Harry, though filled with dread, accepts that he has to die. He sees that Dumbledore knew him well enough to know that he would sacrifice himself willingly if he could save the lives of others. He notes that Dumbledore overestimated him, because the snake remains undestroyed, but he trusts that someone else can manage to kill the snake, now that Ron and Hermione know how.
Harry puts on the Invisibility Cloak and goes downstairs, almost running into Neville, who is helping carry in the dead body of Colin Creevey, the younger boy who had long idolized Harry. Harry avoids encountering any of his other friends, but goes up to Neville and gives him the information that the snake Nagini must be destroyed, in case anything happens to Ron and Hermione. So if the chance presents itself, and Neville happens to think of it . . . he should kill the snake.
Harry enters the forest. He takes out the Snitch Dumbledore left him, whose message said “I open at the close.” He tells the Snitch he is about to die, and it opens for him, revealing the cracked Resurrection Stone. Behind him, the shades of his parents appear, as well as Sirius and Lupin, who was killed in the recent battle. The shades tell him they are proud of him and that it doesn’t hurt to die, and they promise to stay with him in his ordeal, invisible to all but him.
Harry goes farther into the forest. He sees dementors, but they are powerless to affect him, as the shades of his loved ones act like Patronuses. In a clearing in the forest, Voldemort stands, surrounded by followers. The hour is up. Voldemort says he thought Harry would come but must have been mistaken. Harry says loudly that he wasn’t, as he steps out of the Cloak and drops the stone, causing the shades to vanish. He keeps his wand put away.
Everyone waits for Voldemort to act. Hagrid, taken prisoner and tied, shouts at Harry but is silenced. Harry thinks of Ginny’s face and her kiss. Voldemort casts the Killing Curse, and everything vanishes for Harry.
Harry gradually comes into consciousness, naked. He opens his eyes and finds himself in an unformed, dreamlike place. He hears something pitiful yet unseemly flapping and thumping. He wishes for clothes, and robes appear before him, which he puts on. He sees that he is in a great hall. He sees a small, naked child, looking like it’s been beaten and stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath. He wants to help it but is repulsed by it. Dumbledore’s voice tells Harry that he cannot help it.
Dumbledore leads Harry to a couple of seats and commends him for his bravery. He acknowledges that he is dead, but says that Harry is probably not. He explains, or helps Harry to figure out, that while Voldemort has just killed the part of his own soul that was embedded within Harry, Harry is still alive because Voldemort reconstituted his own body out of Harry’s blood (in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Because Voldemort contains Harry’s blood, as long as Voldemort is alive he preserves Lily Potter’s charm, so Harry can’t die at his hand. Thus, paradoxically, while Harry had to die before Voldemort could, Harry can’t die while Voldemort lives. They have a double bond, with Voldemort’s soul in Harry and Harry’s blood in Voldemort.
Dumbledore explains the mystery of why Harry’s wand defeated Voldemort even when the latter had Lucius Malfoy’s wand. The first time Harry fought Voldemort with their twin wands, Harry won because his courage was greater. Because of Harry’s bond with Voldemort, and because of the kinship between their two wands, Harry’s wand absorbed a bit of Voldemort’s essence and also came to recognize him as a mortal enemy. That is why Harry’s wand recognized Voldemort and defended against him, turning a bit of Voldemort’s highly potent magic back against him and destroying Lucius’s wand.
Harry raises the subject of the Deathly Hallows, and Dumbledore admits with shame that he was seduced by their promise to make him master over death. The search for the Hallows drew Dumbledore and Grindelwald together years before, and they had intended to embark on a search for them when Aberforth pointed out that they couldn’t leave Ariana. Dumbledore, realizing that the craving for power was his most dangerous weakness, turned down the post of Minister of Magic and stayed at Hogwarts his whole career.
Dumbledore avoided facing Grindelwald for as long as possible, afraid that he might learn that it was he, Dumbledore, who cast the spell that killed Ariana. Finally, he defeated Grindelwald and took the Elder Wand from him. Dumbledore had given up on the search for the Hallows when he learned that Harry’s father had the Cloak and borrowed it to examine it. When Dumbledore got hold of the ring with the Stone, he couldn’t resist using it to try to speak to his sister and parents. He put it on, forgetting that the ring was now a Horcrux and thus cursed, thereby ruining his hand and causing his own eventual demise. He says that he never could have united the Hallows because he took the Cloak out of idle curiosity and the Stone for selfish reasons, wishing to disturb the peaceful dead. He only did the right thing with the Wand, having taken it to protect others from it. Harry, on the other hand, only wanted each of these items for selfless reasons.
Dumbledore concludes by explaining that he had counted on Hermione to slow Harry down somewhat during his quest, keeping him from rushing after the Hallows, so that Harry would not impulsively seize upon the Hallows for the wrong reasons. He says that Voldemort just wanted a wand powerful enough to beat Harry, while understanding nothing of the Hallows. Dumbledore admits that he hoped that by having Snape kill him, he could protect the Wand from being taken by another unscrupulous master, but that things hadn’t worked out as he’d planned.
Finally, Dumbledore tells Harry that he can choose to go back to life or move on. In answer to Harry’s question, he acknowledges that all of this is happening inside Harry’s head, but that this fact does not make the conversation less real.
Chapter Thirty-Four represents the climax of the novel, not only because Harry finally confronts Voldemort without any defense, but because his long struggle with his doubts about Dumbledore is finally at an end. Having seen Snape’s final memories in the Pensieve, Harry has seen his worst fears realized. He feared all along that Dumbledore did not love him or have his best interests at heart, and now he sees (or thinks he sees) that Dumbledore knew for Harry’s entire life that Harry would have to die, and that Dumbledore’s careful guidance and protection of Harry was all for the sake of sacrificing Harry. In other words, Dumbledore did not love Harry; there was something else that he loved, a vision of the future that he treasured, and he was willing to let Harry die to bring it about.
Paradoxically, Harry’s acceptance that his worst fears are true frees him from those fears. He finds that he agrees with Dumbledore: If Harry’s dying is the only way for the world to be rid of Voldemort, then Harry should die. Dumbledore’s love (or lack of love) for Harry should not be the thing by which Harry judges Dumbledore. Dumbledore’s goal was the right one, and Harry finds the courage to carry it out.
Harry’s reward for this acceptance, of course, comes in Chapter Thirty-Five, when he gets to meet Dumbledore once more and see that Dumbledore really did love him. One of the mysteries of the book, the thing readers are likely to continue pondering long after they put the book down, is what this meeting with Dumbledore means. Did Harry die and truly meet Dumbledore in the afterlife before returning? The answer would seem to be no, since Dumbledore tells Harry more or less plainly that Harry is not dead and that this meeting is all in his head—yet real nonetheless. The epigraph from William Penn stated that friends who die are never truly lost, and that we can still speak to them and commune with them fully. The author’s interpretation of this excerpt may be that when we know and love someone and they die, our mental re-creation of that person within our own minds is real and meaningful, and the conversations we have with them within our minds are precious and real as well. Harry has finally let go of his fears of Dumbledore lying to him and not loving him, and he has regained Dumbledore—a Dumbledore he carries within him.
The shuddering child on the floor, whom Harry cannot help, is a very effective element of the scene, lending just a hint of horror to counterbalance the generally positive message of the chapter. The child is horrifying and yet sympathetic, and sticks in our memory because it is never explained. Clearly, the child is connected to Voldemort, who took the form of a horrifying baby at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Perhaps this is what Voldemort becomes when he passes out at the same time as Harry (as we find in the following chapter). Perhaps this is Voldemort’s soul, or perhaps only the fragment of his soul that Voldemort killed when he struck at Harry.