Looking for Snape in “The Scarlet Letter”
by Lorrie Kim
In one of my favorite Snape character moments, at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a Death Eater puts up a barrier at the foot of the Astronomy Tower. Only people with a Dark Mark can get past it, ostensibly to help Draco kill Dumbledore. So Snape can get through while pretending to be a Death Eater, fulfill his Unbreakable Vow, then grab Draco and escape with him. The power to take Draco to safety, away from the usual doom that awaits everyone with a Dark Mark, belongs only to people who once chose Voldemort’s brand of evil and then lived to regret it.
This reminded me of Hester Prynne’s embroidered A in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. She’s condemned to wear this symbol of shame, so everyone knows she committed adultery and deserves to be an outcast. But in time, the meaning of the symbol changes. Because she’s an outcast, she has empathy for others who are hitting bottom. She is a friend and a help to them when others shun them. The scarlet letter becomes a symbol of her kindness.
I figured I could compare that to the way Snape’s Dark Mark, usually a reminder of his worst shame, enabled him to be the only person who could help a young person survive the same shame with his soul intact. How redemptive! How inspiring! I opened The Scarlet Letter eagerly to find Snape.
Well, Hester Prynne was there. The parallel to Snape’s Dark Mark was there… er, sort of. Hester could take her mark off. Snape couldn’t. Hester hadn’t meant to harm others. Snape had.
I read the scene of Hester on the scaffold. Some creepy guy showed up in the scene at that exact moment. The first thing he did was put his finger on his lips in a secretive gesture. Oh, no. It’s Hester’s ex who goes by Roger Chillingworth, a made-up name that sounds as ominous as “Severus Snape.” But I don’t like him much. Surely it’s just a surface similarity to Snape. They’re both ugly and undesirable, but that’s it, right?
Oh. He’s an alchemist. A better physician than actual doctors, he says. He makes potions for Hester and her baby. Hester is afraid they’re poison. He says no, and anyway, if he wanted vengeance on her, he’d aim to keep her alive so she could suffer. She takes the potions. They work fine.
This does sound rather Snapey, I reluctantly admit.
Hester won’t tell him the name of her lover, but he’s certain he’ll figure it out: he’s basically a Legilimens. He has a knack for showing up whenever something important happens, especially if you don’t want him to. He won’t reveal his motives. He makes Hester swear to keep his identity a secret: “It is my purpose to live and die unknown” (Hawthorne, 89). Okay, okay! I surrender!
At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry tells Quirrell he thought the bad guy would be Snape, Quirrell says, “Yes, Severus does seem the type, doesn’t he? So useful to have him swooping around like an overgrown bat” (SS 288). Snape was written to subvert the convention of the ugly creep being a pure villain. Roger Chillingworth is a textbook prototype for this convention.
At one point, watching Roger gather herbs for potions, Hester muses that he’s so malignant, the earth might just swallow him up.
Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance? Or would he spread bat’s wings and flee away, looking so much the uglier, the higher he rose towards heaven?” (Hawthorne, 212)
Hester Prynne’s glum humor feels similar to a different H.P. (Harry Potter), thinking that Snape next to a gargoyle looks “twice as ugly” (GoF 558) or fantasizing about drowning Snape in a cauldron.
For his part, Roger’s aggrieved tone feels similar to Snape’s. He provides medical treatment to Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester’s lover, solely for the purpose of keeping the man alive and close enough to torment. But he complains that he’s too good for Dimmesdale: “I tell thee, Hester Prynne, the richest fee that ever physician earned from monarch could not have bought such care as I have wasted on this miserable priest!” (Hawthorne, 207)
Eventually, though, Chillingworth’s character diverges from Snape’s, and his story arc does not take a redemptive turn. By the end of the book, he has entrapped his victim – forever, he thinks. But Dimmesdale escapes his power by coming clean, confessing his secrets, and dying. Dimmesdale is unlike Snape in most ways, but they share an ending: he opens at the close.
And Chillingworth, “almost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale’s death … positively withered up, shriveled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight” (Hawthorne, 317), and died soon after. This means, in death, the Potterverse character he most resembles is not Snape but Delphi. But that’s a rabbit hole for another time…