And then I got to Chapter 33. In a powerful sequence that immediately makes up for much of the prior slog, Harry learns that, in order for the world to live, he has to die. He accepts this with genuine stoic heroism, relishes his last moments of life, and, surrounded by the ghosts of his dead family and friends, marches off to get himself nobly slaughtered. My tear ducts initiated their “misty” sequence; when Harry asked his mother’s spirit to stay close to him, I almost shed an actual tear. The Rowling-skeptic in me kept waiting for the impossible bailout, but it never came: Voldemort smote Harry into oblivion. Suddenly, Potter was a legitimate tragedy. The series had grown up.
Unfortunately, the cop-out—which in retrospect seems as inevitable as I once thought Harry’s death was—comes three pages later. Chapter 35 sees Harry wake up in an ethereal train station (presumably some regional hub halfway along the Heaven-Hell line), where the spirit of Dumbledore gives him special news: Because of the purity of Harry’s self-sacrifice, he’s eligible for a Jesus exemption. He’s not dead. He gets to go back and kill Voldemort. And just as a bonus, his sacrifice has redeemed all of humanity. (As Harry puts it, while he and the Dark Lord circle each other like the knife fighters in “Beat It”: “You won’t be able to kill any of them ever again. Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people … I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you.” I’m not sure, at this point, why they don’t just let Voldemort hang around like an old toothless lion—but I guess that would lack dramatic flair.) After the predictable duel, Rowling wraps things up with an epilogue that is, hands down, the worst piece of writing in the entire 4,000-page series. Harry and the gang, now all thirtysomething and blissfully intermarried, reappear at King’s Cross Station to drop off the next generation of wizards at Platform 9¾ while reveling in har-har family-sitcom humor. The final sentence is remarkably bland and awful, the linguistic crystallization of Rowling’s cop-out: “All was well.”
I’m not opposed to happy endings per se—I’m just opposed to an author trying to get emotional credit for both a tragic and a happy ending without actually earning either. Rowling had been gathering storm clouds for ten years; her fictional sky was as purple and lumpy as a Quidditch stadium full of plums, and the whole world had lined up to watch it rain. She owed this ritual sacrifice to the immortal gods of narrative: either the life of her hero or—infinitely harder to pull off—his convincing and improbable survival. With Harry’s death, the series would have graduated instantly from “light and possibly fluky popular megasuccess” to Heavy Tragic Fantasy Classic. Instead, at the last possible moment, she tacked on an episode of Leave It to Beaver. This is roughly the equivalent of Oedipus Rex’s tearing his eyes out, then stumbling across a wise old friend who tells him: “Hey, guess what, buddy? You know how you just killed your dad and slept with your mom, like the oracle predicted? Well, since you did it all with totally innocent love in your heart, it doesn’t count! Go tell your mom to untie that noose! And look, your eyes just grew back! All is well!” Rowling seems to misunderstand the power of catharsis. It’s not simple reassurance, it’s a primal release.
Meanwhile, back among Steinbeck’s farm laborers, all was not well. In fact, it was terrible. Curley’s wife came out to the barn while Lennie was playing with his puppy, and—you know what? I’m not going to spoil it for you.