Sudden, Sinister Snape

“Don’t talk to me for a moment,” said Ron when Harry sat down next to him. “I need to concen—” He caught sight of Harry’s face. “What’s the matter with you? You look terrible.”

Speaking quietly so that no one else would hear, Harry told the other two about Snape’s sudden, sinister desire to be a Quidditch referee.

“Don’t play,” said Hermione at once.

“Say you’re ill,” said Ron.

“Pretend to break your leg,” Hermione suggested.

“Really break your leg,” said Ron.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? I write the generally accepted fact that Harry Potter is written primarily in 3rd person limited Point of View, and I get polyjuiced and parodied. And now, I have to step right back in to the fray because we are about to enter one of the richest chapters in all of PS/SS for showing how the limited Point of View works to throw the reader off! Sometimes, you just can’t win. But hey, I’m a Gryffindor. It’s in my nature to fly into the face of danger.

Sudden, Sinister Desire

Iggy, who likes to comment here, told me yesterday that Snape’s “sudden, sinister desire to referee Quidditch” is one of her favorite lines in the series. It’s one of mine as well.

The beauty of the line is that it reads as if the narrator is indicating that Snape’s desire to ref is sudden and sinister, when actually Harry only interprets it to be sudden and sinister. How do we know that this is an interpretation? Because we later learn, during Harry’s encounter with the book’s real bad guy, that it is objectively false.

Harry believes that Snape is out to steal the Philosopher’s Stone. He believes that Snape is out to kill him. And so he interprets every action of Snape’s through the lens of those false conceptions. In actuality, Snape is acting as ref in order to protect Harry from another attempt to harm him while he is in the air.

Soon after the announcement that Snape will ref, Harry has new cause for anxiety:

Harry didn’t know whether he was imagining it or not, but he seemed to keep running into Snape wherever he went. At times, he even wondered whether Snape was following him, trying to catch him on his own. Potions lessons were turning into a sort of weekly torture, Snape was so horrible to Harry. Could Snape possibly know they’d found out about the Sorcerer’s Stone? Harry didn’t see how he could – yet he sometimes had the horrible feeling that Snape could read minds.

Again, this passage passes itself off as factual, when the most damning parts are just Harry’s mind at work. Now what can we glean from this passage, when we strip away Harry’s anxiety?

Snape probably is sticking close to him. As we know from the final conversation with Dumbledore at the end of PS/SS (and from TPT in DH), Snape is working to protect Harry Potter. An attempt has already been made on Harry’s life. It makes sense that Snape would shadow Harry, and that Harry would run into his shadow… a lot. But the passage veers off into Harry’s fantasy when Harry starts thinking that Snape is following him in order to catch him on his own – i.e., in order to finish off the murder that Snape [sic] attempted in the previous Quidditch match.

We can also glean that Potions probably is not a pleasant experience for Harry. As we know from one of Snape’s conversations with Dumbledore shortly after Harry arrives at Hogwarts (TPT), Snape thinks Harry is a mediocre student with mediocre magic, and he has a tendency to let Harry know it in Potions class. But the passage veers off into Harry’s fantasy when the boy wonders if Snape’s treatment is tied to Harry’s awareness of the Stone. Probably not. It’s probably just Snape being Snape.

(I’ll leave alone for now the fact that without specific scenes from the Potions classroom, we don’t really know how much Harry may – or may not – be exaggerating the “horrible”-ness of Snape’s treatment, though it is likely that it is at least unpleasant).

Additionally, we can glean that Harry is fairly perceptive about Snape’s Legilimency skills. Snape probably is scanning Harry’s mind at necessary intervals. Snape may or may not know that Harry knows about the Stone, though I tend to think not because of the conversation he later has with Quirrell in the Forest.

Dumbledore’s Come to Watch!

“The whole school’s out there!” said Fred Weasley, peering out of the door. “Even – blimey – Dumbledore’s come to watch!”

“Dumbledore?” he said, dashing to the door to make sure. Fred was right. There was no mistaking that silver beard.

Harry could have laughed out loud with relief. He was safe. There was simply no way that Snape would dare to try to hurt him if Dumbledore was watching.

Perhaps that was why Snape was looking so angry as the teams marched onto the field, something that Ron noticed, too.

“I’ve never seen Snape look so mean,” he told Hermione.

Well, here’s another wonderful passage, full of misdirection. It is objectively true that Dumbledore is there to watch the match, and it is almost certainly objectively true that Snape has a very sour look on his face. But the passage goes into Harry’s head when Harry starts assuming that Snape would not dare to hurt him with Dumbledore watching, and that Dumbledore’s protective presence might be the reason “Snape was looking so angry.”

As it happens, Dumbledore’s presence does prevent someone from harming Harry. But that person is not Snape. And as it happens, it is highly unlikely that Snape “look[s] so mean” because Dumbledore is preventing him from murdering Harry! (After all, Snape is working in conjunction with Dumbledore to protect Harry.)

So what are some possible reasons for Snape’s anger? Oh, I dunno. How about the fact that Snape made himself unpopular with his fellow professors, who assumed (as the Gryffindor team did) that he wanted to referee the game in order to keep Gryffindor from winning? ( something we learn in the closing chapter of the book). Or how about the fact that he’s having to referee the game in order to protect the Potter kid – who is not exactly his favorite person? Or how about the fact that he’s experiencing the indignity of having to get on a broomstick and referee a Quidditch match?!?

Then, when the game finally does start, Snape finds himself attacked by Weasley bludgers… and the game closes 5 minutes in with Harry streaking straight at Snape, missing him only by inches in his effort to catch the snitch. Not exactly a wonderful day for Severus Snape. No wonder he “spat bitterly on the ground” when he landed! It makes you wonder if he was playing all these potential scenarios over in his head as he angrily entered the field.

The Philosopher’s Stone

“So we were right” [Harry told Ron and Hermione], “it is the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Snape’s trying to force Quirrell to help him get it. He asked if he knew how to get past Fluffy – and he said something about Quirrell’s ‘hocus-pocus’ – I reckon there are other things guarding the stone apart from Fluffy, loads of enchantments, probably, and Quirrell would have done some anti-Dark Arts spell that Snape needs to break through – ”

“So you mean the Stone’s only safe as long as Quirrell stands up to Snape?” said Hermione in alarm.

“It’ll be gone by next Tuesday,” said Ron.

In this lovely pasage, we are not in narrator’s voice. Rather, the narrator reports what Harry tells Ron and Hermione after he overhears Snape and Quirrell in the Forest. But Harry has no context for the conversation and consequently interprets it entirely through his suspicions… and gets its meaning completely backwards!

In actuality, Snape is not trying to find out from Quirrell how to get past Fluffy; he wants to make sure that Quirrell never finds out how to get past the beast. Likewise, Snape is not trying to break Quirrell’s protective spells; he is most likely discussing Quirrell’s previous “hocus-pocus” attempt to get Harry off his broom. And of course, it’s not Quirrell who needs to stand up to Snape; it is Snape who needs to stop Quirrell.

Curiously, Snape’s conversation with Quirrell ends with the comment that Quirrell needs to decide where his “loyalties lie.” We never know exactly how Harry interprets this comment (though we can assume that it’s not favorable to Snape). Regardless of Harry’s interpretation, what Snape is actually asking Quirrell is whether or not he’s loyal to Dumbledore and to the school, just as he (i.e., Snape) is. Despite Harry’s opinion that Snape is a villain out to compromise the DADA professor, Snape is actually 100% loyal to Dumbledore – making this one of the more ironic points in the chapter.

But there is one thing that Harry’s right about. There are enchantments guarding the Stone.

The “Nicolas Flamel” chapter is almost a misdirection overload! But it’s very good for demonstrating how Rowling uses the 3rd person limited to lead the reader astray so that her big “reveal” will be all that more of a revelation. But remember… none of this means that the Point of View leads to a generally untrustworthy, unreliable, and therefore unstable text. What it means is that Harry’s subjectivity can at times be mistaken and that this mistaken subjectivity can at times be presented as fact. This is not a controversial or radical or (Heaven Forfend!) Deconstructive statement. It is simply an easily verifiable truth based on the text.

Harry Potter POV (helpful sources):

Just as Dumbledore does not need a cloak to become invisible, I do not need a reference source to define the Point of View in a literary work for me. 8)
(It’s that Lit. Prof. thing)

For the reader’s convenience, however, I have provided some references that discuss Point of View in the Harry Potter series.
(Hint: It’s a limited 3rd person POV!).

10 responses to “Sudden, Sinister Snape

  1. Even the first time through the books, when I had no certainty how things would end, I was irritated with Harry and friends quite a bit for their irrational leaps of logic and determination (especially, but not just, Harry).

    Then I thought about being their age, and what I was like. Even without being the Boy Who Lived, and having a Voldemort after my hie, I was perfectly capable of seeing things in just such limited fashion.

    Rowling is a verbal magician, a master of misdirection.

    • It’s entertaining to dissect the irrational leaps of logic, but it’s totally understandable that kids Harry’s age were making these sorts of leaps – particularly in the early books.

      I actually get more annoyed with Harry in the later books. While his irrational anger in OotP is understandable (all that harrassment from Umbridge, plus Dumbledore not giving him the time of day), it’s not cute at all anymore in HBP (imo).

      I don’t count DH because after the Astronomy Tower, Harry is logically justified in believing that he was right about Snape all along. It’s not really his fault that he happens to be wrong. :)

      But yes, Rowling is a master of misdirection.

      BTW, Miles, did you start on these books in conjunction with your kids? They would have been teenagers, wouldn’t they?

  2. [snark]OI! Harry is neither limited, nor 3rd person – he is THE person! Where’s that ‘report’ button when you need it, damn it?![/snark]

    I find it hilarious that no one ever comments on Harry&co’s conclusion that DD would trust a complete novice among the staff to protect something as important as the stone – apparently, everyone understands how they could be wrong there. But when it comes to Snape…

    [snark II]Perhaps the underlying theory is that Potions Master’s presence somehow enhances Potter’s cognitive processes to the point where he can’t be wrong in any assessment he makes? It’s certainly worth exploring, if only for the conniptions it would cause.[/snark II]

    • Ms. Daggerstone snarketh:
      [snark]OI! Harry is neither limited, nor 3rd person – he is THE person! Where’s that ‘report’ button when you need it, damn it?![/snark]

      Ha! There IS no Report button on this blog! Gotcha!!!

      Ms. Daggerstone snarketh again:
      [snark II]Perhaps the underlying theory is that Potions Master’s presence somehow enhances Potter’s cognitive processes to the point where he can’t be wrong in any assessment he makes? It’s certainly worth exploring, if only for the conniptions it would cause.[/snark II]

      Hmmm. Let me think about that one. [evilgrin]

      Ms. Daggerstone commenteth:
      I find it hilarious that no one ever comments on Harry&co’s conclusion that DD would trust a complete novice among the staff to protect something as important as the stone – apparently, everyone understands how they could be wrong there. But when it comes to Snape…

      The novice… would that be Quirrell? or Harry?

      No seriously. Someone recently said (re: the DADA curse) that Harry is the only Hogwarts DADA teacher who ever made to the end-of-term banquet.

      Yes, it was snark (I think?!?) – aimed at Snape of course. But definitely confusing who’s on staff with who’s not! So are you suggesting that The Boy Who Lived was similarly confused? :lol:

  3. I’d never considered the idea that the teachers’ suspicions might have contributed to Snape’s anger as he walked onto the pitch. Good catch.

    Dags- LOL

    • Thanks! I think the teachers’ suspicions quite likely played a part.

      Y’know, this might actually be an entertaining fanfic to write. The Quidditch match from Snape’s pov.

  4. Pingback: Snapespicion! « Expecto Patronum

  5. Pingback: Snapespicion! (the enhanced version reboot) « Expecto Patronum

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