Far away, on the dreary bank of another dirty river, a cloaked woman appears out of thin air, followed by another. Seeing something moving in the bushes, the second woman shoots a jet of green light from her wand – but it’s just a fox, which falls dead into the grass. She runs after the first woman, who brushes her away and tells her to return home. Still walking together, the women arrive at a neighborhood of shoddy brick houses. The second woman is disgusted at the prospect of entering “this Muggle dunghill,” but the first proceeds into an alleyway, seeking out a specific house.
Although it’s not yet entirely clear who these women are, the second one has already demonstrated two instances of pointless wrongdoing: killing an animal for no reason and sneering at the Muggle world. Her character is already starting to seem irredeemably evil, while the other is more complex.
The second woman grabs her counterpart’s arm, saying that she if she talks about “the plan” to anyone, she’ll be betraying the Dark Lord’s trust. The first woman draws her wand; when the other asks if she would curse her own sister, she says desperately that “there’s nothing I wouldn’t do anymore.” Pursued by her sister, she runs deeper into the maze of houses until she reaches her destination and knocks on the door.
Trying to influence her sister’s actions, the second woman invokes two kinds of loyalty: first to Voldemort, and second to family. For her, loyalty to one’s family is synonymous with service to Voldemort. Her words are an early indication of this family’s skewed values.
The door opens and Severus Snape greets the first woman as Narcissa and the second, more coldly, as Bellatrix. They enter into a small, inhospitable sitting room, and Narcissa asks if they’re alone. With a wave of his wand, Snape causes a hidden door to fly open and reveal a small man listening to their conversation; but Wormtail, he says, will bring them drinks and then return to his room. When the small man returns with three glasses of wine, Snape raises a toast to the Dark Lord.
This paragraph is monumental, because Snape greets Narcissa and Bellatrix as friends and states his faith in the Dark Lord. Although Dumbledore will affirm his trust in Snape throughout the novel, his actions here better support Harry’s suspicions that Snape is a traitor.
With a deep breath, Narcissa says that Snape is the only person who can help her, even though she’s been told not to discuss “the plan” with anyone. Bellatrix bursts out that it’s a mistake to speak to Snape, but Snape calmly invites her to explain the reasons for her mistrust. Passionately, Bellatrix asks where Snape was when the Dark Lord fell and how he spent so many years living “in Dumbledore’s pocket,” doing nothing to help his previous master or kill Harry Potter.
It’s interesting that Snape’s actions are inexplicable both to Death Eaters and to members of the Order of the Phoenix. While Harry can think of many reasons not to trust Snape, to Bellatrix it seems that he’s suspiciously loyal to Dumbledore. Of all the novel’s characters, Snape is the one whose moral standing is most difficult to define.
Smiling, Snape responds that the Dark Lord has asked him each of these questions. He asks if Bellatrix really thinks that she is wiser or cannier than “the greatest wizard” of all time. Snape says that during all the years he’s spent at Hogwarts, he’s been a spy for Voldemort. After Voldemort fell the first time, he believed him dead – as did many of the other followers working for him today. Now, Snape points out, he has sixteen years of information to give the Dark Lord, while Bellatrix can only present tales of woe from Azkaban.
In answering Bellatrix’s question, Snape plays on her cultish loyalty to Voldemort in order to intimidate her. Her unwillingness to question Voldemort or see him as a fallible person suggests that people are ill-served by blindly trusting sources of authority – whether those sources are established governments or rogue Dark wizards.
Next, Snape explains why he seemed to be aiding Dumbledore throughout the years of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts education. He thwarted Quirrell because he didn’t know that Quirrell was an agent of Voldemort, and when Voldemort finally summoned him with the Dark Mark, he returned late in order to prove his “loyalty” to Dumbledore. By appearing “unfaithful” in these ways, he’s been able to continue his valuable work as a spy. It’s not his fault that Voldemort doesn’t choose to explain this to Bellatrix.
In a sense, Bellatrix considers Voldemort her family. However, because Voldemort has no personal loyalties of his own she’s also deeply insecure in their relationship, a feeling which Snape exploits by questioning her value to him. This scene suggests that families in which members are valued according to their utility will never be cohesive or successful.
Enraged, Bellatrix insists that she is Voldemort’s favorite disciple. Smirking, Snape asks if this is still the case after the recent disaster at the Ministry; Bellatrix blames these recent events on Lucius Malfoy, and Narcissa interjects that no one should blame her husband.
While Snape and Bellatrix both assert their loyalty to Voldemort above all else, Narcissa is the only one whose primary concern is for her husband and son.
Finally, Bellatrix demands to know why he hasn’t killed Harry Potter yet. Snape admits that, like many of Voldemort’s followers, he once thought that, by defeating him, Harry might have proved himself the next great dark wizard. Of course, when the boy arrived at Hogwarts, he revealed himself as “mediocre to the last degree,” but by that time Snape was relying on Dumbledore’s protection to stay out of Azkaban.
To Bellatrix, Snape provides a narrative of his time at Hogwarts that is diametrically opposed to the one Dumbledore will tell Harry. Considered in different contexts, the same actions can emerge as heroic or evil.
Skeptically, Bellatrix asks if Dumbledore still has no idea of Snape’s true loyalties. Snape responds that Dumbledore’s “greatest weakness” is his insistence on thinking the best of people, which has made him vulnerable.
While Snape casts Dumbledore’s ability to appreciate moral complexity as a weakness, this is a trait the headmaster will try to encourage in Harry.
Turning to Narcissa, Snape asks what kind of help she needs. Falteringly, she explains that the Dark Lord has entrusted her family with a plan about which she’s not about to speak. Snape interrupts that she must obey his commands, provoking a triumphant shout from Bellatrix; however, he continues that he already knows about the plan, and thus can speak of it. When he says he can do little to help her Narcissa begins to cry, whimpering that Draco is her only son. Haranguing her sister, Bellatrix says that she should be proud, and that Draco himself is excited to “prove himself;” but Narcissa points out that he’s only sixteen and has “no idea what lies in store.”
Narcissa starkly differentiates herself from her sister by showing that she loves her son more than she cares about serving Voldemort. Bellatrix’s ruthless interjections display her inhumanity, but they also emphasize Narcissa’s maternal concern, showing that even though she’s part of a nefarious family and holds odious views, she still shares the universal feelings of mothers like Mrs. Weasley.
Narcissa is sure that the Dark Lord has chosen Draco for this project in order to punish Lucius. Snape confirms that the Dark Lord is very angry with Lucius over his failure at the Ministry, and Narcissa falls at his feet, begging him to carry out Draco’s appointed task. Calmly, Snape says that he can’t contravene the Dark Lord’s will; meanwhile, Bellatrix jeers that she would be “proud” to give up her sons to the Dark Lord.
Bellatrix’s willingness to see her hypothetical children die shows that she has no sense of the importance of family. As she’s a particularly prominent Death Eater, these comments establish Voldemort’s army as inherently opposed to the family security that Harry and the Weasleys cherish.
Picking Narcissa up and returning her to her seat, Snape says that he might be able to help Draco along the way. Kneeling before him again, Narcissa begs him to make an Unbreakable Vow to protect Draco, and Snape agrees. He takes Narcissa’s hand and, with Bellatrix skeptically performing the magic rituals, promises to watch over Draco, protect him from harm, and if necessary carry out his task. Thick red flames spring from Bellatrix’s wand, binding together their clasped hands.
Even though Snape’s moral character remains dubious and Bellatrix is still suspicious, his willingness to swear such a serious oath seems to align him firmly with Voldemort and prove that Dumbledore’s trust is misplaced. Knowledge of this incident encourages the reader to question Dumbledore’s wisdom and competence as he affirms trust in Snape throughout the novel.