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 a shiny knight in 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, by no stretch of the imagination, 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?