him in a very peculiar, special way. That’s why I liked Snape. We knew by the start of Order of the Pheonix that Snape was valuable if handled properly. Why oh why, I kept asking, didn’t Albus make him DADA instructor – make him feel appreciated? And what was Snape’s story?

The revelation of why I wanted to champion Snape – or a piece of my revelation – came when Snape was teaching Harry Occlumency and Harry peeked at what was going on in that greasy head of Snape’s. Harry sees an early memory of Snape’s, so sad, of “a boy with long, dark hair crying in a corner, while a man with a hook-like nose yelled at a woman.” I realized then, and more fully after I’d finished Book Seven, a mere month later, what Snape and I had in common. We were both abused children.

It’s hard to describe the embarrassing powerlessness felt by a child who is abused by an adult. In my case, I was neglected and abused emotionally by my father. I remember the terror and heartbreak I felt when my dad smashed my little painted chair one night. It was one I’d sat in earlier when my two sisters and I played “The Three Bears.” I remember my dad cursing loudly in Hungarian and telling us almost daily that we’d be destitute after he “killed himself.”

I relived some of those memories while reading these books, and it was a cathartic experience. I remember being so, so ashamed. I didn’t want hugs after being hurt. I didn’t want to be rescued by my benevolent live-in great aunt, who would slink up the stairs offering cocoa, apple slices, and her lap. I wanted to pretend nothing had happened or was happening. My family was good at this. One of my greatest fears was that someone “would reveal the best of me” – the only part of me that was good – the part of me that felt sadness, outrage, and compassion for my siblings who were suffering too.

Snape sadly denies the world the best part of himself, even if that best part of him feels love for only one person, Lily, and sadly disregards others. “But never – never tell, Dumbledore! This must be between us! Swear it! I cannot bear it… especially Potter’s son… I want your word!” (Deathly Hallows, p. 697) Did Snape’s regard for human life start to change as he watched Dumbledore navigate his way through awful decisions for “the greater good”? Did Snape’s regard for Harry change in that last moment of his life, when he gives Harry his memories? These are questions I wish Rowling would answer for us. I want to believe it changed, or that he at least thought about it.

I understand why Snape lost it and yelled “Mudblood” at Lily, his RESCUER. Why would anyone curse their rescuer? An abused child forever feels that deep shame that comes from being powerless. I yearned to be powerful, loud, and bold, like my Dad. Yes, I bonded with my aggressor. I had the urge when I was young, and it disgusts me, to kick, hurt, and yell, at something less than me. Finding nothing much feebler, I’d hurl my stuffed pets or dolls across the room, and then cry uncontrollably, petting and comforting them. This was my ritual. I was soothing them because to be soothed myself was mortally embarrassing.

It was revealed to me that Snape and I had yet another thing in common – we didn’t fit in and wanted desperately to make ourselves over. I was an outcast in school, an outcast because I couldn’t fit into popular American culture. As the daughter of Hungarian immigrants who lived somewhat cocooned from the rest of society by rituals and language (my extended family that lived with us spoke hardly any English), I stood out as a little bit of a “freak” in the small college/prep school town in which I grew up. I dressed in my mother’s hand-made “ethnic” sweaters, and brought strange ethnic foods to school in my Snoopy lunchbox. Why couldn’t my parents have packed Oreos and dressed me in Izod shirts? Why couldn’t I wear Nike’s instead of brown, potato-shaped shoes my mother purchased at ‘Railroad Salvage’, because she and her sisters had brought their “Old World” frugality with them when they came to the states? Poor Snape – he had to wear his “smock,” which the children around him called his “mother’s shirt.”

I remember vividly, some popular, preppy boys throwing spiky chestnut shells at me as I walked home from school one day. I was hurting but refused to let my lip quiver or to shed a tear. “Freak,” they yelled in frustration. “She doesn’t mind this! What a freak!” I was covered in tiny spots where the quills had stuck and broken off, but I laughed with my tormentors. I laughed with the kids who were popular, outgoing, and “cool.” Lily was one of the popular kids. How incredible it must have felt for Snape to walk under her umbrella. The crazy exhilaration he must have felt riding the train to Hogwarts where he knew he could vanish his old Spinner’s End-self and cast himself a powerful new identity.

So, Snape was abused undeservedly by his parents, and later by school bullies (one could argue deservedly here since he apparently doled out some abuse too), as revealed in “Snape’s Worst Memory.” In Book Seven – “The Prince’s Tale” much was revealed, much Snape fought desperately to hide his entire wretched life. Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for that chapter. I hope parents handing down their legacy of abuse, which often passes from generation, and bullies in general read that chapter, and some of them are affected by it.

I felt vindicated after Deathly Hallows. I shed tears during “The Prince’s Tale”, but I felt proud of Snape, and of my instincts about him too. Was the horrible, twisted, mean Snape working, risking, and sacrificing for “love”? He could love! I had wanted to believe he could all along. His love for Lily was beautiful, and his single-minded purpose, bravery, and sacrifice were so admirable. I felt comforted by this.

But then, I started to analyze. Poor Snape, I concluded, was too broken to live a gratifying life in society. His love was the “obsessive love” Dumbledore talked about. A crazy sort of idolatry – reckless and insane as the circumstances that drive one to it. He didn’t love Lily so much as perhaps he longed for her qualities. Lily was popular, kind, brilliant, brave, and compassionate. His lack of proper moral grounding, and ready use of violence to avenge emotional hurt is apparent during the scene in which he hurts Petunia after she insults him and Lily is alarmed (Deathly Hallows, p 668). “‘Did you make that happen?’ ‘No.’ He looked both defiant and scared.” Haven’t we all witnessed a scene like this on the schoolyard, when the awkward kid unsure of social norms realizes that he has done wrong in front of the cool kid he worships? I’m sure many of these kids are acting in ways adults have acted towards them. Unacceptable, but understandable.

Dumbledore, who Snape allied himself with later, was compassionate like Lily. Hard, calculating, when necessary, but compassionate. Dumbledore had come out of the crucible of his past a different person than Snape had. Dumbledore is kind – extraordinarily forgiving. He sees the redeeming qualities in everyone, even Draco, his would-be killer, and goes even further by giving Draco back his dignity and self-worth by bestowing praise for his cunning and ambition, which is how Slytherins measure worth: “‘A clever plan, a very clever plan.’ ‘Yeah,’ said Malfoy, who bizarrely seemed to draw courage and comfort from Dumbledore’s praise.” (p. Half-Blood Prince, 587)

Snape does not show us convincingly that he has the ability to forgive or feel compassion for anyone other than Lily, his obsession. Snape appears to be more damaged than the great Headmaster, although they both have demons in their past. Perhaps by serving Dumbledore, Snape is showing “the good that is in him” by proxy.

Every reader has a story. Something of profound value to offer. I know many stories are far more awful than mine. I know our circumstances have shaped us. Some of us are tall and strong and certain like oaks, some of us soak up rivers and are able to bend and sway, with branches that won’t snap, like the weeping willow. There are so many insightful interpretations of an excellent piece of literature. I offer this: when analyzing Snape’s character one must recognize that abused children, bullied children, filled with shame and self-loathing, make some really bad decisions, and are infuriatingly resistant to help or instruction.

What will the verdict be for Severus Snape? How would the author have us judge Snape? I’m still not sure. I do hope that when we judge this character, we realize that abuse and neglect burn the psyche deeply. They disfigure it. I am not going to say that society should not hold us accountable, ultimately for all of our actions. But, it is hard to judge someone unless we’ve walked a mile in his shoes. And maybe, society owns some of the blame for what happens to us at the hands of our deranged.

Severus Snape was a product of an ugly early life. His abuse happened early enough, and was at the hands of his parents, which has a more profoundly damaging effect, I believe, than abuse suffered at the hands of peers. This abuse became the driving force for all of his future actions, good and bad.