The Secret Flaws of Severus Snape – A Rebuttal
It’s been years since I’ve wanted to wade into the great Snape debate, but a recent article on MuggleNet broke through that resolve. My colleague Deanna Abrash wrote “The Secret Flaws of Severus Snape – Part 1,” and I eagerly clicked since I love few things more than a thorough repudiation of the Potions Master.
I congratulate Deanna on a well-written article with a good hook – let’s enumerate even more flaws of Snape’s! It’s always refreshing to find new content about Snape instead of retreading his more well-known sins. With that said, I do disagree with just about all of Deanna’s arguments and thought I’d offer a rebuttal here.
Deanna opens with the claim that Snape is “a raging perfectionist.” My immediate reaction is that this comes across as an answer to the absurd job interview “what’s your greatest weakness?” question. And the claim here is about as disingenuous as all the job applicants lamenting their perfectionism.
Someone who is a perfectionist would not meddle with potion recipes trying to improve them. They would follow the instructions to the letter in an attempt to get them right. We actually see a very vivid example of a raging perfectionist in Potions when Hermione insists on following Libatius Borage’s instructions in Advanced Potion-Making.
Snape is brilliant, he knows it, and he works hard – none of those are necessarily bad things. Those qualities are the kernel, which Deanna does address, of what I believe to be the relevant flaw here: Snape’s impossibly high standards for others. It’s not perfectionism that’s the flaw; it’s how exacting he is.
Snape is unable to put up with those who are not as brilliant and diligent as he is. He laments that the students are “a bunch of dunderheads […] I usually have to teach” (SS 137), hence his advanced curriculum and his refusal to accept any NEWT students who don’t achieve an Outstanding on their Potions OWL – he’ll “take only the very best into my N.E.W.T. Potions class” (OotP 232).
I imagine that Snape’s NEWT Potions classes are actually good because he seems reasonably well suited to teaching advanced potion-making to the best of the best. He is, however, uniquely ill-suited to teaching an introductory Potions class to 11-year-olds who’ve never filled a cauldron before. The fact that he is forced to is a failing of Dumbledore’s as headmaster.
Severus Snape is certainly not in a healthy place emotionally. However, I really can’t see how one could call Snape emotionally unstable – this was the argument that I found truly puzzling.
Deanna writes, “He’s one of the few characters to go caps lock mode multiple times in the series.” However, there are only two such instances spread across seven years: the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and “The Flight of the Prince.” I’ll even add an honorary third instance, “Snape’s Worst Memory,” where he doesn’t use caps lock but does throw a jar of cockroaches.
Having three emotional meltdowns across seven years – one rooted in trauma, one in fear, and one after killing one’s closest friend – is not only reasonable but expected of anyone who’s not a complete psychopath. It’s hardly grounds to call someone emotionally unstable, and it would be a lot more damning if Snape responded in all three instances with Alan Rickman’s detached calm.
Deanna calls Snape “emotionally volatile” because “he also snarls and shouts. He smiles, however unpleasantly. He sulks and snaps. He openly makes nasty faces at people who upset him, and he visibly worries.” With all due respect, that’s not emotionally volatile. That’s being human. Snape shouts and snarls on occasions when he’s upset, and he’s shown worrying about things. That’s normal. And smiling unpleasantly is a nasty habit but hardly indicative of Snape being overemotional.
In fact, Snape shouting in class is an aberration because “Snape had the gift of keeping a class silent without effort” (SS 136–37). Yes, those moments when Snape shouts or snarls might be oversampled in the text – Jo is not likely to spend pages telling us, “In Potions on Friday, Snape was calm as usual and made snide remarks without raising his voice.” But the fact that Snape shouting is never treated as a default setting or even a regular occurrence is very telling – as opposed to throwaway lines like “Snape turned and walked off to bully Neville” (CoS 187), indicating that is an everyday thing.
Lastly, Deanna claims that Snape “joining the Death Eaters out of a desire for power or belonging” is an example of a bad decision made because Snape was being ruled by his emotions. I find that perhaps the most implausible claim of all because Snape didn’t join the Death Eaters out of some tantrum. Snape joined the Death Eaters for several reasons that made logical sense to him.
First, Snape joined because the only people who wanted anything to do with him joined up – the “gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters” (GoF 531). It’s a fundamental human motivation: People need to feel a sense of belonging, and Snape wasn’t really spoiled for choice after the estrangement with Lily.
Second, Snape joined up because he wanted to further explore Dark magic, and the best place for such learning was probably under Voldemort. It was either that or follow Voldemort’s footsteps in taking a world tour of Dark magic, but seeking access to Voldemort’s tutelage was the expedient path for Snape’s intellectual pursuits.
Third, Snape went to the Death Eaters because Dumbledore’s siding with Sirius Black after “the prank” showed Snape that both sides were about evenly bad. From his point of view, both sides had a disregard for the lives of people who were “other” and a blind eye toward crimes “their” people had committed. (I dive deeper into “the prank” and Dumbledore’s culpability in my book Dumbledore: The Life and Lies.)
Is this reasoning flawed, dangerous, and perhaps inexcusable? Yes. But it’s hard to classify it as emotional. In contrast, Draco joining the Death Eaters was emotional: He was acting out because of his anger about Lucius being sent to Azkaban, and he just wanted to hurt Harry. Snape joining up was a reasoned move to achieve his aims. If anything, perhaps that makes him more culpable: He thought it through and still joined the Death Eaters, which is worse than doing regrettable things in a fit of emotion. I believe that Deanna’s essay inadvertently lessens the severity of Snape’s crimes with this argument, and as a huge critic of Snape, that’s something I felt needed to be refuted.
Readers, what say you about Snape’s many shortcomings? Merlin help us, I’ll see you in the comments.