The other day, I was talking to one of my friends about Harry Potter. I told him that, obviously, wizarding debates are something I take quite siriusly (Ba dum tst!). In the last month, I have gotten in—not one, but—two different arguments with coworkers about how Severus Snape is not a good person.
I know, you’ve read this argument before. But bear with me.
When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finally came out, I remember getting this nifty door-hanger from Borders. It had two sides—Severus Snape the Villain, and Severus Snape the Hero. And after reading the book, I displayed it hero-side out, loud and proud. I was thirteen, and the shock of finding out that Severus Snape had been in love with Lily Evans moved me. After all, the epilogue made it very clear that Harry was no longer angry at Snape, so why should I be?
Boy, do I wish I could explain a few things to my thirteen-year-old self.
First of all, I think it’s important to look at just why so many of us decided Snape was a hero after the series finished. Obviously, it was marketed that way. You had to choose a side—good or bad. There is no moral gray when you’re promoting a children’s book. No one wants a door hanger that says, “Yeah, okay, Severus Snape had some redeeming qualities, but that doesn’t make him a good person.” Or at least, I didn’t realize I wanted one until I typed that out.
In the epilogue, we discovered that one of Harry’s absurdly named children was even named after Snape. Now, at this point, I had spent seven years looking up to Harry and using him as a role model. If he told me that Snape was a good person, I was going to believe that Snape was a good person. A thirteen-year-old is in no position to argue with the Boy Who Lived or the author who wrote him.
And on top of that, the entire Harry Potter series is about the power of love. Finding out that all of Snape’s actions—his grudging hatred of Harry, his rudeness to Sirius, his reluctant protection when he worked with the Order—were all because of love? Well, that just played perfectly into the theme. The entire point of the seventh book was that those who could love were more powerful than those who could not. If you could love, you were inherently good, and if you could not, then you were inherently bad.
These were my thoughts at thirteen years old, at least. Now, I like to think I know a little bit more about love—or at least, a little bit more about what it takes to be a good person.
Let’s start with Snily—which is not a wonderful ship name, now that I come to think of it. Does loving Lily Evans justify all of Snape’s actions? Can we even call his relationship with Lily Evans love?
From where I am sitting at this point in my life—no, on both accounts. We see through flashbacks—even in Snape’s own memories—that Snape doesn’t have much regard for Lily’s feelings as far as he is concerned. If Lily is upset, he hurts the person that hurts her—regardless of whether or not that person is her sister, whom she loves unconditionally. When Lily finds someone who can make her happy, Snape cannot look past his own jealousy that it is not him that’s making her happy. When Lily suggests that he stops hanging out with the clearly dangerous crowd he’s in, he not only ignores her but begins throwing slurs. Even when Voldemort is targeting the Potters to kill Harry, Snape isn’t concerned about Lily’s happiness or the people she loves. He is only concerned about her surviving. This, in my humble and fairly inexperienced opinion, isn’t what I’d like to think of as love. It’s obsession and a desire for possession.
However, I can see Snape’s hatred from the view that Lily didn’t end up dating just anyone. She ended up dating and later marrying, his childhood tormentor. His inability to look at Harry— who looks just like James—without seething with jealousy, is something I can completely understand. Tormenting Harry throughout his Hogwarts years because he was upset about losing the girl would be something I could understand. Not condone. I would never condone a jealous adult abusing a child like Harry the way he does. However, narratively, I could understand the situation if Snape hated Harry and Harry grew up to forgive him.
But the fact of the matter is that Snape’s likeness to a disturbed snapping turtle does not start and end with Harry Potter. No, when I really want to make a point about Severus Snape, I remind people of poor Neville Longbottom.
Now, as far as Deathly Hallows reveals, Snape didn’t have any qualms with the Longbottoms. He was not openly part of the original Order of the Phoenix, so who knows whether or not he even knew them. Certainly, he never fell in such a passionate love with Alice that he grew to resent Frank Longbottom and his son that looked just like him.
Right from the beginning of the series we see how much Snape torments Neville in lessons. By Prisoner of Azkaban, we know that Snape isn’t just a daily terror in Neville’s life—he is straight up Neville’s worst fear. I repeat: One of Neville’s school teachers is his worst fear in the entire world. This is a young boy whose parents were literally tortured to the brink of insanity by followers of the Dark Lord, and his worst fear is his potions professor.
Now, I’ve taken a considerable amount of time thinking about this, and come up with my own counter-argument to myself. What if Snape knew that Neville was the other boy the prophecy could have been about? Maybe Snape hates him because he wishes that Voldemort had killed the Longbottoms instead of Lily. (This argument still makes him a terrible person in my book, because Neville shouldn’t be punished for existing, but to be thorough, I’ll consider it.)
While I think this is pretty damn unlikely, we have to remember that Snape’s treatment did not end with Harry, and it did not end with Neville. You want another spectacular moment? How about Snape taking over Lupin’s DADA class and asking the students to learn how to kill a werewolf?
Not only does he take away Lupin’s only opportunity to show the children a different side of werewolves, to represent himself, but Snape tries to condemn Remus to sitting in a chair reading an essay from his best friend’s son about the best way to murder him. How about Goblet of Fire, when Malfoy curses Hermione’s teeth to grow until they’re in danger of piercing her neck? And Snape looks down at her and says, “I see no difference.”
When all of Snape’s actions are taken into account, I can never be comfortable with the view of the hero. Severus Snape wasn’t a hero. He was a spurned youth who never grew up, never got over his childhood crush, and decided to condemn almost every student who walked through his doors to the same miserable childhood he had.
I ask every Snape-supporter to justify that to me. When someone gives me a justifiable answer, I might consider giving Severus Snape a little leniency. Until then, Severus Snape will remain on my list of terrible people I’ve met in fiction.
On a final note: I don’t want to undersell everything that Snape did. I understand how dangerous it was to lie to Lord Voldemort to keep Harry safe, to work for Dumbledore while staring pure evil in its snake-like eyes. I don’t think Harry was wrong to say that Snape was one of the bravest people that he’d ever met. However, I think the important thing is to remember that not all brave people are good. Terrible people still have fears, still, face them every day. It’s easy to equate bravery with goodness when we learned about those concepts through fictional stories like Harry Potter. But not all Gryffindors were good. Bravery may be a positive character trait, but it’s not enough to forgive all flaws.
So I’ll just keep pretending Harry’s second child was named Rubeus Remus Potter.