Just three days before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I wrote to a friend, “I’m thoroughly disgusted. I just read the Mugglenet staff’s predictions for DH and all but one of them think Snape is good. That’s right – the vote is 12 to 1 on Mugglenet.” I remember clearly how I thought the world had gone mad. First, the Scholastic poll revealed a huge loyal Snape fan base and now this! I felt like Jodie Foster in Carl Sagan’s “Contact” when her minority opinion as an atheist cost her the chance to represent the human race in its first contact with aliens. Adding insult to injury was the popular belief that Severus Snape loved Lily Evans. For several years this theory had defied all my Harry Potter sensibilities. That selfish, sadistic, arrogant person loving anyone? Impossible.
Obviously, I was proven wrong. My mouth literally hung open as I read the opening pages of “The Prince’s Tale.” This couldn’t be true, I thought. Jo can’t be doing this. Snape, that evil, foul, torturous piece of humanity, doing something as selfless as loving someone? I didn’t give myself time to comprehend it. I raced through the rest of the book, needing to find out the fates of the trio and Ginny.
The next morning I began to contemplate this conundrum. I would never have believed that Snape would fall in love with Lily if they had only met at Hogwarts. But having met as children, before the full force of social stigma had been thrust upon them – that was believable. Suddenly, I began to cry, and I couldn’t stop. All these years I’d hated Snape, and now it turns out that he was misunderstood?!? How cruel I’d been. How unfair to Snape that I’d always thought the worst of him. But wait a minute. Snape really was a jerk and despised Harry for no good reason. Maybe I was justified in hating him. This pendulum swung back and forth and found no resting place. After the emotional roller coaster ride of Deathly Hallows, I needed a break.
I wanted a nice distracting book that would be nothing like Deathly Hallows – something to take my mind off it completely while I recovered emotionally. I decided to pick up Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I’d never read the book or watched the film, but I had a vague idea that it was about a brooding man and his long-dead love.
I quickly realized I hadn’t escaped Deathly Hallows at all; I had stumbled upon a literary precedent of the flawed lover/hero that is Severus Snape. Heathcliffe is, if anything, even more despicable than Snape, but they do share that ironic combination of sadism and undying love. Bronte had more “page time” to show this strange contrast in Heathcliffe. The readers are aware of his love for Catherine early on in the 336-page novel. Jo used only 31 pages of her 4,136-page epic to reveal the obsessive love Snape had for Lily. The majority of the Harry Potter books easily damn Snape’s character for his brutish and callous nature. Perhaps that’s why I had such a hard time accepting this new “loving” side of Snape. For ten years, I’ve been seeing him through Harry’s eyes. Since he humiliates and punishes Harry every chance he gets, it’s not surprising that I have grown to mistrust Severus Snape. Just as Harry has never seen a compassionate, fair, or loving side of Snape, neither have I. Then Jo hits us with those 31 pages of “The Prince’s Tale.”
Reading about Heathcliffe’s character helped me understand how such contradictory qualities can exist within the same person. Brontë gradually revealed Heathcliffe’s dual nature throughout Wuthering Heights. We first meet Heathcliffe and Catherine as headstrong children. Catherine is somewhat spoiled but seems an angel next to the selfish and threatening Heathcliffe.1 When it becomes apparent that Catherine loves him but still refuses to marry him, Heathcliffe flees.2 We don’t know why, but we can guess that he doesn’t want to witness his love marry someone else (Snape can understand that, surely!). When Heathcliffe returns, he is determined to have an intimate – if not physical – relationship with Catherine, and she seems to feel the same.3 Heathcliffe cares about no one but her. He is cruel to his adopted son, to Catherine’s husband, and to his own wife. His love is selfish. He sees no one but his adored. Isn’t this what Dumbledore was talking about when he expressed his disgust about Snape’s behavior? He despised the fact that Snape only cared about Lily’s life but not those of her husband and son.
This much of Snape I can accept – that he met Lily as a child and they loved each other, but their natures took them on separate paths. His pride and aggression kept him away from her, and he was emotionally destroyed when he learned her life was in danger because of him. Of course he would go to Dumbledore to seek protection in case Voldemort didn’t spare Lily for him (he knows his master, all right!). But why would he continue to help Dumbledore after Lily’s death? Lily was his reason for betraying Voldemort; he was not conscientiously objecting. We see that Snape was devastated, and Dumbledore talked him into helping protect Harry for his mother’s sake.4 It seems that Dumbledore kept that promise alive through manipulation, reminders, and whatever else it took. He kept using the love that Snape had for Lily. Even sixteen years later, Snape still loved Lily and probably felt guilty for abandoning her and causing her death. Snape was willing to protect Harry because it’s what Lily would have wanted.5 Maybe he was trying to make it up to her, even though she would never know what he’d done (depending on your view of the afterlife).
That type of undying love is touching, moving, and makes me misty eyed. It seems inhuman to be so selfless and willing to put oneself in danger all for the love of one who has died. That’s what makes Snape a hero.
Heathcliffe’s life was similar to Snape’s, but he certainly never became a hero. He also lost his love at a young age, but his life’s ambition became revenge on those who had hurt him.6 While I despised his actions, I understood what drove them. The image of him wandering the rainy moors, mad with grief for Catherine’s death7 planted a seed of compassion within me. I kept hoping he would live up to the expectation that seed represented, but he never did. He had no ally, no friend, and certainly no Dumbledore to extract noble promises from him. Instead of protecting his lost love’s child like Snape does, Heathcliffe ruthlessly uses Catherine’s daughter to exact his revenge.8 Even at the end of Heathcliffe’s life when he loses interest in revenge, it is not out of a pang of conscience. He has no apologies for anyone and never attempts to right his many wrongs. He simply wearies of revenge.9
I believe Snape was also seeking revenge but for a different reason. He protected Harry not for revenge on Voldemort but for revenge on himself. He let Lily go when he called her a “Mudblood” and stubbornly sought out Death Eaters for company. He unwittingly caused her death in the performance of his job as a Death Eater, the very thing she asked him not to become.10 By denying her wishes, he lost her twice over. I think Snape blames himself for that. After all, Snape may be many things but stupid is not one of them. He can see the truth of what he’s done. It’s even possible that the remorse he feels is sufficient to rejoin parts of his soul if they’ve ever been split apart. Maybe that’s why Dumbledore doesn’t fear greatly for Snape’s soul when he asks Snape to kill him. But just as Snape couldn’t change his true colors for Lily, he couldn’t change them for her son. All the old hatred and resentment he had for James surfaced every time he looked at Harry, and he couldn’t resist humiliating him at every turn.
In the end, I reconciled my opinion of Snape as an ironically noble and cruel person. I don’t feel guilty any more for hating him all those years. It has taken me several months to reach the conclusion that my friend (also proven wrong) experienced immediately:
You feel guilty hating Snape? Huh. Glad I don’t have the same problem. ;-) I can hate him (or at least strongly dislike him) with a clear conscience. Somehow, I don’t seem to find any conflicts of interest in finding him both reprehensible and brave/pitiable at the same time.
I believe this is what Jo intended. Her recent comments at Carnegie Hall confirm this for me:
Was Snape a good guy or not? In many ways he really wasn’t. So I haven’t been deliberately misleading everyone all this time, when I say that he’s a good guy. Because even though he did love and he loved very deeply and he was very brave, both qualities that I admire above anything else. He was bitter and he was vindictive.11
I’m glad Jo created such a complex character, and I hope Severus Snape joins Heathcliffe in the halls of historical literary characters that elicit conflicting emotions in readers for centuries to come.
1. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 31–33.
2. Ibid, 68.
3. Ibid, 82.
4. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 678–79.
5. Ibid., 677–79, 687.
6. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 96, 179.
7. Ibid., 144.
8. Ibid., 236–37, 252.
9. Ibid., 277.
10. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 675–76.
11. Rowling, “Open Book Tour.”
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, Marboro Books Corp., 1992.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.
———. “Scholastic’s Open Book Tour.” New York City Carnegie Hall, October 19. Transcript by The Leaky Cauldron /2007/10/20/j-k-rowling-at-carnegie-hall-reveals-...-more.