What are the themes of Lincoln in the Bardo?

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mary2018 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George Saunders, known for his short stories, won the Man Booker Prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. There are several themes to this ambitious work, but for our purposes here, we'll discuss a few of the principle ones: life and death, loss and grief, regret, familial love, and public versus private spheres.

First, the book is about life and death. Though Saunders' book is fictional, it's based, in part, on real-life events in the life of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln lost his eleven-year-old son, Willie, unexpectedly in 1862 after the boy fell ill with typhoid fever. His body was temporarily laid to rest at a nearby cemetery. Lincoln, according to historical texts, paid nighttime visits to the crypt so that he could grieve alone and hold his son's body.

It's important to define the word "bardo." It's a Tibetan Buddhist concept referring to a state of existence between death and rebirth. It's something like the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory. Immediately after Willie's death, it seems that he's trapped in the bardo; his father, when he comes to visit him there, also seems caught in an eerie space between life and death.

But they're not alone. In Saunders' story, the ghosts that Lincoln encounters in the crypt are all adrift in the bardo. They don't realize they're dead: they think that they're sick and will return to regular life. They talk about their personal regrets and the things they wanted to do but didn't. (Their discussion of regret reads almost like a cautionary tale to the living and is a major theme.)

Finally, the themes of familial love and the differences between public and private life are key to the book. Lincoln in the Bardo offers an intimate portrait of a public figure. We know Lincoln for his political achievements, but most don't know a lot about his role as a father and husband. This novel not only focuses on the deep love he felt for his son; it offers another perspective on a famous figure, showing him as a human being, father, and husband in addition to one of our nation's most influential presidents.

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