Mishandling Mind Reading: How Snape Uses Legilimency to Spy on Harry
Snape is often referred to as one of the greatest Occlumens of his generation, but he is also skilled at Legilimency, which he proves through his private lessons with Harry. There is evidence that Snape may be using his Legilimency powers not only in Occlumency lessons, however, but also in daily interactions with Harry. This offers Snape a unique insight into Harry’s mind and personality, but due to their mutual dislike, he’s only exposed to information that supports his previous negative opinions.
We get our first hint that Snape uses Legilimency on Harry during Harry’s first year. Harry thinks that Snape is following him around and wonders whether Snape knows that Harry has found out about the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Harry didn’t see how he could – yet he sometimes had the horrible feeling that Snape could read minds” (SS 221). Harry is right: Snape can read minds and has probably learned that the trio is investigating the Sorcerer’s Stone (and that they suspect him of trying to steal it). Neither fact is likely to ingratiate Harry to Snape, but it probably does make Snape worried enough about Harry’s safety to follow him around the corridors, perhaps on Dumbledore’s orders.
Whenever Snape makes intense eye contact with Harry, we can guess that he is probably using Legilimency. In Harry’s second year, Harry causes a diversion in Potions class in order for Hermione to steal ingredients for the Polyjuice Potion. Snape threatens punishment to whoever caused the disruption, and we’re told that “Snape was looking right at [Harry], and the bell that rang ten minutes later could not have been more welcome” (CoS 188). Snape knows it was Harry, and his suspicions are confirmed two years later when he accuses Harry of sneaking into his office yet again:
Harry stared back at Snape, determined not to blink or to look guilty. In truth, he hadn’t stolen either of these things from Snape. Hermione had taken the boomslang skin back in their second year – they had needed it for the Polyjuice Potion – and while Snape had suspected Harry at the time, he had never been able to prove it. Dobby, of course, had stolen the gillyweed. (GoF 516)
Snape probably feels satisfaction that he was right about Harry’s role in stealing from his office and anger that he has managed to use other people to avoid the possibility of getting caught. Snape, however, also learns vital information here, which is that Harry is not the one stealing supplies from him at the moment. If someone in the castle is making Polyjuice Potion, it’s not Harry. By the time Snape manages to figure out who it is, however, it’s almost too late.
Harry, most unwisely, seems to think that making direct eye contact with Snape is a good strategy for not appearing guilty. When Snape accuses Harry of going to Hogsmeade illegally, we are told that “Snape’s eyes were boring into Harry’s. It was exactly like trying to stare down a hippogriff. Harry tried hard not to blink” (PoA 283). All this achieves, however, is giving Snape proof that Harry is lying. When Snape teaches antidotes in Harry’s fourth year, we learn that “Snape’s eyes met Harry’s, and Harry knew what was coming. Snape was going to poison him. Harry imagined picking up his cauldron, and sprinting to the front of the class, and bringing it down on Snape’s greasy head -” (GoF 301). Even though Snape knows Harry hates him, having it confirmed in this vivid imagery only escalates Snape’s anger.
Things change when Snape intentionally breaks into Harry’s mind during their Occlumency lessons, however. Here, Snape is forced to see not just what Harry is thinking at the moment but all of the memories that make up his personality. These visions do not fit with Snape’s assertion of Harry’s arrogance. He sees many memories of the Dursleys tormenting Harry. He sees Harry relive the same Dementor attack three different times. Most importantly, he sees Harry look at his mother and father in the Mirror of Erised. This last memory has a huge effect on Snape, who becomes livid after seeing it. Snape is constantly living with the guilt of having sent Voldemort after Lily, and this vision hits home for him that it was not just Lily who suffered from his mistake but also Harry. It is his fault that Harry grew up being abused by the Dursleys and that the only way Harry can see his parents is in an enchanted mirror. Snape cannot stand this guilt associated with someone he hates and must be relieved when Harry’s foray into the Pensieve gives him an excuse to hate Harry again.
Despite all the access Snape has to Harry’s mind, their mutual hatred colors the information Snape receives and makes him resistant to facts that don’t confirm his previous beliefs. In the last moments of Snape’s life, the tables turn, and Snape looks into Harry’s eyes for the first time without any attempt to find wrongdoing. Through Harry’s green eyes, Snape finally sees him as Lily’s son and asks Harry, in turn, to look into his mind without prejudice.