One of the characters that intrigued me the most throughout Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and perhaps throughout the entire series, is Severus Snape. Snape’s character is complicated, tragic, and beautiful, because he exemplifies exactly the type of self-sacrifice, bravery, and love that J.K. Rowling suggests is essential for community, essential for human existence, and essential for avoiding vice and lust for temporal things like power or wealth. Snape’s actions and decision to help protect Harry are motivated by a selfless love for Lily Potter, and are done without any sort of desire for reward or recognition. Snape’s actions are completely, utterly selfless. They go unnoticed, unrecognized, yet what keeps him committed is his deep, selfless love for Lily. The irony of his character is that he embodies selflessness, yet this selflessness was brought about in a tragic way, through the death of the only person he truly loved (and who may have loved him in return).
What is most intriguing about Snape is the way he views and approaches love. Snape’s actions are motivated by his love for Lily Potter, and he does genuinely care about her, although his deep love for her does not become apparent until Lily’s death. What makes Snape’s story so tragic is the fact that his desire to be loved and accepted, his desire to feel superior in some way, is exactly what turned him away from love. His redemption came at the loss of the one person he truly loved and by protecting the very boy who was a reminder that Lily chose another over Snape.
Snape was neglected by his parents, and attending Hogwarts gave him a chance to find a real home, a place for himself where he fit in and where he was not shunned. In an effort to be accepted and feel superior, he fraternized with the Slytherins who were enthralled with the Dark Arts (and who later became Death Eaters). However, this destroyed his friendship with Lily, who was the only person who truly was his friend. Although Snape had a good heart, his deepest flaw was his pride, his need to feel above others (to compensate for his feelings of neglect as a child). His desire to feel a sense of belonging is exactly what turned him away from his only chance at feeling a genuine sense of belonging and friendship. His pride ultimately led him away from his chance at truly feeling loved by his best friend, Lily. However, Lily’s death also led to Snape’s redemption. It was because of Lily’s death that Snape felt remorse, that he let go of his pride, of his need to feel superior (something he thought he would find by being a Death Eater). Snape’s true feelings for Lily, his true, sacrificial, selfless love for her came out only after she died, when Snape agreed to help Dumbledore protect Harry. It was when Snape decided to fully commit to helping Dumbledore by protecting Harry that his goodness, his true love for Lily, his selfless character, came out. Lily’s death, and consequently, Snape’s repentance, is what fully sets Snape apart from Voldemort, because it shows that Snape is fully capable of love, unlike Voldemort.
Snape’s love for Lily motivates him to continually put himself in grave danger in order to protect Harry and act as spy for Voldemort. Moreover, his actions go unrecognized by all except Dumbledore. Snape had nothing to gain from protecting Harry, a spitting image of James, yet Snape’s love for Lily transcended any kind of selfish desire he may have had when he was younger. Snape’s love for Lily, regardless of the fact that she did not return his feelings, was enough to drive him to do what was right, despite the danger to himself, despite the pain it might cause him. His decision to change sides and work with Dumbledore reflects his self-sacrificial nature; he is putting himself both in mortal danger and emotional pain, yet his love for Lily is what gets him through this.
It is not until Lily’s death that we realize Snape’s unfaltering love for her as the reason for his loyalty, and it is not until the end of the series that we realize just how deep Snape’s love for Lily was. During Harry’s final battle with Voldemort, he tells Voldemort, “Snape’s Patronus was a doe, the same as my mother’s, because he loved her for nearly all his life, from the time when they were children” (740). Although Snape in the end is seen as a virtuous, brave, selfless man, these characteristics may not have been apparent, may not even have come to fruition, if Lily had not been killed by Voldemort, causing Snape to experience remorse, to fully shed his prideful feelings. Snape embodies, in a very tragic way, the type of sacrificial love essential for keeping vice at bay, essential for developing virtue and living fully. He exemplifies the Christian values of self-sacrifice, of living for a greater purpose than the self. He embodies the Augustinian ideas of having correctly ordered desires and the Boethian ideas of not falling prey to earthly desires. While Snape may have had disordered desires prior to Lily’s death, during his years at Hogwarts and as a Death Eater, Lily’s death brought out his true character. In her death, we see that Snape does understand the very thing that leads one to fulfillment, the very things that Dumbledore believes is stronger than any kind of magic: love. Love motivated Snape’s actions, which ultimately helped bring down Voldemort.