The Meaning of Life According to “Harry Potter” and “Soul”
by Victor Chan
SPOILERS FOR SOUL AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Dumbledore once described music as “a magic beyond all we do here” (SS 128), a statement that Joe Gardner, the protagonist of Pixar’s Soul, would agree with. Indeed, I’d like to believe that the magic of music is studied at the Department of Mysteries. Harry Potter and Soul both explore abstract concepts such as being “in the zone,” along with death and the meaning of life through a humanist approach. In Soul, characters search for their purposes in life, and although Harry was the Chosen One, he still had the agency to choose his life path. Here are three things that Harry Potter and Soul can teach us about the meaning of life.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry is presented with two choices: go back or go on. Likewise, at the end of Soul, Joe is given another chance at life. Both character-defining moments occur in the heads of Harry and Joe. In Soul, 22 describes the Great Before as an “illusion” and “hypothetical.” In Deathly Hallows, when Harry asks Dumbledore where he thinks they are, Dumbledore replies, “This is, as they say, your party” (DH 712).
At the core of both Harry Potter and Soul is the idea that it is our choices that show what we truly are. The circumstances that we are placed in define us less than how we respond to being placed in those circumstances. In Harry Potter, Hogwarts students are Sorted into Houses based on their personalities and values. Soul explores the concept of a beforelife where souls are readied for life on Earth. One particular scene early on shows souls being assigned personalities, seemingly arbitrary. Joe asks, “This is where personalities come from?” to which another character replies, “Do you think people are just born with them?”
However, even though Hogwarts students are Sorted into Houses and souls are assigned personalities, Harry Potter and Soul reject determinism. In fact, in the Great Before, souls need to find their own “spark.”
In Harry Potter and Soul, characters grapple with the fear of the unknown. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore tells Harry that “it is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness” (HBP 566). In Soul, 22 has a cynical attitude toward what they think living on Earth will be like. In Harry Potter, Voldemort fears what Dumbledore describes as “the next great adventure” (SS 297). When Joe finds himself on the way to the Great Beyond at the start of Soul, he runs away from the light. Later in Soul, Joe says, “I’m just afraid that if I died today, then my life would have amounted to nothing.”
Fear of the unknown holds people back from chasing that “spark” that makes life worth living. In Soul, we see an unnamed character with a stable, well-paying job in finance who is unhappy with their life but scared to make a career change.
Dumbledore believes that even though people fear the unknown in death, that’s what makes it “the next great adventure.” This is shown in 22’s character arc in Soul. When we first meet 22, they do not want to leave the Great Before to begin life on Earth. However, after they accidentally get sent to Earth and experience simple joys such as tasting pizza, feeling the wind blow, and catching a falling leaf in the palm of their hand, they do not want to return to the Great Before.
In Soul, when Joe tells his mother that music is all he thinks about, she says, “You can’t eat dreams for breakfast.” Joe’s mother wants him to be realistic and settle on a career. This interaction transported me to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when we are introduced to the Mirror of Erised. According to Dumbledore, the Mirror “shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts,” and “men have wasted away before it…not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible” (SS 213). Dumbledore tells Harry not to “dwell on dreams and forget to live” (SS 214).
This idea of forgetting to live is explored in Soul. In the Great Before, “lost souls” are souls belonging to people who are disconnected from life because they cannot let go of their obsessions. Those souls are stuck in a state of limbo. In Deathly Hallows, a fragment of Voldemort’s soul becomes stuck in limbo at King’s Cross. He was so obsessed with killing Harry that he never considered the possibility of Lily invoking an ancient form of magic, and he was so obsessed with immortality that he never considered that splitting one’s soul could cause eternal pain and suffering in the afterlife. In Half-Blood Prince, a conversation between Voldemort and Dumbledore takes place where Voldemort says, “Nothing I have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore” (HBP 444). In truth, Voldemort never searched for the power of magic based on love because he was obsessed with using the Dark Arts to gain power and immortality.
In Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore tells Harry that people have wasted away before the Mirror of Erised, “not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.” When Joe finally gets his big break as a musician, he has an existential crisis. He had been dreaming of this moment his entire life, but when the moment finally arrived, it was underwhelming because he didn’t feel any different. During a pivotal scene in the film, Joe realizes that it’s the little moments of joy that make life worth living, even if they may seem infinitesimal in comparison to the bigger picture at the time.
In Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore says that Voldemort “was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole” (HBP 511). Although Joe’s dream of a career in jazz is not as extreme as Voldemort’s quest for immortality, both Harry Potter and Soul convey the importance of living in the moment and not developing tunnel vision.