Rumors of Snape’s Unfairness….
Before the first potion class, Ron tells Harry that supposedly Snape threats Gryffindors unfair. True, just a rumor. But a rumor which gets confirmed again and again in the book. And no amond of reinterpreting will make Snape a perfect teacher.
I agree with marionros that Harry was a terrible student and predisposed to read any impartial, professional attempt at imposing pedagogical discipline on him as “unfair” and proof of personal bias against Harry. I don’t agree that there were NO lapses from professional decorum on Snape’s part, but much of what Harry perceives as injustice evaporates upon close examination.
I’ll address below the probable source of the “rumor” that Snape treats Gryffindors unfairly.
But first, where, exactly, is this “rumor” “confirmed”? Much less time and again?
Honestly, if a teacher walks in at the tail end of a probable altercation to observe one group apparently behaving itself now (making faces at their enemies safely behind the teacher’s back), while the second group screams cusswords into the teacher’s face, it does NOT require hideously unprofessional bias on the teacher’s part to punish group 2 and not group 1 for their observed behavior.
Indeed, it would require overwhelming bias not to.
We don’t usually see Slytherins and Gryffindors behave the same under Snape’s eyes. The Slytherins are usually overtly obedient as long as they are under Snape’s direct observation, and they almost always address their professor respectfully rather than argue with him, scream curses in his face, or question his teaching. (The one observed deviation from that norm is Draco in sixth year—in a strictly private [he thought] conversation.) Harry and the Gryffindors… well, to put it charitably, we can’t ever praise their observed behavior as that of model students. In ANY of their classes, not just Snape’s.
So we don’t have too many direct points of comparison.
However, there are a few. We are explicitly shown several cases where we see Snape dealing with a Slytherin and a Gryffindor in parallel situations. On those occasions, Harry interprets Snape as showing bias when he treats both cases the same. Moreover, behavior that Harry considers “favoritism” when seen shown by Snape to Slytherins, Harry EXPECTS other teachers to extend to him.
The best example is the one I discussed at length in my essay “Mr. Filch has Asked: Discipline at Hogwarts.” Harry considers Snape grossly unfair, and the reader is strongly encouraged to agree, when, rivalry running high before the big Slytherin-Gryffindor game, Snape refuses to punish Slytherins for alleged assaults on Gryffindors that are not witnessed by authority figures.
[Snape] was also turning a deaf ear to the many reports of Slytherin attempts to hex Gryffindor players in the corridors. When Alicia Spinnet turned up in the hospital with her eyebrows growing so thick and fast that they obscured her vision and obstructed her mouth, Snape insisted that the must have attempted a Hair-Thickening Charm on herself and refused to listen to the fourteen eyewitnesses who insisted that they had seen the Slytherin Keeper, Miles Bletchley, hit her from behind with a jinx while she worked in the library. (OotP: The Lion and the Serpent)
Yet it goes unremarked that Minerva also apparently “refused to listen to” the witnesses—though we know from HBP that if the victim’s head of house catches an aggressor in the act, that professor can assign punishment (subject to the other house head’s ratification).
I argued that this incident demonstrates that the headmaster (our dear Albus) did not allow his staff to issue punishments on hearsay or circumstantial evidence (however compelling): that Albus demanded that his staff witness either the misdeed itself or a full confession in order to punish the offender.
And we see Snape apparently bound by that code WRT Harry in several incidents. In PoA when Snape caught Harry, muddy-handed and sweaty with a fresh bag of Zonko’s goodies, in a corridor Snape already had reason to suspect might contain an opening to a secret passage to Hogsmeade. Snape tried hard to get Harry to confess to breaking bounds and attacking Draco, Vince, and Greg by the Shrieking Shack, but he failed. And, having failed to induce Harry and his confederate Ron to confess, Snape did NOTHING to punish them.
Earlier, in CoS, Snape identified Harry as the one behind an explosion that injured several of his Slytherin children; but Harry didn’t confess, and Snape did NOTHING to punish the culprit. In the altercation in GoF, Snape did not punish Harry for using magic in the corridor, which he did not witness; only for shouting cusswords in Snape’s face, which he did.
How unfair did Harry (and does the reader) think it in PoA that when Harry and Ron persisted in their unblushing lies to Snape, the professor “refused to listen to” his truthful Slytherin eyewitnesses who gave Snape full details of Harry’s transgressions?
If letting off Bletchley without punishment (for an attack no authority could attest to) demonstrates Snape’s partiality for Slytherin, letting off Harry for similar offenses must demonstrate Snape’s partiality for Gryffindor.
For another example of how Harry (and the reader) take Snape to be biased against Gryffindors when he treats them the same as his Slytherins, look at Snape’s first DADA class in HBP. Hermione there was the first to master a nonverbal shield: “a feat that would surely have earned her twenty points for Gryffindor from any reasonable teacher, thought Harry bitterly, but which Snape ignored.”
Yet Harry did not consider it “bitterly unreasonable” that Snape didn’t award twenty points to Slytherin for Draco’s perfectly stewed slugs first year, did he? We never, in canon, saw Snape giving points to anyone for anything. So failing to give them to Hermione is not unfair. Now, if Snape were going around awarding twenty points to Slytherin every time Crabbe passed his teacher a phial (as Sprout once did for Harry’s handing her a watering pot), THAT would demonstrate that Snape’s points-awarding might be biased.
But he does not.
We know that Pomona will award unearned points to vent her private feelings.
If Severus ever succumbed to that temptation, we didn’t ever see it. And one would rather expect Harry to note such an event (with bitter invective about Snape’s unfairness).
So it seems to be the case that Snape just doesn’t hand out points. To anyone for anything. (Whitehound points out that to people from the north of England, as Severus is suggested to be, “Not bad” is the absolute height of fulsome praise, and silence means “Good job”…..) Which makes “slighting” Hermione not unreasonable bias, but treating her the same as he does his own house members.
Then there’s the Potions class in CoS where Draco annoyed Harry and Ron by flicking puffer-fish eyes at them, and Harry reflected “if they retaliated they would get detention faster than you could say, ‘Unfair.’” And sure enough, a year later, Ron “flung a large, slippery crocodile heart at Malfoy, which hit him in the face and caused Snape to take fifty points from Gryffindor.” (POA 10)
Clearly this substantiates the rumor that Snape treats his Slytherins and his Gryffindors differently!
Except—there was nothing to show that Snape actually saw the puffer-eye byplay and was turning a deliberate blind eye to Draco’s misbehavior. It’s Harry’s hypothesis that if he and Ron retaliated and Snape saw all three misbehaving in the same way, he’d punish only the Gryffindors. But there’s no evidential support for that hypothesis—for example, Harry didn’t recall a past incident when such a thing happened in Snape’s class. He just assumed Snape would behave like that, and assumed as a corollary that Snape saw and condoned Draco’s wrong-doing.
Except—on several occasions (the jeering at Hermione’s teeth and the Potter Stinks badges in GoF come immediately to mind), Slytherins are explicitly noted by JKR as making absolutely sure that Snape CAN’T SEE THEM before they start to misbehave. This strongly suggests that they expect that if caught, they would be punished. By Snape. So lack of punishment more strongly demonstrates that Slytherins were good (and possibly experienced!) at not getting caught than that Snape was deliberately overlooking their malfeasance.
And wasn’t there at least one incident in which someone flicking something (a firecracker) into an enemy’s cauldron caused an explosion and potions spill that injured half the class (not THEIR half, of course)? And Snape KNEW who had to have been responsible (and had physical evidence confirming it when Hermione turned up half-cat from botched Polyjuice from the ingredients stolen from his private stores that day)—but not having managed to catch the criminal in the act or induce a confession, he did NOTHING to punish the miscreant?
In fact, Harry lobbed that firecracker into Greg’s cauldron two paragraphs—two—after Harry and the narrative voice assured us that Snape was being grotesquely unfair in not punishing Draco for flicking puffer-fish eyes at Harry and Ron!
So if we must take Snape’s not punishing Draco for flicking puffer-fish eyes at Harry and Ron as proof of Snape’s unprofessional partiality for Slytherins and Draco, we must equally take his not punishing the Trio for an explosion, multiple-injury assault, and theft as proof of his gross partiality in Harry and Gryffindor’s favor.
(Which, indeed, if we had any data points outside of Harry’s class, might be a supportable contention. But it’s not one I’ve ever seen a Potter fan make, and it would certainly have made Harry faint to consider it. But in canon, Snape lets Harry get away with assaults on his fellow students without expelling him…! Multiple times. Up to near-manslaughter, a death only barely averted by Snape’s own extreme speed in reacting and skill at healing. And Harry’s own head of house said that Snape let Harry off very lightly for that last attack…. Would Snape have let a random unfavored student off with a mere few detentions for almost killing a fellow student? Oh wait, that’s right, Sirius was let off with the same for almost killing Severus, so apparently the precedent under Headmaster Albus is firm: ALMOST kill someone, a third party intervenes to save the victim through no doing of the almost-killer, no problem! We’ll give the almost-killer a few detentions and pat hir on the shoulder—better luck next time.)
Now consider detentions. We see Snape giving detentions to Gryffindors six times in six years (versus McGonagall’s eight to her own house and six to Slytherin): to Ron (POA), for overtly criticizing Snape’s teaching; to Neville (GoF), for his sixth cauldron-melting; to Harry and Ron (GoF), for screaming curses in his face; to Harry (HBP), for insolence (“You don’t need to call me sir”) and again for almost killing Draco.
Note that McGonagall and Snape each gave six detentions to the rival house.
But in HBP Harry finds out by accident that Crabbe and Goyle are serving detention—for slacking in Snape’s class. Which we know Harry has done repeatedly (and we know his teacher has known it) without earning a like punishment.
If anything, that limited data suggests that Snape is HARDER on his Slytherins for the most part (at least in regards to detentions). A chronically-underperforming Gryffindor must be openly insolent or cause a serious accident to earn a detention; a slacking Slytherin is pulled up sharply for not turning in his homework.
Now, holding one group to higher standards than another IS a form of favoritism—but I guarantee it’s not the form of favoritism that Harry considers Snape guilty of.
Finally, consider the issue of Snape’s punishment for students missing his class. In PoA, when Draco came late into Potions class when he was finally released from the hospital wing after being mauled by Buckbeak, Harry thought it extremely unfair that Snape didn’t punish Draco for missing part of class.
Malfoy didn’t reappear in classes until late on Thursday morning … halfway through double Potions. He swaggered into the dungeon, his right arm covered in bandages and bound up in a sling….
“How is it, Draco?” simpered Pansy Parkinson. “Does it hurt much?”
“Yeah,” said Malfoy, putting on a brave sort of grimace. But Harry saw him wink at Crabbe and Goyle when Pansy had looked away.
“Settle down, settle down,” said Professor Snape idly.
Harry and Ron scowled at each other. Snape wouldn’t have said “settle down” if they’d walked in late, he’d have given them detention. But Malfoy had always been able to get away with anything in Snape’s classes; Snape was head of Slytherin House, and generally favored his own students above all others.
A few weeks later, Harry spent so long talking with the Quidditch captain between classes that he was ten minutes late for DADA. He burst in saying, “Sorry I’m late, Professor Lupin, I—”
But it wasn’t Professor Lupin who looked up at him from the teacher’s desk, it was Snape.
“This lesson began ten minutes ago, Potter, so I think we’ll make it ten points from Gryffindor. Sit down.”
But Harry didn’t move.
“Where’s Professor Lupin?” he said.
“He says he is feeling too ill to teach today,” said Snape with a twisted smile. “I believe I told you to sit down?”
But Harry stayed where he was.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing life-threatening,” he said, looking as though he wished it were. “Five more points from Gryffindor, and if I have to ask you to sit down again, it will be fifty.”
Harry walked slowly to his seat and sat down. Snape looked around at the class. “As I was saying before Potter interrupted….”
Point one regarding Harry—one doesn’t burst in with excuses on one’s lips unless one expects the excuses to do some good. Harry apparently believed that if Professor Lupin knew that Harry had been detained by Wood giving him tips for winning for Gryffindor tomorrow, Gryffindor-favoring Lupin would let Harry off with little or no punishment.
The exact same thing Harry considered gross favoritism from Snape with Draco.
Furthermore, Draco’s tardiness was indeed fully justified, while Harry’s was not (except to someone who cared more for a Gryffindor Quidditch victory than for mere academics).
Harry knew precisely why Draco had not been in class on time, and he knew, moreover, that Snape knew it too. Draco had only just been released from Pomfrey’s care. What kind of teacher would punish any student, of any house, for showing up in class the moment he’s released from medical care (but not before)? What student would expect a teacher to punish for tardiness in such circumstances? Draco’s coming straight to class as soon as he’s cleared medically is commendable, not deplorable. But Harry seriously thinks that Snape shows himself biased by not punishing Draco for having been too injured to attend class before?
Bangs head against wall to clear it. Harry: you really think a fair teacher would punish a student for having been held out of class by Madam Pomfrey? Are you, Harry, telling us that every time you missed classes because of an injury, you experienced every teacher—or every fair teacher, which might leave out McGonagall—taking points from Gryffindor and issuing you detentions because you’d missed their classes? Really? That’s been happening all along, every time you’ve suffered an injury from Quidditch or from saving the school from Voldemort, only you’ve just been too noble and self-effacing to mention to the reader how your heroic deeds and sports exploits have earned you punishment instead of praise?
No, sorry, I don’t buy it. Draco had in no way earned any punishment, by any fair educator, by turning up after class had started with that particular excuse.
However, Draco’s late and swannish arrival did interrupt the normal flow of the class.
Any late (especially if loud, announced, and prominent!) arrival interrupts the class.
Which Snape did note, and address.
Both Draco and Harry interrupted their respective classes, coming in late as they did. And in BOTH cases, Snape gave the disruptive element fair warning to stop the disruption before he proceeded to inflict any punishment.
In fact, Harry got two warnings to Draco’s one.
“Settle down, settle down,” said Snape to Draco and the Slytherins; “Sit down…. I believe I told you to sit down?” to Harry.
Draco and the Slytherins immediately complied. Harry “didn’t move” and “stayed where he was” and rudely demanded that his substitute teacher answer his challenges until Snape finally went ahead and took five points and threatened to take more if Harry didn’t obey.
(And even then Jo notes for us that Harry walked “slowly” to his seat. Aggressive, much?)
Finally, in the next book we do see another instance where a student missed part of Snape’s Potions class because the student was kept out by another adult authority.
Colin was sent to drag Harry out of Snape’s class for the Triwizard photo op. Though clearly displeased (and in fact rather obviously considering the reason wholly inadequate), Snape took not a single point from Gryffindor, nor did he assign Harry detention for blatantly missing half of his class.
Obviously, Snape’s utter failure to punish Harry for skipping half of his class (at another authority’s instigation) MUST show that “[Potter] had always been able to get away with anything in Snape’s classes; Snape … generally favored… [Gryffindors] above all others”!
So if you want to persuade me that Snape DID treat his house with partiality unbecoming in a teacher, don’t tell me that Ron said so and that Harry thought so. Show me canon incidents where we KNOW that Snape witnessed the same behavior from Slytherins and other students, and treated them unequally.
Because what canon shows is that marionros is quite correct: in instances where we see Snape treat Gryffindors and Slytherins the same, Harry whings on at length about how Snape is clearly favoring his own house and hates Harry and the Gryffs.
Finally, let’s return to the issue of that initial “rumor” of Snape’s unfairness.
Does such a rumor exist, among the general student population?
It’s unquestionable that Harry believed Snape to be unfair in general and to hate Harry personally. And it’s canon that Ron Weasley, a few days into his first school term, told Harry, “Snape’s Head of Slytherin House. They say he always favors them—we’ll be able to see if it’s true.”
And also that “I’ve heard Snape can turn very nasty.”
But who’s the “they” who “say” this, given Ron’s background?
Ron’s Hufflepuff neighbor Cedric says so, when he comes over to play pickup Quidditch with the Weasleys every Saturday during the holidays (as we see him do throughout Harry’s many long stays at the Burrow)?
Ravenclaw Luna says her daddy says so, when she’s over on her numerous play dates with Ginny?
Ron has read this in the Prophet, which we see him following as assiduously in first year as Hermione later does in OotP?
How about, none of the above?
Ron was homeschooled and the Weasley children apparently didn’t associate regularly even with their closest WW neighbors. Ron’s source of information about the WW is his family. His inside information about Hogwarts comes from his older brothers.
Charlie’s in Romania by the time Ron starts Hogwarts, and Bill’s off in Africa, but Ron still has three other brothers to fill him in about the school.
And, er, which of them does Ron seem to pay attention to? However misguidedly?
Remind me again, what was the inside information that Ron passed on to Harry about how the school Sorted new students? “Some sort of test, I think. Fred said it hurts a lot, but I think he was joking.”
Right. Ron repeats the Twins’ (often deliberate) misinformation. In this case, he’s parroting the Twins’ slanders about Snape.
Now, Percy’s take on Snape, when asked directly by Harry the very first night, was that Snape would rather teach Defense than Potions and that Snape knows a lot about the Dark Arts. Interestingly, Percy is here promulgating the very myth that Dumbledore and Snape have concocted between them as part of Snape’s cover.
Notice, however, that Percy has no warnings for the little firstie that Snape favors his own house. No cautions that Harry should watch himself around Snape because Snape is always looking for an excuse to take points from Gryffindor. Not even any prefectly advice to Harry to watch his p’s & q’s in Potions class because the Potions master is exceptionally strict.
Which is really an odd omission; surely Percy the Perfect Prefect wants Gryffindor to win the House Cup if anyone does? If Snape were known for docking points excessively (whether from houses other than his own because Slytherin’s Head is biased, or because the Potions master is too severe to tolerate any hijinks in his class) shouldn’t Percy tell Harry so?
Now, Percy does go on to tell the firsties that Dumbledore’s “joke” about the third-floor corridor being lethal is serious, that the forest is full of dangerous beasts, and that Peeves is a menace. So he does take seriously his duty to warn the newbies of known hazards.
Apparently the potions master isn’t one of the known hazards facing Gryffindor firsties. Apparently Percy’s impression of Snape is that he’s fair enough, and not unduly harsh. It would follow that Percy must feel that any Gryffindors who kept having points taken by Snape or been issued multiple detentions must have richly earned such punishments.
Such as, say, Percy’s twin brothers who like to mess about, who’d rather pull pranks than do schoolwork, and who aren’t overly concerned about hurting other children in pursuit of their version of “fun.”
Frankly, the thought of the Twins in a potions class is utterly terrifying, even under Snape’s closest supervision. The Twins are bright, curious, and willing, indeed eager, to inflict pain, humiliation, and injury on others: for being “enemies” (giving Dudley potentially-lethal toffee, hissing little Malcolm’s sorting into Slytherin, hexing Draco from behind, stuffing Montague into a broken Vanishing Cabinet which could have killed him), for “a laugh” (attacking and maybe killing that salamander, giving Neville the Canary Creams) or just in the interests of experimentation (testing potions on eleven-year-olds).
Harry, in his second year, injured half his class in an explosion to create a diversion for Hermione to steal from the Potions master in what they both sincerely thought was a good cause. I can easily visualize the Twins doing the same for “fun.”
I can quite believe that the Twins’ experience of Snape might well have been that the Potions master “can turn very nasty.”
Oh, I do agree that Snape can.
Thank you, Professor!
(Melts in relief as the cavalry thunders over the hill to deal summarily with the class tormentors...)
“Mum! We weren’t doing anything bad, not really! It was just a laugh. That git just picks on us because we’re Gryffindors. Everyone knows that Snape favors his own house….”
So, yes, I think we know exactly where Ron picked up that particular rumor.
However, whether or not Snape EVER had any general reputation for favoring his house or coming down hard on Gryffindors in general, I think he did acquire an almost immediate reputation for taking Harry Potter (The Boy Who Lived, Voldemort’s Vanquisher, AKA James Potter’s lookalike son) in disfavor and coming down hard on him.
And I think he deliberately cultivated it, as part of his cover as a spy.
“Professor Snape,” after all, was a persona. Very seldom in seven books did we see Severus when he wasn’t wearing that mask. So whatever impression Snape made on Harry—and on Dumbledore’s supporters’ sons like Ron—and on former DE’s sons like Draco—and on Ministry employees’ children—was for the most part carefully calculated (with Dumbledore’s full approval) to serve Dumbledore’s ends.
Dumbledore’s man, “Professor Snape,” (whispered among some of the remaining free Death Eaters to have shared their allegiance) seemed to loathe Potter’s Son/Voldemort’s Vanquisher? Well, of course, his personal history with James Potter would explain that….
We have seen Severus apparently out of control a few times (the end of PoA, finding Harry frisking in the Pensieve, the end of HBP, some of the Prince’s memories…).
But the moment when Snape cemented his reputation of hating Harry Potter with an irrational passion by turning to the child and snapping, “You—Potter—why didn’t you tell him not to add the quills? Thought he’d make you look good if he got it wrong, did you? That’s another point you’ve lost for Gryffindor” was not among those.
That was an act. At Dumbledore's behest, or with Dumbledore's consent.
The real question is, why did Dumbledore insist that it be generally believed that Severus Snape hated Harry Potter?