When it comes to literature and film, there are countless examples of characters driven mad by limerence – epic, tragic romances of soul-scouring obsessive love. Romeo and Juliet, Dante and Beatrice, Compo and Nora.
When it comes to the most successful entertainment franchise of recent history – Harry James Potter and co. – the romance is a little uneven. A surprising number of witches and wizards seem to marry their school mates – even close friends that have grown up through puberty together. That isn’t common, and it always seemed a bit odd to me. Maybe it comes from living in a secret society.
That grumble aside, by far the most interesting romantic thread through the books and films is the undying love of Severus Snape for Lily Evans. It seems to follow the tragic limerence model, but there are some interesting variations on the theme that are worth exploring.
With full awareness that psychoanalysing fictional characters is a bit silly, let’s jump in and see what we can learn.
(N.B. for those who haven’t read the books or seen the films, this is probably going to be a bit mystifying).
Snape and Lily
At first blush, Snape’s love for Lily seems like limerence. It’s certainly obsessive, unhealthy and persistent, but it isn’t reciprocated – at least not as romantic love. Consequently, it isn’t clear from the story how much of the “positive” side of limerence Snape experienced. He obviously bonds with her, but this is before they go to Hogwarts, so it’s more about childhood adoration than romance.
Once at school, their paths diverge, but he is always there in the background, yearning.
It isn’t obvious, though, that he feels the excitement, elation and delirium of limerence. It doesn’t seem as though he is getting high from her company – it is more about the loss of a friend he was devoted to, than giddy desire to be with her.
There is jealousy too, of the bullies who win over Lily and weaken their old bond, but there never really seems to be an erotic or lustful aspect to Snape’s desire. It is more spiritual than carnal. He idealises and idolises Lily, whilst she cares for him and regrets the growing distance between them.
What are Snape’s triggers?
Most limerents have a type – a personality, temperament, or physical trait in their limerent object that calls to them. For Snape, it seemed to be a desire to be rescued.
It isn’t explicit in the books, as far as I remember, but it is certainly implicit that Snape had a deprived childhood. He was neglected, isolated, lonely (possibly abused?). When he met Lily Evans he wore ragged clothes, had no other friends, but importantly had something that Lily valued: knowledge about the magical world that she had only just discovered.
All through the books, the point is made that Lily was an exceptionally caring and empathetic person. She was Snape’s first (and only?) friend. The first person to show him affection. The first person that he bonded with. She quickly became the most important relationship in his life.
With such a desperate craving for love, his fate was sealed. Psychotherapists would say his obsession has all the hallmarks of a rescue fantasy.
In terms of heritage, Snape is a mirror of Voldemort. He is magically talented, and knows it, proudly adopting a noble alter ego (the Half Blood Prince). He is also friendless, forced into self-sufficiency from a young age, and introverted to the point of misanthropy.
The brooding introvert mindset is characterised by obsessive rumination – locked in a mental world stewing with resentments, grandiosity, alienation, secrecy. That can lead to dark places, psychologically, and Snape of course succumbs, joining Voldemort’s Deatheaters, driven in part by hatred of James Potter for taking Lily from him and anger at his loss of hope.
But, there is also an unmistakable pathos and dignity to his secret devotion. He doesn’t turn against Lily, or try to harm her or her family. Once he discovers that Voldemort intends to kill her son, he becomes a double agent at great personal peril – deadly peril, as it turns out.
Ultimately, therefore, Snape is redeemed by his love for Lily, and that is the point at which his fate at last diverges from Voldemort. His sacrifice is remembered, and his legacy lives on through Harry, whereas Voldemort – incapable of love – is doomed forever.
So is it limerence?
I’d say so. The idealisation is there, the relationship that exists more in his internal fantasies than in reality. The total devotion. I think Snape is a tortured soul, struck with unrequited limerence for a good LO.
It’s a story arc that is both tragic and redemptive, and has a kind of terrible momentum and irresistible fate. It’s the most affecting part of the story for me, and feels true in an archetypal way…
Unlike Ron and Hermione.
That one is just inexplicable.
I don’t think psychoanalysing fictional characters is silly at all. You get to dig as deep as you want, guilt free. (With real people, there’s a moral grey zone there.)
BUT, Snape does have some behaviors that seem inconsistent with limerence, at least to me. Maybe you can provide some perspective on these.
Snape had started to dabble in the Dark Arts and started hanging out with people who would eventually become Death Eaters long before Lily started hating James. (Case in point: when Harry is seeing Snape’s memories after his death, in one scene, Lily is very concerned and very disapproving of Severus’ interest in the Dark Arts and the company he keeps. And in the same scene she calls James an arrogant toe rag or something like that.) Wouldn’t a limerent be desperate for approval from their LO and hence try to avoid things their LO didn’t approve of?
And there’s of course the infamous scene of the memory Harry saw in his fifth year, when Lily came to help Severus after he was bullied by James and Severus publicly humiliated her by calling her a mudblood. We later find out (from Snape’s memories after he died) that he did beg for forgiveness, but that was the end of the line for Lily. She said that she can’t stand the people he associates with or the kinds of beliefs he touts – the kind of belief that led him to insult her like that in public. And if he is ashamed by her blood status in front his “friends” she can’t be friends with him any more. Since then, they haven’t spoken to each other, although he continued to “carry a flame for her”. That also seems like something I wouldn’t quite expect a limerent to do to their LO?
(And this all happened at least 2 years before James and Lily started dating, because we’re told they only started dating in their final year of Hogwarts.)
What do you think?
(Also, I just realized, were you by chance limiting your analysis to the movies? If so, then my questions wouldn’t apply because I was asking about material from the books that are not in the movies.)
Dr L says
Yes, good point, that’s an important moment. I took that as him lashing out in his humiliation, but it was a moment in which he deliberately hurt Lily. But that surface-level resentment and self sabotage didn’t shift his true feelings for her. I guess it was him trying to find an identity that he could live with, but it of course destroyed the one true friendship he had had.
(btw I wasn’t limiting myself the movies, but have to admit that my memories of them are stronger, and Snape is a more sympathetic character in the films).
Allie 1 says
We do feel angry with our LOs occasionally though don’t we. And can become tempted to act out those feelings… romantic rejection can do that to you, however good and innocent the LO might be.
Really enjoyed this article DrL. Am a big fan of this franchise, and Snape is by far the most interesting character, both in the books and the films.
Yup… I truly can’t really imagine anyone having passionate feelings for Ron Weasley! I guess his story is very Harry centric, so we don’t see the time Ron & Hermione spend alone together during the school holidays, when Harry is confined to Privet Drive.
Totally off-topic, but I personally felt that Ron and Hermione made more sense to me in the books, but the movies ruined that by turning Ron into a total useless idiot. The movies took all the good characteristics of Ron and gave them to Hermione and they took all Hermione’s weaknesses and threw them out the window, and they added some more negative characteristics to Ron, so obviously they seem like a pair that makes no sense at all. But in the 5th book (which I’ve read on repeat) I could feel they were slowly slipping into a couple. The 6th book rushed it a little bit and threw in too much teenage drama imo.
But that being said, it is also very weird to me that witches and wizards tend to marry so young and tend to marry their school mates. (I guess since everyone goes to the same school, you’d have to marry a schoolmate unless you go abroad or marry a Muggle.)
Yes! I, for one, have been angry at LO on multiple occasions. To me this made perfect sense! People are many times full of contradictions and Snape’s feelings for Lily contradicted with his views. It’s like an inner clash… and he did become a double agent risking his own life and his own beliefs that he had seemed to have abandoned.
Hahaha you’re brave Dr L!
It’s been a long time since I read the books where there is always a richer backstory and so my impressions are mainly based on the films which my daughter has made me watch many, many times….
It did cross my mind about Snape being limerent, although I felt like it’s one of those things that once you see it you see it everywhere.
I think it’s certainly unrequited love, she saw him as a friend and he loved her in what seemed to be an unconditional way. Snape seemed to be a pretty obsessive character by nature so it could well be limerent, at least at one point. But his love for Lily seemed to be persistent for his whole life. He’d be what, 50 when he died? And he loved her since he was a child. Seems to span a greater length than a typical LE.
Dr L says
Agreed, but he did seem to mentally romanticise Lily into an “ideal woman” fantasy figure as a way of coping with the rejection. After she died, that ideal would only get stronger. Given his difficulty in forming relationships with anyone else, I always saw it as his way of neutralising the pain (turn the limerent desire into a spiritual, distant love).
But you are also right that I see limerence everywhere these days 😉
Limerent Emeritus says
Throw in a few footnotes and you’ve given some sophomore a great character analysis for a Lit class.
Not having seen any of the movies or read any of the books, I give it a B+.
Limerent Emeritus says
Not knowing anything about the franchise, I took a “Which Harry Potter Character Are You Quiz?” https://www.buzzfeed.com/marietelling/which-harry-potter-character-are-you
I’m Sirius Black.
I have no idea what that means. I’ll ask my daughter if she agrees.
Dr L says
Ha, ha. I’m Hermione.
Limerent Emeritus says
My daughter said that I’m self-serving enough to be Sirius Black but totally lacking his coolness.
What does she know..?
Allie 1 says
Hermione for me too.
You have to have read the books to take the quiz. I didn’t know what at least a third of the questions were referring to.
That said, there are lots of really sexy, dramatic and tragic movies/books/songs, etc. about limerence.
The movie/book “Damage” comes to mind. From the 90s. And the Juliette Binoche character is the perfect dark LO.
Allie 1 says
Oh yes! I remember “Damage”… a great movie… so very dark. The intensity of some of the scenes really stays with you – I think some of my most intense limerent reveries are partly inspired by their first time together 😉
Yes, that’s a hot scene. But I think the hottest part is that they meet … and it’s game on. They both know it, and there’s no hesitation, fear, tentative dance, putting out the feelers, push/pull, etc. She calls him at his office after meeting him very briefly in person and he says, “Give me your address.”
Limerent Emeritus says
I never saw the movie but I looked at its Wiki page. There’s a scene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BK5bbwPqT-Q where Ana says:
“Damaged people are dangerous. They know how to survive.”
Considering how old she is, she’s one very smart woman. I kind of always knew that but I was a whole lot older before I really understood and appreciated it.
I think the movie is really hot.
Movie reviewer Roger Ebert wrote of it: “‘Damage’ is on those rare movies that is about sexuality, not sex; about the tension between people, not relationships.”
The viewer has to be open to that.
Limerent Emeritus says
“Damage” came out in January, 1993.
Watching the trailer, I don’t see it as something that would have appealed to me at the time. I’m really sure it wouldn’t have appealed to my then 27 year old wife. My guess is that it still wouldn’t.
I’ve never had that kind of attraction to anyone in RL. However, the thread brought back a memory of a dream I had not all that long after I got married. The dream was about a really intense encounter I had with some woman. I woke up thinking:
“I have no idea of who that woman is but, if I ever encounter her, I’m in big trouble.”
It’s funny what you remember.
But, to date, no encounter.
The book came out in 1991 and I remember reading an excerpt from it in a magazine. It fascinated me then, and I was about 20.
I’ve never met someone for whom I wanted to blow up and ruin my whole life (which is what the main character does), but I have met people and knew within seconds it was going to lead to sex. One was an LO. The room was practically spinning when I met him. And it was pretty much game on when I went over his house.
But for him I think it was just access to regular, convenient sex that kept it going for months. He didn’t have to keep going out and looking for it. For me, he rocked my world, but it wasn’t mutual.
That’s why the book is fiction … and written by a woman. 🙂
Allie 1 says
I am curious Marcia.. what was it about that LO that had you spinning? What it really him, as you did not know him at that point? Or was it something subtle about him (looks, mannerisms, conversation, attire, facial expression, etc) that provoked an internally created perception of him that hit your limerent triggers?
I ask as while I have found some guys kinda attractive at first observation, I have never been quickly strongly attracted thus struggle to even imagine feeling that way about a stranger. I rather envy this, would have made meeting guys so much simpler!
Alas, my feelings for someone usually build subconsciously over time as I get to know them, until it suddenly hits me that I love them… my desire then sky-rockets, I fall irreversibly into infatuation and totally lose all ability to have an actual conversation with them… gaah!
“I am curious Marcia.. what was it about that LO that had you spinning? ”
Idk. Isn’t that the way a lot of men experience physical attraction? I don’t mean that the room is spinning … but that it’s pretty immediate? They’re into you or they’re not?
“What it really him, as you did not know him at that point? Or was it something subtle about him (looks, mannerisms, conversation, attire, facial expression, etc) that provoked an internally created perception of him that hit your limerent triggers?”
I guess internally created limerent triggers. He was ok-looking guy but nothing spectacular. But he had no fear. So different than the other guys I went to college with. He had some game. He made it clear he was interested and when I went to his house, we went to his room. No making b.s. conversation for 3 hours in the living room! 🙂 He was also trying to make it as an artist and was very determined and had a strong sense of self. I was intrigued with that. He was so different than my family — get a degree, get a job, get your 20-year-pin.
“Alas, my feelings for someone usually build subconsciously over time ”
Mine actually diminish the more I know someone. The attraction part, anyway. What kept it going with this guy was that it was only sexual. I never really got to know him that well.
And he was the first guy I really liked to have sex with and I was limerent. I wasn’t going to walk away from all that, despite the fact I wanted more from him.
Snape definitely idealised Lily to perhaps an unhealthy extreme in his head, and had some kind of an obsession with her, but I somehow don’t think he was addicted to her? Like, after their friendship fell apart, they went their separate ways, and while he still carried a torch for her, it doesn’t seem like he sought her out anymore. Nor does it seem to me he felt any acute need for reciprocation from Lily. And he hated James, yes, but that might have had more to do with the fact that James used to bully him?
And sure, he was unable to form any other romantic attachments, but his attachment with Lily was only borderline romantic, and it’s possible that Snape wasn’t all that much romantically inclined anyway. (Also, if you think of the book only, i.e. remove Alan Rickman from your head, I have a hard time imagining anyone being interested in Snape … he’s just so … awkward and unpleasant.)
Love this post (and the Harry Potter series)! I re-read the books recently – with my kids – and, now knowing about limerence, it did make think of that with Snape and Lily. Heartbreaking.
Snape has always been my favorite HP character 😊
Dr. L (or anyone else) have you seen the 1999 film Onegin? It illustrates limerence perfectly to me.
One of the quotes that particularly speaks to me:
“You interpret my heart, my nature, as you wish to believe it. In truth, I have no secret longing to be saved from myself.”
Also this one (can you tell I’m watching it right now?)
“No, day by day to be with you, follow you everywhere, alive to every smile, each movement of your eyes, to dwell upon you soul’s perfection, listen to your voice and grow faint with yearning. That is bliss and I’m cut off from it. My time is short, each day and hour is precious yet I just drag myself around in boredom. Everyday a desert unless when I wake up I know the day will bring a glimpse of you. If you but knew the flames that burn in me, which I attempt to beat down with my reason, but let it be. I cannot struggle against my feelings anymore, I am entirely in your will.”
Dr L says
Yes, great film.
The irony, of course, is that he did want to be saved from himself. He just couldn’t admit it until it was too late.
In fact, isn’t that Tatyana’s last line? “You are too late!”
Limerent Emeritus says
“The irony, of course, is that he did want to be saved from himself. He just couldn’t admit it until it was too late.”
Don’t we all?
I didn’t want to save LO #2. I wanted her to save me. She seemed so worldly and sophisticated. I was willing to go wherever she was willing to take me. As I learned more about her, I found that she wasn’t all there were some areas in which she knew very little and had an almost childlike naivete. I was like, “Really..? If you know that, how can you not know this?”
I got the same vibe from LO #4.
In my response to her goodbye, I told LO #4, “You think by now I would quit relying on other people to save me from myself but, apparently, that hasn’t happened, yet.”
But, I’m getting close!
Limerent Emeritus says
” As I learned more about her, I found that she wasn’t all there were some areas in which she knew very little and had an almost childlike naivete. ”
I got interrupted by a call.
” As I learned more about her, I found that she wasn’t all that sophisticated and there were some areas in which she knew very little and had an almost childlike naivete.”