July 27, 2005

What About Snape?

If you don't read the Harry Potter books, you probably don't care. If you do, there are spoilers below, so just move along if you haven't read the latest installment.

Over at the Washington Monthly, Drum hosted a Harry Potter thread to ponder what really happened to Dumbledore and whether or not Snape is evil. My impression is that Dumbledore really is dead, but either way, Snape is the more interesting conundrum.

An article about the symbolism of Snape, posted by a commentor in the thread, argues that Snape isn't evil. It's a good read, and opened up a world of more Harry Potter analysis that I never knew existed, but I agreed with the premise before even reading it.

An article (don't have a link) written after the release touched on the distance between the reader and the adult characters in these books, which are so sharply focused on the children. The thing is, Snape is one character about which I don't feel that's true. To me, he's one of the most sympathetic of them, a true geek hero.

Snape is revealed in this book to have had, even in his youth, such a devotion to his specialty that he excelled the author of the standard textbook. In this, he's like the Hermione character. Frightening technical competence paired with inept social skills.

Yet Snape's ostracism appeared more complete than comparable characters. He was an unattractive young man who ended up in a house that's largely disliked and mistrusted by 3/4 of the school, limiting his opportunity to form friendships outside Slytherin. Within Slytherin, a group of people portrayed as favoring outward appearance and political skills in those not content to be lumpy followers, he was at a double disadvantage in finding natural allies. With abilities that incited jealousy and no easy friendships to be found, his school years were likely characterized by isolation, as it seems his adulthood has been.

Comparatively, even Luna Lovegood is treated better by her contemporaries than Snape was by Harry's dad and pals, though she's clearly even less capable of defending herself against determined bullies. Hermione grudgingly (at first) earns the friendship of those she was thrown together with by accident, and this gives her the chance to develop her social talents and demonstrate loyalty and worth to others. Either of them could have been driven into the same bitterness that shadows Snape, but fortune placed them among people who came to treat them better.

Disappointed in earning the respect of his peers, and likely in love (Narcissa Malfoy? Lily Potter? We can only speculate.), he's left with the knowledge that the talent and skill he's so passionately pursued will never make him 'good enough' to fill those holes in his life. The one person who reaches out and values him for what he's proud of in himself is Voldemort.

Snape makes a mistake, a deadly and terrible mistake, in succumbing to what may be the first offer of fellowship he receives. Realizing it, he makes the choice to do the right thing thereafter, even though it means forever remaining in the company of people who at some basic level scorn him. It's a tremendous sacrifice, one that would only have been made by someone who was essentially good. I find it hard to believe that someone of his skill level couldn't have found more profitable employment with Malfoy and company if his repentance wasn't genuine.

Harry comes into this with a blind devotion to his dead parents, as would be reasonable. The continuation of the grudge between James Potter and Snape down to Harry and Snape therefore survives what could have been a transformative moment when James was revealed in book five to have been something of a bully. Harry assumes that his father had a good reason for disliking the boy who became his teacher, which while understandable, did not endear him to me. Snape is reminded in Harry of the young man he himself so disliked, but probably more than that, a class of people with whom he has never gotten along.

Powerful without much effort, famous from day one and lionized by his friends, Harry is exactly the sort of person that the studious and unpopular Snape would be inclined to loathe on principle and by long experience. Draco would likely fall into this category if Snape wasn't a personal friend of the Malfoy family and if Draco didn't flatter Snape, whose position as head of Slytherin could protect him from a great many transgressions.

The question comes down to whether Snape has decided that the world has had him to kick around for long enough, or if he killed Dumbledore as part of a prearranged plan and remains as grimly loyal as he has appeared.

If Snape really has gone over to the Death Eaters, or was with them all along, then he's merely been a caricature. If he remains true to the Order of the Phoenix, he's endures as one the most subtle and nuanced figures in the series. A good Snape is someone who recognizes from the outset the difficulty of doing the right thing, whose temper and prejudices sometimes get the better of him, but who tries frightfully hard to perform a demanding task that no one else could accomplish. Especially when he is not appreciated for it.

Of course, Rowling could come along in book seven and write Snape to be every bit as unambiguously bad as Harry imagines. Should that happen, I'll be very disappointed.

Posted by natasha at July 27, 2005 10:59 PM | Entertainment | Technorati links |

I agree that Snape is one of the most intriguing characters in the book and I think the way that Rowling has set things up so that nobody really knows whether he is an unrepentant Death Eater or a very deep cover spy for the Order of the Phoenix is one of the better plot elements in the series. I strongly suspect that she will draw out the uncertainty until very late in bood seven, possibly to the moment of the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort.

However, I disagree that Snapes is in any way a sympathetic character. He is deliberately and gratuitously nasty to Harry Potter from their first contact, long before Harry has the opportunity to earn that enmity personally. He uses positions as potions profesor and Slytherin housemaster to act as a bigger bully than any he might have had to deal with as a student. He belittles some of his best students, issues penalties for little or no reason, then heaps on additional penalties for any attempt to protest this treatment, all while offering unearned praise to and ignoring serious misbehaviour by the students in Slytherin.

As for his supposed isolation when he was a student, our only evidence for this is the single memory that Harry viewed when sneaking a look at Snapes' pensive. While Harry's father certainly does not act honorably in that scene, Snapes also demonstrates a deplorable prejudice when he responds to a friendly gesture from Lily by calling her a mudblood. When Harry sees that memory, his faith in his father takes a serious hit and he appears to feel some sympathy for Snapes. It is Snapes own actions that erase any urge Harry might have had to seek a reconciliation between them but Harry continues to question his father's actions at intervals throughout books five and six.

Posted by: calvin at July 28, 2005 04:40 PM