In Defense of Severus Snape

There are some fictional characters that end up being very divisive among fans: Holden Caulfield. Patrick Bateman. Humbert Humbert.

Severus Snape is one of these characters.

Critics remark that he was abusive to students, which is true, the way he treated Neville especially was abominable. They also claim that his “love” for Lily was an obsession, and he was angry and bitter for being “friendzoned.” But I recently came across this post which points out that the fact of the matter is Snape never told Lily how he felt. He never harassed her or forced himself on her.

He became a bad friend. He betrayed her. He regretted it. He tried to save her life. He failed. He tried to protect her child. He wanted to protect Harry for Lily’s sake. He wanted to at least partially make up for the way he treated Lily. That was his motivation, not ‘he was friendzoned.’”

Snape-Always

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like Snape as a person. He is an asshole, and he should never be in charge of teaching children. He very clearly hates himself, thinks of himself as a failure (for Lily’s death, for not having achieved the coveted DADA position, maybe even for never telling Lily how he felt), and he projects that onto students.

But the thing about Snape as a character is that his psychology makes sense (much the same way that Harry annoyed the hell out of me in Order of the Phoenix as a whiny adolescent). Snape is a thoroughly three-dimensional character, which isn’t an easy thing to do in any work of fiction and especially hard in a fantasy world written for a young adult audience.

Maybe a Quick Quote Quill would be better than a pen...

Maybe a Quick Quote Quill would be better than a pen…

The driving appeal of the Harry Potter series for me as a reader was the world J.K. Rowling built. It requires you to suspend a lot of reality (why didn’t the muggle-born students just bring ball-point pens to class to take notes?), but the wizarding world is so compelling I did it without question. With so many characters, and from seeing them only through Harry’s perspective, you don’t see a lot of their complexity.

You learn an awful lot about Severus Snape, though. He played both sides; he was a double agent. He was able to convince both Albus Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort–two of the most powerful wizards in the world–that he was loyal to them. One of the driving plot points of the series was Harry trying to figure out if Snape was good or evil.

It turns out that, really, Snape was neither. He was definitely fighting to keep Harry alive, and so in that sense he was on the side of “good,” but he wasn’t good. And that’s why he is the most interesting character in the series to me. He’s the most like a real person.

As a writer, I have to love Snape.

He has a complexity that we rarely even get to see from people we know in real life. Most of our interactions are superficial. Most of the time we interact as personas with other personas. And if we find a trait we don’t like in someone, then we (usually) either make excuses for it or we let the trait fuel a harsh judgment of the person.

Case in point, I’m still mad at Ron Weasley for abandoning Harry and Hermione. (I don’t care if it was because of the Horcrux. Samwise Gamgee resisted the ring. Dammit.)

snape-teachingIt’s rare we accept anyone as three-dimensional. It’s rare we get close enough to a person to appreciate their ugliness. But it’s that ugliness and darkness inside people that makes me enjoy fiction. In fact, it makes me relate to fictional characters. It’s why I write fiction. Because for all I try to empathize, understand, and practice kindness, I have that ugliness inside me, too.

You can try to deny it, but the fact is, we all have the capacity to be cruel. To be Snape. To take our shit out on other people. And we do, don’t we? It’s part of being human.

I don’t buy into all the common narratives that parents tell children: that girls are mean to other girls because they’re jealous, that boys tease girls because they like them, that bullies are mean because they’re unhappy.[1]

But I do believe we tend to project our inner pain outward in a countless ways. I have been a bad friend, a bad girlfriend, a bad sister, a bad daughter, a bad teacher, and a bad co-worker an uncountable number of times because of something that was happening inside my head. I’ve also been very bad at accepting friendship and kindness, because self-loathing is toxic. It’s impossible to accept kindness when you hate yourself.

Sometimes our pain feeds addictions. It feeds our anger. If feeds our tears. It feeds our cruelty. In my case, it feeds my alienation.

It’s hard to accept it in ourselves. It’s hard to accept that other people do it to us. It’s hard to accept that Severus Snape might have a complexity to him that means we can’t slap a “good” or “bad” label on him. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Shakespeare said it, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”[2]

Fiction takes us into worlds where we can escape and pretend that there is some force of good that prevails in the world, but fiction also gives us a safe space where we can confront our ugliness.

That’s why Severus Snape is important.

And that’s why I love Severus Snape–as a character. But I don’t want to go out and get a firewhisky with him.


[1] I’ve read studies that find bullies are often more popular than other kids, which could be part of the motivation. The American narrative of the “leader” can easily dovetail with being a bully.
[2] Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Severus Snape

  1. Thanks so much for writing this post. My first experience with the Harry Potter series was when I was six years old. Back then, I wasn’t really familiar with the concept of unreliable narration, so I automatically trusted Harry’s perceptions and aligned myself with him. Later in the books I began to disagree with and question his perceptions, but definitely not at first. This shaped my view of Snape, and I fell prey to the instinct to see him in black-and-white. It wasn’t until the big reveal that I realized everything I’d thought I knew was almost entirely wrong. Upon rereading the series, I began noticing clues I should have picked up on the first time through. Jo was trying to tell me something, and I missed it. I don’t blame myself for not guessing that Snape was in love with Lily, but I do blame myself for failing to see Snape as anything other than a cruel, evil villain. (Can I just take a moment to revel in the general awesomeness that is Lily? Mad respect for her intuition.) I think we’ve all had that one teacher who humiliates and bullies students, at least to some degree, so it’s easy and comforting to believe Snape is nothing more than petty and cruel. Certainly he is those things. I do not hold with those who believe Snape loved harry, or loved Lily in a healthy way, or was a better match for her than was James, or harboured a secret tendency for love and devotion. I do, however, hold with those who, like you, perceive Snape to be an ultimately beautiful character–one who is hard to like, but easy to love. It took me a long time, but I’ve realized that I love Severus Snape, and I suspect I *always* will (see what I did there?) Thank you again.

    • Thank you for this! I had a similar experience as you when I read the first Harry Potter books, though I did start to sympathize with Snape a little by OOTP, when Harry was seeing his memories. Snape is a bully, and possibly irredeemable, but he’s an example of how abuse cycles, and I just love the depth it gives him and his psychology. I’m with you, I don’t think his love for Lily was healthy–and, yes, agreed she never gets enough credit for getting it, even if she couldn’t love Snape back. Anyway, I’m glad to find another Snape-lover who appreciates his character!

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