Snape: The Abject Hero

In chapter 7 of Karen Coats’ book entitled Looking Glasses and Neverlands, we are exposed to the culmination of the book as a whole. In each chapter, up to this point, Coats has been unfolding her study of children’s literature, using Jacques Lacan as a foundation for her work. In the last chapter, called, “Abjection and Adolescent Fiction,” Coats moves away from her usual format of including and explaining multiple Lacanian themes and instead focuses on one primarily: abjection, and its prevalence in adolescent literature.

Coats jumps right in, in chapter seven, immediately illustrating her thesis on page 138, using the bone-chilling example of the Columbine shootings in 1999. According to Coats, both Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the shooters at Columbine, embodied what it means to be abject; an outsider. In Coat’s own words, abject individuals are those who have “an intensely ambivalent relationship toward the walls that prevent him or her from fitting in.” (138) Coats goes on to add that, often times, the constant tension of hating those who possess social connections, at the same time as desiring those connections for oneself, results in violence or aggression. Essentially, abjection means to “operate at the social rim.” (138) Additionally, those who push others into the realm of the abject tend to view those individuals as not “clean and proper,” but anathemas to their own social realm.

But in chapter 7, Coats does not simply define abjection, painting it like an inherent unhealthy thing. Instead, she focuses on its prevalence in adolescent fiction and the ways by which those who are abject can escape the confines of abjection. One of her examples of abjection in adolescent literature is the story called Whirligig. Written by Paul Fleischman, Whirligig follows a character named Brent Bishop, a teenager who could be considered both “socially abject…and psychologically abject” (152). In the story, Brent Bishop embodies abjection. As is common with most abject adolescents, Brent has moved from state to state, and finds himself continually in doubt as to where he is. As Coats puts it, “With every move, he checks to make sure the proper ear is pierced, the proper clothes available, the proper hairstyle effected.” Brent embodies abjection, and is even visually abject when he shows up to a party dressed in the “wrong” attire. When his attempts at winning over a girl he likes fail, Brent reaches his limits of humiliation – of not fitting in to that social realm in which he desires to fit – and leaves the party in anger. On his way home, Brent closes his eyes while driving his car, in an attempt to commit suicide. He crashes into another car, but ends up surviving. The other driver, a girl named Lea, however does not. But this is where the transformation takes place.

As restitution for his act, Lea’s mother asks Brent to construct four whirligigs and to take them to the four corners of the U.S. In doing so, Brent encounters Lea through his artwork, and ends up breaking through the realm of abjection and into acceptance by other artists and eventually shares his story with others, accepting his place in the human community.

Though Coats focuses much on the realm of abjection, she also offers, as we see through this piece of fiction, avenues through which the abject individual can escape abjection. Among others, art and religion are the most prolific, Coats says.

Coats then uses the rest of her chapter to give other examples, and finally to posit that adolescent literature is filled with the abject, to not only appeal to adolescents, but to also help them cope with their own abjection.

But abjection goes beyond Coat’s study, and can be found, also, in countless modern works of fiction. Take, for example, the Harry Potter series. For anyone who is familiar with the series, the first assumption would be to label the title character Harry as abject. His parents died long ago, he was raised but an unloving, spiteful family, and the world of Magic is so unique and unknown to Harry that he is essentially abject, especially in the first few books of the series. But as we read through the series and encounter other important characters, we see that Harry is not, at his core, abject. Instead, I would propose that it is Snape, the (in)famous professor at Hogwarts that is one of the most abject characters of J.K. Rowling’s magical universe.

When he was at school himself, Snape thought he had found a new life. He was in a place where his kind – wizards and witches – were not only accepted but were the norm. But as he manoeuvred his way through his studies, Snape not only grew dreadfully apart from his friend Lily Evans (Harry’s mother) but was made into a spectacle by many of his Gryffindor rivals. Through this constant rivalry, Snape grew up apart from friendship, only forming relationships with a select few. His abject nature continued throughout his whole life, primarily during his double-agent duties that made him both a heroic stalwart and hated, back-stabber (the latter being falsely labelled) to many. In the end, Snape not only gives his life in service of Dumbledore and Hogwarts, but proves that one cannot judge solely based on perception, and that abject individuals, though outsiders in their own right, not only serve their own purpose in fiction, but help to prove the point that being different is indeed not entirely a bad thing.

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