Harry Potter's Continued Social and Political Relevance

Part 2 in a series by Seth Quam and Diane Wiener.

From Seth, with some contributions by Diane, in conversation...

We continue to live in a country and world in which interpersonal violence is often normalized, accepted, ignored, justified, and minimized. In this second installment of our series, we examine Severus Snape's relationship with Neville Longbottom, a child he repeatedly abuses. We do not condone, justify, or minimize this abuse.

Neville Longbottom’s parents, Frank and Alice, were tortured and driven to mental instability by Bellatrix Lestrange and her fellow Death Eaters. Neville visits his parents in St. Mungo’s hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries every holiday. Consider this scene:

"She [Alice Longbottom] did not seem to want to speak, or perhaps she was not able to, but she made timid motions towards Neville, holding something in her outstretched hand. 'Again?' said Mrs. Longbottom [Neville’s Grandmother], sounding slightly weary. 'Very well, Alice dear, very well — Neville, take it, whatever it is.' But Neville had already stretched out his hand, into which his mother dropped an empty Drooble's Best Blowing Gum wrapper. 'Very nice, dear,' said Neville's grandmother in a falsely cheery voice, patting his mother on the shoulder. But Neville said quietly, ‘Thanks, Mum.' His mother tottered away, back up the ward, humming to herself. Neville looked around at the others, his expression defiant, as though daring them to laugh, but Harry did not think he'd ever found anything less funny in his life. 'Well, we'd better get back,' sighed Mrs. Longbottom, drawing on long green gloves. 'Very nice to have met you all. Neville, put that wrapper in the bin, she must have given you enough of them to paper your bedroom by now.' But as they left, Harry was sure he saw Neville slip the sweet wrapper into his pocket." (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 23)

Neville is teased, chided, and bullied from day one at Hogwarts. He doesn’t have his parents’ prowess with a wand. Draco Malfoy terrorizes him mercilessly. In class, where students could expect a modicum of reprieve from bullying, Neville instead finds nothing but continued torment. Snape relentlessly mocks Neville for his poor potion-making skills, which don’t get any better, thanks to his Snape-provoked nerves:

“‘Idiot boy!’ snarled Snape, clearing the spilled potion away with one wave of his wand. ‘I suppose you added the porcupine quills before taking the cauldron off the fire?’ Neville whimpered as boils started to pop up all over his nose. ‘Take him to the hospital wing,’ Snape spat at Seamus." (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter 8)

Brutal Snape even tries to poison Neville’s toad, Trevor:

“The end of the lesson in sight, Snape strode over to Neville, who was cowering by his cauldron. ‘Everyone gather ’round,’ said Snape, his black eyes glittering, ‘and watch what happens to Longbottom’s toad. If he has managed to produce a Shrinking Solution, it will shrink to a tadpole. If, as I don’t doubt, he has done it wrong, his toad is likely to be poisoned.’” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 7)

Snape's behavior toward Neville is clearly and consistently ruthless and cruel. Prior to the appearance of Luna Lovegood (in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), Harry (Potter), Hermione (Granger), and Ron (Weasley) are among the very few characters who are ever nice to Neville, and they don’t even really consider him to be a friend early on in the story arc. Trevor is Neville’s best companion at this time in his life, and Snape wants to take that away from him, as if he hasn’t sustained enough loss and hardship, already. Snape is such a menace to Neville that in his third year, Neville’s boggart turns into Snape -- not Malfoy, not Bellatrix Lestrange, but Snape.

Some of Snape's viciousness toward Neville (despite Neville's age) might be explained by Snape's blaming Neville for Lily Potter’s death -- which is unsurprising, given Snape’s insistence on blaming anyone but himself for Lily’s tragic departure. The prophecy that foretold Voldemort’s demise gave clues that led Voldemort to Harry, but the prophecy could just as easily have led him to Neville. If Voldemort had attacked Neville and his family instead of Harry and his, perhaps Lily would have lived (i.e. not been murdered by Voldemort). Of course, there is nothing that Neville could have done to have prevented either of these horrid situational options. One would think that if Snape had any empathy, despite his aforementioned blaming of Neville, he would feel compassion for the boy, since both of them had lost important people in their lives because of Voldemort. Clearly, Snape is remorseless and hard-hearted, particularly when it comes to Neville.  

More importantly, why does anyone condone any teacher's abuse of students? It is in no way an exaggeration to say that Snape repeatedly traumatizes Neville, and yet some readers and die-hard fans dismiss this facet of the narrative as being justified by Snape working for the "good side" of the wizarding world. We are sure that Neville doesn’t care so much whose side Snape is working for when Snape says to Neville, then a 13 year old:

“Tell me, boy, does anything penetrate that thick skull of yours? Didn't you hear me say, quite clearly, that only one rat spleen was needed? Didn't I state plainly that a dash of leech juice would suffice? What do I have to do to make you understand, Longbottom?” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 7)

We don’t understand how this behavior could be considered acceptable under any circumstances, or why so many people are able to overlook this deep fault in Snape’s character. Perhaps because of some people's ongoing, everyday acceptance of interpersonal violence, as noted above?

In real world news, United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has yet to commit to protecting sexual assault survivors via Title IX; moreover, some of the GOP leadership have made it clear that weakening the enforcement of Title IX is among their goals. In July, DeVos met with male college students who claimed to have been wrongfully accused of sexual violence. Despite some fans' refusal to critique Snape, then, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories continue to be instructive and relevant when considering how to refute complicity with mainstream narratives of abuse and violence. 

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