Yesterday Alan Rickman died, and although he had a whole life and a family and a career that included all sorts of wonderful roles, at least in my generation he is remembered as Severus Snape.
Obviously, we didn’t know Alan Rickman the man. Many people my age haven’t seen his other work, except for maybe Love Actually or Die Hard (three guesses which one of those I’ve seen and which I haven’t). So, because we respect him and we feel something, we talk about Snape. Snape is someone we know, perhaps one of the characters we know most intimately in the Harry Potter series. And, as of the end of the seventh book, most of us love him.
Snape might be one of the most unique and unsolvable characters in popular literature. There are so many angles from which we can analyze him. We all talk about how Snape is a hero, Snape is so brave, Snape’s story is so tragic. And although the professor doesn’t get much credit for being good during the series, in pop culture we tend to look up to him a great deal and to feel for his heartbreaking story. But, as flattering as all of these viewpoints are, I think that, in fact, they sell Snape a little short; I would argue that Snape has the biggest damn heart in the whole series.
Here’s a boy who didn’t see love between his parents, never had his own romantic feelings reciprocated, didn’t even have any real friendships. In fact, it’s no wonder that he became so obsessed with Lily; he never had a single example of an appropriate, mutually beneficial, caring relationship in his life. And yet, he literally devotes his entire life to love. He is shunned by both the good side and the bad side. He constantly risks his life as a double agent. He is not trusted by anybody, and, even if he doesn’t show it, he surely suffers from loneliness as much or even more in adulthood as he did in childhood. And none of these awful things are in pursuit of love, which is so often how we justify them in stories. Snape stands to gain nothing- especially once we think about the fact that, even if he helps Harry, Harry is intended to die in the end anyway. Honestly, the only way Snape might ever have any satisfaction in life is if he lets go of Lily… but there’s no way he’ll do it. He would rather look at the face of James Potter’s son every day, risk his life, live without relationships or trust, than forget Lily Evans. Snape lives his life for his heart.
And that is why Snape is the bravest of all. Not because he risks his life, not because he protects Harry, not because he kills Dumbledore. Snape is brave because he is vulnerable. Snape is brave because he keeps living for his heart even though he knows that there’s no way he’ll get a happy ending. Snape is brave because he knows, without a doubt, what he lives for, even if nobody else could ever understand. Even if it means that he will never be accepted in this life. Snape would rather do right by his heart than anything else.
We tend to think of Snape as ultimately one of the most tragic characters in the Harry Potter series. But, in a way, I think he may be the luckiest. Snape is not tied to any societal conventions; he lives singularly to honor the woman whom he loves, and for him, there is nothing else. At the very end, Snape expresses no regret. He expresses one thing: his love for Lily. I think that many of us would give a lot to be that sure of what’s important to us in life, to know for whom or for what we would give it all.
The world mourns Alan Rickman, as it should, and he deserves to be thought of as a whole person rather than for just one character. But, for those of us for whom this is our only way, let’s honor Alan Rickman- a man who seems to have incredible empathy and heart- by truly understanding one of the characters he played. Let’s think about Snape not only as brave and tragic, but as huge-hearted, single-minded, and lucky for it all. Let’s think of him as the person who taught us that fulfillment comes in many forms, and that, even if we are not lucky enough to be popular or to be in a relationship, that does not mean that our life is a waste. What matters is not how the world sees us, but that we always do right by ourselves and by our hearts.