Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Severus Snape and Penance
When I was still taking doctoral classes, I had this nasty habit of diving into fiction precisely at the moment I was working on my final papers of the semester. It would start quite innocently, as a little break, to take my mind off my work. But in most cases I read multiple entire novels while writing my final papers and while being a full-time mom.
One semester I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, i.e. book one of the series. I had read book one before, and I thought it would be easy to put down. What happened instead was a three-week whirlwind in which I wrote two 25-page papers, graded 35 exams and calculated final grades, and read ALL SEVEN Harry Potter books, in addition to my mom duties. Whew! I was ready for Christmas break after that.
Since then, I've become fairly familiar with the series, and for some reason when we moved to Jersey, I started over with book one again. While I don't necessarily recommend just reading the seven books over and over and over, I admit that I catch something new every time. Knowing the later books makes the earlier books even more interesting, rather than less.
Anyway, one of the things that I mull over the most is how Chapter 33 in book seven changes the way I think about the character of Severus Snape throughout the series. I might even say that in this one chapter, Snape went from being one of my least favorite characters to one of my most favorite characters. Since my initial reaction, I've had more time to consider his role, and I admit that rereading the series makes my feelings much more ambiguous.
Perhaps I just can't get away from my dissertation topic of penance, even when reading Harry Potter, but it just seems that Chapter 33 defines all of Snape's time at Hogwarts with Harry as a sort of penance. He is living out the consequences of his actions, and seeking redemption. He is loving the woman he failed to protect by now protecting her son. By the end of the series, it is clear that Snape is making some pretty big sacrifices (like playing a double agent) to make Harry's mission possible.
Yes, Chapter 33 makes Snape look downright heroic. And yet there is still something so unsatisfying about Snape's penance. In rereading the earlier books in the series, he is just so nasty to Harry (and Harry's friends). For someone giving his life over to the mission of protecting Harry, Snape seems to detest Harry with great passion. Instead of remembering that he is protecting Lily's son, Snape seems intent on making James Potter's son suffer for the sins of his father (and the most inexcusable act of his having married Lily).
By the time of his demise at the fangs of Nagini, there is no doubt that Snape has done his penance. But has he done it well? Surely there is some merit in his suffering and sacrifices, even if he has mostly done his penance with an attitude of vehement dislike for Harry? But would we want to uphold Snape as a model of penance?
On the one hand, he has taken on a difficult task and embraced a mission that requries him to recall painful memories of his former archenemy, as well as bittersweet memories of the love of his life. He accepted the penance from Dumbledore in the midst of great emotion of failure and loss. And, if a Christian penance analog, one would hope that his penance would help Snape to work through his issues, to reform his life.
In some ways, it does. When Dumbledore asks him in book six how many people he has seen die, Snape replies, "Lately only those I could not save." At best, however, Snape's penance is only imperfect. While his actions are what one would expect, his attitude is not quite right. He has accepted the penance in a spirit of resentment. And while his love for Lily continues to be strong and his commitment to protecting Harry never wavers, Snape seemingly fails to accept the grace of the situation. He extracts Dumbledore's promise never to reveal, as Dumbledore calls it, "the best of you." Snape prefers to be the tortured martyr to the reformed and forgieven sinner.
Rowling's authorial intent in Chapter 33 appears to be one of exonerating Snape for all of his past rudeness to Harry. We're supposed to recognize the difficulty of his situation, and to know how Snape has suffered, not only at the hands of James Potter, but from his own memory of insulting Lily and ending their friendship. It's clear that Harry, anyway, does forgive Snape. When dueling Voldemort in the end of the book, Harry brings up Snape and tells Voldemort that he doesn't understand the power of love. After all, here is Snape who hated James Potter (and Harry), and yet he spent years of his life protecting Harry out of his love for Lily. As the epilogue tells us, Harry even gives the middle name "Severus" to one of his sons.
But I'm just not satisfied by this. If I could make one addition to book seven, it would be for Severus Snape's portrait to appear in the headmaster's office at Hogwarts, along with all the other portraits of former headmasters. When Harry goes into the office at the end, he and Snape could reconcile. Harry could thank Snape, and Snape could apologize. Such an apology would of course be very un-Snapelike. And maybe that's why Rowling prefers for Snape's "confession" to come in the form of his memories as he's dying. It's clear that Snape does want Harry to know his story, and I'm glad that Harry apparently forgives him and finds a new respect for Snape.
But again, there just needs to be a bit more if Snape is going to serve as a model of penance. Penance done out of duty will never be as beautiful as the penance that is undertaken in a spirit of gratitude for the promise of redemption that is inextricably linked to it.