Classic Remarks: Severus Snape

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

Do you think Severus Snape is a good person?

Potential spoilers for Books 1-7 of Harry Potter!

With the revelation that Severus Snape had been working as a double agent for years, passing nonessential information to Voldemort in order to spy on him for Dumbledore, the pressing question of his real loyalties was finally resolved.  And fans across the globe began praising Snape as not only a hero but also a good man.  However, while Snape’s bravery and dedication seem undeniable, his motives for serving Dumbledore reveal a complicated and deeply conflicted man.  Even though he risked his life to stop Voldemort and to protect Harry, throughout his life he seems to have done it all for the wrong reasons.  And his unlikable personality, his love of bullying schoolchildren, his love of sarcasm, never changed.  Though I hesitate to make a judgement on whether or not Snape is “a good person,” I do argue that Snape is far from knight in shining armor.  His motivations throughout his life seem largely selfish.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows provides much pertinent background information about Snape and his political and moral convictions.  In the chapter “The Prince’s Tale,” we learn that Snape believed in blood superiority from his childhood, dismissing Muggles and Muggle-borns and even calling Lily a “Mudblood” when he was upset.  Once Snape and Lily enter Hogwarts, Lily tells him she is concerned about his friends, who use Dark Magic to hurt other students.  She eventually tells him they have to part ways because she knows his goal is to become a Death Eater.  Severus Snape may be interested romantically in Lily, but it never inspires him to be a better person.  He is willing to harm other people, just not her.  And even when Snape talks to Lily, he shows himself to be jealous and possessive, trying to dictate whom she can be friends with.  The fact that Snape says he loves Lily does not excuse his other actions.

Even when Snape seems to convert and asks Dumbledore to protect Lily from Voldemort, Dumbledore sees through him.  Dumbledore accuses Snape of being willing to sacrifice James and Harry if it means Lily will be alive and free for him.  Snape then asks that the entire family receive protection, apparently because this is the only way Dumbledore will agree to save Lily.  Tellingly, when Dumbledore later informs him that Lily is dead but her son survived, Snape’s reaction is to move his head as if “flick[ing] off an irksome fly” (678).  Whether an innocent baby lives or dies is of no concern to him.

Snape’s “conversion” to the Order of the Phoenix is more of a bargain–he’ll do what Dumbledore says if it will save Lily.  But there is no indication early on that Snape believes in Dumbledore’s cause.  If the Dark Lord had agreed to spare Lily, Snape would not have become a double agent.  If Dumbledore were a second Dark Lord and agreed to save Lily, Snape would have served him.   Once Lily dies, Dumbledore gains his loyalty by saying, “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear” (678).  Readers tend to applaud the power of love in this moment for making Snape turn on Voldemort, but his motivations indicate that he is not concerned with morality at all.  If Lily Evans had been a Death Eater, his love for her would have convinced him to continue murdering people in order to place a tyrant in power.

And later?  Does Snape start to agree in Dumbledore’s cause?  It seems like he might.  And yet Snape continues to hate Harry because Harry is James Potter’s son.  He makes Harry’s life miserable and protects Harry only because Dumbledore says they have to do it for Lily.  Snape also favors students in his own House and bullies the other students so badly that Neville Longbottom’s boggart reveals Snape as his worst fear.  Snape is, to say the least, not a particularly charming or noble person.

So how do I read Snape?  I think that Snape is a brave, intelligent, and heroic man.  But I don’t think his service to the Order of the Phoenix should blind us to his many flaws, or encourage us to create a narrative in which all actions are acceptable or praise-worthy if done for “love.”  Love should inspired a person to act for the good of the other, not just for himself, and it should inspire one to become a better person.  But just imagine if Lily  had been a Death Eater.  Where would Snape’s feelings for her have taken him then?

Krysta 64

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46 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Severus Snape

  1. Paula Vince says:

    I totally agree, and enjoyed your way of expressing it. Examining his motivation for joining Dumbledore’s team is something many Snape fans are not necessarily willing to do. As you say, if Voldemort had agreed to save Lily, or if Lily agreed to join the dark side, where would his allegiance be then? I’d been looking forward to having my say about this week’s topic, and my post is here

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, in a way maybe it’s a vain intellectual endeavor since Snape, theoretically, could have examined his actions later and still converted. But the textual evidence we have shows that he apparently wasn’t in the habit of examining the morality of his actions, which makes me wonder if another event would have ever caused him to rethink his Death Eater status.

      Thanks for participating!

      Like

  2. clairerwong says:

    That’s a very interesting final question – I’d never considered what Snape would have done if Lily hadn’t fought against Voldemort. I tend to see his story as having a certain amount of redemption when he starts acting as a double agent for Dumbledore, but it’s not a complete transformation.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, he does seem to come to believe that Voldemort is wrong. But it doesn’t stop him from feeling superior to children by bullying them and we know that he also outed Lupin to the world, causing the man to lose his reputation and livelihood. So…Snape is a mixed bag for sure.

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  3. readbooksanddrinkcoffee says:

    I totally agree! I really didn’t like his character and I will never understand why everyone forgave him because he loved Lily. I am planning on making a few different posts discussing Harry Potter characters in the future and I’ll add a link to yours as I really like how you’ve discussed this.
    – Yasmin

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    • Krysta says:

      We seem to think that if you love someone or do something “for love” that automatically makes it right or admirable. But you can do plenty of things that you say you do because you love someone and that doesn’t make it right. What if an abusive husband tells his wife she can’t leave the house or have friends because he “loves her and wants to protect her”? What if a mother hurts her children and tells them “it’s for their own good because she loves them”? We KNOW this argument is invalid, that love does not automatically equal right. But when it comes to Snape we seem to excuse him because we feel bad he had an unrequited love. But should we feel bad for him? Lily obviously made the right choice not to marry a forming Death Eater/bully of children/outer of Remus Lupin. I don’t feel so bad for him that she saw all that and refused to be a part.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I personally can’t stand him but he’s my mom’s favourite character so we’re always fighting about it when we watch the movies haha. 😅 He does have some really memorable lines tho, and his voice is amazing!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes I do find it odd that discussions of Snape assume being in love equals being right or being noble. A person can do plenty of things “out of love” that are wrong, such as a mother hitting her children “for their own good” “because she loves them.” We know there has to be something more than a feeling guiding someone and yet we ignore that with Snape, perhaps because his feelings fortunately led him to Dumbledore and because he died as a result.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fleur @ Frankly Books says:

    Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Snape. His love of Lily appears to be more of an obsession, especially taking into account that he continued using slurs even when he was around her. He wants to be in control. Theres also the fact the Neville’s worst fear is Snape which you also mentioned. We have to remember that his parents have been tortured ( !! ) into comas, and that he’s aware of that. There is absolutely no reason for Snape to be his greatest fear after the tragedies he’s been through, and yet he still is. He’s a coward who scares children who have done literally nothing to him ( Harry is not James & Neville has been through enough etc ).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I’ve always had trouble with the idea that Snape “loved” Lily. Loving someone means you want the best for them, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned with Lily’s welfare. He was willing to let Voldemort kill James and Harry. If he loved Lily, he wouldn’t want her family taken from her!

      And, yes, he’s awful to children and I’m not sure why so many readers overlook that. School is really formative for people and being bullied and ridiculed by an authority figure there, being made to feel unsafe there, can have lasting repercussions for some people. It’s not like Snape is just a misunderstood guy. He’s actively mean and petty. He ruined Lupin’s entire life on purpose by outing him as a werewolf.

      I think the fact that Alan Rickman played Snape makes him attractive to many people, but textually he’s just not an attractive character.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. luvtoread says:

    Great post! Snape is one of my favorite HP characters because he is neither good nor bad, he is a truly “gray” character. One who is not entirely good, nor entirely bad. One of the only characters within the series who has an internal struggle going on, which is why his story is so fascinating to me.
    It could be argued that his treatment of Harry and other classmates is part of his “act”, but I don’t think so. I think it may have been a combination of anger, jealousy, and also to keep his heart protected. After all, Harry does have his mother’s eyes. To have that reminder of Lily, and his own hand in her death, every day must’ve been tough. It doesn’t excuse his behavior (he really was an awful teacher), but does help in understanding why he does what he does.
    You bring up a very interesting point about what if Lily was a Death Eater? My thoughts are that if Lily had those tendencies, then Snape wouldn’t have loved her. I think the reason Snape fell so hard for Lily (and not any of his other Death Eater classmates – surely he had some), was that she was “good”. She was different from his home life and the people he knew, and she stood firm in her beliefs. He respected her for that and he loved her. I think if she had turned “bad” then he would’ve lost that respect and been disappointed in her – maybe not right at first, but over time he would miss the Lily he fell in love with.
    Snape is a fascinating character and one that I was interested in from the very beginning. I loved reading his story unfold within the books, and how JK Rowling broke my heart with the line “Look at me”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t think Snape needed to bully students in order to keep his credibility as a Death Eater. He was bullying them even when Voldemort was supposedly dead, though that time could have given him a reason to at least soften his attitude, maybe allow him to be known as a strict teacher without him having to terrify students like Neville.

      He seems to have been attracted to Lily partly because she was sort of an outcast like he was–her family didn’t treat her very well because she was different–and partly because she was kind to him. Though I wonder why, if he admired her for rejecting Voldemort, he was so keen to become a Death Eater himself. The power seems to have been attractive to him, perhaps because he was tired of being an outcast and picked on by people like James.

      Snape is certainly a compelling character, if nothing else!

      Liked by 2 people

      • luvtoread says:

        I agree about his bullying his students. Totally unnecessary! And I don’t recall him ever bullying Draco, so perhaps he was still trying to stay in the good graces of the Death Eaters. But I agree that he could’ve just been strict. No need to be mean to students!
        I agree about him being attracted to power. It seems that he wanted that admiration and adoration that so many in power get. Plus, it also must’ve really hurt him to see the girl he loved fall for such a jerky guy, who while popular, was not very nice.
        One thing is that Dumbledore states about the sorting is that “I sometimes think we sort too soon”. How would Snape’s life had changed (and Lily’s, James’s et al) if he had been sorted into Gryffindor? He certainly had the bravery. Would he have formed friendships with James, Sirius, and Lupin? Would his tendencies towards the “dark side” and power have been stopped by friendship?
        Aahh, now I want to do a re-read!
        JK Rowling did such a great job with his story. He’s definitely one of my favorite characters because there is so much to discuss about him.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, he did have a thing for favoring Slytherins. I imagine Draco had a rough home life, though, so I guess at least he got a break in school?

          Yes, that line from Dumbledore was so cryptic! It suggests that those traits aren’t innate but can be learned, and yet the students take the Sorting sooo seriously! It makes you wonder if they should get rid of Sorting entirely and then no one could judge others based solely on their House.

          Liked by 2 people

  7. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    YES YES YES. I’ve very briefly mentioned this before on my blog too. People sometimes talk about him being a bully, but I feel like no one else has ever seemed to realize he may have been protecting Harry and working as a double agent, but the *only reason* he wasn’t still a Death Eater was because Voldemort killed the woman he loved. If that hadn’t happened, I think he’d still be a Death Eater. Like you said, his motivations were selfish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s tempting to see the word “love” and associate it with completely positive feelings and judgments. However, it’s worth questioning how much Snape “loved” a woman if he was willing to let her husband and son die because he personally didn’t care for them. Snape seems to have decided Voldemort was wrong in the end, but that doesn’t rewrite all his past motivations as selfless. And he seems to have struggled with selflessness his whole life, treating Harry horribly because his father was James.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Lori says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with you. I love how complex Snape is. I’ll admit the ‘Always’ line always gets to me, but it in no way redeems him. He was selfish and horrible to Harry and so many others. It was completely unnecessary. It does seem that he would’ve continued on being a Death Eater if it weren’t for Lily’s death.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Michael J. Miller says:

    Um, okay…now I have to reread this book! I completely agree with your point that, “[we shouldn’t] create a narrative in which all actions are acceptable or praise-worthy if done for ‘love.’ Love should inspired a person to act for the good of the other, not just for himself, and it should inspire one to become a better person.” Amen! And I agree with your read on Snape too. My desire for the reread is, years after the last time I read this book, it’s his heroic actions that remain most clear and some of his complexity has faded from the forefront of my mind. I think that warrants a return to Hogwarts, to sit with the story with this post in mind.

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    • Krysta says:

      I’ve reread the first books a bunch of times, but not the last two, so I’d like to return to Hogwarts some time, as well! I’m sure I’d have more thoughts on Snape! I do love what Rowling did with him, though. It’s so interesting to see a character who performed heroic deeds but who also seems so personally troubled.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Returning to the last two will make for some dark reading! I’ve read the whole series start to finish maybe three times. I’m not sure about other random readings but I will say I’ve read the later ones more…what that says about my emotional disposition when I read Harry Potter remains to be seen :).

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        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, in a way, I’m not sure I’m emotionally prepared for that. The first three books are wonderful to me because they’re so full of magic and wonder. And then…everything gets dark. I’ve seen the final films or snatches of them a bit more than I’ve read the books and I’m always broken by the scene where Hagrid is carrying Harry’s body. Hagrid was there at the beginning to bring Harry to Hogwarts and he’s there at the end. *sobs*

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            Oh yeah…I cry every time. The movies make me cry and rereading the novels always makes me weep. Thinking about it, it’s probably been a good ten years since I reread the entire series. Mostly, it’s life getting busier. But also it is hard sometimes to revisit stories that can be so dark! I have great respect for stories that make me cry and grieve and (especially) bring hope out of the sadness. But, when life gets busier (and darker itself), I find myself looking to return to brighter stories more often.

            Liked by 1 person

  10. ireadthatinabook says:

    I think this also opens up the discussion on whether we should judge him on his motivations or on his actual actions. How much does it really matter whether he did it for love (and if so, whether his love is selfish or not)? If we instead look at his actions he did the really hard and dangerous job of being a double-agent against Voldermort, but he is also an unjust bully. All in all I probably wouldn’t call him a good man, but I think it is hard to argue that he is not someone who did more good than evil.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think when we look at people, we usually do judge them on their motivations. For instance, if someone donates a lot of money for a tax break or to help their public image, we think less of them than if they donated money because they truly care about others and want to help them. And I think this is fair because motivations and the act both need to be oriented towards actual good or else motivations could lead us astray. The person who does things simply for a tax break could also be looking for ways to get away with tax evasion. So I wouldn’t exactly call them a role model or an upstanding citizen, even if it’s awesome some of their money is doing a lot of good.

      I feel the same about Snape. It’s great that his actions accomplished a lot of good, and I think we can acknowledge that. And I think it’s fair to say he was very brave to risk himself in the way he did. It’s even nice that he very begrudgingly looked after Harry when he obviously didn’t want to and did everything he could to make Harry’s school life miserable. J. K. Rowling did a wonderful job creating a complex and intriguing character. But is Snape someone I would name my child after? No way. Sorry, Harry! :b

      Liked by 1 person

      • ireadthatinabook says:

        Does it really matter for the charity what the motivations of the giver was? Or will the money do the same good anyway? And if those motivations led the giver to do other actions that are not good, such as tax evasion, why not judge them on those actions instead of their motivations?

        Isn’t the other side of the focus on motivations the ease with which we minimize the harm done by “good” people (including ourselves). After all, if our motivations are good, can we really be blamed for the harm we do through carelessness or ignorance?

        My impression is that the focus on intentions makes it harder to acknowledge the harm we do because we assume that harm is something that is done by bad people and generally consider ourselves more or less decent. Acknowledging that we have harmed someone thus threatens our belief in ourselves, whereas if we focus on the action itself it may be easier to see that it was harmful.

        I don’t really believe that the motivations are completely unimportant but I do think that we may focus a bit too much on them.

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        • Krysta says:

          I would actually argue that both motivations and actions have to be good. So, while it is laudable to have good motivations, if a person were to do something bad, it would still be bad. So if someone, for instance, decided to do something like kill all the feral cats in the neighborhood because they were “worried about the cats in the cold,” I would consider that wrong, even though it’s nice to be worried about animals being in bad weather.

          I think you have a good point, though, about how we judge our own actions. It’s pretty easy for me to look at someone else and go, yeah, well, their motivations were good, but what they did was terrible! But, perhaps, if I were to do a bad thing, I’d want to justify myself with, ”

          But I meant well!” I still think, however, that motivations and actions must be oriented towards good. If I am using my motivations to justify bad actions, I think the problem is, well, ME! I’m not living up to my own philosophy!

          Liked by 1 person

  11. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    I do agree that Snape is a not a good character, even if he does perform acts of true heroism (in my opinion). I really agree that Snape’s love for Lily doesn’t excuse his other actions (aside from being bigoted in the world of the books, I’d also a lot of his actions come under the bracket of “nice guy”- expecting to get the girl, despite doing bad things, cos he’s got some superiority complex). I do think he’s described as showing real remorse- so I’d say that he does undergo some character development (I guess he allows the love in his heart to overcome his other impulses and that eventually redeems him in a symbolic sense). But I completely agree that he never becomes a totally good person- especially when it comes to things like bullying his students.
    Really loved this nuanced piece!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think what Rowling did with his character is really interesting. And I gathered from her interviews right after the release of the last books that even she was surprised by how whole-heartedly the fandom at that time accept Snape as a hero–no consideration of his other qualities. But I think it is possible for him to have performed heroic deeds and still have been a bitter, troubled man.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah I really agree with you there- it’s why I like him as a character (although this can attract the ire of people who don’t think it’s okay to like Snape in anyway). It’s not that I think he’s a good person- it’s that I think he’s interesting character with a fascinating story arc. Really agree with you!

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  12. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    I’ve always hated Snape, even after he was revealed to be on the good side all along. I never thought his actions erased the fact that he was so horrible to students. This is a great post! Very well written and you explained everything I thought plus so much more that strengthened my conviction that he wasn’t a good person!

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it says a lot about Hogwarts and about Dumbledore that Snape gets away with everything he does as a teacher. It’s all very well that Dumbledore needs Snape to spy for him. But does that mean Snape doesn’t need to have any professional oversight?!

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