Thursday, July 14, 2011

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, July 14, 2011 21 comments
This week, I've been looking at Rowling's complex characterizations over the series, focusing especially on the villainous characters. In PART 1, I examined the Dursely and Malfoy families. In PART 2, I delved into the faces of evil we see in Umbridge and Voldemort. Today, I want to look at the complex, misunderstood character Severus Snape.

Snape: the hero in villain's clothing

Harry and Snape first encounter one another during the opening banquet and sorting ceremony. Snape seems to be studying him carefully, and Harry initially reads it as sinister intent. Snape looks dangerous--he's all in black, lean and hungry-looking, dark eyes glittering with what Harry reads as pure malice. Harry's accustomed to being judged by his fearful, approval-hungry relatives. But this look? Not fearful. Something else. Something Harry can't name or understand, and it unnerves him.

But from what we learn of Snape over the course of the series, Snape's initial reaction is likely exceedingly complex. Here is the "boy who lived" while his beloved died to save this child. He resembles Snape's childhood rival, James Potter. The whole school is abuzz with this child's celebrity. And yet...the kid is completely clueless. The celebrity is totally lost on him. And while Snape fully expects Harry to be James's arrogant, bullying clone, he finds a confused, scared little boy who had an upbringing a whole lot like, well, his own! Harry, too, bears the marks of adult neglect, stuck wearing ill-fitting hand-me-downs and having bad hair. While seeing himself in Harry ought to stir Snape's sympathy, it does the opposite. It stirs up his own self-loathing. These ugly characteristics, after all, are what he believes kept him from winning Lily.

I find it highly ironic that the student Snape favors is the real heir of James Potter: Draco Malfoy. Does that shock you? Seriously, Draco is far, far more like James that Harry is. He's from a rich, pureblood family and lords it over others. He's arrogant and a bully. In place of Crabbe and Goyle, James had Remus and Sirius, who helped him torment the throwaway kid of his generation, Snape. Draco and James even play the same Quidditch position--Seeker. In currying Draco's goodwill, Snape is unwittingly still trying to be accepted by James Potter.

Beyond seeing his hated rival and the hated throwaway-child part of himself in Harry, Snape also sees his beloved. Lily died so this child could live. Snape wants to honor her memory and prove himself her truest of loves. He will protect Lily's child and avenge her death, even if it tears him up inside to do it, even if he has to grit his teeth all the while.

Now there's some complex characterization for you!

Surely Snape's inner conflicts appear on the surface as villainy. He singles Harry out for ridicule and uses his position of power to put Harry down. And yet...Snape guards Harry's life in book after book with no concern for his own personal safety. The only times we ever see Snape being remotely fearful is when he thinks Lily's son might be in mortal danger. Snape knows that Harry is pivotal in bringing down Lily's killer. He does all he can to aid Harry's success, acting as a spy among the Death Eaters in order to track their movements and plans, biding his time until he can avenge Lily.

It isn't until the final moments of Snape's life that Harry begins to put together all the pieces. But when he does, it's like the scales fall off his hate-blinded eyes. He realizes that true heroes act on behalf of those they love with no thought for themselves. Snape cared only about Lily and Lily's legacy. He didn't care if people misunderstood and hated him for it. His own reputation mattered not at all. He is the anti-Dursleys in this way. He wants only to empower Harry, not grasp power for himself. He is the anti-Voldemort.

In the end, Harry realizes the extent to which his life has been entwined with Snape's. How Snape has been a true father to him. As Harry faces Voldemort in their final battle, it is Snape's example he follows. Motivated by love for Lily (and James) as well as Ginny, Harry sacrifices himself and finds final redemption.

What do you think of this complex interplay of the past and present in Snape's characterization?

21 comments:

  1. Pure genius, Laurel. What a wonderfully in depth character analysis.

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  2. Good stuff here, Laurel. This villian series is so impressive :-) Snape is an amazing character. I never thought about the Draco/James comparison before.

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  3. Yes yes!! Perfect. I love Snape. Thinking about him makes my heart hurt. great villain in the beginning who morphed into an amazing character!

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  4. ooo... very cool. I love villains who start one way and then change as we learn more about them. Great post, Laurel~ :o) <3

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  5. This is a fantastic analysis of Snape and a brilliant series of the villains of 'Harry Potter'. Love it!

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  6. yes it is really marvelously complex characterization between the two of them, Harry and Snape, and proof that "complex" is appealing - I think Snape and the complex underpinnings of the series is a big reason why so many adults (including me!) love this series!

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  7. Great post Laurel. Snape was always one of my favorites and I'd get into arguments with friends all the time about him. I never doubted he would be the good guy in the end and reading your post reminded me how much I did like him.

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  8. Your insights are truly AMAZING Laurel.... so much of what you posted never even occurred to me especially the parallels between Malfoy and James. Fascinating....

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  9. That was beautiful Laurel, exactly how I had thought of Snape. I think he was also somehow getting back at James by being mean to Harry. But like you, I always knew he was the good guy. Even though he hated James for treating him like that, I think he was conflicted because he saw both Lily and James in Harry. And he was always loyal to Dumbledore. He knew what it would take in the end, and he did everything he was supposed to. Ah...I will always love Snape. And I will always LOVE Alan Rickman as him. Plus that pic you posted is one of my favorite scenes. I love when he sort of turns his sleeves up before shoving their heads down.

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  10. Angela: It wasn't until I started writing that some of these ideas really gelled. yay intuition!

    Melissa: The first time we see Snape's memory of being bullied by James, Sirius and Remus, I had this punch in the gut recognition that these guys acted an awful lot like Draco and his gang, despite the fact they don't do dark magic. The "heroes" Harry wants them to be is only part of a more complex story. Even good characters have some darkness in them.

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  11. Colene: The more I learned about Snape, the more my heart hurt for him too. Oh how he loved Lily!

    Leigh: Me, too! I have two characters in my novel who also appear villains but are anything but.

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  12. Spangle: Thanks. It was thinking about why Rowling values courage that kicked off the whole idea of the series for me.

    Margo: Indeed, it is these complexities-- revealed over the course of thousands of pages--that make the series so appealing to all ages.

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  13. Charity: I kept waffling about him as we read through the series. I increasingly found myself liking him till HBP when he kills Dumbledore. But partway through book 7, my husband and I started theorizing that destroying the horcrux was what really killed Dumbledore. With Snape's help, he was able to hang on longer than natural. The killing curse? Maybe it was mostly for show.

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  14. Michael: One of the things I love most about the series is how Rowling plays against expectation. The Draco/James similarities seem more obvious when you watch the scene in Order of the Phoenix where James bullies Snape.

    Abby: I love how the complexity unfolds over the course of the books, and how Rowling deftly keeps us guessing just where Snape's loyalties lie until book 7.

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  15. Excellent post! Especially about Snape and Malfoy and the connection with James Potter. I hadn't thought of that.

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  16. I truly had never looked at it this way with Snape favoring Malfoy. That is a brilliant deduction. It makes you wonder if Rowling knew all this before she wrote the series, or if it happened along the way organically. I'd love to pick her brain a bit. This was an incredible analysis into Snape. Thank you!

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  17. And this is why I love Snape. You have laid his character out beautifully!

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  18. Cherie: James is something of a mixed bag character, and Harry's task is to do better where his father wasn't entirely heroic.

    PK: There are so many relational parallelisms in the story, you have to wonder if they're planned or if this is just how Rowling's brain works intuitively.

    Nisa: Thanks. He really keeps us guessing, and I totally cried for him when we learn ALL the truth about him in book 7.

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  19. My God, Laurel, that was amazing! I always enjoy your writing, but this was superlative. I wondered a great deal over the course of reading the books about Snape, especially since Dumbledore was so unconditionally supportive. I could never have expressed all this as well as you have, though.
    Thank you, again!

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  20. This was so poignant and spot on! I've often had similar thoughts (though not nearly as well-formed) and still to this day do not understand how anyone can interpret his actions differently. To me, like Samwise Gamgee in LOTR, Snape is absolutely the unsung hero of this story.

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  21. Interesting. Snape still wanting to win a "James Potter" over, yet being mean to the lookalike offspring who stole Lily. Deep thoughts. Well done!

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