Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Virtues of Severus Snape

Admittedly these can be hard to find. But I think that's what makes Snape such a great character.

I feel the same way about Umbridge, actually. She's so hate-able. Probably THE most hate-able character I've ever come across. I don't even hate Voldy as much as her. So well written.

Characters like that are harder to create than a person might think. Which brings me back to Snape. I'd venture to say that Snape is probably the most complicated person in the entire Harry Potter series.

I don't think it can be argued that Snape was not a supremely well-crafted character.

But what I'm really trying to do is defend him. I've always contended that Snape is one of the most tragically misunderstood characters ever written. It wasn't until recently that I had someone seriously disagree with me, and I realized that I had never vocalized my argument. This is my attempt to do so.

I know that everyone sees different virtues as more or less important than others. It will help you understand my point of view to know that I highly value knowing the reasons behind actions.

This isn't the same as accepting excuses. People are masters of their own choices. Weakness and giving in isn't a disease that one is a victim of. It is a choice that a person makes. But when one understands the full picture, or motivation, one can make a more accurate judgement.

To me, understanding breeds sympathy and respect.

Thesis: The tragedy, heartache, and bitterness in Snape's past explain his flaws. (Not to excuse but to understand). And the choices that he made to devote his life to the downfall of Voldemort truly were incredibly brave, noble, and super difficult to be loyal to.

Difficulty #1: Snape is not likable. At all.

I think that a lot of people have trouble understanding that all people are flawed. Some people are just flawed in more openly hateful ways than others.

Snape's flaws mostly revolve around a skewed sense of fair play. He was housed in Slytherin, after all. Ends justify the means, and all that. And sometimes he crosses the line. Like what he said about Hermione's teeth when Draco enlarged them. That was just wrong. Seriously rude.

But evil? No.

Let's remember, shall we? He was:
  • Raised in a totally dysfunctional, and possibly abusive, family.
  • Friendless until he found Lily, who later spurned him.
  • Belittled, picked on, teased, and nearly killed by a group of teenaged boys who were really out of line.
  • Surrounded entirely by people who very effectively justified dark magic.
  • Just a boy when he joined the death eaters.
  • A victim not just of unrequited love, but of love toward a girl who ended up marrying the guy that used to belittle and tease him for no reason. Ouch.
  • Forced by circumstance to allow people to think that he still worked for Voldemort, even though he wasn't. He HAD to let people think the worst of him at all times, even when it was wrong.
Summary: Dude had a hard knock life.

Like I said before, it doesn't excuse away everything. But it explains it. I mean, you try being in charge of keeping alive the son of the guy who married your one true love and belittled you beyond endurance. See how patient you stay.

Expecting him to not react badly on occasion is expecting an awful lot of him. Perfection is out of reach for ALL of us. And he is no exception.

Difficulty #2 Snape used to be a Death Eater.

Yeah. So?

Seriously, forgiveness people. I COMPLETELY understand having trouble with trusting someone once they've done something as stupid as joining Voldemort's minions. But he proved himself. Once he came back to the right side, he never left. Ever. Get over it.

Difficulty #3 He was wishy washy. Joining one side, then the other. What the crap?

No. No he wasn't. It may have taken him a good 20 years or whatever for him to figure out his place, but once he did, he stayed there. He died there.

Difficulty #4 Pining after a long lost love is not sufficient reason for turning back to the good side.

Well, would you rather he had just stayed in Voldy's circle?

As someone I know once stated, it doesn't matter why you came. It only matters why you stay.

What does that mean? It means that maybe you did something good because your mom and dad promised you a car. Deuschy, I know. But it got you there, didn't it? Right place, but wrong motives are better than wrong place and wrong motives.

But once you start to be there for more than just that car, you have grown as a person. And if you stay there doing good for the right reasons, it doesn't matter that it originally took the promise of the car to get you there, because you're now in the right place for the right reasons.

Difficulty #5: Snape acts like everyone is stupid

Well, compared to him, they sort of are. He's extremely intelligent. I mean, examine how he can take the merest glance at Harry's potion and immediately know exactly which direction Harry messed up on.

So what you have to understand here is that it is very, very difficult for a really smart person to comprehend how others just don't see what they do. Especially in the sciences (and I think potions counts as a science.)

The most prime example of this is nearly any physics professor at a university. You have to be top of the line clever to get a doctorate in physics and not die from over exertion. But these doctors of physics are almost all the worst teachers you've ever experienced. They don't mean to, but they really have a way of making a normal person feel like a complete dunce.

Combine this with the stretch on his patience that Snape already has to endure from having Harry around. Harry represents all that went wrong in Snape's life in so many ways. With him present, you end up with an easy target for a snapped patience.

The other students all hate him too, I know. But I really believe that he's slightly (if only just barely so) less brutal in his non-Harry classes. I also believe that, behind the grim facade, Snape really is harsh because he believes it to be the best way to drill the important stuff into their heads, which is exactly the same reason McGonagall is tough. He wants them to learn.

Alright. Now we come to the positives.

Virtue #1: An evil person can not love like Snape loved Lily

"My word, Severus, to never reveal the best of you?" It really was. This is the thing about Snape that I feel is the most tragic. As Voldemort so clearly illustrated, discounting human emotion is not only evil, but spectacularly ignorant.

The tragedy of it all is that the love was unrequited. Snape made some less than brilliant choices as a teenager. Those choices eventually led to his losing the one person in the world that he had ever actually cared about. But even though she left him. Even though she married his bitterest enemy. Even though he would never have what he most deeply desired, he still spent the entire rest of his life devoted to her.

What would Snape have seen in the mirror of Erised? Not power. Not fame. Not even Harry's head on a plate. He would have seen Lily.

Why was Snape's last request a plea for Harry to look him in the eye? Because Harry had Lily's eyes. "Precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and color of Lily Evan's eyes, I am sure." While in the throws of a painful death by snake venom, a death that was utterly unfair and needn't have happened had Voldemort not been so stupid, Snape's very last thought was not of bitterness, or regret, or even of himself at all. It was of Lily.

Virtue #2: Bravery

"Sometimes I think we sort too soon." Yes indeed. People as children are not always the same as they are as adults. Some get worse. Others get better.

It would be remarkably scary to be in the constant presence of the world's most accomplished legilimens as a double agent. To be at constant risk of being discovered. To gain nothing at all from the position other than to have done the right thing, and been loyal to the one you love. To be forced to watch countless innocent people be tortured and killed and been able to do nothing.

To have had to play such a convincing role that only one other person in the entire world knew exactly where his true loyalties were. To have been the main weapon against the regime of the most powerful dark wizard ever known. To be forced to constantly "serve" the man who killed the girl he loved.

Lesser men couldn't have done it. Lesser men would have crumbled under the pressure. Lesser men would have failed.

Virtue #3: Nobility

It is true that Snape was frequently unfair. Bitter. Often rude. But these resulted from an excess of repressed stress.

He had to let people think him a complete coward, and not say a thing in his own defense. He had to allow people to think him a murderer, a death eater, an evil minion of the most powerful wicked tyrant in the world. He had to be on his guard at all times and never open up to anyone.

He had to let people be rude about him. To know the worst bits of his life, and never the best. To utterly hate him. And all without defense. Without a saying a word.

Most people's pride is far too strong. Harry, for example, couldn't have done it. Harry was brave and noble in other ways, but he could never have let people think such things about him without trying to fight back. Snape didn't fight back, as miserable as it was.

Letting something that crappy happen to you without resistance, all for the greater benefit of humanity, is seriously awesome. Gutsy. Noble.

And so, occasional outbursts of snide remarks, or twinges of rudeness are minuscule in comparison to what he did not spill. Insignificant when compared to the vast amount of good he accomplished in his secret mission. Entirely forgivable when seen with in the wider view.

Virtue #4: Loyalty

No matter what his reasons were, he still did the right thing.

Whatever your opinion on his motives, a person simply has no argument for saying that he didn't do the right thing. He helped bring about the downfall of Voldemort. He put himself in danger to protect others.

Sometimes he was wrong about things. He really did think that Sirius was guilty. That Sirius had enabled the killing of Lily. So even though we get annoyed with him for interrupting the punishment of Peter Pettigrew, he didn't know. He was just trying to do the right thing. To capture an escaped convict, who also happened to be a former enemy. To protect three rash and rule-defying students from harm.

He may not have understood that Harry was after horcruxes, but he still did what he was supposed to anyway. He didn't necessarily posses the grace and adeptness of McGonagall, but he was tough on his students to get them to learn. He HATED Lupin, and yet he still made complicated potions for him every month. He wasn't as open about his disdain (he couldn't have been, really) for Umbridge, but he never helped her like Filch did. He stayed well back, just like the other teachers, including having given her fake veritaserum.

So a person can not honestly say that the good didn't prevail in the end. They can not say that he didn't stick it out. They can not say that he ever went back on his word.

So that's Professor Severus Snape. Misunderstood. Tragic. Lonely. But Brave and Loyal through it all.

**Note: I just wanted to address one concern mentioned by a coworker during a discussion on this very topic. According to her, Snape was guilty of forgoing his responsibility to the students of Slytherin house. He should have guided them more. Tried harder to keep them from becoming Deatheaters.

And on this same line, this person also said that she had much more sympathy for Pettigrew than for Snape. She saw Wormtail as a victim, not a traitor. He was a weak person who was overcome by Voldemort's incredible charm and charisma. Where as Snape knew what he was doing and boldly chose his own path.

Here is my response.

It is true that one of Voldy's strongest talents was that of charming anyone. And it is also true that Peter was a weak, wussy, rat of a man. It is further true that Snape chose his own path.

But this sounds to me like she is putting an awfully poor emphasis on agency. On a person's ability to make choices. When personal agency comes into play, Snape's will is much more noble than Wormtail's lack thereof.

As far as teaching the Slytherins, there is no proof whatsoever that he didn't try to keep them from going bad. The fact that so many of them did is a reflection on the personal power of choice, and not on the teaching of their head of house. Even the best parents that have ever lived sometimes end up with rebellious and delinquent children. The power of choice is extremely great, and extremely underrated.

And as for Wormtail... he was weak. But that's a failing on his part. He wasn't imperiused. He was under his own power. He made his own decision. It just so happened that his decision was self-serving and abhorrent. But he still chose. He betrayed Lily and James through a conscious action.

As I said before, weakness isn't an excuse. It isn't a disease that someone gets struck with, and is helplessly saddled with for the rest of their lives. Yeah it would have been hard for Wormtail to fight back. But he still could have done it if he'd have been noble enough. If he had gotten over himself and his own petty fears for long enough to do something right.

Strength of will is a lot more a choice than a state of being.

And that is why Snape was infinitely better. He could have been just as weak as Wormtail. He had all the pre-disposition to be so. In fact, I'd say he had more. He had an even crappier life than Peter ever did.

If (and I emphasize IF) it would have ever been excusable for someone to collapse under pressure, it would have been for Snape. He could have used his past and his failings to excuse him. But he didn't. Once he officially chose his path, he did not falter. As dangerous and terrifying as it was, he stuck it out. Something that Wormtail was far too cowardly about.


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