Bullies in literature

One of the things that has always bothered me about the Harry Potter series is that, in the epilogue, Harry has partially named his son after Severus Snape. By doing so, Harry gives Snape equal footing in his memory with his father, Sirius, and Dumbledore. JK Rowling recently attempted to explain this. Post-war Harry would have understood, she said, would have better appreciated the heroism of Snape.

Severus Snape was a brave man who was also an unforgivable bully. Yes, he did a lot of help the Order fight against Voldemort, but he didn’t do it because he decided that it was the right thing to do. He did it because he was in love with a woman, who, let’s face it, would never return his feelings. He ruined his friendship with her by insulting her. That woman was killed by Voldemort, and, after that point, Snape ceased to be Voldemort’s man. His change of heart, however, did not extend to the way he treated the children of those he fought against while he was a Death Eater.

Take Neville, for example, poor Neville whose parents were tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange until they went insane. Snape is not kind to Neville. In fact, in the third book, when he has to face his biggest fear, the thing Neville fears most in the entire world is Severus Snape. Snape also is consistently rude to Hermione, who has done absolutely nothing to deserve it. This is a grown man who gets his kicks by bullying impressionable teenagers. Why does the ever-wise Dumbledore allow Snape to be around students when he is so awful to them?

Snape is in a strange category. He is not villainized by Rowling like Voldemort is and perhaps is not even as bad as characters like Umbridge and the Malfoys and other Death Eaters. But it is by putting him in this other category, one of being a brave but flawed man, that almost makes it worse. Severus Snape should know better, but he doesn’t seem to care. In fact, he manages to make Harry, whom he relentlessly bullied for years because he hated Harry’s father, Harry who has so much reason to dislike Snape, forgive and name one of his children after the man. For some reason, I do not think Snape would have much appreciated the gesture.

The fact that Rowling seems to approve of and even like Snape further complicates the issue. What should the reader think when the author, the person who created the beloved literary landscape and the characters who inhabit it, actually defends a character who is a bully?

To find an answer to this, I began thinking about some other books I cherish and the ways in which bullies affect the heroines. In Mansfield Park, there is no character who is more of a bully than Mrs. Norris. She constantly shows preference for the Bertram children over Fanny and wants Fanny to remember her place. She doesn’t miss a single opportunity say something bad about Fanny. In Mrs. Norris’s opinion, Fanny is only a visitor, a charity case, and should earn her keep, ironically ignoring the fact that she is also only a visitor at Mansfield Park.

Fanny quietly and dutifully does what she can, but she is often ill and pushed to the limit by Mrs. Norris’s demands. However, Fanny does not show any hostility against her aunt. She offers respect and obedience in return for Mrs. Norris’s bullying. The two characters serve as a contrast, with our heroine showing the strength to be the better person. Fanny is not bitter and would probably have wholeheartedly forgiven her, but Jane Austen gives Mrs. Norris her just desserts. In the end, Mrs. Norris decides to go live with the ruined Maria Rushworth, where, Austen tells us, “shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.”

Next, I turned to Jane Eyre. Mrs. Reed, Jane Eyre’s aunt, does not care about her niece. She sends Jane off to a horrible school where she is abused. Her hatred for Jane is limitless. When Jane’s uncle from Madeira writes to Mrs. Reed saying that he is now wealthy and would like Jane to live with him, Mrs. Reed responds that Jane is dead. She does not mention this at all until three years later, when she is dying. Jane forgives her. Even though her aunt has been horrible to her, Jane offers forgiveness and love.

I get moral philosophy from books more often than I should, but maybe the answer is that it is more important for the hero/heroine to forgive than it is for the bully to redeem himself/herself. Snape never redeemed himself for me in the way that JK Rowling implies that he should have, but Harry can forgive him, can accept his faults, and can further appreciate the good that he did. Like Fanny Price and Jane Eyre, he chooses to ignore the bad in a person who bullied him. He chooses to rise above the bullying and to be the better person. And that seems like a heroic way to live, to look for good in people and to ultimately forgive them.