In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 3
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.