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Voldemort: "You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore? Above such brutality, are you?"

Dumbledore: "We both know there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom. Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit."

Voldemort: "There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!"

Dumbledore: "You are quite wrong. Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness."

— Voldemort and Dumbledore before their duel in Order of the Phoenix

I have never seen the last episode of Harry Potter, but I would like to know what exactly Dumbledore refers to when he says that there are things worse than death.

  • 24
    Knowing (or not) that you accidentally killed your sister? – Kevin Jun 15 '14 at 17:57
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    Reading along as Harry and company trudge through book 7 with their tent. – Major Stackings Jun 15 '14 at 19:30
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    @MajorStackings come on, Frodo and Sam's trek was worse! – Liath Jun 15 '14 at 20:26
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    @Liath - Does it really get worse than camping with Gollum? I submit it does not! :) – Slytherincess Jun 16 '14 at 0:29
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    @DjangoReinhardt Seems pretty well scoped to relate to the cited work, since they're asking specifically what a character meant by a statement they made. – Anthony Grist Jun 26 '14 at 9:11
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Here are some examples of fates that are “worse than death” in the HP universe:

  • Splitting one’s soul, or horcruxes. As we learn more about the horcruxes, we realise how much they destroy your soul, and the price you pay. Harry learns this particularly vividly in his visions of King’s Cross station:

    He recoiled. He had spotted the thing that was making the noises. It had the form of a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed-looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.

    Deathly Hallows, chapter 35, King's Cross

    This is referring to Voldemort, and it sounds pitiful and painful. But Voldemort consciously set out on this path, so presumably he doesn’t think it worse than death (which is the alternative).

  • The Dementor’s Kiss. When Lupin first explains the Dementor’s Kiss to Harry, he describes it as a fate worse than death:

    “What—they kill—?”

    “Oh no,” said Lupin. “Much worse than that. You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you'll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no… anything. There's no chance at all of recovery. You'll just exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever… lost.”

    Prisoner of Azkaban, chapter 12, The Patronus

    Although (as with the first), Dumbledore has no first-hand experience of this, he knows how unpleasant it is, and how many people would rather be dead than suffer this fate.

  • Torture and insanity. When Moody is showing Harry a photograph of the original Order of the Phoenix, he highlights Neville’s parents:

    “That’s Frank and Alice Longbottom—”

    Harry’s stomach, already uncomfortable, clenched as he looked at Alice Longbottom; he knew her round, friendly face very well, even though he had never met her, because she was the image of her son, Neville.

    “—poor devils,” growled Moody. “Better dead than what happened to them…”

    Order of the Phoenix, chapter 9, The Woes of Mrs. Weasley

    Both of them were tortured by the Lestranges and Barty Crouch Jr to the point of insanity, permanently hospitalised and unable to recognise Neville. I think many people, like Moody, would rather be killed than go through such torture.

But I don’t think Dumbledore is referring to any of those. (Since you haven’t seen the last film, I’m not sure how much of Dumbledore’s plot line you know, so I’ve included spoiler tags just in case.)

  • The loss of a loved one. Voldemort has never cared for or loved anybody, so it seems that he doesn’t feel anything if people close to him are killed. For example, several Death Eaters are killed in the line of duty, but they don’t merit more than a throwaway comment at his resurrection ceremony. Since Voldemort doesn’t understand love, it makes sense that he wouldn’t appreciate this as “worse than death”.

    Dumbledore understands this particularly well:

    In Deathly Hallows, we learn that Dumbledore’s father was imprisoned and died in Azkaban; his mother died in a magical accident when his sister was unable to control her powers; and his sister Ariana was killed in the crossfire of a fight between himself and a young Grindelwald. Since Dumbledore neglected most of his family when he was a young adult, he also fell out with his brother Aberforth, the only remaining member of his immediate family.

    It’s clear as Harry learns about Dumbledore’s past that Dumbledore was devastated by this series of deaths.

    This is in part a basis for the sacrificial protection which saved Harry as a baby, and which would likewise protect him throughout the books (and later, his friends at Hogwarts). Perhaps not Voldemort’s “greatest weakness”, but still the key to his downfall.

    ETA: One of my favourite lines from Deathly Hallows comes close to saying that a life without love is worse than death:

    “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”

    Deathly Hallows, chapter 35, King's Cross

  • As a slightly different form of this, consider survivor’s guilt. Often when somebody survives death when somebody else (close to them) didn’t, they suffer extreme trauma as a result. Depending on how close they were to the deceased individual, they might prefer to have died than survived. In this sense it might be “worse than death”.

    More spoilers for Deathly Hallows:

    When discussing Fred’s death and its impact on George, JK Rowling said “I think he really would have felt like part of himself died.” I think that might be the strongest example of this in the series. See What happened to George after the events of Deathly Hallows? for more details.

    And again, this is something Dumbledore feels:

    In the fight in which Ariana died, for a long time, Dumbledore never knew who actually killed her:

    It was the truth I feared. You see, I never knew which of us, in that last, horrific fight, had actually cast the curse that killed my sister. You may call me cowardly: You would be right. Harry, I dreaded beyond all things the knowledge that it had been I who brought about her death, not merely through my arrogance and stupidity, but that I actually struck the blow that snuffed out her life.

    Deathly Hallows, chapter 35, King's Cross

    Either outcome carries guilt: if he actually killed her, then he has to bear that burden forever. If he was innocent, then he failed to adequately defend her. Over years, I’m sure this would weigh on Dumbledore.

    Of course, if you don’t care for anybody, how can you feel guilty at their death? Again, something that would be completely alien to Voldemort.

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    "But Voldemort consciously set out on this path, so presumably he doesn’t think it worse than death (which is the alternative)." I think it is also unclear if V compeltely realized these consequences, or maybe was even feeling like he could overcome them one day. – PlasmaHH Jun 15 '14 at 21:31
  • I agree voldemort cares about nothing so death is the worst thing that can happen to him, because it stops him from doing devilishment. Anything that you have to live with is worse for a regular person, because they have live with it, it won't just end: like Snape losing Lily, or Ariana's death those things people had to live with.. – Pobrecita Jun 16 '14 at 2:11
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    Another beautiful answer! Darn, I wish my feed from SE was still working -- by the time I saw this question it already had 3 answers. Boo, hiss! :) – Slytherincess Jun 16 '14 at 13:45
  • for a long time, Dumbledore never knew... That implies he found out/worked it out at some point? – starsplusplus Jun 16 '14 at 14:32
  • @starsplusplus: When he meets Harry in King’s Cross (Deathly Hallows chap 35), it’s implied that he might have learnt in his final encounter with Grindelwald, but Harry is too tactful to ask. – alexwlchan Jun 16 '14 at 15:12
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Yes, there ARE things worse than death. Losing loved ones, or going through such a horrible experience that you are scarred for life and are paralyzed. Tom riddle did things that ruined him, because he was SO afraid of death.

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Curses, the loss of free will , the loss of love, never having love Tom riddle feared death so much that he willingly did things that ruined him.

  • Not to mention murdering and ripping your soul to pieces, in Dumbledore's point of view (not Voldemort's, for obvious reasons). – Mac Cooper Jun 15 '14 at 17:35
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    I never saw why splitting your soul was bad, that would only be bad for the people that are being killed, these things you named aren't really worse than death. I agree with Voldemort having feared death so much. – Pobrecita Jun 16 '14 at 2:22
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    @iliveunderawesomerock Note that before the horcruxing Tom Riddle was a handsome, charismatic and well respected wizard. After the horcruxing he's a hideous abomination that only commands respect from the psychotically insane. – Shadur Jun 16 '14 at 20:28
  • Voldemort had people who were afraid of him and who revered him. Also the body he was not ugly or a abomination, it was different. The only problem Voldemort had was thinking he was better than other people and fearing death. – Pobrecita Jun 17 '14 at 15:16
  • @Pobrecita Splitting your soul wasn't bad? Horace Slughorn sees it quite differently. Dumbledore wisely points out that people only fear the unknown when it comes to death. But we're all mortal and if you're afraid of this you're going to worry off and on the rest of your life for you will die eventually. Not having love, living with the guilt of murdering someone or resulting in the death of anyone including one you love? Those aren't worse than death to you? I'd like to say consider yourself lucky you've not experienced it. That or there is something worse going on... – Pryftan Apr 29 '18 at 22:54
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Particularly in Voldemort's case, Dumbledore may well be referring to living with a consuming fear of death.

A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.

Shakespear, "Julius Ceasar"

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Dumbledore likely meant living without love or something similar.

Though there may be other things worse than death in a more general sense, when Dumbledore says ‘your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness’, it seems almost certain that what he’s referring to there is the Dark Lord’s inability to understand love, since he’d always believed that was the Dark Lord’s biggest failing. He’d been trying to convince the Dark Lord that love was powerful ever since the Dark Lord was a student at Hogwarts, and thought his continued inability to understand it his biggest weakness.

“Of some kinds of magic,’ Dumbledore corrected him quietly. ‘Of some. Of others, you remain … forgive me … woefully ignorant.’

For the first time, Voldemort smiled. It was a taut leer, an evil thing, more threatening than a look of rage. ‘The old argument,’ he said softly. ‘But nothing I have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore.”
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 20 (Lord Voldemort’s Request)

When Dumbledore had to devise a way to protect Harry, he chose to use Harry’s mother’s sacrifice because he knew the Dark Lord would underestimate magic based on love.

“But I knew, too, where Voldemort was weak. And so I made my decision. You would be protected by an ancient magic of which he knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated – to his cost. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that your mother died to save you.”
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 37 (The Lost Prophecy)

Dumbledore tells Harry when they meet at King’s Cross that the Dark Lord doesn’t know anything about the types of magic he doesn’t value and has never understood their power.

“And his knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 35 (King’s Cross)

He then tells Harry not to pity the dead, and instead pity above all those who live without love.

‘I think,’ said Dumbledore, ‘that if you choose to return, there is a chance that he may be finished for good. I cannot promise it. But I know this, Harry, that you have less to fear from returning here than he does.’ Harry glanced again at the raw-looking thing that trembled and choked in the shadow beneath the distant chair.

‘Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 35 (King’s Cross)

Because of this history, it seems almost certain that the thing that Dumbledore refers to as the Dark Lord’s biggest weakness is his inability to love, and therefore ‘your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness’ likely refers to this as well - he likely meant how the Dark Lord lives without love, or something similar to that.

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