[content warning: rape]
[spoiler warning: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar]
I have recently read or, rather, inhaled the Vorkosigan Saga. The character of Sergeant Bothari is similar to Severus Snape
Bothari is, in many ways, a terrible person. He has raped multiple people, tortured many more, and murdered still more. He delusionally believes that he is married to a female prisoner of war and repeatedly rapes her.
Snape, similarly, is not a good man. One need only consider his nigh-abusive treatment of Neville Longbottom– a child whose parents were literally tortured into insanity, but whose biggest fear is Snape. He seeks petty revenge on Remus Lupin for a prank decades earlier that wasn’t actually his fault, getting Lupin fired from his job; his actions lead to increased stigma against werewolves which causes discriminatory legislation to be passed that, among other things, prevents them from finding jobs.
Both Bothari and Snape are sympathetic as well. Snape has an abusive childhood and is bullied horribly in school. His passion for Lily, a woman who never returned his affections, is put in a different light when you realize it’s very possible Lily was the first person who was ever nice to him.
Bothari is schizophrenic and undermedicated. Although stable and functional when in the service of the Vorkosigans, his mental health falls apart when he works for the sadistic torturers and rapists Ges Vorrutyer and Prince Serg (the latter of whom is so awful his father the emperor engineers a war to get him killed). Bothari is as much a victim of sexual violence as a perpetrator: he did not exactly get a whole lot of choice in whether he would commit the rapes he was ordered to commit.
The thing that interests me about both Bothari and Snape is their moment of redemption. They are horrible people, violent and pointlessly cruel.
But both of them have a little bit of light. Not a whole lot of light, mind you. One tiny, gleaming virtue that has managed to survive the muck of their lives. For Bothari, it is his perverse loyalty to Aral Vorkosigan; when ordered to rape Cordelia by Vorrutyer, he recognizes that she belongs to Aral Vorkosigan, refuses, and kills Vorrutyer instead. For Snape, it is his love for Lily; he spies on the Dark Lord himself, one of the world’s greatest telepaths, risking torture or worse, in honor of her memory.
I don’t mean to say that either of those are particularly good motivations. I don’t think that women belong to men who have asked to marry them, and I think it is probably wise to get over people when they reject you instead of devoting the rest of your life to honoring them. But I think it’s a lot to ask someone who’s generally sort of evil to have a completely decent moral system. And the core of their morality is good: honor, love.
Neither Bothari nor Snape becomes a good person afterward, which is remarkably realistic. People who make a habit of being kind of evil will no doubt continue to be kind of evil. Both Bothari’s rapes that he wasn’t coerced into and Snape’s bullying of children and attacking of Remus Lupin happen after their moment of redemption. Bothari, once medicated and in a more stable environment, becomes something approaching a good person; Snape, perhaps because Albus Dumbledore is a lot less awesome than Cordelia Vorkosigan, never does.
It is something I can only call grace. A person can wind up trapped in the muck, hurting others and hurt themselves; it seems as though everything good inside them has been crushed, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a redeeming feature. And then something happens to tug on that one little bit of good left in their soul, a bit they maybe don’t even remember they have themselves, and… they are heroes. And it doesn’t fix anything, they’re still the same people they were before, they still hurt people, but they do this one astonishing piece of good that perhaps even they didn’t realize they were capable of. I like stories about that. It gives me hope. No matter how trapped you are in hell, you can still have the moment of heaven.