Was he struggling with his life? Sure. Did he say some nasty things now and then? Of course - he's a sinner like the rest of the characters, including Dumbledore. There's really not a single character who doesn't say or do something petty or nasty in the Harry Potter books. Anyone who has ever listened to one of JKR's interviews knows that she has a penchant for sarcasm that is almost unparalleled - the Weasley Twins came from her imagination, and so did Snape. In fact, he might be more like her than she cares to admit. But anyway - try to name one character who is without sarcasm and without flaws of one kind or another? Luna Lovegood comes close, and even Harry comes close. But JKR is a careful writer, and Harry is not an innocent child by the end of the series - he lies when he has to lie, he is brutally honest and sarcastic at times, he fights and kills when he has to, and he gets off on the Cruciatus Curse without ever showing any remorse. In effect, he's no better and no worse than Severus Snape.
Let he who is without snark and curses cast the first stone.
But what I want to talk about here is the way people critique Snape's character as if he is inconsistent and barely hanging on to the Good Side by white knuckles, when really he is the most predictable of characters, never wavering. Some want to play "Oh, Snap!" with his redemptive arc, as if the "player" in the discussion who stacks up a higher deck of negative cards will win the argument. But redemption doesn't work that way, in my opinion, and Snape wasn't a backslider, and he certainly wasn't "Damned." It's unfair to hold him to a higher standard than other characters when he had been through more than most of them and never took any credit for it. Yes it made him Cranky McCrankerson, but that certainly didn't "unredeem" him (and my spell check is telling me that isn't even a word).
It's true that we didn't know his motivation for the first six books and most of the seventh, but the clues were there all along. It's a myth that "everyone was fooled by the author" as some essayists avow. Not "everyone" was fooled, or there wouldn't have been the fierce debate in fandom for several years preceding 2007 when DH was released.
Why else would people have ordered thousands of t-shirts that read "I Trust Severus Snape"?
I could go back to Chamber of Secrets forum and show you post after post written by some brilliant people who had figured out the entire plot of Deathly Hallows long before JKR had finished writing it! No, I'm not talking about myself, because I didn't see everything coming, but others certainly did. And most of them wrote it all again on Harry Potter Network. It's all still there on the internet - look back before 2007.
Or, if you choose to dismiss us as fools and know-nothings, think about this:
There were also several famous readers and writers who guessed that there was a plot afoot between Snape and Dumbledore at the end of Half-Blood Prince.
How about Salman Rushdie, who stood up at Carnegie Hall with his son to ask JKR about Snape?
“Our theory,” said author Salman Rushdie, who rose to speak for us all at a reading Rowling gave in New York last summer, “is that Snape is, in fact, still a good guy.”
How about Orson Scott Card who wrote a lengthy essay called Who is Snape? He missed the mark in many places but was spot-on in others - not like someone who was "completely fooled" by the author.
We have seen Snape's malice and vindictiveness, but what we never see from him is actual evil. When Snape punishes Harry, it is usually for genuine offenses, and if the punishment seems excessive, it is never actually cruel. In case we miss the point, Dolores Umbridge's vicious physical punishment of Harry during detention shows us what a truly evil person might do with a position of absolute power over an annoying child.So those smart people, famous in the literary world and equals to JKR, also saw Snape's redemptive arc as possible, just as the majority of Snape fans.
My own prediction is that Snape will reveal himself to be as loyal to Dumbledore as Harry Potter himself; in fact, I go farther, and offer the thought that Rowling will have Snape give his life in the process of helping Harry Potter prevail in the final battle. There are several reasons I believe this -- though I suspect one of the major ones is simply that that is how I, as a novelist myself, would use the character of Snape.
But apparently in fandom right now there is a sort of time-turner movement to take the discussion back before 2007 and discuss Snape as if he his redemption was revoked, and as if we never saw any clue that he was a good guy. There's talk of "shades of gray" - don't you hate that phrase? - and "neither good nor bad," as if the books were still in motion and there was never a concluding volume written. That might have worked before 2007, but it doesn't work now. We know Snape was redeemed and never was this "gray" character. Complex, yes. Morally ambiguous, no.
But some people's heads will explode if you write "moral" and "Snape" in the same sentence.
This trend means that any discussion of Snape can easily become a game of "Exploding Snap" (pardon the pun, but it's JKR's pun). Certain angry readers like to pounce on the times he had a sharp tongue, or the times he didn't allow Harry to "do the one thing he wanted to do," as we saw in GoF when Harry wanted to see Dumbledore and Snape wouldn't let him into the Headmaster's Office.
"Oh, Snap!," they scream, sometimes figuratively, more often literally. "See!!! Neener, Neener ~ look how mean he is, look how he treats Harry! Look how he treats Hermione! He's unforgivable! He's Bad. He's Evil. He Sucks! He Should be Keel-Hauled and Drawn and Quartered!!! He's nothing more than a terrorist with a teaching degree!!!"
What they really seem to be saying is that if Snape isn't Mr. Nice Sensitive Guy 24 hours a day then he is suddenly on the verge of losing his redemption. One slip - one "snap" - and that's it - no more chances. It's all or nothing with them.
As one of my anonymous troll critics would say: "Forget that sweet 'Always' crap!"
Indeed, forget the Silver Doe made of light, forget that Snape was Lily's friend as a child, forget that Snape actually taught things to all the children, and concentrate on the negative. Oh, Snap!
It's as if the timeline rocks and rolls like a teeter-totter on whatever random thing Snape says that offends some reader. The "I see no difference" remark about Hermione when her buck teeth are overgrown, which can actually be considered a comparison of how badly Harry had hurt Goyle in the same duel with Malfoy. The treatment of Trevor the Toad, when Snape knew all along that Neville's shrinking solution was correct. Are these truly acts that would negate every other good thing Snape had done in his life, including the request to spare Lily that ended up giving her the choice that protected her son and let him live?
You can't take everything Snape does out of context and label it an "unredeemed" act, as if his whole character changes suddenly on a dime and he becomes possessed by the demon Beelzebub. Yes, he can be malicious, but he can also be quite noble and even kind. We never see him kick around a House Elf, for instance, as some characters did *cough* Sirius Black *cough*. And we see Winky hide behind Snape in fear of Barty Crouch, Jr.
Snape can be chivalrous, as he was to Narcissa, or friendly, as he was with McGonagall when they were colleagues. He can be extremely loyal, really his defining trait, and probably the main feeling he had towards Dumbledore and Harry. But he can also be altruistic, as when he saved Lupin's life in HBP, or when he put Sirius on a stretcher (no head bumping for his old enemy, unlike the way Sirius treated him), or when he saved Katie Bell, a girl who had nothing to do with the Order of the Phoenix or the plans for Harry.
Redemption isn't like an account that can be canceled because you missed a payment, ergo, missed a day of good works or a chance to be a Good Samaritan. But Snape is a fully revealed character by the end of the series - not always good, not always bad. He's a well-rounded complex character. He's a human character. Harry recognizes his humanity, and forgives him because of what he was fundamentally at the core of his being, not for some petty remarks in the classroom that actually caused no one any real harm.
Forgiveness, people ~ that's part of redemption. When you feel remorse, your sins are forgiven! And then your soul heals. It's in the book.
Get the timeline straight, and then it's easy to understand. When we first see Snape in Book One, he has been redeemed for over eleven years. He's been living at working at Hogwarts waiting for one day in the future - the day that Harry comes to school there. And while he certainly grilled the boy harshly on day one, and he was never a likable teacher, that alone cannot "unredeem" him. If you think Snape is a "gray" character, then why not be satisfied that perhaps he was putting on a show for the Slytherins that day, making sure his disguise as a friend to old Death Eaters like Malfoy would work. And remember that Voldemort really did show up that year, and there were reports of his living in other countries. It wasn't all fun and games, even then, and Snape was already on Harry's side, already redeemed. He actually tried to protect Harry that year, if you recall, and saved his life. Definitely a nice thing to do, even if he wasn't Mr. Nice Guy.
Possibly on that first day of Potions Class, Snape was trying to figure out if Harry had inherited all of Lily's good traits, or all of James's bad traits. However, it's just as likely that Snape was an emotional basket case that day and didn't know how to feel, having to look into the eyes of a boy he didn't know, but seeing the eyes of someone he had loved and lost.
Snape was a difficult teacher, that's for sure, and didn't care about winning over his students with friendship. And it seemed that every time he tried to interact with Harry, something interrupted or created a new controversy, so that neither could see the other clearly.
But that's JKR's whole analogy of seeing "through a glass darkly" in her epigraph. The only thing that can really make you see someone clearly is love. Find out what a person loves and you can figure them out - that is one of the main themes of the series.
And that's my final point - Snape wasn't redeemed just by "acts" alone, but by love.
In the quote JKR used at the beginning of Deathly Hallows, William Penn took the image of the dark glass from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 1, in which he describes the Greek ideal of "Agape" or unconditional love for other people. No, it's not about sex, and it's not about stealing someone's wife, or being a creeper, or whatever. It's about the fact that truly redeemed people understand the concept of love and feel it in their hearts. No single character in the book embodies all the traits of Agape, and plenty of them falter along the way or even fail, but several of them try really hard to live up to that ideal, and one of them is Severus Snape.
(I imagine some people are rolling their eyes and gagging at this point, and that's fine - if Biblical references bother you, stop reading now. If you don't believe in love, or emotions embarrass you, or you think Snape was "too mean" or too unworthy to ever know what love really was, that's fine too. Just please understand that I'm just discussing the book as a book, in a literary context, with a literary allusion to the New Testament in DH, which is actually there in the book if you'll check your copy, thanks.)
To me this is the essence of what JKR was trying to say, so I'll just end with a quote. And if you still don't get it after reading this passage, then go and play "Oh Snap!" with your little friends and leave the real discussion of redemption to the grown-ups.
1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.