In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 4
Let’s pick up with the scene:
“I wish… I wish I were dead…”
“And what use would that be to anyone?” said Dumbledore coldly. “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.”
Snape seemed to peer through a haze of pain, and Dumbledore’s words appeared to take a long time to reach him.
“What – what do you mean?”
“You know how and why she died. Make sure it was not in vain. Help me protect Lily’s son.”
Dumbledore throws cold ice on Snape’s despair, then nudges him toward a course of action that can lead toward redemption. The despair of wishing for death is the wrong kind of remorse. Repentance (feeling the wrong done, turning away from it, and pursuing good) is the right kind. In becoming a protector of Lily’s son, Snape would be actively turning away from evil toward good.
But Snape objects:
“He does not need protection. The Dark Lord has gone -“
There are a couple of possible, seemingly contradictory, readings for this line:
- Snape is looking for an excuse to take no action. He would rather wallow in despair, realize his wish for death, maybe even return to the Dark Arts. He’s rebuffing Dumbledore.
- When Dumbledore mentioned a “way forward,” Snape desperately hoped it were true. But the Dark Mark has disappeared. The Dark Lord has gone. There is no way forward. All hope is lost.
Regardless of Snape’s intentions, Dumbledore does not let him off the hook:
“The Dark Lord will return, and Harry Potter will be in terrible danger when he does.
This is the crucial moment, the moment of decision.
“There was a long pause, and slowly Snape regained control of himself, mastered his own breathing. At last, he said, “Very well. Very well. But never – never tell, Dumbledore! This must be between us! Swear it! I cannot bear… especially Potter’s son… I want your word!”
“My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?” Dumbledore sighed, looking down into Snape’s ferocious, anguished face. “If you insist…”
Snape makes no more objections. He agrees. But in the moments it takes for him to master himself, we can see that this truly is an agonizing choice. Snape is seemingly weighing his options, considering what this course of action will cost versus what it might gain him.
On the one hand, he does want to find a way forward, more than he wishes to die. On the other hand, he is deeply ashamed of what he must do (help James Potter’s son). This is why he places such an unusual condition on on Dumbledore. The condition (“never – never tell”) indicates that Snape’s earlier objection may actually have been a combination of the two seemingly contradictory impulses mentioned above – i.e. an excuse to take no action combined with a desperate wish that there is yet hope for him.
“Dumbledore told me explicitly that Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine.”
In Deathly Hallows, Rowling shows that remorse is the precondition necessary for repairing a soul that has been ripped. In the economy of redemption, repentance is the precondition necessary for conversion and salvation. In the Potterverse, it’s hard to determine exactly where remorse ends and repentance begins. It’s possible that Rowling interchanges the terms.
But in traditional terms, remorse means to feel and regret the wrong done while repentance means to turn from evil to good. Though Rowling does not present this process in explicitly Christian terms, Snape’s path is clearly a path of repentance, leading potentially toward redemption. In more narrow Catholic terms, the repentance is embodied in the very tough penance he lives out in order to right the wrong he has done.
However, the condition Snape places on Dumbledore is equally significant. There is a lot of “woe is Severus” discussion on the Web, blaming Dumbledore and others for never recognizing Snape and never giving him the emotional gratification that he supposedly craved. In actuality, Snape himself forced Dumbledore to promise never to reveal the “best” of Severus. Snape made the choice to labor in secret, without public recognition or emotional reward.