Can I just confess something? It really irritates me how people, especially those in the Harry Potter fandom are on either extremes, when it comes to Severus Snape. While some get all weepy and emotional about his tale, there are others who feel that he is being given undue importance. As a Harry Potter fan, I generally keep these opinions to myself, because firstly some members of a fandom are quite paranoid about the prevailing opinions of their favourite characters and secondly, I think speaking poorly about any Alan Rickman movie is close to a criminal offence in many countries.
But yes coming back to the main topic at hand, this kind of extremity especially for Snape does kind of annoy me. But firstly let’s get something sorted, I like Severus Snape and I think that he is one of the most interesting character in the book. He led quite a lonely and isolated life, which I think is why I feel sorry and hurt for him. I understand why he has such a massive following and why he garners so much empathy and love. He has during his lifetime, undergone a lot of pain and trauma, which in turn makes us emotionally invested in his life. Neglected at home and bullied in school he is someone who many people can relate to – so even if we have come from stable homes, bullying and teasing is something that almost every child goes through at some point or the other. And then he is the perfect double agent, toeing a line between Voldemort and Dumbledore that no one else in the entire book can do, which makes him immensely cool and awe-inspiring.
But there are some people in the Harry Potter world, who are intent on painting Snape as a martyr and unsung hero. And some people from this category believe that James Potter acted as a villain and ruined Snape’s chances of living a happy life with Lily. Which is where these people are missing a point. Because it makes more sense to see Snape’s story as a cautionary tale, a list of ‘What not to do’ when things do not work out according to your plan. So while Snape suffers a great deal in his life the manner in which he handles his pain and grief, damages not just his life but even those around him.
But really what a story! Love, unrequited, abandoned love! His Patronus is a doe! Yes of course it such a touching moment because it hits home the fact that we have also gone through similar experiences in our lives. Also, we know what it is to care/love for someone who is not replicating the same affection, or at least not in the manner that we would like. But those who think that James stole Lily away from Snape, are completely hitting the wrong notes. Lily and James loved each other and nowhere in the books is it depicted that Lily had any romantic notions about Snape.
The first thing I want to address in an attempt to understand Snape’s character is his childhood. It is one of the most important aspect because it played a massive role in his entire life. Snape childhood was lacking in love and attention and unlike Voldemort who came from an unloved family as well, I think Snape’s mother did love him, because Snape was capable of love. Even though that love was a bit skewed and unhealthy. This dysfunctional home is what made Snape fall in love with Lily. Why? Because Lily was an epitome of what Snape did not have in his life, namely beauty. I believe that Snape loved Lily only because he thought that she represented something extremely beautiful. He kept a specific version of her in his head, built out of childhood memories and the moments he watched her from afar, and decided that was good enough. In fact, he hangs on to that one beautiful thought for nearly 17 years.
Also, Rowling’s flashback in the Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix is supposed to offer us a lot of information in one shot. We find out that the teenaged James Potter is quite the insufferable show off, that he and Sirius were cruel to Snape, and that Snape’s idea of a good comeback to the bullying was to rebuff one of his oldest, truest friends in a way that was unforgivably prejudiced. The thing I really dislike about James is the fact that he bullies someone who has had far fewer privileges in life than him, someone who is not adored at school nor at home. He bullies someone who is infinitely below him, simply because he dislikes him. What is even sadder is that even though James changes in his seventh year and stops bullying other people, he still bullies Snape. Nobody could hate themselves more than Snape hates himself. All this trauma could only end up making him even more mentally unstable. Then came the part in which Lily was killed because of him. This became the main reason for his brokenness as we see that the only person who he has ever cared about and loved has died by his own doing. The enormity of this is that not only has she been killed by his own master but that it is his own fault. Good, he deserves it, you haters say… and perhaps he does. But that has nothing to do with understanding or empathizing with him. I can’t even begin to express how damaging this would be to the mental state of any person, leave alone one who has always been hated and despised. From then on, he had to wake up every morning with the realization of what he’d done. You can probably never know the extent of agony that he had to undergo. Snape was positively crushed with revulsion and hatred for himself, as can only be imaginable. And this hatred and revulsion wasn’t new: in fact it goes all the way back to his childhood and school days.
Snape’s feelings and how deals with them are extremely underdeveloped. In fact, he lets his feelings control him and dominate his actions, so much so, he never gives them a thought. I believe that many Snape haters wrongly hate him because of his outwardly actions instead of looking at his inward life. So while every outward action has an internal choice, my point is that, internally, Snape never thought about his actions because he was filled with so much pain and bitterness. And nowhere is this more aptly depicted than in his relationship with Harry himself. So while Harry looks more like James and has got a bit of Gryffindor attitude, it was the perfect opportunity for Snape to let go of bygones and make peace with his past. Also because, Harry is also suffering the same trauma of being neglected, Snape could have done the right thing and not made life extra miserable for him, especially if he loved Lily. But unfortunately that was not going happen because his hatred for James over-weighed his love for Lily and also because after all that he had gone through he was a grouch and a bully. Maybe you don’t like him for it but sadly, hurt people end up hurting people. That is the sad truth.
At the same time, I need to point out one of biggest irritating that I have with Snape – he is a terrible teacher. Rowling herself has said that on the teaching spectrum Remus and Snape are the two extremes, with Remus being a student’s dream and Snape being the nightmare. People can say that he supported Slytherin students when they were not really supported elsewhere in the school, but it does not change the fact that Snape favoured students who were not exactly brilliant. He favours Draco at first because he enjoys Draco’s ongoing rivalry with Harry, and later (more appropriately) because he knows what Draco is going through as a result of his family’s Death Eater status. But that being said, he had no right to belittle Hermione for trying to learn his subject and further not equipping students well enough to face dangers outside Hogwarts. This is even more frustrating because Snape has the potential to be a better teacher and guide; he simply chooses to remain a bully out of bitterness. (Also, yes I have not forgotten it is because of him that Lupin had to leave his job, one which he had worked hard to secure.)
Also, killing Dumbledore was another factor that would’ve only added to his pain. He had to kill the only person who ever trusted him, without knowing all the facts. No wonder he becomes terribly angry and hurt when Harry calls him a coward.
So it boils down to this is Snape justified in his feelings? Yes, maybe. But is it acceptable that his actions, hurt and harm others especially those who are not responsible for his situation? Not so much.
Another point that people like to state how much of a villain he is because if Snape had not disclosed the prophecy to Voldemort, Lily would still be alive. Perhaps that is true, but then those people are missing an important point: he would not be Snape; at least, not the one we know in the books. Snape would not be who he is in the books if he hadn’t loved Lily. Furthermore, if, because he loved Lily, and he had not played a role in her death, then he would not be the person we know him as. Because of this, he becomes a double-agent on Dumbledore’s own prompting, and finally plays a very important role in overthrowing the greatest Dark wizard of all times.
Severus Snape is no monster and it would be very wrong of anyone to think of him in that manner. But at the same time, Snape is no hero and I am sure he would not want to be called one either. He was a very real person who was burdened by many demons, who makes the wrong choices and had to pay for it with everything that he held dear. And he’s the one who makes that bed. He knows he has to lie in it, knows that’s what he earned for himself, and that’s why he does everything in his power to repair all the damage that he caused. So even if Snape was a despicably selfish character, most of us are also the same. We all do good things for the good side for selfish reasons.
All these combine together to make Severus Snape one of the most interesting literary character (may I say, of all times?). He does not want any sympathetic gestures or hugs and might even feel weird about the hero status accorded to him. Snape does not require our sympathy or pity and the only reason why he is exceptional is because he owed up to his mistakes and died trying to rectify them. And that is what makes him an incredible person, even more than being a martyr or a hero.