Can I say this out loud? Well… here it goes: it really bugs me when people get all weepy about Severus Snape and his somber, torturous tale. As a Harry Potter fan I usually keep this to myself because Snape fans are a little rabid and also he’s played by Alan Rickman on film, and speaking poorly of any Rickman-played character is probably a criminal offense in most countries.
But it really does bother me. And maybe not for the reasons you would assume.
Important disclosure at the fore: I think Severus Snape is a great character and it does hurt to learn how isolated and lonely he has been his entire life. I understand why he has the following that he does, why he garners so much love and empathy. He’s tortured, which gives us an emotional investment in his progression. He was bullied in school, which we can all relate to—most kids have born the brunt of teasing at some point in their lives. And he’s an incredible double agent, toeing a line between Dumbledore and Voldemort that no one else in the books is capable of, which is outright flipping cool.
But there’s a disturbing skew in Potter fandom, one that sees Snape painted as some sort of pitiable, tormented martyr. That contingent usually also seems convinced that Harry’s papa, James Potter, should never have been given a shot at that title and ruined Snape’s chances at happiness. Which causes me to give them the side-eye and wring my hands awkwardly.
Because it makes more sense to me to see Severus Snape’s tale as a cautionary one, a list of “What Not To Do” when life deals you the bottom of the deck. He suffers a great deal, absolutely—but every time chooses to handle his pain and grief in a way that is further damaging to others.
But love! Unrequited, abandoned love! His Patronus was a doe! Yes, I do remember. And it hits home because we’ve all been there, all know what it feels like to care for someone who isn’t giving you the time of day, or at least not the kind of attention you’d prefer. But for those who are somehow under the impression that Snape had his dear love Lily Evans stolen away by that stuck up, rich boy cad, James Potter… I’m at a loss.
Rowling’s use of flashback in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is meant to offer us a lot in one go, giving readers the only sequence of the infamous Marauders that we can experience in realtime. We find out that 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. What is contained in that unhappy memory is the moment where he loses Lily forever; though they obviously were not as close at that age as they had been as small children, she was not willing to cut herself off from him until he threw the word “mudblood” in her face.
But because we don’t see the in-between, the line that runs from there to James and Lily’s happy marriage, that might read to something like: Lily got angry at Snape for shouting something awful at her and decided that the ultimate way to “show him” was to marry that guy who’d made his life a living hell as a teen. Which is clearly not what happened. James grew up a little and stopped being a jerk. Lily noticed. (We hear specifically from Sirius and Remus that Lily didn’t start dating him until their final year at Hogwarts, giving James a couple years to sort himself out.) Snape made some bad friends and started dabbling in things he shouldn’t. They went their separate ways.
Except Snape kept carrying that torch for Lily. On paper it sounds sort of beautiful, but in actuality… that’s kind of creepy. More creepy for the fact that he gave up trying to make amends, and never attempted to form a similar relationship with anyone else. 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. It didn’t stop him from offering Lily and her family up to Voldemort the instant he heard a helpful prophecy regarding Harry’s birth. He backtracked, because apparently he was fine with Voldemort killing Lily’s child and husband, the people whom she loved more than anything; he was only horrified at the thought of her death. And that’s not real love—caring for someone without considering their happiness is the exact opposite of love, in point of fact. It makes them an object of your affection rather than a subject. Perhaps his feelings for Lily were the only thing that prevented him from truly going “dark side” with his Death Eater pals, and for that we can be grateful. But the damning aspects of that love show up the instant Harry hits Hogwarts.
Sure, Harry looks more like James than Lily, sure, he’s got a bit of that Gryffindor bravado, but here was the perfect opportunity for Snape to make peace with his past. It’s true in more ways than one, specifically because Harry had also come from a home where he was ignored, abused, treated like less than a household pet. If Snape loved Lily so much, you would imagine he would want to do right by her son to honor her memory, wouldn’t you? But it seems that his hatred for James was much stronger than his feelings for Lily.
Well, if it weren’t for James, Harry might have been his son! Except there is no evidence to support that belief whatsoever. Even if he and Lily had remained friends, even if James Potter vanished into thin air, there is no reason to think that Lily would have ever fallen in love with Snape. And that misdirected anger toward James leads him to use his position of power as a teacher and a guide to take out his schoolyard grudge on Harry in any way he can manage.
Which brings me to perhaps my biggest peeve with Snape—he’s a terrible teacher. Rowling herself has said this as well, that on the teaching spectrum Remus Lupin was supposed to represent the absolute best experience you could have, and that Snape represented the worst. People can gripe all they want about Snape being right to give Slytherins an unfair advantage in this class when they receive no such advantages anywhere else in the school, but it doesn’t change the fact that the kids he favors most are not good students. He favors Draco at first because he enjoys Draco’s ongoing cockfight 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 the ways in which he constantly belittles Hermione for actually caring about the subject he teaches is reprehensible, and furthermore, damaging to the very cause he’s fighting for by potenially leaving students ill-equipped. It’s even more disappointing because Snape has the ability to be an excellent professor; he simply choses not to be out of bitterness.
Is it understandable that Snape feels the way he feels? Absolutely. Is it acceptable that his actions in response to his own feelings continually harm others? Not so much.
The point is not that Severus Snape was a monster and no one should ever think well of him. The point is that Severus Snape is not a hero, and wouldn’t want to be called one. He is a man burdened by real demons, who makes the wrong choices, who pays for it with everything that is dear to him. 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 make it right.
It’s what makes Severus Snape such a mesmerizing character in the first place. He doesn’t want to be coddled by anyone who feels for him, who wants to ease his pain. He would probably feel pretty awkward about Harry using his name to christen one of the Potter brood. Severus Snape doesn’t need pity because he’s not meant to be pitied—the owning of his failures are what make him exceptional.
And that is far more interesting than being a martyr any day.