The series may be about Harry Potter, but through all seven books, the key to the story is Snape. Whether he’s showing his Dark Mark to Fudge, killing Dumbledore, or telling Harry, “Look…at…me,” the story turns on his revelations. As J.K. Rowling said in a 1999 interview, “Everyone should keep their eye on Snape.”
Just as consistently, Hermione is the series’ reader, the mystery-solver through whose viewpoint Rowling shows us how to decode her story. She figures out the logic puzzle in Book 1, the identity of the monster in Book 2, the sign of the Deathly Hallows in Book 7, and most amusingly, in Book 3, the name of the man asleep on the Hogwarts Express. It is automatic in Hermione’s nature to read texts or understand clues when she encounters them, just as it is in Crabbe’s and Goyle’s natures to eat chocolate puddings they find in the hall.
So, if Snape is the story and Hermione the reader, how does that set up the relationship between them? Their dynamic is established in three episodes in Sorcerer’s Stone: the first day of Potions class, the trio’s plan to get past Fluffy, and the solution to the logic puzzle. It’s summed up in Harry’s words, when he assigns Hermione “to keep an eye on Snape” and says later to Ron, “At least Hermione’s on Snape’s tail.” This remains Hermione’s role regarding Snape throughout the series.
Let’s look at those three moments.
His introductory speech is such a classic of torturous ecstasy that it’s worth another look. We can feel Hermione’s responses surging with each cadence.
“You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making,” he begins, and she must be feeling the scholar’s first-day thrill. But then there is the pre-emptive dismissal that hints at long personal disappointment when he continues, “I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron….” Sensitive, ambitious Hermione surely wishes to assure the man that if the beauty is there, she will understand it; she will please him with her performance. He continues with alluring promises spoken almost to himself followed by a rejection like a thunderclap: “I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death – if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.”
Some of us, like Harry and Ron did, might raise our eyebrows at those words, but Hermione seems to hear them as an invitation or even a plea: “Hermione Granger was on the edge of her seat and looked desperate to start proving that she wasn’t a dunderhead.”
Snape then quizzes Harry on wolfsbane, bezoars, and Draught of Living Death, all of which figure later in the story. Hermione signals wildly for his attention, but he will not look at her, will not speak to her, acknowledges her (“Sit down”) only when Harry names her. His ignoring her is proof that he sees her.
Of course Hermione has the answers; she memorized the textbooks over the summer. Ah. Perhaps these examples came to Snape’s mind “suddenly” because these were things that he, too, knew at this age. Perhaps he has registered that this girl’s mind is like his, even if he won’t engage it. Certainly, he has registered her faith in textbooks; this will come up between them again.
Ron, Harry, and Hermione count on Snape’s tendency not to look at Hermione when they plot to get past Fluffy. Their anti-Snape strategy is foreshadowed when Harry sees Filch tending Snape’s bloodied leg while Snape snarls, “How are you supposed to keep your eyes on all three heads at once?” The three friends split up – that’s how they try to fight Snape -- and Hermione is assigned to keep watch over him. This first time, the child is no match for the master spy, who is on to her and converses with her for the only time in Book 1:
“I’m sorry, Harry!” she wailed. “Snape came out and asked me what I was doing, so I said I was waiting for Flitwick, and Snape went to get him, and I’ve only just got away. I don’t know where Snape went.”
As early as Book 2, though, we see this three-headed strategy work, when Hermione steals from Snape’s stores unsuspected while Ron and Harry distract him.
This encounter with Snape and Flitwick introduces one of Hermione’s major themes in the series. We only catch glimpses of this, through moments when it intersects with Harry’s narrative, but this is the first time we see that the Hogwarts staff recognizes Hermione’s need for an independent study track.
Harry worries that Ron and Hermione might get expelled for accompanying him through the trapdoor.
“Not if I can help it,” said Hermione grimly. “Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and twelve percent on his exam. They’re not going to throw me out after that.”
It’s a startling moment. The teachers are communicating secretly with Hermione, in a way they never do with average scholars like Ron and Harry? Yes, and she knows they recognize her as something special, and she’s almost like a peer of theirs in the mature way she keeps quiet about her status. The word “grimly” makes an impact, too. Hermione’s been a little girl in this volume, screaming at trolls, but this is our first sight of the powerful woman Hermione will soon become.
The Snape/Hermione dynamic is set, finally, through the logic puzzle guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone. I like to imagine the staff meeting, sometime after the Mirror of Erised has been installed over Christmas break, when the teachers planned their contributions. Clearly, the protections aren’t designed to keep adult wizards away from the Stone, except for Fluffy and the mirror; they are tests, year-end exams for Harry and his friends, to see if they have learned the lessons of working together. Sprout makes sure they were paying attention in class; Flitwick has already taken note of Harry’s flying ability ; the kids have already proven themselves against a troll…. Uh-oh. Consternation in the staffroom: What skill will they highlight for Ron? Erm…eating? Jokes? CHESS! Oh, thank goodness! The child from a large family can cover the concept of strategic self-sacrifice to support loved ones. And that leaves…
“I’ll handle Miss Granger,” I imagine the sneering voice saying from the corner.
So he has been paying attention to her, after all. He’s observed the way her mind works. He knows she will be with Harry until the very last stage. What can he construct to underscore how much Harry needs her? He brews the potions, selects the bottles for her, composes the rhyming verse.
Hermione’s first judgment of Snape was correct, her first instance of defending him, when she said he wouldn’t set a troll loose. But then she misinterpreted his actions at the Quidditch match, misled by her reliance on book-learning: “I know a jinx when I see one, Hagrid, I’ve read all about them!” She sets his robes on fire, thinking he’ll never know, using the same bluebell flames the kids hope Snape doesn’t see when she conjures them in the courtyard. Rowling reminds us of the flames when Hermione uses them against Devil’s Snare. And then, in the potions puzzle, there they are: colored flames. Yes, he has noticed. He knows her magical signature. Okay, child: you want to play with fire? I will speak to you in that code, then.
So Hermione comes upon the puzzle, and wonder of wonders, it relaxes her: “Hermione let out a great sigh and Harry, amazed, saw that she was smiling, the very last thing he felt like doing.” This is what it looks like when Snape teaches her Potions at last, designs for her an independent study. This is a puzzle she will enjoy because it is worthy of her: the dangers, including poison and entrapment, are mortal, but her certainty of the answer is absolute. For her, he will not teach in the classroom; he is preparing her directly for real life. And she utters the happy sentence that sums up Rowling’s message to the reader about how to understand Snape and the series through Hermione’s eyes: “Everything we need is here on this paper.”
Then she takes a long drink of the potion he has brewed, shudders, and tells Harry no, it’s not poison – “but it’s like ice.” From now on, she will know. Snape is aware of her, but she is not to address him, nor to draw any comfort from the likeness of their minds, nor to expect nurturing. He is a spy and she a reader; were they to communicate, his story – the story – would be in danger of ending too soon. He will observe what he needs to know, and may send messages or provide independent lessons, but she is not to respond or expect acknowledgment. She gets the message.
At the beginning of the Chamber of Secrets school year, Hermione turns 13. She is almost a year older than Harry, she is mature for her age, and girls start puberty earlier than boys anyway: she has entered adolescence, approximately two years before Ron and Harry will. True to theme, the boys don’t exhibit adolescent crush behavior until they see veela in Book 4, but Hermione does here with the male equivalent: Gilderoy Lockhart, the anti-Snape, who is all shine and no substance.
The onset of adolescence is the time to introduce the topic of prejudice against Muggle-borns because any prejudice about race-mixing and purity is about sexuality, and the women of the oppressed group are under particular danger. We won’t know it until Book 7, but this is the beginning of the major theme of Snape’s story in the second half of his life: Can he use his second chance to repair the rift in the world caused by his betrayal of Lily Evans, when his own love and desire were not enough to turn him away from those who would kill her? What can he do to ensure that this generation does better than he did, that Draco won’t cause his classmates’ deaths and the Muggle-borns won’t be betrayed by their half-blood and pure-blood friends?
As Snape is well aware, the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts professor is essentially empty this year. From what Rowling shows us of Lockhart’s tendency to take credit for others’ ideas, we see his statement that “Professor Dumbledore has granted me permission to start this little dueling club” means that Dumbledore and Snape have suggested the club, knowing this will give Snape the chance to teach disarming to the students most likely to fight as the school grows polarized about the attacks against Muggle-borns.
Snape doesn’t look at or speak to Hermione any more in this book than he did in Book 1, so he never does figure out that she’s the one who steals Polyjuice ingredients after passing into his storeroom, undetected. But as usual, we know he is aware of her because he ignores her. During a Potions class after Hermione is Petrified, we see him “making no comment about Hermione’s empty seat and cauldron.” Snape smirks as Draco suggests he should replace Dumbledore as Headmaster.”
“I’m quite surprised the Mudbloods haven’t all packed their bags by now,” Malfoy went on. “Bet you five Galleons the next one dies. Pity it wasn’t Granger –“
The bell rang at that moment, which was lucky; at Malfoy’s last words, Ron had leapt off his stool, and in the scramble to collect bags and books, his attempts to reach Malfoy went unnoticed.
It’s a classic Rowling touch to give us the bell ringing instead of the ringing inside Snape’s head, and to let us know, with her careful use of the passive voice in “went unnoticed,” that Snape was not about to interfere with a boy’s feelings for his Muggle-born friend, even at the expense of a Slytherin’s safety.
When Harry and Ron visit the Petrified Hermione in the Hospital Wing, they find that Hermione was awaiting them with the solution clutched in her hand. But it was up to them to do their part, come to her and find it. She can’t do this alone; they are privileged, half-blood and pure-blood, and she needs their help.
This enforced passivity, powerlessness, and the sleep-like quality of being Petrified recall the enchanted sleep of pubescent heroines from Muggle fairy tales such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – one of the two, along with “Cinderella,” that Hermione mentions in Book 7. The connection is echoed in Rowling’s use of the object McGonagall finds near the Petrified bodies of Hermione and Penelope Clearwater, the Muggle-born Ravenclaw prefect: “a small, circular mirror.” Harry speculates that Hermione warned people to look around corners with mirrors to protect themselves from the basilisk’s stare, and “that girl pulled out her mirror,” but in fact, we don’t know who owned the mirror – it was near both girls, telling us that it’s what they have in common, their pubescent Muggle-born femininity, that made them both vulnerable.
Will Hermione make it through adolescence safely, through this rite of passage? In Muggle tales, the thing that awakens Snow White is the kiss of the Prince. But that won’t be enough in this world. In Rowling’s world, it’s the desire of the privileged to join forces with the powerless, to fight alongside and for them, that throws off the curse. When Lockhart proclaims that he can brew the Mandrake Restorative Draught in his sleep and Snape hastily intercedes by growling, “I believe I am the Potions Master at this school,” we see that it is not romantic fiction from Prince Charming but the strategic choices of the Half-Blood Prince that give Hermione what she needs.
Final exams are cancelled at the end of Chamber of Secrets, to Hermione’s dismay; there are free periods during Defense Against the Dark Arts, since there is no teacher, but the children practice Expelliarmus on the train ride home. Just surviving the schisms of the school year has been equivalent to passing exams for the students – except for Hermione. She never talks about it directly to the boys, but she has learned this year how close she is to death as a Muggle-born, how dependent she is on her friends to understand her vulnerability and be willing to fight for her life. Once again, her curriculum differs from theirs, and not only because she has brewed from Moste Potente Potions. In an almost throwaway line, tucked into a humorous paragraph about choosing classes for third year, we see that “Hermione took nobody’s advice but signed up for everything.” Her track has diverged farther from Harry’s and Ron’s, closer to the rift that Snape is trying to repair. The stage has been set for her Time-Turner year.
Hermione’s independent studies begin in earnest in Prisoner of Azkaban, spurred by the near-deaths of Muggle-born students the previous year. What studies are so urgent that they require a Time-Turner from the Ministry? It’s not about general scholarship or Hermione would not have dropped Divination, destroying her chances of earning 12 O.W.L.s like Bill Weasley. Judging from her work this year on Buckbeak’s legal case, Harry’s Firebolt, and Lupin’s secret, it seems that McGonagall and Hermione have set an accelerated curriculum of defense and social equality.
It’s an intense year for everybody. The reappearance of Sirius Black and Remus Lupin puts Snape in a relentless flashback to his bullied teen years; his hyper-vigilant glances at Harry and Neville show that he expects James and Wormtail at any moment. He’s at his nastiest in this volume. His bullying put-down of Neville to Lupin is probably the worst thing we see him do to a student.
He lashes out at Hermione in two episodes: his substitute class for Lupin and the confrontation in the Shrieking Shack. He calls her “an insufferable know-it-all,” making her cry. Yet Hermione never seems to bear Snape the slightest grudge, gamely persisting in her helpful attitude despite his attempts to suppress communication from her. How can she still be open to him?
In Lupin’s class, he punishes Hermione for speaking out of turn and ignores her hand in the air when he sneers at the class for not knowing about werewolves. He is, of course, reminding Hermione that the class isn’t meant for her and she is interfering with his attempt to teach the others, but he’s pushing her, too; his nastiness to them makes it harder for her to resist shielding them from his ridicule. He taunts the students, saying that he’d expect first-years to know the things they’re studying with Lupin.
And there’s the answer, buried deep by the author but still visible: Hermione’s anger.
She agrees with Snape.
She’s too kind to say so, but of course she must be angry. Everyone was supposed to be like her at Hogwarts. Hogwarts was supposed to be better than Spinner’s End. But no. Everyone is still far behind Hermione, bullies still pick on Snape, and few people appreciate the beauty of magical learning. The werewolf assignment from page 394 turns out to reach only Hermione, after all. She can’t resist a lofty “tuh” when Ron hasn’t figured out Lupin’s illness; her anger actually breaks through a few times in this volume. In her relief to hear the sarcastic professor express the feelings she shares, no, perhaps his poor behavior is not that important to her.
Snape, knowing Hermione’s abilities, sets her on Lupin, and Lupin acknowledges her brilliance bitterly, saying Snape will be “delighted” she solved his mystery and calling her, with a forced laugh, “the cleverest witch of your age.” But here we see Snape’s dilemma. His own secrets are sure to be legible to Hermione if she sees them. So even as Snape recognizes her as the one ally who listens to him and believes his motives might be pure, he must push her away with gentle warnings like “KEEP QUIET, YOU STUPID GIRL!”
Having established these firm boundaries, the author ramps up the awareness between them. Once she secures Hermione as the one character who thinks Snape might be right or good – about Lupin, about the Wolfsbane, about Sirius Black getting past the dementors, -- she shows Snape’s rage at being discredited or misunderstood, his yearning to be believed. When he is unconscious, she shows that Hermione is the only one to care; “What about Professor Snape?” she asks, while the others enjoy his discomfort.
Most powerfully of all, Hermione shows herself willing to follow Snape where Lily, we learn later, would not: she sees that Lupin is a werewolf. What’s more, her mind is catching up to Snape’s. By the time of the assignment (which, true to pattern, Snape never receives ), she has already figured out Lupin’s boggart, so Snape’s message only confirms her own thinking.
Hermione would believe in Snape. She would see him. But that’s not what Snape’s second chance is for. He is here to protect Harry, not to heal his old wounds; Hermione must not tempt him with her understanding. He has to be knocked out cold before she is permitted to “star[e] at the lifeless Snape with frightened eyes” on the floor of the Shrieking Shack or say, thousands of pages before Snape asks for it, “Harry, look at Snape!” She is marking the moment for us all; when it returns, four years later, she will be ready to conjure the flask that receives all his truths.
It is through the Time-Turner that Rowling gives Hermione the ability to understand Snape and yet keep her distance. Hermione knows the rules: you must not be seen. You must make the change you have come to make, and be tempted by no other. She knows how it looks when someone is doing this and cannot explain. She has repaired one thing in Snape’s past: a Gryffindor Muggle-born has believed him about Lupin. She has shown that she can keep a secret like Lupin’s if she believes it to be right. Should she ever recognize that Snape is, in a way, turning time to repair his rift with Lily, she will know to keep his cover.
Hermione’s independent projects continue in Goblet of Fire with S.P.E.W. She also faces, like Harry or a fairy-tale heroine, three extracurricular challenges, and all have something to do with Snape.
The first challenge comes when Snape, instead of sending Hermione to the Hospital Wing for her hexed teeth, says coldly, “I see no difference,” while her Slytherin classmates laugh. It’s a wonder that Hermione ever respects Snape again. We can see that he is partly getting back at Gryffindor House for Dumbledore’s favoritism, but overall, we see a teacher as immature as his students but monstrous, piteous, and abusive because of his age.
So Hermione, without his permission, gets herself to the Hospital Wing. And then we see the triumph that gives her the strength to keep from hating him. In the book that is all about uncontrollable physical changes, from the bodiless Voldemort to the awkward fourth-years to the blast-ended skrewts, Hermione takes control. She gets her teeth fixed. Ha.
For her second challenge, the Yule Ball, Hermione lives out “Cinderella,” the other fairy tale she mentions in Deathly Hallows, playing her own fairy godmother. Snape’s slur against her looks cannot hurt her after her magnificent reveal: the triumph of that moment will fix her self-image for all adulthood. While Snape is outside blasting rosebushes apart to hunt down couples, Hermione is dancing with a big-nosed, grumpy superstar who lurks in libraries because he adores her. The young man who rejects favoritism from a Death Eater, who prefers Muggle-borns to veela, won’t be reduced to jeering at students in 20 years. Krum shows how it could have been.
Krum’s affections trigger Hermione’s third challenge: a gossip article by Rita Skeeter. Hermione shrugs it off until Snape reads it aloud in class: “Snape was pausing at the end of every sentence to allow the Slytherins a hearty laugh. The article sounded ten times worse when read by Snape. Even Hermione was blushing scarlet now.” Unlike the “I see no difference” comment, which I find too abusive to be fully amusing, I can’t help thinking the reading is wickedly funny. Hermione does not strike back at Snape, in part because Dumbledore’s trust in him overrides her personal feelings, but Skeeter is fair game. Hermione’s capture of the adult who patronized her as a “silly little girl” is resoundingly brilliant; it marks the moment she comes of age.
Snape, though, has been undergoing his own version of physical changes out of his control: his Dark Mark has been intensifying all year, returning him inexorably to his own adolescence. He’s going to have to go back. And he signals his fierce acceptance of the challenge in a reveal as brave as Hermione’s is triumphant, shoving up his sleeve to show the Dark Mark on his forearm. This changes everything. Never again will Hermione see him as just a professor.
The ever-optimistic Hermione starts Order of the Phoenix by hoping the heroic professor will be less of a git. “’He’s on our side now,’ said Hermione reprovingly,” when Fred calls him that. But nothing in his classroom has changed. She continues to listen to Snape with “utmost attentiveness,” he checks her work “without comment, which meant that he could find nothing to criticize,” and when he destroys Harry’s classwork and then fails him for the day, even Hermione has to concede:
“’I did think he might be a bit better this year,’ said Hermione in a disappointed voice.”
But if she ever mourns the lack of rapport with Snape – perhaps during the sad, tiny moment when Ron firmly forbids her to go over their O.W.L. papers, after we’ve seen teen Snape so absorbed in his own that he runs into the Marauders – well, there’s always Viktor Krum, to whom she writes letters so long that the parchments dangle off the table.
Hermione uses her independent studies with McGonagall to subvert Umbridge’s rule. They discuss this immediately, as Harry learns when McGonagall asks him to pay attention to Umbridge’s propaganda and says, “Well, I’m glad you listen to Hermione Granger at any rate.” Hermione startles Harry by saying of their resistance, “This is more important than homework.” Everything she has learned, including the N.E.W.T.-standard Protean charm or Colloportus, applies directly to battle.
She has a ready answer when Umbridge challenges her on counterjinxes, saying “they can be very useful when they’re used defensively”; she’s thought about them extensively since her mistake with Snape’s counterjinx in Book 1. We see that her choices have cost her when she frets, “I’m not sure I did myself justice on Cheering Charms,” the subject she slept through during her Time-Turner year. The universe sends her a most Snapey message through a failed answer on her Ancient Runes exam:
“’I mistranslated ‘ehwaz,’ said Hermione furiously. ‘It means “partnership,” not “defense.” I mixed it up with “eihwaz.”’”
Partnership, not defense. Leave defense to the experts. So Hermione appoints an underground Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, echoing Snape’s covert maneuvers in Book 2, and Harry teaches the D.A. the core of the defense work they use in the final battle, starting with Expelliarmus.
By the end of the volume, Hermione has moved on to another Snape tactic: misleading an enemy using their own fears and assumptions. In Umbridge’s office, she downplays the students’ cleverness, pretending they were seeking Dumbledore in pubs; sows mistrust in Umbridge’s ranks by calling attention to Draco’s untrustworthiness; and steers Umbridge away from Hagrid’s hut by implying that Hagrid is too oafish to be a threat. She’s inexperienced, but Umbridge falls for it as readily as the Death Eaters eat up Snape’s claims that Dumbledore is gullible and Harry untalented.
Dolohov almost kills Hermione with a Dark curse in the battle at the Ministry; it requires ten different potions in the Hospital Wing for her to recover. Does the Dark Arts expert brew them for her, as he brewed the mandrake potion in Book 2? Surely, between the Order and the Death Eaters, Snape receives an exhaustive account of what Hermione faced in battle. He knows better than anyone what she’ll need to study in the coming year.
In his year as Defense professor, Snape gets some control over the curriculum at last, and therefore, Hermione gets no special lessons during the year of the Half-Blood Prince. Harry does, but Hermione, to her intense discomfort, is just another student. Worse yet, she keeps coming up short, especially in the areas of Snape’s expertise. It’s a running joke that she thinks an imperfect grade is a failure, but her lone E on her Defense O.W.L. is a reminder that Harry Potter’s Muggle-born friend might well die if she doesn’t do a perfect job. Her attempt at spying in Borgin and Burkes is pathetic. Meanwhile, Ron is dating her airhead roommate. Hermione has a miserable, lonely, rotten year.
How does Snape talk about her when she’s not around? He tells Narcissa and Bellatrix that Harry has survived by "a simple combination of sheer luck and more talented friends." Severus! You noticed! After years of his ignoring her, his acknowledgement of her gifts delivers a bit of a charge. Hermione gets no confirmation, but we see that the awareness is mutual.
Back in the classroom, Snape’s subject is different but the dynamic is the same. Hermione tries to please him; he makes sure he has no other choice before he calls on her. And this time, we see why Snape is so irritated with Hermione’s pat answers, how they cut off deeper thought from the rest of the class, and how Snape cannot correct her for fear of giving himself away.
He asks the advantage of a nonverbal spell. Hermione says it gives a split-second advantage over your adversary, and Snape criticizes her answer as “copied almost word for word” from the text, but “correct in essentials.” What he doesn’t say is that it’s time for Hermione to learn from experience, not textbooks. How can she not know the true answer, she who needed ten potions to recover from the Silenced Dolohov’s nonverbal curse, she who has used an Invisibility Cloak, she whose friend just got his nose broken because his immobilized mouth couldn’t speak the Summoning spell for his wand? She’s going to need nonverbal spells. Ten minutes later, she’s the first in the class to perform one. Snape withholds House points and ignores her.
Things get worse for her in Potions class when Harry discovers the Half-Blood Prince’s improvements to the Draught of Living Death and soars past Hermione to the top of the class. It’s on page 10 of the potions text – the beginning of the book. Now we see why this potion merited a mention in Snape’s first-year speech. It must have been one of his first successful innovations. Teen Snape was proud of this one.
The evidence mounts that the Half-Blood Prince was easily Hermione’s peer as a student, with his “imaginative little jinxes” and inventions, some of which Hermione finds “a bit dodgy.”
Ron hits on a painful part of the truth: “’You don’t like the Prince, Hermione,’ he added, pointing a sausage at her sternly, ‘because he’s better than you at Potions –‘“
But that’s not all of it. For years, Hermione has done her friends’ homework for them and complained, with good reason, “Quidditch! Is that all boys care about?” Now there is someone who seems to care about better things, someone who understands Golpalott’s Third Law as clearly as she does, but she can’t communicate with him. He out-thinks her at schoolwork, and she doesn’t even get companionship from it. How can she compete with someone who’s practically a ghost, someone virtually sitting next to her but from a different time? How can she tell him her worries about the Dark intentions behind some of his spells?
She goes looking for the Half-Blood Prince. Like Tom Riddle searching for his family, like Harry finding his father’s name in Filch’s files, Hermione goes reading into the past and finds the mute picture of his mother, the mystery. And then the text runs out, leaving Hermione’s imagination, and the reader’s, haunted with questions.
Even after Snape kills Dumbledore, Hermione is reluctant to condemn him entirely: “evil is a strong word,” she tells Harry. But she is devastated that she and Luna, guarding Snape’s office, let him go when he told them to stay with Flitwick while he “went to help fight the Death Eaters.”
By pairing Hermione and Luna here, the author is showing us that these two girls, both gifted at recognizing people’s inner selves, albeit in entirely different ways, were responding subconsciously to Snape’s true allegiances. And this moment demonstrates why Snape could never look at Hermione, never let himself respond to her mind or her faith in him or her care for the state of his soul. Of course the girls let him go. He met their eyes and spoke with them, and they saw that he wanted them safe, he wanted to fight to protect them, and he wanted their help. He can’t risk this kind of contact too often. It’s too potent. The double agent knows that if he lets Hermione see him again, she will read his clues and she will know his truth.
Hermione’s independent studies culminate in Deathly Hallows with Dumbledore’s Ancient Runes assignment. Snape can no longer teach her, so it’s a good thing she’s learned enough from him to Stun Mafalda Hopkirk nonverbally and pass for Bellatrix Lestrange.
Hermione marks his confirmation as Hogwarts headmaster with the memorable shriek, “Snape in Dumbledore’s study – Merlin’s pants!” That’s when she moves the portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black into her beaded bag. Now that Snape is a fixed point, there will always be a connection between his workspace and Hermione’s wherever she goes, just as the mirror connects Harry and Aberforth. Phineas Nigellus makes a fine stand-in for Snape with his “cold, snide” manner.
Naturally, Hermione is not permitted to lay eyes on the silver doe. The Muggle-born is a target for torture and interrogation. She must not figure out Snape’s true self. How much longer can Snape hope that she has not read his clues: the fake sword, the detention with Hagrid, the ostentatious ransacking of Grimmauld Place? For all we know, she already had. But the sight of Snape’s Patronus would have sealed it.
One of Hermione’s greatest strengths, as we saw in her epic analysis of Cho Chang’s feelings in Order of the Phoenix, is her emotional intelligence. She is not only rich in empathy, but blessed with the rare ability to keep her feelings healthy in wartime. She weeps twelve times in Deathly Hallows, tearing up whenever she hears of others’ anguish. As we approach Snape’s death in the Shrieking Shack, after an unspeakable year in which he could not show empathy even when people cried out to him as they died, the reader sees – and feels – the enormity of his burdens through Hermione’s eyes.
As in life, Snape does not meet Hermione’s eyes in death, but from long experience, he knows she will recognize the moment and know what to do. “A flask, conjured from thin air, was thrust into [Harry’s] shaking hands by Hermione”: at this point, it’s not only Snape but even Harry and the author herself who don’t look at Hermione, assuming she will handle the matter. Once Snape’s body stops moving, we see Hermione give him one last glance and then leave.
Did Snape spare her a thought? Of course he did. Even in the urgency and privacy of the moment Phineas Nigellus locates the fugitives, Snape orders him not to call her a Mudblood. Her humanity means as much to him as his mission; it is his mission, and although he never told her so, Hermione has always been his like-minded ally, and she has always known.