What is an analysis of Lincoln in the Bardo?

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mary2018 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question is quite general as there's a lot to analyze in the Man Booker Prize-winning first novel of the short story master George Saunders. But that's no problem. Let's focus on the key themes of Lincoln in the Bardo and discuss the novel generally.

First, we need to define a key word. The word "bardo" refers to a Tibetan Buddhism concept, to a state of existence between death and rebirth. Saunders decided to engage with this concept after reading about a series of events in the real life of President Abraham Lincoln. In February 1862, during the Civil War, President Lincoln's 11-year-old son, Willie, falls ill with typhoid fever. After the boy's sudden death, his body is temporarily laid to rest at a cemetery in Georgetown. And Lincoln, grief-stricken, goes to the crypt several times alone, at night, to hold his son's body. 

The novel is set during one of these evenings. The narrative unfolds in the course of a single night, as Lincoln visits the crypt to hold his son's body.

Now for the analysis. What are some of the novel's most important themes?

One central idea is laid out in the title. 'Bardo' might be a Buddhist concept, but the idea of an in-between state exists in many cultures and religions. One familiar example is the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory, a place between heaven and hell. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, purgatory is a state of "purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven." In this novel, it's not just Willie, and his soul, that are in an in-between state. Lincoln also finds himself in a strange supernatural state between the living and the dead.

Indeed, ghosts play active roles in the narrative. The concepts of loss and denial are important here: the ghosts, trapped in the bardo, don't quite know that they're dead. The ghosts think they're only sick, and they hope to recover. In the meantime, in the bardo, the ghosts grapple with their individual pasts, on the regrets they feel and the dreams they never achieved. It's melancholy and sentimental. Lincoln is alive, but like the ghosts, he's in denial. In returning to the crypt to hold his son's body, we see that he hasn't fully accepted Willie's death. 

That paternal love is another key theme. Lincoln is well-known for his political accomplishments, but his personal life, and the incredible tenderness he felt for his son, may be surprising for some readers. The novel offers a rare glimpse into Lincoln's private life: though it's technically historical fiction, the narrative is based on the fact of Lincoln's life.

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