*Disclaimer: The following is based on how the characters are depicted in the Harry Potter book series, not in the movies.
What’s the appropriate label for someone who resides in the grey between good and evil? Anti hero, of course! In my last Harry Potter character analysis (of Albus Dumbledore), I mentioned the mysterious lives of three central adult characters in the book. Dumbledore was one, and fans of the series already know that Snape was another. Severus Snape was easily the most enigmatic character of the entire Harry Potter series. A character whose motives were largely misunderstood and mistrusted by the protagonist, who was secretive (both by nature and by necessity), who carried a lifetime of unresolved pain and resentment, and whose intentions are not fully revealed until the moment of his death, Snape is one of the few characters in the series who dabbled in both good and evil, sometimes simultaneously.
We are first introduced to the Hogwarts Potions Master in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Snape takes one look at the boy and takes an instant disliking to him. We learn soon enough that he did’t think much of Harry’s father, James, either. Much of Harry and Snape’s interactions involve Snape assuming ill intent on Harry’s part solely based on his loathing of James, and Harry’s resemblance to him. Though intensely unlikable to most of his students, Snape is an incredibly thorough and knowledgeable professor, one who would have been much more effective if so many of his students hadn’t been terrified of him.
In that very first book, and countless times afterward, Snape takes direct action to save Harry’s life. But never is he friendly or even cordial with the boy. Though no one is directly forcing his hand or looking over his shoulder, Snape consistently protects Harry, but is clearly resentful of him, treating his heroism as an obligation. This is not lost on readers, especially when, after saving Harry from Professor Quirrell in the first book, Snape goes on to expose Remus Lupin as a werewolf after failing to apprehend Sirius Black in Harry Potter in the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is the first time we see Snape act on real emotion, real rage. Sirius and Lupin alike are vivid reminders of unresolved trauma that he’s never been able to make peace with. This is the first time we see some fire beneath Snape’s cold exterior. The only times in the series when Snape shows true passion and intensity are when he is either speaking of Lily Potter, or expressing anger. And all of his anger, like Lily, seems to be set in the past.
Readers know that James and Sirius bullied Snape relentlessly in school, and though Harry might have been able to look past these things, most likely in order to preserve his romanticized ideas of who his parents were, they did happen, and coupled with his troubled home life, this all affected a young Severus Snape for the worse. Though Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew only went along with the bullying of the poor, strange, awkward-looking boy he’d once been, that was more than enough. We don’t just remember who mistreated us. We also remember those who stood by and did nothing. While we will never know why or how Lily Evans was able to look past this horrible abuse of her former best friend and embark on a romantic relationship with James, it must be assumed that her marriage to him must have seemed like the ultimate betrayal to Snape.
Adversity makes some of us better, stronger people, but it makes others harder and meaner. Snape is of the latter category. Being abused both at home and at school, but also being immensely intelligent and vulnerable made him the perfect recruit for an organization like the Death Eaters. The Death Eaters must have seemed like the first real family to a young man who didn’t really belong anywhere. But as I said in my previous review of Draco Malfoy, the Death Eaters are a gang, and every gang has its dues. Like his leader, Severus Snape was born to a witch mother and Muggle father who mistreated her. I’m sure Lord Vodemort saw much of himself in his young acolyte for these very reasons. That didn’t cause Voldemort to extend empathy when Snape came begging for him to spare Lily’s life, though. Unlike Snape, Lord Voldemort never cared about anyone.
Though long dead before the series even begins, Harry’s mother, or rather the memory of her, serves as an anchor to keep Snape good. Though never accused of being kind or warm, Snape effectively manages to suppress years of pain inflicted upon him by James and Sirius long enough to keep Harry alive, to be Dumbledore’s inside man. Though he had the wisdom to not entrust Snape with the tempting Defense Against the Dark Arts position which he coveted so much, Dumbledore did trust in his love for Lily enough to give him invaluable, highly sensitive information on himself, Harry and Lord Voldemort, information which Snape never abused. Though Harry’s beloved godfather never took full accountability for his actions except in some mealy-mouthed version of “we were young” and “boys will be boys”, Snape did take responsibility for his time spent as a Death Eater, and the pivotal role that he played in the murder of Lily Potter. Though he despised Harry, he kept the boy alive for her sake, even sacrificing his life, as penance for helping take hers. Despite this, Harry never warms up to Snape, and the feeling is mutual. Ironically, it isn’t until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when Harry starts using and old Potions textbook which had once belonged to Snape, that Harry unwittingly bonds with and respects him, unaware that his academic hero is his least favourite professor.
Endangering his safety for years to work as a double agent for Dumbledore was never something that Snape had to do; but an agreement which he made freely because it was only until he lost someone whom he loved that he realized just how dangerous Lord Voldemort was. Clearly lacking in empathy, possibly from a lifetime of abuse and exclusion, Snape couldn’t see clearly what was wrong with the Death Eaters’ war and Voldemort’s quest for power until he was personally affected by their brutality. But though he learnt his lesson the hard way, Snape learned it well. Though Harry only disliked him more and more as the series progressed, even scapegoating responsibility onto him for Sirius’ death in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Snape continued on his course of redemption.
Snape failed to protect Lily, whose husband had placed his loyalties in the wrong friend, who later betrayed them, but he never allowed his feelings to prevent him from adequately protecting Harry. In fact, if we learned anything from Severus Snape, from Peter Pettigrew, from the various untrustworthy Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, and the Harry Potter series in its entirety, it was that we only really know where a person’s loyalties lie when those loyalties are tested. Willing to put his life and his reputation on the line and assume the role of the “bad guy” to make sure that evil did not win, Severus Snape expertly walked the line and wore that hat in order to do the most good. Even in the follow-up books to the series, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Snape, in an alternate timeline, yet again willingly makes the choice to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
With the character of Severus Snape, Rowling manages to flawlessly do in the Harry Potter series what so many writers of fiction almost never even attempt: She shows that even the most lost person can be redeemed. Dumbledore didn’t have to take a chance on Snape, but of the many mistakes he’d made in his long life, trusting that this man could change, that he could be a force for good, wasn’t one of them. Readers knew that Dumbledore knew that Snape could always fall back to his old ways, but his trust in Snape, trust with his life and Harry’s, was an act of extreme transparency and vulnerability which probably made Snape want to earn that trust all the more.
Throughout the series, Snape makes his loathing for Harry crystal clear, often actively ignoring or passively joining in when Slytherin students like Malfoy harrassed him. Having a living reminder of both the person you loved the most, and the person you most hated embodied in one individual, and being trusted with helping safegaurd that person is no small task, and one which surely weighed heavily on the shoulders of a man who never got to actualize that love, or avenge that hurt. As we look back on Snape’s life through his memories in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, readers learn two valuable lessons. The first is that some mistakes cannot be erased. Some actions have such large consequences that one might spend their entire life making amends. The second is that just because you don’t get the life you wanted doesn’t mean that your life has no meaning. Neither Snape or Dumbledore got their happily-ever-afters, but they both channeled pain and a desire to do good in order to play critical roles in the defeat of Lord Voldemort. Distrusted at best and reviled at worst while he was alive, with no portrait to commemorate his time as Hogwarts headmaster, and no accolades, Snape also reminds us that you don’t have to be liked, trusted, or rewarded in order to do the right thing. The wellbeing of all will always matter more than one man’s ego. Severus Snape showed us the breadth of what could be accomplished when a selfish person become selfless. The anti hero doesn’t have to be the right person. They just have to do the right thing.