‘Life’ and ‘Death’ Upside Down in Harry Potter Series
The theme of death in the Harry Potter series provides researchers with a substantial amount of material to absorb, as this topic is of great importance for understanding J.K. Rowling’s message clearer. However, past critics concentrated predominantly on death as a form of sacrifice. This essay will look closely at terms of ‘life’ and ‘death’, because they are not presented in their literal meanings in the books. What is meant by this is that boundaries between life and death in Harry Potter series seem blurred; “‘dead’ and ‘alive’ are not mutually exclusive antonyms in Rowling’s books; there are fine nuances for determining whether someone is ‘genuinely’ dead.’’ The fact that a person dies does not necessarily imply that this person is gone forever. Sometimes characters are able to find life in death, and sometimes those who are theoretically alive can be considered as dead people. To support this thesis, two groups of characters will be examined: firstly –Voldemort (mostly) and his subordinates – Death Eaters; secondly – Harry Potter and his supporters. It is needed to be said that this essay will not be focused on one particular book; it includes the whole series at once as the theme of death is evolving from one book to another.
First and foremost, Voldemort’s image seems very significant concerning ‘life’ and ‘death’ in Harry Potter. Hasten to remark that he was already dead before, at least can be considered dead. In the first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone J.K. Rowling refers to Voldemort only as a ‘hooded figure', just figure, without mentioning any other body parts because apparently he did not even have one at that time – he was disembodied. His complete resurrection only became possible with the help of dark magic. His accomplices held a gruesome ritual to assist him in regaining his body and power. Again, such an act, by its own nature, seems abnormal. In fact, even in the Wizard’s world is it impossible to accomplish that, as those who are dead have to stay dead – the world of magic has to obey this rule. After the rebirth, Voldemort still does not look like human: ‘Whiter than a skull, with wide, livid scarlet eyes and a nose that was flat as a snakes with slits for nostrils…'. He started to resemble a snake rather than a man – that is what his evil deeds have done to him. Shira Wolosky, who concentrated on the Voldemort’s portrayal in the Harry Potter series writes that ‘Voldemort’s rebirths are in fact ghoulish, incessant dyings'; and it cannot be argued as an individual is not able to simply change the course of the human existence without any consequences. What adds more proof to the belief that Voldemort is ‘dead’ is his creation of Horcruxes. He willingly divided his soul into seven parts (and also the eighth Horcrux was made accidentally on the night of murdering Harry’s parents). Looking into mythology and religion one may come across Aristotle’s definition of soul – it the first actuality of a naturally organized body. He also argued its separate existence from the physical body. The same can be found in Christianity – by soul one implies a distinct and immortal form, but even despite that it is inextricably connected with the body. Thus, the soul accounts for life itself. On this view, the essential difference between living and non-living things is that living things have a soul and non-living things do not. In the light of all this, it can be said that Voldemort is a dead man regardless his ability to move, talk and commit murders.
The analysis of Harry Potter’s side, however, illustrates that life does not end with one’s passing, although there are no clear cases of reversible deaths. Harry’s world is the Wizard’s world, so it comes as no surprise to readers that ghosts actually exist . But, as can be noticed, only ‘positive heroes’ have this capability to return in a form of a ghost. Potters, Sirius and Lupin came to support Harry when he decided that he was ready to die in order to defeat Voldemort. They were ‘less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts.' His most close relatives gave him what he needed most at that time – moral support, and they stayed with him ‘until the very end.' Although it became possible only with the help of the Resurrection stone, Sirius, Lupin, Lily and James looked very much real. Unlike the girl that Cadmus (the original owner of the Resurrection stone) brought back to life, they were not emotionless and insensitive. What is more, Harry’s parents are the ones that helped him not to die in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire during the final round of the Triwizard tournament. These ghostly figures appeared to Harry as much more solid than ordinary ghosts as they even had enough physical strength to give Harry some time to escape from Voldemort once their wands’ connection was broken. So, even though only for a second, but they supported him physically to resist their common enemy. In general, Lily and James Potter appear several times in Harry Potter series albeit they have been dead since the beginning of the narrative.
Not only do people return as ghosts but also in a form of ‘talking portraits’. These portraits have a capability to give advice and communicate, especially it can be said concerning Dumbledore’s portrait, which Harry constantly talks to. One of the critics in his work writes that the connection between the portrait and the person of whom it was painted seems ‘obscure’. He even compares it with moving photographs in newspapers, which has no soul. However, there is a different viewpoint that is more accurate. In one of the interviews, J.K.Rowling pointed out that traditionally a headmaster or a headmistress is painted while they are alive. After that, portraits are taken to a closed secret room and only the headmaster or the headmistress regularly visits it and teaches it to act like themselves, imparting all kinds of useful memories and pieces of knowledge. Hence, not everyone is able to fully return in a form of a portrait as they predominantly are painted only after one’s death. Such portraits, obviously, contain some main characteristics, but still only a powerful and distinguished person is granted with an opportunity to stay partly alive this way. It might explain, why the reader does not see any portraits of Voldemort or his followers.
What is important to note concerning the theme of death is that all positive heroes die with dignity as can be seen from their last words or actions. For instance, Harry’s father without even a wand in his hand was ready to protect his family at any cost. Realizing that Voldemort has entered the house, he shouted: ‘Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him! Go! Run! I’ll hold him off!' Both Harry’s parents’ deaths are heroic, because they protect their loved ones. The opposite of it are the deaths of ‘anti-heroes’. For instance, Bellatrix Lestrange’s end is presented like this: ‘Molly’s curse soared beneath Bellatrix’s constricted arm and hit her squarely in the chest, directly over her heart. Bellatrix’s gloating smile froze, her eyes seemed to bulge: For the tiniest space of time she knew what had happened, and then she toppled, and the watching crowd roared, and Voldemord screamed.' She did not fall – she toppled like a house of cards, like an object, not a person. Even the death of Severus Snape is presented in a different way, less violent, although at that moment readers do not know about him helping Dumbledore all this time. As the snake kills him, Snape’s face loses ‘the little color it had left' (note: it is depicted similarly to Sirius Black’s death), and then he ‘fell to the floor'. The important thing is that he did not very much resist Voldemort, so already in this episode J.K.Rowling is giving readers a hint of Severus Snape’s true nature. Therefore, contrasting deaths helps, firstly, to realize the cowardness of anti-heroes and, secondly, to distinguish good characters from bad ones.
In the death scenes Voldemort and Death Eaters reveal the fact that they are too afraid to die. After being resurrected in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Voldemort says that his goal is ‘to conquer death’ and live forever. He desires to possess the Deathly Hallows because of the same reason – they give their holder the ultimate power to be immortal. However, chasing immortality is pointless since Voldemort and Death Eaters forget about the true meaning of life. If one thinks about it, what would Voldemort do if he had eternal life? He has no friends (only followers who are by his side not out of love, but out of fear) and no family; even the list of people he wants to kill, eventually would have ended. Life lies in accepting one’s mortality like Harry does. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Harry is ready to die for a good course – for saving his loved ones. He tells Dumbledore’s brother: ‘I’m going to keep going until I succeed—or I die. Don’t think I don’t know how this might end. I’ve known it for years.' Throughout the whole story he was aware that he might die at the end and because of that he was able to live his life to the fullest, enjoying every moment of it. That is what differs Harry from Voldemort and what, according to researchers, helpes him to survive. At the end, Dumbledore calls him ‘the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying.' Therefore, the story about Harry Potter proves that without recognizing the reality of death, one cannot truly understand the reality of life and, therefore, cannot truly live.
It is most appropriate to finish the essay with the analysis of the final scene from the last book, which is set nineteen years later. This epilogue is of a great importance because the reader learns about characters’ children. Harry and Ginny named the two of them after Harry’s parents – Lily and James. And their second son’s name is Albus Severus Potter. There is a popular belief that when a person is naming his son or daughter after someone else, this child is gaining some characteristics and maybe even fate of that individual. So, in some way, it can be considered as the continuation of Harry’s parents and Hogwart’s headmasters’ lives. This also shows that all these people are still remembered even Professor Snape who was not always very gracious towards Harry. The reader sees that Harry forgave him, because he says to his son that he was ‘named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.' And it is commonly known that as long as someone is remembered – he or she will stay alive, because memory is an extremely powerful tool (especially in Harry Potter series as they have many features connected with memory, for instance, Pensieves). The same thing cannot be said in relation to Voldemort and the Death Eaters. There is no one to remember them after death. Searching through the text proves that there is no (or very little) mention of them as soon as they die. Referring to the last scene, none of the characters mentions Voldemort. Admittedly, they mention that ‘the scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years', but there is no direct reference to Voldemort. It might be just an intimation of the events, which had happened during their years of education in Hogwarts.
Reflecting on the theme of death in Harry Potter helps the reader to understand Rowling’s message clearer. It is that love transcends death. And if you do something because of love, friendship, selflessness, you are determined to an eternal life. And therefore you should not fear death. But the ones that disdain it and are certain of their immortality are doomed to fail.
1. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2007.
2. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2004.
3. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone. Accessed December 13, 2016. http://www2.sdfi.edu.cn/netclass/jiaoan/englit/download/Harry%20Potter%20and%20the%20Sorcerer’s%20Stone.pdf.
1. Klein, Shawn. ‘Harry Potter and Humanity: Choices, Love, and Death.’ Reason Papers Vol. 34, no. 1, 2014.
2. Rowling, J.K. ‘Hogwarts Portraits.’ Accessed December 13, 2016. https://www.pottermore.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/hogwarts-portraits
3. Sehon, Scott. ‘Dementors, Horcruxes, and Immortality: The Soul in Harry Potter.’ Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles, New Jersey: Wiley, 2010.
4. Stojilkov, Andrea. ‘Life and death in Harry Potter: The Immortality of Love and Soul.’ Mosaic 48/2, June 2015.
5. Wolosky, Shira. The Riddles of Harry Potter: Secret Passages and Interpretive Quests. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
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