January 2, 2010 – My First Snape Post

It happened about a week after I arrived, but on January 2, 2010, CoS Staff re-opened the sub-forum where members could post canon-based character analysis.

Wow. A whole sub-forum dedicated to serious character discussion!

At any rate, here is my first post written for the sub-forum where I spent a good part of my CoS experience…
before the place devolved into a never-ending battleground between warring factions

Originally Posted by TGW
The way she sent him to his death cheerfully and willingly (in the Forest) somehow makes me think that if Lily would understand why Snape needed to be harsh to Harry most of the time. Snape was in a war and so was Harry. Snape was behaving with the knowledge that Voldemort was coming back. Snape’s job to protect Harry and his usefulness depended upon his act being perfect. He needed his distance from Harry so that Voldemort could not ask him to misuse that trust.Lily could say that Snape was harsh and that he could/should have been sweeter to Harry if his love for her was true. Though that would IMO make her very shallow and superficial. I hope Lily would understand that Snape’s role as a spy would need him to be necessarily different to protect himself and others.

This is also my take. Harry was born in the middle of a war. He would also be destined to become the focal point in the second war that Dumbledore and Snape knew was coming. It made no sense at all in such a context for Snape to treat Harry or any of the Gryffindors kindly in his class. The Gryffindors did potions with the Slytherins, and there were three children of Death Eaters in the class. If Snape had been fair, news would quickly have gotten back to the Death Eaters, and Snape’s own role as a spy would have been compromised. We know for a fact that Dumbledore wanted Snape to play his role convincingly.

Not only that, but Harry needs to be toughened up in order to survive. Everything Snape does – including expressing frustration with Harry’s lack of seriousness – could be read as helping Harry develop survival skills – you know, like a drill sergeant.

Snape is a very skilled, and not a terribly patient, man. He does have some serious issues with Harry, as seen in the memories of his conversations with Dumbledore. But I think “hate” is way too strong a word. He finds the boy very frustrating and often infuriating. But he never wavers in doing his duty by him.

Originally Posted by TGW
He did see Harry in a better light. That was why he passed on the message to Harry (about his walk in the Forest) and gave his very personal memories IMO.

For me, the key is the personal memories. Why would such an intensely proud and private man give such personal memories to a boy he truly hated? In the end, he gave Harry the greatest gift anybody could give him – memories of his mother. And Harry appears to recognize this as a gift. Snape did not just give Harry Dumbledore’s orders for meeting Voldemort. He gave him what was truly in his own heart.

Another key is the Silver Doe in the Forest of Dean. This is a sort of spectral embodiment of Snape’s soul. And Harry recognizes it as benign, not knowing who it belongs to. It may have taken the same form as Lily’s Patronus, but it is Snape’s Patronus, not Lily’s. His soul has has been repaired from whatever damage he did to it by becoming a Death Eater.

Originally Posted by TGW

All I can see from this was that Snape did not answer Dumbledore’s query; instead he changed the subject to tell Dumbledore that he loved Lily and also to show off his Patronus, which would help us connect with the Sliver Doe. This says nothing positive or negative about his feelings for Harry IMO.

Even if it is to be read in the most negative light, it says nothing about where Snape stands a year later, after he has taken on the horrifying final mission Dumbledore has given him. I think the text shows Snape’s motives being progressively purified. The final mission is not one that can be undertaken strictly for love of Lily. It has to be taken on in order to defeat evil. And in the process, we see Snape embrace good. What else can account for the fact that in the Battle Over Little Whinging, Snape nearly blows his cover simply in order to save the life of one of the Marauders? That is a completely selfless act… and one that makes him even more hated because of the damage accidentally done to George.

The following is speculation, but it seems likely to me that Snape’s constant exposure to Voldemort and the Death Eaters makes him more committed than ever to doing the right thing for its own sake. He has developed a strong enough moral compass in his years at Hogwarts to see Voldemort and his former Death Eater friends the way Lily saw them – as the evil that they truly are. The evidence in the text indicates (to me, at least) that Snape is determined to do what he can to bring Voldemort down, even after he knows that Lily’s son must allow Voldemort to kill him in order to make that happen. Even in dying, Snape’s first thought is toward completing the mission.

Originally Posted by TGWI don’t think Snape hurt Harry. Angered him, made Harry hate him, made Harry wish for his death (in HBP) but I don’t think Harry was hurt by Snape. And I also don’t think Snape left it to Dumbledore to counter anything. He IMO took it upon himself to set right all the misunderstanding Harry had through the memories. I think Harry understood.

Exactly. And another dimension to the memories… We see a definite progression in how Snape regards Harry.

At first, he’s just a thing to be exchanged for the life of the mother. Then he’s the boy who survived when Lily Evans died… but who Snape vows to protect regardless. Throughout the memories, Snape keeps on and on about James Potter’s son. But in the last conversation before Dumbledore’s death, he refers to Harry as Lily Potter‘s son.

Note the distinction here. Not only has he shifted from thinking of Harry as James’ son, he has also shifted from thinking of Lily by her maiden name. He now calls her “Potter.” He has fully acknowledged that she was James’ wife and that Harry was her son.

Note also that when he first hears of Lily’s death, he cannot bear to think of her eyes in Harry’s face. But in his last few seconds of life, he requests to look at Lily’s eyes in Harry’s face. It would have no power if we didn’t know that Snape had refused so strongly to see Lily in Harry. In that case, we could read it (as the Snape naysayers do) as just an obsessive desire to look into Lily’s eyes.

But knowing that Snape initially could not bear to think of Lily’s eyes in Harry’s face, we can see rather that Snape here is seeing Harry as he is… not as what he expects to see. (to paraphrase Dumbledore). And he is acknowledging – to Harry – that he recognizes Harry’s full identity. And this, of course, is underscored by the fact that he gives Harry memories of his mother.

December 25, 2009 – The Series’ Most Shocking Moment, The Story of Harry’s Past, and What Was I Dead Wrong About?

On December 25, 2009 – when I had been blogging here for nearly 10 days – I wrote my first posts on the Chamber of Secrets forum… and quickly got sucked in.

Here are the three content posts that I wrote on my first full day on the CoS forum:

Most Shocking Moment in the Whole Series?

Most shocking moment(s) for me:

Finding out that Harry had to let Voldemort kill him in order to destroy the part of Voldemort’s soul that was in him. This was probably the single most shocking moment for me…. as I think it was for Snape.
(Or, I should say, it was the most shocking moment for Snape in the Harry plot. Lily’s death was the most shocking moment for Snape in the Snape plot).

Finding out that Snape was the Death Eater responsible for delivering part of the prophesy to Voldemort. That stunned me.

Snape’s death and exsanguination at the fangs of Nagini. If there’s any single scene that shows just the complete self-absorption, coldness and depravity of Voldemort, this is it. He didn’t kill Snape because he found out he was a spy. He killed Snape thinking him a trusted servant who (he believed) just happened to have something that he wanted – the allegiance of the Elder Wand. Does Voldemort have any soul left?

Fred Weasley’s death. I don’t know why, but I never suspected Rowling would lay the hand of death on one of the Weasley twins.

Harry naming his younger son Albus Severus. I thought it was perfect, and it brought tears to my eyes, but I had to read it a couple of times to believe it was real.

I was not, alas, shocked at the death of Albus Dumbledore. I thought Dumbledore had to die in order for the hero to complete his Quest. And I was not especially shocked that Snape killed him… mainly because I knew before I read the books that Snape had done something in the course of the story that led to a huge debate over whether he was good or evil. When I did finally read the books, I personally believed that Snape was Dumbledore’s man and that the killing was most likely planned… but I had no idea as to the details of the plan.

Was the Story of Harry’s Past Told to the Children?

We don’t actually know if the children know the story of Harry’s role during the Second Wizarding War. What the epilogue indicates is that they apparently don’t know their father is so famous.

I like to think that Harry told them the story, but that he told them that battling people trying to murder you is not all that glorious when it’s actually happening – which is the same message he gave the members of Dumbledore’s Army.

I’m betting that regardless of what he said or didn’t say, he shielded his children significantly from his fame. I think that’s indicated by Albus Severus’ reaction to the other kids gawking from the train. The Potter kids are going to learn soon enough how famous their father is once they get to Hogwarts. To me, that seems an appropriate time to let them know – at age 11, the same age Harry was when he found out that he was “The Boy Who Lived.”

What Were You Dead Wrong About?

I thought Lucius Malfoy would die a horrible, horrible death.

I thought the Deathly Hallows would be a place.

I believed the mission was to protect Harry, when it was really to get him to sacrifice himself (or rather, the part of Voldemort’s soul in him).

I was right about Snape and Dumbledore working together to ensure Dumbledore’s death, but I was wrong about the immediate cause of that collaboration.

I suspected that Severus loved Lily, but I never imagined that he knew her before Hogwarts, or that he was the first magic person she ever knew, or that Petunia knew him and remembered him talking about dementors.

I was wrong that no Weasley twin could die.

I assumed Dumbledore was just a kindly, benign, immensely powerful elderly wizard, when he was in fact a master strategist and military genius, willing to ask his men to make extraordinary sacrifices in order to win the war.

Ways to Read the Harry Potter Series, Part 3

This post is a composite of two separate posts that originally appeared in an area of the Chamber of Secrets forum that is not open to the public. My answers to the questionnaire (once again!) tell you more about me as a reader of Harry Potter than anything else. :)

Feel free to use the comments thread to post your own responses to the questionnaire (or to my answers).

7. When do you think does critical character analysis cross the line and becomes character bashing/racist/sexist/other?

I don’t see a lot of racism and sexism in HP character analysis. (And I steer completely clear of the rancorous Severus vs. Lily debate because I love both characters). I do suppose, though, that analysis dismissing the possibility that Molly might be able to duel effectively because she’s a mother and housewife could be construed as verging on sexism – if not crossing the line into it.

As for bashing, well…

Let’s say, hypothetically, that we’re analyzing a character who does some things that are mean spirited and some things that help in the fight against Voldemort. And let’s say, hypothetically, that someone does not like the character because of the mean spirited things the character does.

Disliking the character is not bashing. Indicating that the mean spirited things the character does are distasteful is not bashing.

However, let’s say that dislike for the character leads to an analysis that automatically pre-defines all of the character’s actions and motives as “bad” – even actions and motives that would be considered “good” if the person’s favorite characters did them. I would consider that to be bashing.

Let me use James as an example. I dislike James. That is not bashing. I am appalled by his actions in SWM. That is not bashing.

However, if I defined James’s actions on the night Voldemort comes to Godric’s Hollow in terms of James’s actions in SWM… and then decided based upon SWM that nothing James ever does could possibly be construed in a positive light – and that therefore his brave and selfless actions on the night of his death must by definition be analyzed negatively – that would be bashing.

It’s sort of the character analysis equivalent of the ad hominen attack. Basically, this is a form of analysis that imposes a pre-defined analytical outcome based almost exclusively on dislike of the character and that then manipulates the text in order to arrive at that pre-defined outcome.

I can think of other characters besides James who could be subject to this sort of analysis. ;)

8. To what extent do you allow your opinions of the characters to be swayed by the opinions of other characters?

Very little, in the end.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not influenced while I’m reading by characters’ opinions. Reacting to and testing characters’ opinions against other evidence is part of the reading experience imo. Basically, I always leave open the option to revise a character opinion based on additional information that I’m shown.

Until I read SWM, I didn’t put any stock at all in Snape’s opinions of Marauders. But for some reason, before I read TPT, I put pretty close to absolute trust in what Sirius had said about Snape. My final opinions were influenced more by what I was shown than by what I was told.

I do think that Harry’s a bit of a special case because he’s the Hero of a monomyth. It is inherent to the structure of the monomyth that the Hero have great wisdom at the end of the tale. So I do put a lot of stock in Harry’s final opinions… but that’s due to the mythic structure of the tale.

And speaking of the monomyth, etc. – I made some comments earlier about symbolism. Basically, I will engage in symbolism if the symbolism is obvious… or is suggested by JKR. But I’m not big on just combing through the text trying to force symbolic readings on it.

For example:

In Pottermore Rowling revealed her reasoning behind giving the Dursleys the number “4” in their address. She says that she sees “4” as a “hard” and “unforgiving” number, hence it winds up in the Dursley street address.

But that leaves open the question of why she creates 4 Houses at Hogwarts and 4 founders of those Houses. Is she using the same logic in creating 4 Houses as she used in assigning 4 to the Dursley address? Or is she using an entirely different logic (for example, the number of elements)? In other words, is it merely coincidental that there are also 4 Houses or does it have some kind of significance in relation to her opinion of the number 4?

Since JKR herself brings up the issue of number 4, I think this type of exploration is fairly natural and organic, not forced. But I can guarantee that if she hadn’t brought it up in the first place, I certainly would not be picking through the text looking for groups of 4 and applying some sort of symbolic approach to them! (actually, I’m not picking through the text even now!)

Speaking of the 4 Elements… JKR has stated explicitly that each House is associated with one of the Elements:

Gryffindor – Fire
Hufflepuff – Earth
Ravenclaw – Air
Slytherin – Water

So, since the Elements are pretty obviously important to JKR’s conception of the Houses, I think it’s fairly natural to explore the meanings of each of the elements and see how each House’s element applies to the House.

So yeah, I do think that there are reasonable applications of symbolism in the text.

Ways to Read the Harry Potter Series, Part 2

This post originally appeared in an area of the Chamber of Secrets forum that is not open to the public. It was written in response to a another poster’s comment about people bringing their real life experience to the reading of the series.

Here is my reply…

I’m glad you brought that up… because that is actually where I wanted to go next with my own comments.

Yes, even though I strongly believe that reading should be grounded in the text, I am keenly aware that my worldview and RL experience and personality all color my experience of the text.

The point you made about Snape and Lily for example… I am Catholic. It’s not something I push on the text. It’s the air I breathe. For me, it is simply the structure of reality. And it definitely colors the way I respond to Snape’s devotion to Lily.

Now, before I get myself in trouble, let me add that I am not about to presume that my experience is some one-size-fits-all-Catholic experience of the text. I have had enough spirited debates on CoS with fellow Catholics to know that’s not so!

But when I first read the text, it was absolutely self-evident to me that Snape’s devotion to Lily (after her death) was the devotion of a man to a patron saint (or Dante to his Beatrice) – and that it ennobled him and helped bring about his redemption. It was only after I started reading fan discussions that the word “obsession” came up… and because of my experience of the text, I initially found that to be an utterly shocking and incomprehensible (and actually, painful) reading.

After having been around fandom for awhile now, though, I understand that many people – including some fellow Catholics – find the “obsession” reading to be just as self-evident as I find the “patron saint” reading. We clearly have different experiences of the text, probably based on our RL experiences, personalities, and experiences of literature.

However, I must emphasize that I was certainly not trying to force some “head canon” or “fanon” reading based on some pre-defined outcome. I had never even had (or read) a serious discussion of the series with HP fans! It was simply my honest response to the text, based on what I as a reader bring to the reading experience.

Stanley Fish is wrong imo that subjectivity = meaning. But he is right, I think, that the reading experience is colored by what the reader brings to it.

I’d also like to add to my answer to #6. I mentioned that even though I regard the text as primarily constructed, I think that JKR is talented at making her characters live and breathe.

I enjoy playing around with typing the characters according to Myers-Briggs typology. It works nicely with a character like Snape, who is pretty consistently an INTJ. But it’s tougher for many other characters – partly because they are constructed personalities and consequently might be needed to function according to one personality type at one point in their life and another personality type at another point in their life… and partly because no typology system can ever fully capture a person.

The point I’m making here is that – even though my brain often functions more like a database of tropes and techniques while I’m reading, and even though I fully understand that text is constructed – I still engage to some extent with the characters as if they were real people. I would never try to “type” them if I didn’t.

I’ll be back later to answer the last couple of questions. (I’m determined to finish this questionnaire!!!)

Ways to Read the Harry Potter Series… Part 1

This post originally appeared in an area of the Chamber of Secrets forum that is not open to the public. My answers to the questionnaire tell you more about me as a reader of Harry Potter than anything else. :)

Feel free to use the comments thread to post your own responses to the questionnaire (or to my answers).

1. What do you think of the Harry filter?

Well, when I read the books, I had no experience of communities of fan readers with strong points of view. I just read the books based upon my experience of literature. Early in my reading of PS/SS I realized that the book was written mostly from a limited 3rd person POV (an omniscient opener, occasional forays into omniscience during Quidditch matches, but generally limited to what Harry sees, experiences, and understands – and no access ever to any consciousness other than Harry’s).

With limited point of view, the reading technique I’m most familiar with is to take into consideration the extent to which the narrative is informed by the limits of what the character knows and understands, as well as the character’s biases. It’s true for reading Henry James and – since JKR uses similar POV techniques – I just assumed as I was reading that it should be true of the HP novels as well.

But at the same time, Harry’s factual perceptions are pretty reliable. He is a rational being. He is not Benjy in The Sound and the Fury or Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. LOL. Consequently, we can generally believe what he sees. What we cannot always take at face value, imo, are his opinions about what he sees… and those opinions do at times get embedded in the narrator’s voice (eg. in PS/SS, the narrator’s voice tells us that Snape was on his way to steal the Stone – a point which we later learn is objectively counter-factual).

I personally would think any objectively counter-factual information coming through the narrator’s voice to be an indicator that JKR at least occasionally uses what fan readers have called a “Harry filter” – particularly when she is setting up a red herring.

2. Would you say that ‘reading between the lines’ goes too far sometimes?

Oh definitely. I’ve always believed that reading should be grounded in the text, not in a theoretical position – whether that theoretical position is a critical ideology (such as Marxism or Feminism or Deconstructionism) or whether it is a fan-driven ideology (such as, proving that my ship is better than your ship; or proving that Dumbledore is a polyjuiced Snape; or proving that Snape is TEHEVOL or TEHGUD). The text, imo, should never be skewed in order to arrive at a pre-defined outcome. At the same time, theory can offer interesting insights into texts.

At any rate, I don’t usually theorize before I have sufficient information on which to base theories. Quite honestly, if I had been involved in fandom while the books were coming out, I probably would have avoided CoS rather than engage in mass theorizing.

As for symbolism (a point that [another poster] brings up) – I don’t have an issue with symbolism per se, except when it is stretched and strained. For example, if I’m reading a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins or William Shakespeare or Percy Shelley, there will be an interplay between the rhyme, the rhythm, the patterns of assonance, consonance, and alliteration, the poem’s structure, and (yes) the symbolism – just as surely as there will be protons, electrons, and neutrons in an atom. If the poet of a traditional sonnet mentions one of the seasons, for example, the seasons do typically have traditional symbolic meanings. That’s not a stretch. That’s cultural tradition.

I personally have never really looked much for symbolism in JKR’s work… probably because I’m not as focused on symbolism when I read fiction (which has very different origins from poetry). When I read fiction, I’m more focused on narratological issues. Do I think it’s possible that JKR was being symbolically strategic with the mention of Asphodel and Wormwood in “The Potions Master”? Sure, I think it’s possible, particularly given the depth of her own reading. I just don’t put a lot of emphasis on it, and it doesn’t have any serious impact on my reading. I do, however, find such discussions entertaining.

But as for “reading between the lines,” I remember when I was teaching poetry at UCLA, I would occasionally have students who provided really outlandish readings – i.e., readings that had no basis at all in the actual words of the text. My response would always be: “Okay. Just show me HOW you got that from the text.” (Students don’t always realize that there actually are techniques for addressing texts. It’s not an interpretive free-for-all… unless we’re doing Stanley Fish, that is LOL).

3. To what extent should logical deductions based on one fact or scene feed into interpretations of other scenes?

Wow. I never thought about that question. Let’s just say that I take it for granted as a potentially legitimate reading technique – so long as the single fact or scene is not over-interpreted to the extent that it becomes a sort of monomania consuming the entire text.

In other words, so long as the reader doesn’t become a Captain Ahab and allow that single fact or scene to become a white whale, then making those sorts of connections between scenes can be useful.

4. Do you read the series from the point of view of a character other than Harry?

No. But I did have a bit of fun in one of the contests writing a scene from Dumbledore’s limited POV.

5. To what extent is it desirable to scrutinise certain actions/story lines that might be purely plot-driven (e.g. was Peter’s betrayal only possible because JKR needed for this to happen or does in-depth analysis of his motives provide a satisfactory explanation for the events)? And in that line, is criticism of JKR in regard to plot weaknesses and inconsistencies acceptable to you?

I find such readings entertaining. I do not typically get strongly/emotionally invested in such readings, but I certainly consider them within bounds of critical interpretation of the text. I would guess, actually, that some people are currently writing dissertations or conference papers dealing with those very sorts of issues in the HP books. :)

6. Do you always approach the characters and events as if they were real or do you allow the constructed nature of the narrative to affect your interpretation?

I primarily consider text to be constructed. At the same time, JKR has a talent for allowing her characters to live and breathe. So I find some characters’ actions repugnant; some characters’ actions noble; most characters’ actions varying between (or lying between) the two poles – like the actions of 99.99999999% of all human beings. LOL. I just don’t usually take characters’ actions personally. There are occasional exceptions, of course. Two or three incidents do push my buttons. But overall, I’m more an analytical reader than an emotional one.