Severus Snape: My Hottest Literary Take

By Monday, June 03, 2019 , , ,

“Hot takes” are popular these days. Everyone feels the need to add their “thoughts” to whatever topic is trending. Personally, I often prefer talking about hot takes that involve fictional characters. Plus, I’ve noticed that fictional characters towards whom I feel very strongly are frequently controversial ones. I’ve shared my hot takes on a few of them here before, namely, Lady Mary Crawley and Elizabeth Poldark. Read and feel free to send me your rebuttals. Always happy to discuss. But now it’s time for what is perhaps my hottest of all literary hot takes, and that is that Severus Snape was a whiny, bitter, sadistic bully whose noble acts did not redeem him.

Photo Credit: Joe.Co.Uk

Yes, after multiple readings of the Harry Potter series, much thought, and heated discussions, I’m still a Snape hater. I’d venture that it’s natural for anyone to dislike him on a first reading of the series, but the revelations about his background in the final chapters shed new light on his decisions as a whole, which then changes many people’s minds about him. Not mine, however. If you love him, I promise you are still welcome here. I will just passionately disagree with you and hope you’ll at least honestly consider this side of the argument.

First, let me establish that I agree with Snape fans on certain points, but these same points are often used (wrongly, I think) as evidence that he was a good person at heart and the hero of the whole story. So, here are a few broad ideas that I often hear in Snape’s defense.

1. He was so courageous in his double agent work and sacrificed everything, eventually his life, to protect Harry and make sure he won.
To which I say: Yes! Absolutely! I freely admit that no one had a harder job than Snape. I have total respect for his work and recognize that he probably did more than anyone to ensure Harry’s safety and ultimate victory. Even in his final moments of life, despite his gruesomely painful manner of death, he did everything he could to make sure Harry had the information that would be crucial to defeating Voldemort. I don’t think anyone who reads the series can deny any of that.

2. He was mistreated when he was young, so his unpleasant personality makes sense. He had been bullied, and that often leads to becoming a bully, which explains a lot of his behavior.
Again, all true. Those facts are indisputable after even a surface-level reading of the books. Snape had a terrible childhood, was an awkward and nerdy kid who never received much compassion, and James and Sirius were horrible to him. I understand and agree that all of that heavily contributed to the sad and conflicted person Snape became.

3. He loved Lily so much that he was willing to protect her son at all costs, even though he’d been bitter enemies with James.
Once again, yes. Snape’s love for Lily Evans Potter was all-consuming and drove him all the way to his sad and terrible end. Her influence and memory caused him to never once waver in his mission, and that was a good thing.

I say all of that to establish that my opinion of Snape starts with much of the same groundwork from which others who love him also begin. There’s no question that he’s the most complex character in the series and the necessary linchpin in Harry’s ultimate triumph over Voldemort. I respect him a lot. However, I will never like him, and I do not think the revelations at the end of Deathly Hallows redeemed his abominable behavior that carried on for the large majority of the books. Said revelations explained quite a lot about Snape and his decisions, but they did not suddenly create a “Reason” for why he had been a truly awful person to Harry and others for the entire series. J.K. Rowling herself has said that Snape was a bully who loved the goodness he saw in Lily, but he never emulated that goodness personally. That’s a good snapshot of why I still take issue with Snape, despite his determined work for the right side in the end. I’ve done my best to flesh out my problems with him under three big headings. Yes, these sections are long, but there’s a lot to discuss, so consider yourself warned.

1. He enjoyed bullying and abusing children and just being mean to people
I’ve noticed that some fans respond to comments on Snape’s abuse of students by pointing out that Harry was no model student, that Harry broke rules, and Harry wasn’t that brave or worthy of admiration. And on and on. My reaction to this is simply, really? Yes, Harry was a rule-breaker and got lucky often (which he’d be the first to admit, by the way). But that’s honestly irrelevant to my view of Snape. How is it fair to discuss Snape by putting him and Harry on an equal plane? Snape was a teacher, in a position of authority, not Harry’s equal. Harry was also an 11-year-old child, so how do you square with Snape humiliating and berating Harry literally from his first day of school? Don’t start with how Snape’s famous first question to Harry was a veiled reference to Lily and his regret over the loss of her. I know, and I don’t care. Harry didn’t know that history, and at this point, Harry was also still trying to get his head around the fact that he was actually a wizard and had all these weird new wizard things to learn. He was just a kid who needed helpful teachers like every other kid there, and Snape was a jerk to embarrass him (and to blame him for Neville’s mistakes in that same first lesson!).
Photo Credit: Wallpaper Cave

But it didn’t stop with that first school day. Snape continued to use his position as a teacher to be cruel to students, and nothing excuses it. It was not an act, a bit of grumpiness, or a few ill effects of his sad childhood that were out of his control. From the very beginning, Snape purposely abused and humiliated his students, and sometimes adults too, and enjoyed it. A few incidents of proof for this include, but are not limited to, the following:

- Constantly taunting and insulting Harry in ways too numerous to count, including attacks on his character, his motivations, his academic ability, and people Harry loved.
- Perpetually insulting James from Prisoner of Azkaban and onward, often in tandem with punishing and/or mocking Harry. Zero excuse for mocking an orphan’s deceased father, dude, no matter who he had been to you.
- Trying to out Lupin’s werewolf identity first by stealth (assigning werewolf homework) and then by actually making it public, thus damaging Lupin’s chances of finding work again. And all when Lupin had been nothing but a respectful and grateful colleague.
- The fight in the Shrieking Shack at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban—Snape is truly the worst here. He raged and screamed at everyone, verbally expressed his desire to hand Sirius to the dementors, and outright refused to listen to Sirius and Lupin’s side of the story. And Sirius and Lupin were more than reasonable in this scene. Sirius may have looked daggers at him, but for a man who’d just spent 12 years in Azkaban, he handled the situation with decency, even saying he would come up to the castle as long as Ron brought his rat. But a vindictive, bitter Snape had no thought but to throw Sirius to the dementors, and he made clear he was above listening to the testimonies of stupid children like Harry, Ron, or Hermione.
-“I see no difference.” You’re a scumbag, Snape. That’s all.
- Reading Rita Skeeter’s bogus article about Harry and Hermione being in love out loud to the whole Potions class, playing it up and enjoying their humiliation.
- Often giving Harry zero marks for no reason or even after he’d seen Draco Malfoy mess up Harry’s work.
- Mocking Sirius when Sirius had to stay hidden in Grimmauld Place, which stoked Sirius’s restlessness and made him feel guilty while Snape was also making himself out to be a great adventurer and hero for the Order.
- He docked points from Harry after his arrival to Hogwarts with Tonks in Half-Blood Prince, gave Harry no chance to clean up even though something bad had clearly happened to him, and ridiculed Tonks’s change of Patronus here too. Then he mocked Sirius’s death as he and Harry walked to the castle. And Harry had been grieving for barely two months at this point.
- At the end of Half-Blood Prince, he gave Harry a detention that required tasks which threw James and Sirius’s deaths in Harry’s face, plus Snape verbally mocked their deaths in the process. Absolutely no excuse for this one, Severus. Harry was still grieving too.
- Couldn’t leave this list without bringing up Neville Longbottom. Neville was awkward and accident-prone, and Snape exploited this to an inhuman degree, making outright fun of Neville at every opportunity. He also attempted to poison Neville’s prized pet and even mocked him in front of other teachers. He bullied Neville relentlessly in Potions classes, making him dread the subject and in the process becoming Neville’s greatest fear. Again, absolutely no excuse for this. No child should ever have to cower in fear of a teacher, but Snape became Neville’s actual boggart.
Photo Credit: Wallpaper Cave

And on this note, I’d also point out that Snape is just a bad teacher in general. His favoritism towards the Slytherins angers most students, not just the Gryffindors, and even if there was a defense for that favoritism, the students he continually favors are not good students, academically or otherwise. Meanwhile, he constantly belittles Hermione for caring about schoolwork, including his own subject. Snape had ample tools and abilities to be an excellent teacher, but he simply chose not to be out of bitterness and spite. And this in turn had the potential to leave students unequipped for the future, which could have been detrimental to the cause he was ultimately fighting for. 

2. His love for Lily was selfish and obsessive 
But unrequited love! But his Patronus matched hers! But he loved her! Yes, I know. I think Snape’s love for Lily resonates with many fans because most of us know what it’s like to carry feelings for someone who doesn’t return them. But I really don’t understand the segment of fans who treat Snape like a pious martyr who lost the love of his life to a rich, arrogant cad. 

Because that is not what happened. The flashback in Order of the Phoenix gives us our first real-time glimpse of the Marauders at Hogwarts, and it reveals that James Potter was an insufferable show-off who viciously bullied an awkward teenage Snape. Lily comes to Snape’s defense, clearly disgusted by James’s behavior, but Snape thanks her by throwing “Mudblood” in her face. A justifiably angered Lily storms away, seeming to write off Snape. But she has some choice words for James before she leaves (i.e., “You make me sick!”). Once this flashback fades, we still only know that Lily and James somehow ended up married, and even Harry wonders how. There’s little given in the books to show us the process of it, but there’s certainly enough to know that James did not stay a jerk and that Lily did not marry him just to spite Snape. Nor did James conspire to steal her away from Snape as a final win over him. Sirius and Lupin tell Harry that James and Lily started dating in their final year at Hogwarts, which would have given James a few years to mature and Lily a few years to notice that. Sirius explains it succinctly when he says, “A lot of people are idiots at fifteen! He grew out of it!” I think we all can relate to that, surely. So, give adult James a break, guys. 

The next big information dump comes at the end of Deathly Hallows, where we learn that Lily and Snape were actually childhood friends and Snape had deep feelings for her almost from the day they met. But friction began arising between them when Snape started dabbling in the Dark Arts a few years into their Hogwarts studies. Lily was highly uncomfortable with this and clearly expressed it to Snape, and she also began realizing the depth of his prejudice against muggle-borns and half-bloods. The day he called her a Mudblood appears to be the final straw and is also the day that Lily tells Snape he’s too far gone for them to remain friends: 

“It’s too late. I’ve made excuses for you for years. None of my friends can understand why I even talk to you. You and your precious little Death Eater friends – you see, you don’t even deny it! You don’t even deny that’s what you’re all aiming to be…I can’t pretend anymore. You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.” (Deathly Hallows, p. 676) 

And they do go those separate ways. Lily concentrated on her studies and other friends and eventually married James, and Snape buried himself deeper in the Dark Arts and joined Voldemort. It stands to reason that Lily and Snape had little interaction after that night that Lily broke rank. So for those who stubbornly “ship” them, note that there were a few years between that fateful evening and the first war with Voldemort, and Lily and Snape likely had no real communication during those years. What’s more, Lily never showed any sign of romantic feelings towards Snape before their falling-out, and there’s certainly no indication that Lily would have come to love Snape, even if James had been a non-factor later. She walked away from Snape because she fundamentally disagreed with his life choices, not because of anything to do with James.
Photo Credit: Pottermore

But Snape continued to carry a torch for Lily. I think many fans stop there because at first blush, it does seem terribly romantic and tragic. But I’d argue that it’s not. Given their falling-out, Snape’s continued feelings for Lily were built mainly on childhood memories, watching her from a distance, and long-held bitterness towards James. And more importantly, his feelings did not motivate him to change. I do believe Snape loved Lily. He eventually died to save Harry and the wizarding world because of her. But I also think that in the more everyday ways, his love for her was a selfish obsession, was not founded in reality, and did not prompt him to consider what was best for her while she was still alive. His feelings did not prompt him to try to make amends with her and James, to think twice about his life’s direction, to move on and love someone else later with a better attitude, or to think about what was important to Lily. And most glaringly, his feelings didn’t stop him from becoming a Death Eater and later giving Voldemort the prophecy about Harry, and he only backtracked enough to try to save Lily. He was still totally fine with letting James and Harry die, even though they would have been the people who mattered most to Lily. That’s not love, guys. It’s the opposite, in fact. Real love starts with prioritizing the well-being and happiness of the one you claim to love. And that’s the test that James clearly passed, because he died facing Voldemort in an attempt to protect Lily and Harry. That should be ample proof that he loved Lily deeply and grew into a good and honorable man. As for Snape, his obsession with Lily kept him from going completely over to Voldemort’s side, and thank goodness for that. It’s just too bad that it took her death for him to realize how far he had already gone, and it’s really too bad that he didn’t try to be a generally better person after her death, despite his new commitment to fight for Dumbledore’s side from then on. 

3. He held onto his bitterness and grudges and took it out on innocent parties 
Which brings us to this final point. This is probably what I find most unforgivable about Snape – he’s whiny. He’s eternally angry and heartbroken when it comes to Lily, James, Sirius, and Lupin. To Snape, Lily is forever the one he loved but who married his enemy, and Sirius and Lupin are complicit. And Harry is nothing but the physical reminder of all that to him. My reaction: grow up. Now that I approach the books with Snape’s full backstory in mind whenever I re-read them, I find his behavior not only infuriating and unjust, but incredibly annoying and tiresome. He’s completely eaten up with bitterness and refuses to man up about past disappointment, and I do not find it reminiscent of a longsuffering martyr or a tragic Byronic hero. I find it exasperating and childish.

Because, all things considered, Harry’s arrival at Hogwarts was the ideal opportunity for Snape to do right by Lily and set his past to rest by treating her son with respect. If his love for Lily was so strong, wouldn’t he have wanted to honor her memory by honoring her son? Plus, it would’ve made particular sense for Snape to grasp this since, like Snape, Harry came to Hogwarts from an abusive and neglectful home. But Snape chose to see only young James in Harry, and he purposely used every opportunity to take that old grudge out on Harry. There’s just no excuse for this. Sure, Harry strongly resembled James and had a bit of the same bravado, but Harry was also a child who had no knowledge of his family history, let alone Snape’s history. And if a grown man cannot separate a child from a past quarrel with that child’s father, that strongly suggests a need for a little more maturity and self-examination.
Photo Credit: Nicholas Kaufmann

What’s more, Snape’s refusal to let go of that quarrel with James (and Sirius and Lupin, by association) smacks of selfishness and immaturity on its own, especially since James and Harry came out of the first war with Voldemort far worse than he did. Snape and James may have been schoolboy enemies, but the war killed James and orphaned Harry, so stop moaning, Severus. James made the right choices a lot sooner than you did, and he died while courageously defending his wife and child. It’s pretty terrible form to only remember how James was mean to you all those years ago and then try to make his innocent orphan son pay for it by being even meaner to him, even if you are protecting said son in the background the whole time. In short, you have nothing to whine about. Lily loved Harry too, by the way, which should have been more than enough reason for you to be decent to him, no matter what he looked or acted like.

In sum, is it understandable that Snape feels the way he does? Yes. He made the wrong choices and it cost him dearly. But is it acceptable that he responds to his feelings and mistakes by constantly hurting other people who were no party to his demons? No, it is not. Severus Snape made his bed, and to his credit, he did lie in it in the end because he knew he had to. I respect him for that, but the hurt he caused other people in the process was inexcusable, and that’s why I will never like him.

You Might Also Like