Snape: Hero or Villain?
The series Harry Potter needs no introduction. It’s the bestselling book series of all time and an eight movie series, making it a juggernaut that everyone’s heard about. So I’m not going to do introductions or explanations. We all know Harry Potter. Instead I’m going to jump into my question for today: What should we think about Snape? Full spoilers ahead.
Snape is an enigmatic, confusing character. Over seven books we witness his ill treatment of Harry and students in general, we see his double agent act carry throughout the remainder of his life, and we see him clinging to his old hatred of the Marauders. The series dances around a concrete view of him, painting him in an unusual light. We see his actions but each one is painted in such a way that we doubt his sincerity. The twist in the Deathly Hallows is that Snape was on the side of good the whole time, that he loved Harry’s mother even though she didn’t love him and that he sacrificed his reputation to open the doors to killing Voldemort. It’s touching and heart wrenching, a beautiful sendoff to this lamentable character.
Since then however, a question has emerged. Is Snape really good? The question stems from Snape’s motives, his unnecessary cruelty and terror, and his priorities in general. Some claim Snape was just a man who didn’t know how to handle a woman’s rejection and that his love was simply creepy. Today I want to examine the question not from a bias or from the prevailing sympathy of the fandom, but from the information the series provides us and that alone.
Let’s start with Snape’s positives, as that’s only fair. Firstly, his loyalty to Dumbledore. Whatever Snape’s faults or motives, he fought for the side of good. He could have been a war hero who helped destroy Voldemort but instead he kept to the shadows after the first war, opting to stay silent. In Goblet of Fire’s flashback, we see other wizards question his sincerity and Dumbledore has to remind them Snape was a spy and he revealed information on Voldemort at great peril to himself. This indicates that Snape’s actions were either not publicized or they weren’t considered credible. Yet he never once complained. His reputation wasn’t important to him. Later, he is seemingly furious at losing recognition after the capture of Sirius Black but that was more fury at the perceived lack of justice against the man he believed killed Lily, not anger about losing respect. Snape fought for good and saw no reason to publicize that.
Second, Snape possesses restraint. Admittedly not much but he has a peculiar trend. Snape refuses to kill. Maybe it is because of Lily’s murder or maybe it is because he knows Voldemort considers death the ultimate punishment. Whatever the reason, Snape doesn’t kill. While he sits idly by to preserve his cover while other wizards are murdered, I think people underestimate Snape’s hatred for death. He saved George Weasley from a killing curse by trying to break the Death Eater’s wand. This fails and he instead cuts off George’s ear, which technically does still save him, admittedly not in the way Snape wanted. He reacts in horror when Dumbledore reveals his plan to sacrifice Harry, even though Snape admits he has no love for him.
There is one objection to this trend, being his discovery of Sirius Black in Prisoner of Azkaban, a peculiarity I alluded to earlier. This entire segment is one of the fandom’s largest misunderstandings of Snape’s character. He happily talks of giving Sirius over to dementors along with Lupin, eagerly telling them how they’ll die. This appears a contradiction, no? I don’t believe it is. At this point in the story, Snape believes that Sirius sold out Lily to Voldemort, resulting in her death. That alone would be justification for most characters to kill. But it goes further. Sirius at the time was a convicted murderer of dozens of muggles and Peter Pettigrew. Lupin refusing to turn him in makes him an accomplice. Furthermore, notice, Snape doesn’t kill them himself. He turns them over to the authorities who are certain to give them the death sentence (unfairly as we later discover).
It’s interesting how he held back.
We know the Marauders bullied Snape regularly by humiliating him. Lifting him up in the air and mocking him is a memorable example. Yet his worst action towards them was turning them in for a crime everyone was convinced they did. Even worse than the ridicule towards him is their school year prank that fuels his hatred in Prisoner of Azkaban. During their school years, Lupin transformed into a werewolf every full moon. On one such night, Sirius tricked Snape into going to see him. This would have resulted in Snape meeting a werewolf and either dying or becoming maimed and a werewolf for the rest of his life. Sirius knowingly tried to kill him or give him a condition which prevents wizards from getting jobs and marks them as outcasts. As a joke no less! This would be ruled attempted murder or at least assault in any sensible court of law. When Harry’s dad saves him, they have the audacity to hold over Snape’s head, claiming, ‘we saved your life’. Yeah right! From a threat you exposed him to! So from Snape’s point of view, the one time he was going to kill someone was when that someone had tried to kill him in the past, was a convicted criminal, and had sold out his one love to die. Considering Snape’s only move is to turn them in, that’s more than fair. Harry tries to torture Belatrix after she kills Sirius yet he gets no criticism.
Snape gets another chance to kill Sirius in Order of the Phoenix, after Sirius is cleared of all charges. Under the impression Sirius is captured, Harry gives that information to Snape via a code. Sirius isn’t captured. But what does Snape do with the possibility? He reports it to those who can save him, without hesitation. He could have simply feigned ignorance, saying he didn’t understand the message and no one would have doubted. He could have sat back, content to let him die. But once Sirius is cleared of responsibility for Lily, Snape tries to save his life without a second thought. That’s a fact often overlooked.
Thirdly, Snape truly did love Lily. I know it’s complicated so I’ll come back to this in the negatives but here I’m just going to talk about the positives. Snape reaches out to Lily and explains the wizarding world to her. He teaches her magic and continues their friendship through the first half of his school years. This is real. This isn’t an act, it isn’t creepy, he really did care for her. Even though she’s muggleborn, he doesn’t care. He considers if he cares about her blood for the briefest hesitation and he decides he doesn’t. He tells her it doesn’t matter because at that moment it didn’t matter to him. His love was real. That can’t be overlooked and no one can argue otherwise.
Fourth, Snape cares for Draco. Admittedly, he is biased towards him to a detrimental degree when it comes to other students. But Snape deeply cares for at least one student and he strives to keep him safe as he moves deeper into the Death Eaters. Half the reason Snape eventually kills Dumbledore is to spare Draco the pain.
Finally, Snape does save Harry. When push came to shove, Snape came through. This is similar to his treatment of Sirius. He saves people despite his feelings towards them. Even back when Harry played his first Quidditch game, Snape protected Harry by countering Quirrwel’s spell. He sent the Order of the Phoenix to save Harry. He gave just enough misinformation to protect Harry at the beginning of Deathly Hallows. He gives Harry the Sword of Gryffindor in Deathly Hallows. He does come through for Harry when his life is in jeopardy. Granted, he treats him like secondhand trash whenever it isn’t life or death, but it is an interesting character choice. Snape’s got priorities.
Now let’s move onto the bad and sweet Oz there is a lot of bad. Firstly, Snape is a terrible teacher. Not bad at teaching, he displays quite the affinity for it. No, Snape is just a terrible human being to his students. He mocks Hermione, a teenage girl, over her teeth. He refuses to teach Harry vital skills that will protect his life because he accidentally discovered one of Snape’s embarrassing secrets. This is his one exemption from protecting Harry and he does it as an overactive punishment for invading his privacy. He is Neville’s greatest fear, over Voldemort and Bellatrix, the woman who tortured his parents into madness. What the heck Snape? Snape routinely takes the sides of his own Slytherin students against others, even if that means ignoring injustice towards other students or mocking them outright. You can say this is him preserving his cover, but I’m not buying that. Other Death Eaters are evil and they wear their hatred on their sleeves so perhaps you can make the argument he needed to maintain the act. But I believe we can all agree he goes too far for it to be anything other than malice spilling out of him. If it is an act, a teenage girl’s self confidence and a teenage boy’s peace of mind shouldn’t bear the weight of his facade. Best case, he deemed those necessary prices to pay for the safety of the world. Worst case, he was blowing off steam by tearing down children. Either way, hardly praiseworthy.
Secondly, there is his blatant favoritism for his own house, Slytherin. I actually don’t have a problem with this one. While ignoring injustice is quite problematic, pure favoritism for his house isn’t. Professor McGonnigal can get Harry into her house’s Quidditch team a year early and she isn’t guilty of favoritism? Dumbledore can reward Gryffindor (his old house) six hundred and five extra points on the final day of the house cup, invalidating all of Slytherin’s honestly earned hard work and that isn’t favoritism? Judging Snape for this negative quality isn’t fair if we are to simply meme other teacher’s favoritism. Slughorn prefers Slytherin as well yet no one ridicules him. In fact if it weren’t for Slughorn, Voldemort would have died much sooner but no one seems to mention that.
Thirdly is one of Snape’s smaller, but more insightful moments. When Tonks marries Lupin, her patronus changes to reflect her husband. Someone’s patronus is a reflection of their soul, only changing after major events that change that individual. Snape’s first move upon discovering hers is to mock it, calling it weak. He knows what it means but since he hates Lupin, he decides to ridicule Tonks. This is extraordinarily cruel. He mocks someone for getting married and loving her husband deeply. The reason for this is Snape’s own patronus changed to reflect Lily after she married James (Not Snape). Snape is bitter towards anyone who gets to enjoy the happiness that was ‘stolen’ from him yet he refuses to admit his feelings under any circumstances.
Fourthly, while in school Snape befriended some less than upstanding Slytherins who enjoyed tormenting students with black magic. People often act as if this was a greater crime than what the Marauders did to Snape, simply bullying and humiliating him regularly. We don’t get a timetable for either of these, so we don’t know how often either occurred or when. I’ve seen people argue we overestimate the regularity of the Marauders’ bullying and underestimate the severity of Snape’s bullying but we can’t be certain. What we do know is that Snape invented a cutting spell for ‘enemies’, or rather self defense against said enemies. Snape is often criticized for this, but Harry’s dad and his friends almost killed him once with the werewolf trick so Snape had good reason to want to protect himself. And let’s not forget that after they saved him, they held it over his head whenever he stepped out of line. Manipulative much? His cutting spell is still a cruel way to defend oneself, but he did almost die. To me, he seems overly paranoid and fearful, resorting to an extreme spell reflective of his peers instead of sticking to the countless number of non-violent alternatives.
Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the issue of Snape’s treatment of Lily. ‘Now wait,” I hear you saying. ‘You were one of those lesser beings who was advocating his treatment of Lily!’ Yes, yes, I’m getting there. Well remember all that I said about his positive treatment of Lily? He abandons that midway through his schooling. He ignores her, sulks and joins the aforementioned dark magic Slytherins. One of Snape’s reasons for withdrawing from Lily is her fondness of James Potter. Snape accuses him of being worse than him, for he is also a bully, was a bully before Snape, and he almost killed someone. According to Snape, James is reckless, no good, irresponsible, and rewarded for it by everyone around him. And the books never really address this. The closest we get to it is Sirius saying James was complicated which is hardly a decent way to explain away negative behavior. Imagine your godson approaching you with the question of was his father a bad person and all you can do is shrug and say, “He could have been worse.” What?! If that’s the best you can come up with then why am I to think of his behavior as noble? That being said, there is a single act which separates the two men, pre-Voldemort. Following Snape’s humiliation at the hands of James and the Marauders, Lily tries to comfort him and he calls her the ultimate slur. Mudblood. That thing she was that didn’t matter? When Snape was at his lowest, he spat it out and instantly regretted it. Calling someone a slur can’t be understated and is definitely not conducive to a healthy relationship. That single word is why Snape is deemed creepy and terrible, when James gets away with no consequences when he was bullying him seconds before.
His behavior gets worse. Snape joins the crew that eventually becomes Death Eaters as they’re the only ones who’ve ever accepted him. Once the war begins he does terrible things because he feels like they are right. Only when Lily is jeopardized does Snape switch sides. We have no record of him murdering him or torturing anyone, just that he was a Death Eater for a majority of the first war. Snape feeds information to Dumbledore upon discovering she’s being targeted. An interesting note here is that Snape doesn’t switch sides because he believes their cause is superior. He switches because someone he cares about is in danger. Similar to Darth Vader, the argument can be made that he never really renounced his evil beliefs, simply that his love for someone outweighed his personal convictions. Is that true redemption or is that selfishness?
Despite his efforts, Lily still dies. Snape visits the house before the bodies and Harry are retrieved. He ignored Jame’s corpse and heads straight for Lily. He cradles her corpse and weeps, ignoring baby Harry’s crying. He rips a nearby photograph, stealing the part with Lily so he can have a token of her and then he leaves. That’s…pretty bad. He becomes a teacher for Dumbledore as he feels purposeless and he just keeps doing it for the remainder of the story.
So what conclusion can we draw? That Snape’s love turned into bigotry, that he cared nothing for so many, that he was cruel and unjust, that he was so selfish that he made life miserable for Harry despite not having a reason other than petty revenge? Is that all Snape is? I say no.
Here’s the thing, Snape’s good is truly good and his bad is truly bad. Despite his motive, he fights for good. He has restraint to his cruelty and he is capable of love just not expressing it. Calling Snape good or bad is an injustice to him because we overlook so much of his character. We overlook the snippets of his childhood where he talks about his parents. He speaks of them always fighting, of their prioritizing blood purity and such. Can we blame Snape so harshly when we see he was raised by two parents incapable of teaching him good yet who instilled bigotry into him without a second thought? But Sirius was raised in a similar environment! Yes, he was! But Snape is accepted by a different crowd. Sirius is accepted by James and Lupin, by Gryffindor. Snape is accepted by Slytherin, a matter determined by personality and first impressions, not morals. He witnesses them acting identically to him and getting rewarded where he gets punished. That is unjust. His frustration is warranted.
We judge Snape too harshly off a handful of giant mistakes. When we think of Snape we think of him screaming mudblood and him tearing Lily’s picture. We think of him as cruel to Harry and vengeful against Sirius. Yet when we think of Sirius we think of him risking life to save Harry, his constant desire to be with him and the suddenness of his death. We don’t think of him tricking Snape into almost losing his life. When you think of James do you think of him bullying Snape and shrugging off responsibility or do you think of him dying to protect Lily and Harry? When you think of Snape do you think of him saving Sirius, of selling decades of his life to beat Voldemort, of him being bitten to death by a snake and crying as he died, alone?
Let me take this a step further. When you think of Voldemort do you think of him screaming Avada Kedavra or do you think of the orphan whose father didn’t want him, whose mother wasn’t capable of raising him, whose childhood consisted of being shunned in the orphanage because he was odd? When you think of Dumbledore do you think of his duel with Voldemort or him sobbing uncontrollably as he was forced to relive him accidentally killing his sister? Don’t forget Dumbledore wanted to oppress muggles just like Voldemort, going even farther than Snape ever dreamed. To Dumbledore it was religious, their divine right to rule. In time, he changed. Is Draco, who tried to kill Dumbledore, who tormented Harry just as often as Snape, who’s parents are blamed for his problematic behavior, any better than Snape? He gets off with no consequences in the fandom’s eyes. They love Draco. Is Petunia Dursley any better, who locked Harry away because deep down she was envious? She doesn’t have one redeeming factor unless you count her keeping Harry after threats by Dumbledore if she chose not to comply. Is Slughorn better when he based all his relationships off what others could give him and gave Voldemort the secret to immortality?
I believe the question of whether Snape is good or bad is a fundamentally wrong question. I believe the amount of hate he receives is disproportionate to what he deserves, especially when compared to other characters. Harry Potter is a story about many things, among them is abuse, the nature of people, and the importance of who you meet and invite into your life. We get the vibe that Snape was practically abused by his parents and that he could have turned out differently if he’d met better friends. What if Harry had ended up sitting with Draco on the Hogwarts Express? He’d have stayed good. Yes, but what if he was sorted into Slytherin, surrounded by them constantly? How would he have felt about the Dursleys? Perhaps the constant bombardment of a certain attitude would have eroded his goodness after four long years. Snape is no different.
Snape isn’t pure evil. He isn’t a shining angel either. The point of the twist isn’t that he was always perfect. It was that he was sympathetic. There’s a difference. The series never makes the case Snape was redeemed, only that he was a spy and a complicated man instead of a one-dimensional villain. Snape is good and bad. He’s a product of the four house system’s disregard for choice, of his parent’s neglect and prejudice, and the people he chose to surround himself with. Regulus Black was able to sustain being in Slytherin and turned good for the sake of good. It can be done. RAB, a seemingly unnecessary character you never meet in person, provides a foil for Snape, revealing what Snape could have been but didn’t rise to. Snape in turn provides a foil for Harry. We see two people who endured abuse, but they surrounded themselves with different people and they chose different reactions. Harry was good and Snape was lukewarm. Snape also functions as a foil to Dumbledore. Both aimed to pursue blood purity, bigotry and the like but were jerked out of it by an intimate loss. Snape is a foil to Voldemort, as they both were alone as children and they had no true friends who pushed them towards goodness. But Snape had love, however dysfunctional, whereas Harry pities Voldemort because he is a soul without love.
Snape is not an angel but he isn’t meant to be. He enriches the story of Harry Potter by highlighting the character traits of Harry, Dumbledore, and Voldemort. The twist of Snape isn’t that he was always good, but it was that he deserved our pity. He is meant to be looked at with compassion, the one thing he was incapable of giving to anyone, even himself. We see him not as a pointlessly cruel teacher, but as a man who had never been taught how to express his feelings and suffered for it, who was taught hatred as a normal way of life and who didn’t have anyone to steer him differently. The worst part is he didn’t have the strength to teach himself. But he did have the strength to bring down Voldemort. Snape is a man who did many praiseworthy things, but who was fundamentally unwell. He isn’t evil. He doesn’t deserve our hatred. He deserves our pity. Is Snape good or bad? Snape is broken.
One of the few glimpses we get in the books to look inside the head of another character is when Snape gives Harry his memories, a stark contrast to how he reacted to Harry bursting into them two books before. In this flurry of scenes, one is of Snape sitting in his office. A portrait of Phineas Nigellus, a former Hogwarts headmaster, reports to Snape the location of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. In this scene, Phineas calls Hermione a mudblood, to which Snape snaps ‘Do not use that word!’. Interesting that in one of the only moments the focus shifts to a character other than Harry, it uses it to emphasize that Snape has put his past ways behind him. Snape actively pursued improving himself and won’t tolerate others doing the very behavior he used to do. Snape has grown. Movie Snape is far more sympathetic than book Snape, if only because the movies choose to explore the perspectives of characters other than Harry. The books are just Harry’s journey. But in the moments we spend from Snape’s point of view, we see he grew past the moment that causes us to hate him the most. Perhaps if he was focused on more, we would like him more easily.
One of the plot points J. K. Rowling gets slammed for is the name of Harry’s son. Albus Severus Potter. Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape get the honor of sharing Harry’s son’s name. People received it lukewarm at the time and now with outright disdain. But consider this: We hate Snape for getting the honor. He made Harry’s life miserable, he was cruel and creepy and evil! But we’re happy Albus gets the credit. He only planned to sacrifice Harry, to conquer the Muggles and Mudbloods with Grindelwald and to force Snape to split his soul to give him a comfortable death. We play favorites with these characters, ignoring their flaws or strengths and only seeing the aspects of them that fit in the neat little boxes of our fandom’s eyes. But Harry Potter is about people’s complexity. The name Albus Severus Potter is a constant reminder that one can choose who they become. That one should not be defined by what they’ve done but only by what they now resolve to do. That we choose who we let speak into our life.
In the brief moments we spend with Albus Severus Potter, we see his worry if he’ll end up in Gryffindor or Slytherin. The ending as a whole encapsulates all of Harry Potter’s themes, but this aspect is one of my favorites. This is truly the perfect ending to this facet of the series. We see a new generation, worrying about what they will become and who they’ll grow close to. And what does Harry tell him? You are named after two remarkable men, who did great things for good and evil. You get to choose which you lean more towards and you can be what both men were not. Both men had both. Which will you have more of? You can choose which house you’ll be in, you can choose your friends and beliefs, and you can kill evil before it takes root. It doesn’t take a great loss to awaken it. It ends by casting doubt on the house system, which sorts people based on broad strokes of their personality and not off the freedom of their choices and their ability to rise above their inherent flaws. And Albus Sevrus Potter boards the Hogwarts Express with the paths of three men before him. Albus, who was selfish and cruel and grew into a wise, selfless leader. Severus, who let himself be defined by trauma, rejection and others, and who grew past his hate and eventually brought down the people that led him there. And Potter, the boy who lived, who chose his own companions and his own path. Potter the man who killed Voldemort and who was good through his abuse, neglect and circumstances. Harry Potter who is the man we should strive to emulate. And Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape, the two complicated men who deserve our compassion, pity and regret at what they could have done if they’d been fully given to righteousness for their whole lives. I think it’s incredible that Harry Potter ends with a reminder that Snape wasn’t perfect and it ends with giving us a picture of what someone in his shoes could truly be.
Snape was complicated and pitiable.
But the tragedy of his story is that he could have been good.