Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes: Severus Snape, the Byronic Hero

In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes.

(Ed note: This post was originally published over the Christmas holiday. We are reposting it today in honor of the passing of Alan Rickman.)

As long as a man is plagued by unrequited love, we tend to forgive him anything. This is a predominant theme in literature, which has given rise to the self-centered hero whose brooding and selfishness is forgotten as soon as he looks deeply into the heroine’s eyes and professes his love for her. His words fall flat when they go unsupported by action, but Heathcliff and his constituents have been getting away with it for decades. Literary history is flooded with Byronic heroes, and that dam isn’t getting patched up anytime soon.

TV Tropes defines the Byronic hero as a man who is “on his own side, and has his own philosophy, which he will not change for anyone. His internal conflicts are heavily romanticized. He is a very cerebral character; he broods over his struggles and beliefs. Some are portrayed with a suggestion of dark crimes or tragedies in their past.”

Cue “Severus Snape” flashing in big neon letters in my head.

Snape’s M.O. is essentially a romanticized quest to redeem himself in Lily’s eyes, and he falls drastically short of any real redemption, despite the opportunities he has. Indeed, Snape’s prejudices linger long after the first war and his supposed change in allegiance. While he keeps Lily’s son physically alive, Snape intentionally and gleefully exacerbates Harry’s emotional suffering at every turn, and never misses the chance to taunt James. He hates Harry on sight—this grown man abhors an eleven-year-old child for being biological proof that Lily wanted someone else.

Call that pitiable and bemoan the man’s “poor, tortured soul,” but I’ll have to take a pass on that level of sympathy. After all, Harry isn’t the only child that Snape uses for his cheap shots. What about Neville? Mayhaps Snape still holds a grudge against Frank and Alice Longbottom, who fought against him and fellow Death Eaters? What about Hermione? Does Snape still regard himself as superior to Muggles and Muggle-borns? (I for one can’t bend to the speculation that Snape is cruel to her because she reminds him of Lily; if that were the case, shouldn’t he have been kind to or at least tolerant of her, as a means of repentance?) What about the Gryffindors in general? Maybe because his old school nemeses were Gryffindors, as was the “love of his life,” who fell for one of those aforementioned nemeses? A decade-plus later, Snape is still spitting petty insults about James Potter. Girl can hold a grudge.

A decade-plus later, Snape is still spitting petty insults about James Potter. Girl can hold a grudge.

Now, maybe Snape’s liaison with the Dark Arts is a consequence of his own troubled childhood. We see in Harry’s one-time Occlumency breakthrough that Snape’s upbringing was an unhappy and possibly traumatic one. Perhaps his hatred of Muggles stems from his abusive Muggle father. But Muggle-born Lily was kind to him, she was his friend, and his love for her is so all-consuming that it lasts a lifetime, and yet he continued in his eagerness to fight for a cause that would just as soon kill her.

I don’t begrudge Snape his pain growing up in an abusive household. But we see other characters suffer through similar childhoods—namely, Harry (and I suspect Sirius fared little better), and yet Harry grows up through that pain. Snape, meanwhile, uses his pain as an excuse to cause others to suffer; again, we see this in his treatment of Harry, whose DNA combination is Snape’s sorest of spots.

Snape was brave for double-crossing Voldemort, but if his aforementioned behavior is any indication, he never really changes from the man he was during the first war. The only difference is that now Lily is dead, and he deserves all the guilt he feels for that. While I can’t say for sure whether the film meant this to be a romantic scene or the deeply disturbing one that it was, Deathy Hallows, Part 2 chooses to show Snape cradling Lily’s dead body while her baby cries in the crib behind them. Snape has no regard for anything other than the corpse of the woman he claims to have loved, although he was willing to see her devastated, as is evidenced when he bargains with Voldemort to murder her husband and child, but not her.

I can’t be colored surprised, though. Snape’s attitude is made clear in “The Prince’s Tale,” when Lily expresses her disgust with Snape’s up-and-coming Death Eater friends, and Snape skirts around the topic to find out how she really feels about James Potter. Lily’s moral objections and personal safety—which, as a Muggle-born amongst blood purists, is indeed in question—is less important to Snape than her potential interest in another guy.

That doesn’t appear to change, either; although Snape begs for Lily’s life, her happiness is apparently of no consequence to him. Hence the reason so many people have pointed out that Snape’s love for Lily reads more like obsession—he wants her kept alive, even if that means she’s left grieving and devastated over the loss of her family. As long as she’s alive, Snape assumes he has a chance with her, and his far-fetched fantasies are more important to him than Lily’s well-being. That’s not what we call love, no matter how many fans swoon over Snape’s “Always.”

TV Tropes’ definition of the Byronic hero goes on to include that “‘Love tropes’ are often involved with this character, but almost always in a very cynical, existential way. Don’t hold your breath waiting for ‘the power of love’ to redeem him.”

This is, personally, how I regard Snape’s “Always.” Maybe his love for Lily was pure and true, maybe it was an obsession that he could never reconcile himself with, but, either way, loving Lily doesn’t purge Snape of his sins, nor does it redeem him. His love for her didn’t stop him from crusading against Muggle-borns like her, it wasn’t enough for him to treat her son like a human being, and it wasn’t unselfish enough for Snape to let her go and be content that she found happiness with another man. James and Snape may not have treated each other well, but Lily fell for the one who treated her well—as an equal, as a person, rather than an exception to an otherwise total bigotry.  

Snape’s “Always” has become something of a true love calling card. But no matter how much it’s quoted and superimposed prettily onto graphics and papercuts, the word doesn’t mean anything unless you prove it. Snape saved Harry’s life, but he never bothered to see Lily for what she was—as her own person who never owed him her love, no matter how much he brooded and pitied himself that she gave what he wanted to someone else.

“You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine,” Lily tells him in “The Prince’s Tale.” And despite Snape’s ardent belief that he loved her, he didn’t change course until it was too late. He did ultimately make a difference, but at the end of it all, Snape’s path was still the same dark, bitter one it had been at the beginning.

Absolutely Snape deserves to be commemorated for his sacrifices. But that doesn’t negate all the damage he purposefully caused. Dying doesn’t absolve you of your sins and suddenly make you the good guy, no matter the manner in which you die. We all die, we all live, and it’s the latter that shows what sort of person we are. Yes, Snape is his own sort of hero, but the world doesn’t owe him a “get the girl” card; that’s the girl’s call to make. Lily made hers, and Snape—for all of his cleverness and introspection—could never respect her for it.

Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments