Harry spends the entire book struggling to complete a quest that his friend and mentor, Dumbledore, charged him with before he died. Harry consistently does his best to do what Dumbledore has asked of him, but the hardest thing about the quest is not its danger or mystery. Instead, it’s the doubts Harry feels about whether Dumbledore really loved him. When Harry learns that Dumbledore had a mother and sister buried in the same place as Harry’s parents, Harry wonders why Dumbledore didn’t tell him. When he can’t figure out what to do next, he wonders why Dumbledore didn’t give him the information he needs to complete the quest. Faced with the constant presence of Rita Skeeter’s malicious biography, he even starts to wonder whether Dumbledore was worthy of his love and respect at all. The struggle to keep faith with Dumbledore is every bit as important to the novel as the struggle to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes.
Harry’s story demonstrates that the reason it’s so difficult to love the dead is that it’s hard to believe that they love you. They can no longer explain their actions or profess their love, and it’s easy to believe that they are simply gone, past caring about or loving anyone. This perception overpowers Harry on his visit to his parents’ graves. He is drawn to Godric’s Hollow because he longs to find some connection both to his parents and to Dumbledore, but all the trip brings him is the sense that they are gone and cannot hear him or answer back, ever.
And yet the book’s message regarding dead friends is extremely optimistic. The epigraph from William Penn declares that friends cannot be separated by death, though it takes Harry the entire book to find the truth of this. When Harry finally lets go of his fears that Dumbledore didn’t love him, he is rewarded with an inner Dumbledore—a Dumbledore in his own mind—who is so vivid and realistic that he is in a sense the real thing. Only then does Harry recapture his own love for Dumbledore.
Much earlier in the series, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, various characters speak of Dumbledore’s unusual, even extravagant belief in second chances. When people mention this about Dumbledore, they usually mean to imply that he is somehow gullible or imprudent. Harry and Ron refuse to believe that Snape might once have been a Death Eater but has since reformed—so Dumbledore’s belief in second chances is simply the explanation for how Dumbledore must have been fooled.
In this book, we see in a number of cases how wise Dumbledore really was. Most dramatically, we see how Snape turned his entire life around after he placed Lily Potter in danger, becoming Voldemort’s most trusted servant so that he could spy on him and protect Harry. Snape’s efforts proved indispensable to Harry and Dumbledore time and time again. Dumbledore remarks casually that “we sort too soon,” meaning that Snape might have been erroneously sorted into Slytherin house as a young man, and implying that his bravery might make him better suited to Gryffindor—if only the Sorting Hat could have taken into account how much Snape changed for the better.
We also see the reason why Dumbledore learns to give second chances, when we learn of his true early history. Faced with a sister irreparably damaged in an attack by Muggle boys, and with a father imprisoned for life for attacking those boys, Dumbledore briefly dreams of a world in which wizards rule Muggles for their own good. He quickly repents and spends a lifetime trying to repair his mistake, but he also retains a tolerance for others’ mistakes and a perception that love is a powerful motivator, capable of redeeming a person’s worst misdeeds.
Finally, we see that Dumbledore is wise enough to see the flaws in Ron’s character and foresee the mistake Ron will make, giving up on Harry when things get too tough and there’s no one to lead Ron or provide for him. So Dumbledore arranges for Ron’s second chance ahead of time, bequeathing him the Deluminator that will lead Ron back to Harry and Hermione when he’s ready to rise to the occasion.
The only person capable of planning and orchestrating Voldemort’s downfall is Dumbledore, because no one but he has the wisdom or knowledge to piece together what Voldemort has done and figure out how to undo it. And yet Dumbledore knows that this difficult work will only be completed after his death. Not only Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but also Snape, Lupin, Moody, and all the members of the Order of the Phoenix have to keep doing their part after Dumbledore’s death, carrying out his vision. As we have seen, believing in Dumbledore’s quest after he is dead is not easy for Harry, nor is it for any of the others.
But Dumbledore is not the only dead character who needs the loyalty and love of the living. Snape is a loyal follower of Dumbledore, but his loyalty and bravery are really a manifestation of his need to stay loyal to Lily Potter, keeping faith with the woman he loved after her death. Dobby the house-elf gets himself killed saving Harry and his friends from Malfoy Manor, and the process of burying Dobby helps put Harry into a better frame of mind about his mission. There is no mystery about Dobby or his death: Bellatrix kills Dobby for helping Harry, and Dobby dies in Harry’s arms, and all Harry can do is honor the house-elf’s memory and try not to let that memory down. This experience snaps Harry out of his ambivalence toward Dumbledore, reminding him that he made a promise to his dead friend that he needs to honor.
Rita Skeeter’s malicious biography of Dumbledore pops up throughout the book, beginning with its advance press alongside Dumbledore’s obituary in Chapter Two. True to form (as we have seen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) Rita Skeeter is ruthlessly exploitative in getting her story, and she distorts the truth when she digs it up. Apart from Skeeter, Aunt Muriel is a similarly malicious gossip, as is the busybody Bathilda Bagshot, the original source for all the Dumbledore gossip. What is most remarkable about the blend of half-truths and lies that make up Skeeter’s writing, and gossip in general, is that it’s so hard for the characters not to believe. Harry has seen with his own eyes stories by Skeeter that he knows to be false from start to finish, yet her lies about Dumbledore work on him until he breaks down and doubts Dumbledore.
References to “mastering death” occur throughout the book. The inscription on the gravestone of Harry’s parents reads “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” reminding Harry that Voldemort’s chief ambition, and that of the Death Eaters, is to master death. The Deathly Hallows are supposedly objects that will allow the owner to master death. The meaning of this phrase is ambiguous and changes in different contexts. What Voldemort seems to want, and what the Hallows as a whole seem to promise, is immortality—freedom from ever dying. Being able to kill others is another way of being master of death, as exemplified by the Elder Wand and by the green rays of the Killing Curse. Still another way to master death is by resurrecting dead loved ones, as the second brother in the Hallows does, as Dumbledore tries to do, and as Harry himself longs to do. Ultimately, the only true way to master death is to continue loving and believing in those who have died.
Avada Kedavra, the Killing Curse, is used again and again in this book by Voldemort and his followers. When we first learn about it, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we are told that it is one of the Unforgivable Curses, and its performance is rare. With Voldemort in power, it has become ubiquitous, demonstrating Voldemort’s disregard for human life. Harry casts the other two Unforgivable Curses (Cruciatus and Imperius, torture and mind control), but he never casts or tries to cast this curse, not even when Lupin urges him to, and not even to kill Voldemort. Voldemort’s death is ultimately brought about by his own Avada Kedavra backfiring upon him.
The Resurrection Stone, one of the Deathly Hallows, represents the desire to bring back the dead. More specifically, it represents the danger of that desire when pushed to the point of actually trying to resurrect the dead. Dumbledore ruined his hand and eventually brought about his own death by trying to use it to speak with his parents and sister, and the brother in the Hallows story found himself drawn to suicide after using the Stone. This danger is further symbolized by the fact that it is cracked, that it is cursed (having been one of Voldemort’s Horcruxes), and that it appeared on the ring of the wicked Marvolo Gaunt.
The Elder Wand, the first of the three Hallows, is a wand that ensures that its master will win any duel. No one can truly possess it without defeating its former owner. Since defeating the owner in a duel is impossible, this feat is always accomplished by stealth, murder, or surprise attack. Thus, the Wand symbolizes both the thirst for unbridled power and the folly of believing that power and violence can keep you safe. From the first possessor of the wand onward, the wand has brought death to those who owned it.
The locket Horcrux that Harry and his friends recover from Umbridge is, like all of the Horcruxes, cursed. It tries to kill Harry by strangling him when he’s underwater, it burns itself into his flesh when he’s fighting Nagini, and it keeps him from summoning his Patronus by exerting an almost imperceptible negative influence on the emotions of those who wear it. Nevertheless, its main function in the plot is not as a magical item or one that can act to produce serious consequences. Instead, it seems to symbolize whatever is within each of the characters that they have to overcome within themselves. With Ron, it helps exacerbate his discomfort and childishness until he abandons Harry. When Umbridge has it on, it brings out her own characteristic flaw—her penchant for lying.