‘And What Use Would That Be to Anyone?’

In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 3

(continued from Part 2)

Now that we’ve discussed Dumbledore’s handling of Snape’s first steps away from Voldemort, let’s take a look at the first part of the dialogue that seals the deal:

“Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and color of Lily Evans’s eyes, I am sure?”

“DON’T!” bellowed Snape. “Gone… dead…”

“Is this remorse, Severus?”

“I wish… I wish I were dead…”

“And what use would that be to anyone?” said Dumbledore coldly.

There is, naturally, endless commentary on this scene. But let’s talk about the scene itself first. Dumbledore, as we saw in Part 2, prods Snape with Lily’s eyes to put a human face on this child that Snape regards only as the thing that lived when Lily died. Despite Dumbledore’s efforts, Snape cannot see through to the child who carries Lily’s eyes forward in life. He can reach only the materialist’s narrow, literal perspective that Lily’s own eyes are now “Gone… dead…”

Snape’s deeply emotional response, though, opens the door to Dumbledore’s next question: “Is this remorse, Severus?” – again raising the stakes. Remorse, as we surely know if we have read Deathly Hallows, opens up the possibility of redemption. Harry charitably gives Voldemort the opportunity to “try for some remorse” before his fatal final duel because remorse – or, a sense of guilt for the wrongs one has done – is the one thing that can keep Voldemort from damnation. (Apparently, seeing the unwanted piece of Voldemort’s damned soul in King’s Cross makes Harry actually care about Voldemort’s redemption.)

When Dumbledore asks Snape if he feels remorse, he essentially asks if he understands and feels the wrong he has done. It’s an important question because Snape did not approach Dumbledore out of remorse. He approached him out of fear, and only because his actions had created a grave threat for the woman he loves. Now that Snape’s fears have been realized and Dumbledore’s protection proved fallible, Snape’s initial “Anything” is no longer binding. He can continue the spiritual suicide he began when he became a Death Eater, or he can try for some remorse. It’s ultimately a question about the state of Snape’s soul.

Snape’s wish for death is clearly a sign of remorse, but the wrong kind of remorse. It is self-pitying, inwardly focused, suicidal remorse. It is the absence of all hope, the remorse of Judas – who threw back the 30 pieces of silver, then went and hung himself. It is the kind of remorse that kills. Its name is despair, and in the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas writes that despair is the most grievous of all sins:

If, however, despair be compared to the other two sins [unbelief and hatred of God] from our point of view, then despair is more dangerous, since hope withdraws us from evils and induces us to seek for good things, so that when hope is given up, men rush headlong into sin, and are drawn away from good works. Wherefore a gloss on Prov. 24:10, “If thou lose hope being weary in the day of distress, thy strength shall be diminished,” says: “Nothing is more hateful than despair, for the man that has it loses his constancy both in the every day toils of this life, and, what is worse, in the battle of faith.” And Isidore says (De Sum. Bono ii, 14): “To commit a crime is to kill the soul, but to despair is to fall into hell.”

Much has been made of the coldness of Dumbledore’s reply, but the coldness is actually a measured response to what Snape has just revealed. Snape has moved from intense grief to despair, and Dumbledore tries to bring him back from despair to a sense of purpose. He refuses to let Snape wallow in suicidal self-pity, and begins to deliver the message that Snape’s life can still have value and worth. All is not hopeless.

Much has also been made, naturally, of Dumbledore’s “What use would [your death] be to anyone?” Is Dumbledore, as some propose, thinking only of how he can use Snape, and how Snape can be useful to him? Or is he perhaps saying that death would not be of any use to Snape himself? If Snape dies now, he would have lived a short, pathetic life with no chance to offset the wrong he has done. And if he dies from suicidal despair, he will have no chance for redemption. Dying now would truly would be of no use to anyone, least of all to Severus Snape.

(continued in Part 4)

2 responses to “‘And What Use Would That Be to Anyone?’

  1. Two quick thoughts…
    1) “Apparently, seeing the unwanted piece of Voldemort’s damned soul in King’s Cross makes Harry actually care about Voldemort’s redemption.”

    We’ve already seen a foreshadowing of this in THBP, in Dumbledore’s office, when he asks if Harry is starting to feeel sorry for Riddle. Harrym misinterpreting the tone of the question, or perhaps not liking the answer too quickly denies this, but I had the inescapable feeling he was, indeed, feeling sorry for Tom. As did Dumbledore.

    2) “Is Dumbledore, as some propose, thinking only of how he can use Snape, and how Snape can be useful to him? Or is he perhaps saying that death would not be of any use to Snape himself?”
    I don’t think Dumbledore was thinking of Snape’s use to him nearly as much as Snape’s value as a person to others and to Snape, himself. But I also don;t think it was solely the latter; Dumbledore certainly saw Snape’s value to society, to his fellow man, to the school, to Harry.

    Trying to limit Dumbledore to a one dimensional character is as foolish as trying to limit Snape to one.

    • Hi again Miles!

      Thought #1:
      Thanks for the HBP reference. It’s on p. 262 of US paperback edition:

      “… Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life.”

      “She wouldn’t even stay alive for her son?”

      Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. “Could you possibly be feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort?”

      “No,” said Harry quickly, “but she had a choice, didn’t she, not like my mother – ”

      “Your mother had a choice too,” said Dumbledore gently.

      Fabulous pickup there. And it also shows a parallel to Harry’s walk into the Forest to meet Voldemort, when he wishes he could just be taken home… only to realize that Hogwarts is his home, just as it had become the only home for the other abandoned boys – Tom Riddle and Severus Snape. In that moment, Harry identifies a bit with Voldemort. (There have been previous instances in which he identified with Snape).

      And that brings us to the other matter that I think probably contributes to Harry’s concern for Voldemort’s soul: before walking into the Forest to die, he had just viewed the contents of Snape’s memories and seen first-hand what true remorse and repentance looks like. He wishes to offer to Voldemort the same opportunity that Dumbledore offered to Snape. Snape took it and ran with it. Voldemort refuses – just as Hermione predicted he would, back in “The Ghoul in Pajamas” (DH). But Harry offers him the chance, now fully aware via Snape’s memories that people really can change.

      Thought #2:

      Well, I agree with you entirely! But I had to mention the other point of view!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s