Who are the characters in Lincoln in the Bardo?

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emgourley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is brimming with different voices and characters. As a reader, it can seem overwhelming and surreal. To identify the characters more clearly, they can be split by their function in the overall narrative. The main narrators are Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. They are assisted by various minor characters in the Bardo. Next, there is Willie Lincoln, the character whose death sets in motion the novel's events. Finally, Abraham Lincoln is a central figure in the story and is the only character not in the Bardo. His actions move the plot of the story forward.

Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas are the three central narrators of the story. They are the most detailed characters, each revealing a complex backstory as to how they died and why they remain in the Bardo.

Behind these three protagonists sit the rest of the Bardo's residents, each coming forward to share parts of their stories and tell the one we see unfolding in the novel. Some of these minor characters speak just a line or two but serve their purpose, which is to show us the depth of the Bardo. Important minor characters include Thomas Havens, Mrs. Abigail Blass, and the Barons.

William Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln's son. He died of typhoid fever in 1862, at the age of eleven, as the various historical extracts in the novel tell us. His arrival in the Bardo establishes the plot of the novel.

Abraham Lincoln is the main driver of the novel's plot. He is the only character who is alive, which is why he never speaks a line (other than through the minds of others). As the only living character, he is free to leave the Bardo and come back as he chooses, giving him a freedom the other characters envy. Much of the novel is centered around the residents of the Bardo trying (and often failing) to influence Abraham Lincoln's actions.

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